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Kazakhstan is known for its vast natural landscape of mountains, lakes, steppes and seas. There is certainly no shortage of places to drive in this Central Asian nation. Whether it’s driving along the Golden Trail or the Caspian Sea coast, exploring aspects of the ancient Silk Road or heading over to Baikonur Cosmodrome for a space launch, there is plenty for visitors to experience.
Driving in Kazakhstan can be a bit of a free-for-all, especially when driving outside of the major cities. Should a driver honk the horn, this can mean they are upset or simply that they wish to pass you. It is suggested that you drive defensively while here.
Driving licences: an International Driver’s Permit is required.
Which side does Kazakhstan drive on: the right.
Most areas: 55mph (90kph)
Residential areas: 30mph (50kph)
Alcohol limits: there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving. There have been instances where drivers have been detained and convicted of drunk-driving after consuming only one drink and showing no signs of intoxication.
Driving age: 21 years.
Seatbelts: mandatory for all passengers.
Mobile phones and GPS: using a mobile phone while driving is strictly prohibited. Violators of this law face hefty fines. GPS can be helpful when travelling both inside and outside of the major cities.
Cost of fuel in Kazakhstan: about half the cost in the UK.
Car hire and fuel payment: credit cards are not widely accepted for fuel but can be used for car hire.
Insurance: included in the price of the rental. Due to the poor conditions of the roads, additional excess insurance is recommended.
Traffic and parking: at night, it is strongly recommended that you park in a secure area or else risk finding parts of your car missing upon your return. Traffic is only a problem in the large cities during commuter hours.
For those who enjoy a leisurely, scenic route, it is possible to take the train from London to Kazakhstan. The first leg of the journey will see you to Moscow in two days. The second leg connects Moscow to Kazakhstan along the ancient yet prolific Silk Route which has connected the east and west for thousands of years. Train is the most popular way to travel between cities in Kazakhstan. The Talgo goes from Almaty to Astana in about nine hours. The cost of the ticket for this journey is about £40.
Taxis, both official and unofficial, are easy to find and flag down. They are cheap; a simple ride in the centre of a city should not cost more than £4. You should negotiate the cost of your trip before beginning your journey, especially in the capital or when going to the airport as foreigners are typically overcharged. A typical trip to Almaty’s airport from the city centre should not be more than £6.
Bus routes within cities can be tricky to navigate. The buses don’t follow any schedule. The difficulty with taking the bus is compounded for those without a working knowledge of Russian. There are also buses between cities, which are faster but less comfortable. Fares are fairly low, with the 14-hour journey between Almaty and Karaganda costing approximately £10. One thing to be careful about is that after bathroom stops, bus drivers seldom check that everyone is aboard before leaving.
The largest airport in Kazakhstan is Almaty International Airport, 12 miles (18kms) from Almaty. There is a second international airport outside the new capital, Astana, in the north of the country. The most important airline servicing Kazakhstan is Air Astana, which services Almaty and Astana internationally as well as several domestic cities. Lufthansa, KLM and British Airways fly to Almaty several times a week from the UK. UK nationals are able to obtain a visa without a letter of invitation.
Kazakhstan covers a large area so when exploring this vast country, a well-planned itinerary is the best bet if you wish to put a dent in seeing all that's on offer. Most people start their travels in either the northern city of Astana or Almaty in the southeast.
From Astana, the newly minted capital city, travellers can easily access Naurzum to find salt lakes surrounded by pine forests and rare animals such as hisser swans and grave eagles. To the northeast of Astana is the city of Pavlodar, with its amazing Mashkhur Jusup Mosque as well as some impressive Orthodox churches. North of Almaty is Lake Balkhash, a saline and fresh water lake, and one of the biggest lakes in the world. Also in this southern region are the Tian Shan Mountains. Travelling west, visitors will encounter the richest collection of wildlife in the world at Akso-Zhabagly Nature Reserve.
Continuing all the way west to the Caspian Basin region, you will find the second lowest land area in the world at the Karaghiye Depression and the beaches of the Caspian Sea.
The climate in Kazakhstan is very dry. Temperatures are mild from April to June (spring) and September to October (autumn). Average temperatures in the winter are -16 to -18°C in the northern regions and -6°C in the south. Snowfall generally begins in November in the mountain regions and lasts through to April. Summer temperatures average around 21°C in the north and 27°C in the south.