Atlas Obscura's journey into Kazakhstan will delve into the complex contours of a young country rich with thousands of years of nomadic history.
On this trip, you'll learn about folk music, falconry, and the future of energy in Almaty and Astana, the country's old and new capital cities.
An overnight train will then whisk you across long expanses of Central Asian steppe, where you'll have the opportunity to wander through bustling marketplaces, listen to fascinating and unfamiliar instruments, and taste Kazakh, Uzbek, Uighur, and Georgian delicacies.
While the stunning Tian Shan Mountains beckon from beyond, you'll be welcomed by the country's artists, diplomats, guides, and architects. This trip is limited to 16 explorers.
- The Two Capitals of Kazakhstan: Visit the two largest cities in Kazakhstan, the former capital of Almaty and the current capital, the ultra-modern Astana. Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world by land mass and home to rich oil reserves, declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
- The 2017 World Expo: The World Expo has evolved from the historic World's Fair, which began in Paris in 1844 and gave us the Eiffel Tower, the original Ferris Wheel, and other wonders. The 2017 Expo will be the first hosted in Central Asia or in a majority Muslim nation. With the theme "Future Energy: Solutions for Tackling Humankind’s Greatest Challenge,” the Expo will showcase the energy solutions of the future, including a futuristic city built just for the Expo with a science center, a 1,000-seat theater, and multiple forms of renewable energy. More than 106 countries have confirmed their participation, from energy giants including China and India to the smaller nations of Nauru and Vanuatu. Our program will include exclusive access to special sites, and a discussion with insiders at the USA Pavilion, among other speakers.
Reservation & Payment
A $250 nonrefundable deposit is required to secure your spot, as we have a very limited capacity, and we expect the trip to fill extremely quickly. The trip will cost $2,979—the $250 deposit plus the $2,729 final balance payment—and will cover all fixed costs including all hotel accommodations, all meals, travel in Kazakhstan, and all the activities listed in the itinerary below. (Additional details on flights to Almaty at the bottom of this listing.)
Journey to Central Asia
- Start your journey to the world’s largest landlocked country with a flight to Kazakhstan. For any travelers coming from the U.S., it'll be a long one; if you’d like more time to adjust to Kazakhstan's time zone, consider coming in a day or two earlier.
Rest, Relax, and Wander the Old Capital
- Arrive in Almaty on Sunday. Take today to rest, relax, and get adjusted to the change in time zones. We’ll have suggestions for a variety of eclectic sites for you to explore on your own or in small groups for those with the time and energy. (We'll definitely recommend Medeu, the highest Olympic-sized skating rink in the world.)
- Tonight, we’ll gather for a relaxed welcome reception and dinner, and a chance to begin getting to know each other.
Folk Music and Art Markets
- After a quick Kazakh breakfast, we’ll dive into the role of the arts in the history—and future—of Kazakhstan. We’ll start our morning at the Museum of National Musical Instruments, which features over 1,000 objects, including rare exhibits dating back to the 17th century and an impressive collection of dombras and drums.
- For lunch, we’ll be joined by local artists to learn about the role of art and enterprise in this burgeoning economy. Learn about how the nation has made significant art investments in recent years, including the $320 million Astana Opera, which opened its doors in 2013.
- In the afternoon, take a siesta at the hotel or join us as we head to Arbat, also known as Zhibek Zholy, or Silk Way. This pedestrian zone unites artists from Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Latvia, and other countries from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Here, see paintings and photography from the region and meet with local artists and vendors.
- Tonight, we’ll enjoy a Kazakh feast of plov, manty, and pilaf. We'll be joined by a newly married Kazakh-Chinese couple and hear about the experiences—and challenges—of multiculturalism in a complex, multi-ethnic country.
Bargaining at the Bazaar
- After a quick Kazakh breakfast, stretch your legs on a private tour organized by Walking Almaty, a website after Atlas Obscura's own heart. Your guide, Dennis, a polyglot expert on Central Asia and an Almaty resident, will give us an inside look at the Green Bazaar, a sprawling two-story marketplace where you can barter for Kazakh, Russian, and Korean treats.
- You'll have the chance to venture out on your own for lunch, or just keep snacking at the Bazaar, if you'd prefer.
- This afternoon, take a siesta at the hotel or explore Republic Square. Here at the heart of Almaty, you’ll learn about the square’s important role in infamous uprisings and student movements. From there, we’ll stop at the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan, one of the oldest and largest museums of Central Asia with collections ranging from archeology to outer space.
- See Kok Tobe Hill, the tallest TV tower above sea level, as well as a rare and oddly situated statue of the Beatles. After taking the cablecar up, we’ll enjoy stunning panoramic views of snow-capped mountains and the city below.
- For dinner, we’ll be joined by a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy for a briefing on current international relations and the domestic politics of Kazakhstan.
Falconry and Outer Space
- Today, we’ll start the morning with a trip out to Big Almaty Lake, created by a series of earthquakes and considered by some the most beautiful lake in Kazakhstan. Part of the Ile-Alatau National Park and framed by mountains of Trans-Ili Alatau, the lake offers views of three of the highest peaks in the region: Councils, Ozerny, and Tourist.
