When to go, Visa, Language, Safety, Currency and paying, Some things you may want to take with you, Miscellaneous things to bear in mind
When to go
I have no suggestions, just to highlight the importance of researching the weather for when and where you intend to go. Do not underestimate the extremes between winter and summer.
I was there in mid-late April, which was very much a between-seasons time of year. Temperature wise, it ranged from -2 in Oskemen with snow and up to about 20 degrees, blue sky and sun one day in Almaty, but the temperature dropped at night quite dramatically. Aesthetically, it was, in places, bleak; leaves and flowers were only just starting to emerge and ground cover was not long post-snow-cover. On that basis, May and late September might be more pleasant.
Kazakhstan – Practical things to consider before you go
Kazakhstan – Practical things to consider before you go
1 February 2018
When to go, Visa, Language, Safety, Currency and paying, Some things you may want to take with you, Miscellaneous things to bear in mindNeed to travel by train? Good luck! (Almaty station)
When to go
Unexpected late April snow, OskemenI have no suggestions, just to highlight the importance of researching the weather for when and where you intend to go. Do not underestimate the extremes between winter and summer.
I was there in mid-late April, which was very much a between-seasons time of year. Temperature-Snow, wind, cold. An unexpectedly cold April day in Oskemenwise, it ranged from -2 in Oskemen with snow and up to about 20 degrees, blue sky and sun one day in Almaty, but the temperature dropped at night quite dramatically. Aesthetically, it was, in places, bleak; leaves and flowers were only just starting to emerge and ground cover was not long post-snow-cover. On that basis, May and late September might be more pleasant.Lovely, sunny, warm April day, Astana
Bear in mind that quite a few museums, restaurants and shops are closed on Mondays. If travelling around, I suggest it’s a good day to travel for that reason.
As of July 2014, for a one-year experiment, there will be no visa required for trips of up to 15 days for citizens of: Great Britain, United States, Germany, France, Italy, the UAE, Malaysia, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea and Japan.
However, if there are any changes and the visa process is restored, if you do the visa application yourself, which I did, follow the advice and links on the Kazakh Embassy website:
When printing your visa application (I got a Tourist Visa, unsurprisingly), make sure it prints on two pages rather than three. However, I sent mine on three pages and it was processed. My boyfriend’s company sent his application via an agency, who sent back his application form as it was on three pages rather than two and said it might not get processed on three pages as it’s intended to be a two-page document.
It is not an entirely straightforward visa application and you need a lot of paperwork, including your flight ticket and hotel confirmation (this makes me jittery, booking flights and hotel before getting a visa, but it was all absolutely fine). I stayed at a few different hotels but you only need confirmation from one. You also need proof that you have travel insurance (I have insurance through my bank and it was easy to print off a certificate).
I posted my passport and visa application to the Kazakh Embassy on Pall Mall with a SAE to cover the weight and size of just my passport in return. I posted it first class on a Monday and got it back eight days later, the Tuesday.
You will see that you need to register your arrival in Kazakhstan within a few days. However, if you arrive at an international airport, your visa stamp is all you need and you do not need to register. Otherwise, hotels can do it.
If you speak/read neither Kazakh nor Russian, at least take a copy of a Cyrillic alphabet with you or, better learn to read Cyrillic before you go.
English is not widely spoken. Most road signs, names and menus are NOT in English. This is a challenge, especially when you’re tired and hungry!
It varies place by place but Russian is generally more widely spoken than Kazakh. Some menus and signs are written in both Russian and Kazakh, neither of which is at all decipherable if you can’t understand either language.
If you find yourself in a restaurant with a Cyrillic menu and are desperate to just get something to eat and are not vegetarian, “shashlik”/”шашлык” is a useful word to know and recognise, ie a skewer of grilled meat. It got us a meal once, actually very tasty, when we were hungry, tired and couldn’t face going on a quest for a restaurant with an English menu. There is usually a shashlik/шашлык page in the menu, I assume of different meats.
I did not have any problems. Locals warned me about safety in markets and around train stations and I was as careful as I always would be in busy places. I would say I felt most safe in Almaty. I was only ever out and about on my own during the day and I had no problems. It’s hard to say. My experience was positive but I was careful, as I think most people are in new places. I wouldn’t want to travel on roads, particularly at night, and certainly not on my own. I have travelled on my own many times. Would I have gone to Kazakhstan on my own? I guess I would have done, but the challenges would have been more about inability to speak/read/understand Kazakh or Russian and I probably would have felt a bit uncomfortable being out on my own at night or travelling on my own. But in part at least that’s because I had never been to an Asian former Soviet country so a lot of experiences were new to me.
