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Kazakhstan may seem like a strange destination to add to your bucket list. But the lack of crowds not only grants you a uniquely authentic experience, you’ll also be awe-struck by a bewitching landscape, vibrant culture and epic historical legacy barely known to the rest of the world.
While the nomadic traditions of Kazakh culture have largely been relegated to a seasonal option – barely any Kazakhs live in yurts nowadays, but people do choose to migrate to the mountains in summer – there is a certain refusal to be swallowed up in the materiality of modern life. This is most evident when you leave the big cities to become immersed in local village life.
Kazakhstan is not the most common holiday destination, which is particularly excellent news for ski-lovers. Almaty is the Chamonix of Central Asia, with gorgeous, hidden slopes that are heaven-sent.
Not only does the lack of crowds mean you barely need to queue for a lift, you’ll also be awe-struck by a bewitching landscape barely known to the rest of the world.
The sublime beauty of nature is always on your doorstep in Kazakhstan. Take the Big Almaty Lake for example, a natural alpine reservoir located in the Trans-Ili Alatau Mountains, only 15 kilometres (nine miles) south from the centre of Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan.
Keep walking a little further and you’ll cross paths with the chains of Altai Mountains and Dzungarski Ala-Tau that reach the epic height of almost 5000 metres (16,400 feet), with rocky mountain gorges and stunning waterfalls galore.
Not only is there a striking diversity with looming, white-capped peaks rising in majestic succession, suddenly being swapped for the endless desert steppe stretching to the edge of the horizon, but there is also true uniqueness and often bewildering mystery.
Only in Kazakhstan will you be serenaded by ‘concerts’ of signing dunes in Ayak-Kalkan, or will you discover vast underground lakes, intricate canyons that rival Utah’s and, most mysterious of all, the ice mountain Muztau – an iceberg on land.
While the fascinating relics of ancient nomadic culture, warrior battles and medieval fortresses is a rich legacy in itself, there’s one particular historical treasure that pilgrims flock to see: The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, built between 1389 and 1405.
Kazakhstan boasts one of the most impressive architectural achievements of Timur’s empire. Despite the monument only being half-finished, it wrote a landmark-chapter in the history of Central Asian architecture and is hailed as one of the greatest mausoleums of the Islamic world, being the largest existing brick dome in Central Asia.
Kazakh culture is largely influenced by the Turkic nomadic lifestyle, mixed with the Islam that was introduced from the 7th through to the 12th century, and they take great pride in their musical prowess.
One of Kazakhstan’s most vibrant displays takes the form of the wildly strummed Dombra, the national, folk, stringed musical instrument heralding roots to the ancient eastern Tambur at every opportunity. There will almost always be an eclectic traditional dance performance to accompany.
The sacred values of community, friendship and hospitality that have helped Kazakh nomadic culture flourish for centuries, live on fervently in modern relations. In the same way that a nomadic tribe would bow before the social obligation to provide a hungry guest with food, or allow a stranger to simply leave a gift in exchange for stealing an animal caught in someone else’s trap, the Kazakh people remain helpful and hospitable.
Kazakhstan may have been largely left unscathed by modern culture in some respects, but the cities are keen to compete, with their quirky architectural masterpieces.
In Almaty, the financial district by Nurly Tau, is one of its most aesthetically experimental areas. In Astana, where the capital status was transferred to in 1997, you’ll find the peculiar Bayterek Tower, whose golden ball sways in the wind.
The Kazakh national cuisine may not be the most colourful, mainly blending between browns and beige, but their gigantic metal skewers of grilled lamb and potatoes are fuel-fillers for the harshest of winters.
It’s not the best choice for vegetarians, or anyone particularly fond of horses, but what the dishes may lack in finesse they more than make up for in quantity. In Kazakhstan, you’ll never be hungry.
Kazakhstan is an excellent example of a multicultural society able to maintain peace and harmony within its borders, being one of a few countries in post-Soviet territories that managed to avoid inter-ethnic conflicts. There are 126 ethnic groups brandishing a diverse ethno-linguistic landscape with varied religious interests, yet with an impressive degree of tolerance and respect.