Traveling in Kazakhstan: FAQ’s
Thinking about traveling in Kazakhstan? Get ready for the adventure of a lifetime! If you are feeling nervous, or just have some questions – here are some of the answers I give to some of the most frequently asked questions about traveling in Kazakhstan.
1. Is it helpful to know Russian when traveling in Kazakhstan?
Yes, Russian is widely spoken as either a first or second language in Kazakhstan, so if you already speak some Russian, it will come in handy. If don’t speak either language and are wondering which language to invest some time in, then I would say that learning some basic Kazakh will win you more friends. Also, the further you get from the cities, the less Russian is spoken.
2. How are the roads?
This all depends on where you are. Inside the major cities, the roads are fine. The traffic patterns in the cities can be confusing to those used to drivers following lane lines. Also the sudden stops made by cars stopping to pick up passengers in the right hand lane can be disconcerting as well. Count on the creation of extra lanes at most intersections (no one wants to be behind the guy turning left).
The inter-city highways are hit-and-miss. There are sections that are beautiful, multi-lane affairs and then others that two lanes riddled with car-killing potholes – this can be different sections of the same highway. If you are driving, be sure to stay alert and aware of potential issues.
3. What about Police Corruption?
OK, as much as I love Kazakhstan, police corruption is still a problem in the country. To be fair, the corruption situation has improved over the last several years, but there is still a chance that you will encounter a crooked cop looking for a bit of a pay raise. The biggest problem is usually with the traffic police, so you are unlikely to have a problem unless you are driving. If you are driving, be aware of the problem, drive faultlessly, and have a strategy for dealing with any encounter you might have with the traffic police if you know that you’ve committed no traffic violation. Always be polite, but stick with your strategy. Some strategies that have worked are:
Ignorance: “I’m really sorry I don’t speak Russian (or Kazakh)…I’m so sorry, I don’t understand…” until they give up in frustration.
No money: Carry a “dummy” wallet with a small amount of money in it – that is the one you get out when the police stop you.
Use their own tactics against them: Record car numbers and badge numbers, if they ask why, tell them you are required to report the incident to your embassy.
A few other tips:
don’t use mouthwash before driving. There is a “no tolerance” law about drinking and driving and the police use the “sniff test” to see if you’ve been drinking. Mouthwash smells like alcohol (or they will say it does if they pull you over).
Don’t use vodka as wiper fluid: this is actually very common in Kazakhstan because vodka is so cheap and doesn’t freeze.
Always make sure you have your documents with you – at the very least, carry a copy of your passport and visa page. The law requires you to carry an original, but most police officers will accept a copy unless you’ve found yourself in A LOT of trouble.
4. Is it even worth driving?
I would say ‘no.’ You can get anywhere you need to go by plane, train, or bus for a reasonable fare. Unless you are passing through Kazakhstan on your way to or from a different country, it is probably safer and less stressful to take public transit.
5. What about “facilities?”
There are public facilities available, even in the city. Expect to pay a small fee. Private facilities (those attached to restaurants and cafes) tend to be western-style toilets, while other public facilities will probably be “squatters.” I had a 10 point system for rating facilities in Central Asia (10 being the best). A restroom couldn’t score above a 3 unless it had running water and a flush mechanism. It was rare for the public facilities along the roads outside the cities of Almaty or Astana to score above a 3.
6. How are the trains?
The trains are an adventure. They are slow, but comfortable. You can buy a ticket according to your own comfort and privacy expectations. The lowest class ticket gets you a bunk in an open car. there are dividers between 6 bed sections, but no doors. My preference, when traveling this way, is to try to get an upper bunk along the aisle, or an upper and lower bunk set if traveling with a friend.You can also buy a bunk in a 4 bed compartment or a 2 bed compartment. Blankets and sheets will be provided to you by a car attendant at the beginning of the trip and collected by the attendant at the end of the trip.
Be sure to bring plenty of food, (some for yourself and some to share). If you want a hot meal, instant noodles or instant potatoes are ideal (hot water is available from a boiler at the end of each car). The restrooms are a nominally cleaner in the cars that are divided into compartments, and you can lock the door in those compartments.
The trains are generally safe, but you should be careful of your belongings (just like anywhere else in the world).
7. How are the buses?
I only rode one inter-city bus during my time in Kazakhstan: the 11 hour over-night trip from Shymkent to Almaty. Only a bit cheaper than the train (and less comfortable), the bus stopped every 2 or 3 hours for a short rest break, and played the complete season of a Russian drama on the TV for the first 5 hours.
While there are no bunks on the bus and the seats are predictably uncomfortable (though, no worse than buses in any other part of the world), the bus driver did open the door from time to time for fresh air which was nice (on the train the windows are sometimes sealed shut to prevent passengers from catching a chill. The cars can reach sweltering temperatures).
8. Where should I exchange money?
Airport rates are always a rip-off, and rates in town vary a bit depending on the exchange shop you visit. The variation is minimal though and I rarely found it worth my while to shop around.
9. Where can I find a guide-book in English?
In Almaty, your best bet is a place called City Books (город книг) just up the hill from Mega 2 (which is on the uphill side of Mega). I found the Bradt Guide, Lonely Planet, Almaty Today, and other works of interest to someone traveling through Kazakhstan at that book store.
10. What is with the registration requirement?
If you arrive by land or sea, you need to register within 5 days of arriving (it is best to take care of it your first day). If you are arriving on a 30 day visa via the airport, then you don’t really need to register (because the 2 stamps on your migration card give you 30 days to register, but you will leave before that deadline.) Having said that, my employer in Kazakhstan made us register each time we entered the country (whether we were leaving again within 30 days or not) simply as a method to avoid hassle upon leaving.
Believe it or not, Europe has this requirement as well. Any time a hotel asks for your passport, that is what they are doing. The difference is that Europe puts the burden on the hotels rather than the tourists.
Kazakhstan only requires you to register once upon arrival (you don’t need to register in each city that you visit).
Where to register: You can register at any immigration Police office (OVIR) anywhere in Kazakhstan. Be prepared for it to be a bit of an adventure.
In Almaty the OVIR office is at 86 Karasay Batyr. In Astana it is at 29 Ulitsa Sakena Seifullina.
Help me make this post better and post the questions I didn’t answer in the comments. If I can’t answer them I’ll find someone who can.