Curriency and paying
You cannot purchase tenge outside Kazakhstan.
At Almaty airport, once you’re out of baggage reclaim, there are ATMs and a bureau de change.
It is A LOT easier to take your home currency and change it at a bureau de change (there are a lot around and exchange rates seemed consistent).
You cannot pay by card in a lot of cafes and restaurants and, if you are relying on paying by card, show the staff your card and confirm it’s ok before you order.
Do not assume that you will easily get money out of an ATM. Some limit how much you can withdraw to 10,000 tenge (c£30) which, when you’re being charged by your bank per transaction, can make it unnecessarily costly. Some let you go through the whole withdrawal process then, as you think you’re about to receive your cash, the whole transaction is cancelled. (I had no subsequent bank issues)
If I went again, I would take GBP and change what I budgeted to spend at the airport bureau de change. I would also make sure I had extra GBP to change if I ran out, as things really do cost more than you might expect.
Some things you may want to take with you
Antibacterial gel. (I felt very dirty after just walking around so that was useful for when there was no soap in toilets and when I wanted to eat a pastry from a street stall)
A print out of the Cyrillic to English alphabet. This link is quite useful for pronunciation and to help you read Cyrillic characters:
A roll of loo paper carried with you at all times. (There is often none left in cafe toilets, etc, and hotels only leave one roll)
Shoes that are comfortable and which are ok to get dusty, dirty and muddy if it rains. (Pavements and roads are not smooth and there is a lot of dust around. My trainers and shoes were all filthy after a few hours walking around)
Shampoo and shower gel. (If you intend to rely on hotel products, some were just very, very poor quality sachets and none were particularly nice)
Towel. (For public baths, including Arasan, where otherwise you’d have to pay to rent one)
Shower/swimming cap. (In Arasan, for example, you had to wear a cover on your hair in the bathing pool)
Flip flops/Crocs. If you intend to use a public bath, for example Arasan in Almaty.
Ear plugs. If you’re a light sleeper, no hotel room or train cabin was quiet.
Eye mask. If light affects your sleep, you might want to bring an eye mask as most curtains in rooms we stayed in were little more than net curtains in terms of efficacy at blocking out light.
Coins. I gather it is fairly popular to collect coins. One driver asked if we had any coins. We only had a 50p piece. We gave it to him and he returned the favour with some Kazakh coins, ie it was not a way to get money, rather as a genuine interest in foreign coins.
Coin purse. I ended up buying a small coin purse so it was easy to proffer it to bus conductors and the like when small amounts of money were required but the exact amount was not understood!
Euros. At Almaty airport, while you can ask for prices in tenge, all prices are marked in Euros so you may want to pay in euros if you have no tenge left or you don’t want to use your credit card.
Plug converter (type C, the Euro plug) with double (or more) sockets, ie so one double prong (same as most of Europe) with two sockets for UK (or wherever) plugs. One hotel we stayed in only had one socket in the room and most others only had two or maybe three.
If tea and coffee are very, very important to you, you’ll need to take your own as most rooms didn’t come with tea bags, coffee, etc, and certainly not with a kettle. You will not necessarily be staying near a cafe. (If you then buy milk, be careful you don’t end up with fermented mare’s milk)
Bottled water to get you started. Not all rooms provide bottled water. I don’t get the impression Kazakh tap water is really, really bad, but there have been issues with tap water so at the very least drink bottled mineral/purified water.
Miscellaneous things to bear in mind
Don’t promise people postcards as I saw none for sale. Also, the posting system is a lot more arbitrary, confusing and complicated than you can imagine possible (info on post offices in “General”)
If it rains, there is a lot more surface water than there would be in the UK. This makes driving and being on the road even more perilous than it already is. The two accidents we witnessed were as a result of brakes not working well during very heavy rain.
Sometimes there is no hot water available and this could be an issue for days rather than minutes. Take advantage of hot water whenever you have it! The last 24 hours we were in Almaty, we had no hot water. I believe small areas can be affected this way, ie none of our neighbours would have had hot water either.
There were fewer street lights on at night time than I am accustomed to.
Most rooms, public transport and restaurants were too hot for me. As a general rule, I find places are heated too much anyway, but if you do too, bear that in mind when packing clothes – layers! Also, you can’t usually adjust the temperature in hotel rooms and it’s not a given that windows will open. If you’ve travelled in other former Soviet countries, you’ll probably know this anyway.