Traveling around the “Stan” countries has always been a dream of mine. So when I took the decision to travel around in Central Asia, I felt more excited than I’d ever felt. It was all about to happen so fast. I had less than 2 weeks to prepare for a trip that I had no idea what to expect of. I didn’t even know how the temperature was in Kazakhstan? Scorching hot, freezing or something in the middle? What clothes should I bring with me? What’s appropriate to wear? Etc. It was a bit stressful but now when I’m finally here, I wish I would’ve just taken it a bit more easy. Here are the thing I wish I knew before traveling to Kazakhstan:
Almaty is like any other European city
I did do some research about Almaty before arriving and read that people thought it was safe and beautiful. But since I knew nothing about Kazakhstan, I didn’t know what to expect? Would Almaty actually be unsafe? Is the traffic crazy? Will I find vegetarian food? Turns out, Almaty is like any other European city. It’s no Berlin or Paris, but it does remind me a lot of Eastern Europe. It’s perhaps even safer! Traffic in Almaty is okay as well, it’s not crazy like Vietnam for example. The infrastructure here is great and the roads are wide and clean. When I walk around here, I almost feel like I’m home in Europe. Except, everything’s written in Russian and I can understand zero. When it comes vegetarian food, it can be a bit tricky but definitely not impossible! They have a lot of vegetable soups for example. One of the best vegetarian restaurants I found in Almaty that’s also a bit cheaper is called “Govinda’s” and serves delicious Indian food. I also ate in cafés where they usually have plenty of vegetarian options. Two of my favourite cafés in Almaty is called “Daily Coffee” and “Cafeteria“.
I was also strangely surprised that you CAN buy everything here. I even asked my couchhost if I should bring oatmeal from home (so ignorant, I know). But thankfully, Almaty has massive supermarkets and all the clothing brands that we have at home such as H&M (Sweden represent!), Zara, Mango, etc. You can tell the locals love shopping since everyone’s super stylish so I’m basically walking around feeling like a homeless person. Again.
The locals are so lovely
Perhaps I’m just lucky, but so far I’ve only met incredibly kind people. The first thing I did when I landed was to get lost. Of course. I had to take a bus to my couchhost’s place but had no idea which bus to take or where it departed so I asked the first guy, who by the way didn’t even speak English, and he asked everyone for me. When he got the answer, he told me to come with him so he could show me where the bus stop was. It took us about 10 minutes to walk there and he came with me all the way. He told a woman that I wanted to catch bus number xx and made sure that she would help me. She did! AND she even paid for my bus ride because I didn’t have coins (so idiotic, I know). But it doesn’t just stop there. I couchsurfed with a Kazakh family and they’ve been nothing but so warm and welcoming towards me. The woman made me breakfast every(!) morning, always asked me if I needed anything and made sure I felt welcomed. There are some grumpy people, sure, but most of them are just so lovely.
I’ve never felt unsafe (so far at least) in Kazakhstan and I think it’s a lot due to the fact that the locals are so nice. But the overall vibe of Almaty (and outside of the city) makes me feel very secure. It also does help that I do kinda blend in, but sometimes locals look at me like they know I’m a tourist. My ugly hiking clothes might contribute to the tourist look. But either way, whether it’s taking a taxi at night, walking alone in the city or just wandering around in markets, I feel totally safe here.
WhatsApp is what’s up
Everybody in Kazakhstan seems to have WhatsApp and it’s definitely the best way to reach tour guides. If you want to go on a private tour, there’s tons of local guides that can help you out. But they don’t really have any websites though. Instead, they all use WhatsApp. It’s easy, just ask around and someone will for sure have contacts. Ask a few guides first though before you settle on one. The prices varies. Sometimes a lot.
Download the apps 2Gis and Yandex
Google maps works in Kazakhstan, but it won’t tell you the bus or train hours like it normally does. Instead, people in Kazakhstan use the app “2Gis”. That’s basically their version of Google Maps. It shows you the hours, bus or train number and the direction to your destination. It’s all in Russian though, but if you type the address in English, it’ll still understand.
Yandex is the Russian taxi app that works just like Uber basically, but it’s way cheaper. These are the two apps that has saved my life while traveling here. And Duolingo I guess, since not many people speak English here so you have to learn basic some Russian words.
Traveling in Kazakhstan is easier than expected
I thought it would be really complicated to travel around here. But thankfully, it’s easier than I expected it to be! The number one thing you should do when you arrive to Kazakhstan is to get contacts! Luckily, I had my couchhost who helped me out immensely. I also went on Couchsurfing.com and found some threads where travellers were looking for more people for their tour. So I contacted some there and found a few people I could travel around with.
It might seem confusing at times because the tourism infrastructure isn’t nearly as good as in Southeast Asia for example, because they receive way less travellers. But it’s never impossible to get from point A to B. There’ll always be buses you can take, guides you can contact and people you can travel around with. You can even hitchhike! Although the concept is a bit foreign for them so when they pick up hitchhikers, they usually expect you to pay a bit. Don’t worry, locals hitchhike all the time!
Dare to couchsurf!
If you want to save some money, go on couchsurfing! There’s quite a lot of hosts you can find on this site and most of them will be happy to help you. I’m so glad that I couchsurfed the very first days in Almaty. I felt a bit dazed and confused when I arrived, but my host made me feel super comfortable and gave me all the information I needed. She even lent me her bus card and told me about the two apps!
There are other travellers here
One of my biggest worries was that I wouldn’t meet anyone here. I imagined myself sitting alone in a hostel room, contemplating my life and staring at a wall (why do I always imagine these weird scenarios?). And okey, you can’t compare Kazakhstan to Thailand for example, where you’ll only see foreigners and the only local contact you have is when you order pad thai, but there are travellers here too so you won’t really be alone. Either way, I do recommend to couchsurf a few times to get to know the locals too. The Kazakh culture is so rich and fascinating, and one of the best ways to really get to know the country is by getting to know their locals.