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Perhaps one of the least famous of the ‘stans’, Kazakhstan is shrouded in mystery and intrigue, although slowly, travellers are beginning to explore the hidden treasures of this former Soviet republic. The largest landlocked country in the world and the ninth largest country overall, Kazakhstan is known for its booming oil and gas industry and rich mineral resources, making it the ‘giant of Central Asia’.
Straddling both Europe and Asia, Kazakhstan shares borders with Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and sits on the landlocked Caspian Sea to the southwest. Given its huge size, the population density is very low, with swathes of undeveloped land, deserts and mountains for the most adventurous travellers, on a tour of Kazakstan, to enjoy. The capital city, newly renamed Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), is located in the north of the country and is home to a dizzying mix of ultra-modern, Islamic and Soviet architecture, making it a fascinating starting point for any holiday to Kazakhstan.
The largest city, and old Soviet capital, Almaty, has a distinctly different feel to it, with leafy parks, classical architecture and a cosmopolitan atmosphere. On a tour of Kazakhstan, you will likely notice how diverse the population are, with many different ethnicities and both Kazakh and Russian being widely spoken. The majority of the population are followers of Islam, so you can expect to see beautiful Islamic architecture throughout the country, although religious freedom is enjoyed by all. Thanks to the huge economy enjoyed by the country, travellers on a package tour of Kazakhstan will benefit from a good standard of accommodation, restaurants and cultural sights in comparison to many other Central Asian nations.
Simply the name, Kazakhstan, conjures up images of nomadic horsemen, vast open spaces and ancient traditions. The country’s history is fascinatingly complex and has involved influences from many different empires and powers. Traditionally, the territory of modern-day Kazakhstan has been home to tribes of nomadic people, who moved with the seasons and kept livestock but these communities eventually came under the control of the Persian Empire and later the Mongol Empire in the 13th century.
Under Ghengis Khan of the Mongol Empire, the territory of Kazakhstan was divided into administrative districts and remained under their empire for almost three centuries, before the Kazakh Khanate became prominent in the late 15th century. These varied influences have helped to shape the country and define its unique culture, which is evident to all travellers on a trip to Kazakhstan. The Russian Empire began to seize Kazakh territory from the late 16th century onwards, although due to resistance from the ‘Hordes’, total control by Russia was not achieved until the late 19th century.
Russia introduced its language, built schools and constructed the Trans Aral Railway in Kazahkstan, and when imperial Russia succumbed to Soviet dominance, Kazakhstan also became part of the new Soviet Union, despite a brief period of autonomy from 1917 - 1920. As a republic, the country was a destination for exiled members of Soviet Russia, including convicts, and Kazakhstan’s sparse open spaces were home to a number of Stalin’s most brutal gulags. Just ten days before the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Kazakhstan was the final country in the Soviet Republic to declare it’s independence. In 1997, the capital city was changed to Astana, which replaced the former Soviet capital of Almaty.
As the 9th largest country in the world, it is unsurprising that Kazakhstan is home to an amazing mix of landscapes and terrains, ranging from the stretching grasslands of the Kazakh steppe to the snow-capped mountains of the Tian Shan region and the deserts of the most southerly parts of the country. Within this vast nation, you can find landlocked seas, such as the Aral and Caspian, and rocky canyons carved out by prehistoric rivers.
Truly a land of contrasts, the environments found within Kazakhstan range from harsh, sparse flatlands in the south to lush uplands, covered in layers of verdant forest, in the north. The country is also known for its severe climate, with hot summers and very cold winters, so keep this in mind if you are planning a trip to Kazakhstan. A number of nature reserves and national parks protect much of the untamed nature found here, proudly the most diverse country in Central Asia.
Numerous rare animals, such as saiga antelope, wildcats and snow leopards inhabit the wilds of Kazakhstan, whilst horses can be found throughout the country, both wild and domesticated. In fact, horse-riding through the vast open plains is a popular and unforgettable experience for the most intrepid travellers on a tour of Kazakhstan.
With many different influences having been absorbed into Kazakh culture over the centuries, Kazakhstan has a rich and diverse cultural landscape which fuses traditional values with the more modern influences of neighbouring countries such as China and Russia, as well as Western European influences, seen most noticeable in the major urban centres. Traditional Kazakh culture, based on a nomadic lifestyle, revolved around farming, livestock and horses and still today the horse is a central part of life for many rural Kazakhs who continue to use horses for transport, racing and farming.
A yurt is a traditional dwelling for nomadic communities, which can still be found in certain parts of the country where pockets of the population continue to live the way their ancestors always have. Another cornerstone of popular Kazakh culture is Islam, which was introduced to the country from the 7th-century onwards and is, today, the largest religion in the country. On a tour of Kazakhstan, it is impossible to ignore the impressive Islamic architecture, such as the amazing Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan, in the south of the country.
Open your eyes to this delightful Central Asian giant, and succumb to your curiosity. You’ll soon see how beautiful, traditional, diverse and impressive a country it is. A holiday to Kazakhstan is a worthwhile, eye-opening journey along the road-less-travelled!
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