- At the lake, we'll dive into the beautiful scenery on a hike with expert guides. For lunch, we'll enjoy a picnic as we continue to take in the majestic views.
- Bellies full, we’ll head to the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory, founded in 1957 and part of Kazakhstan’s National Center for Space Research and Technologies. Here, we’ll investigate the physical processes taking place in the different layers of the solar atmosphere, and even get a glimpse at a telescope that Hitler gifted to Mussolini.
- We’ll continue exploring the skies, but trade the telescope for the eyes of a sunkar (falcon) at the local Falconry Center. Here, we'll get to learn about this rare, endangered, and prized species, as well as about their reintroduction into the wild and their role in Kazakh culture.
- After heading back to the hotel to refresh, we’ll split into small groups to try boutique restaurants of Uzbek, Georgian, or Uighur fare before heading to the railway station for a truly central Asian experience: the overnight train ride to Astana. We’ll be joined by local experts providing deep dive explorations into the history and importance of the railway system and its relationship to the World Expo theme.
An Epcot on the Ishim River
- After a night of rumbling railroad slumber, we’ll check in early at our Astana hotel to rest and freshen up before heading to the World’s Fair. There, after a briefing and recommendations from our local hosts, you’ll have the morning to explore the Expo.
- We will start with a guided exploration of the Kazakhstan pavilion, a giant sphere 260 feet in diameter and occupying more than 160,000 square feet in the middle of the exposition. Designed to incorporate high-performance glazing to maximize energy efficiency, it also features eight stories of exhibits.
- For lunch, we’ll be joined by key architects of the U.S. pavilion for an insider’s discussion of the dynamics, politics, and benefits of being part of an Expo team.
- After lunch, continue exploring at the Expo on your own, with over 100 countries exhibiting. Alternately, if you prefer, head back to the hotel for some rest or set out to explore the new capital city with a set of curated recommendations.
- Tonight, we’ll change things up with dinner in a yurt, an invention of Eurasian nomads. Over steaming local dishes, you’ll learn about how traditional portable houses have been evolving for centuries.
A Global Exploration of Sustainability
- This morning, we’ll meet with the Kazakh Expo team and get an understanding of the significance of hosting the Expo (in contrast to their unsuccessful bids for the Olympics).
- Afterwards, take the opportunity to continue exploring the seemingly limitless displays of the Expo. With solar panels, solar windows, and wind turbines, the entire area operates on a smart grid, generating nearly 75 percent of the power it needs to sustain itself. We’ll learn about careful architectural touches intended to ensure usefulness and sustainability far into the future, such as snow capture reclamation ponds that cycle water back through the city’s system.
- Tonight we will dine with volunteers from around the world who have been living in Kazakhstan to work on the Expo for their countries, discussing their experiences and perspectives on this unique world gathering.
Astana & Alzhir
- Get to know Astana outside of the Expo through a guided tour of Alzhir, a camp for “the wives of traitors of the Motherland,” a 30-minute drive from the city. Opened in 1938, Alzhir was once home to more than 18,000 prisoners. Over the course of eight years of internment, most of them did not survive.
- After lunch, we’ll stop by the pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and the Atameken Ethno-Memorial Complex. Check out a miniature model of the country before entering the Khan Shatyr, a shopping mall that doubles as a giant transparent tent.
- Tonight, we’ll be joined by local musicians for a final Expo feast before catching a 9:30pm flight to Almaty.
- This evening, we’ll stay at a hotel near the airport before catching flights out of Kazakhstan the following morning.
This Atlas Obscura trip to Kazakhstan is conducted in partnership with Insider Expeditions, a travel company with extensive experience designing and leading trips to Central Asia and elsewhere. Please email us at journeys@with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.
Note on Itinerary
Itineraries and pricing are subject to change. This particular tour has been designed with specific events in mind, and schedules and availabilities may change in coming months. If any activity or person that is advertised is missed or not available, it will be replaced with an activity or person of equal interest and value. A final itinerary and briefing packet will be ready two weeks before the trip.
Arrival and Departure
You should plan your flights to arrive anytime on Sunday, September 3—the earlier the better to start resting off your jet lag. Sunday night is the first hotel night included in the program. As for your departure, you should book flights leaving anytime the morning of Sunday September 10.
Both Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines have over 10 North American gateways that offer easy connections to Almaty. Even if you're not originating from one of their gateway airports, they have ample agreements with US airlines to get you from offline points of origin to the gateway all on one ticket, thus facilitating the best connections at the best possible price. Contact us at [email protected] or 929.399.4975 if we can help you with flight options for this upcoming trip.
Note on Physical Activity
Each day of the tour will involve a substantial amount of walking, both indoors and outside. Please make sure you are comfortable spending long portions of the day moving around and on your feet.
Note on Hotels
To make the most of this jetset adventure to Eurasia, we’ll be staying at 4 star hotels in close proximity to our destinations.
You will be charged a non-refundable $250 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $2,729 will be due on June 15, 2017. All reservations will be final after this date and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the Terms & Conditions. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $599 will be included in the final payment.
Travelers are responsible for
- Transportation and flights to and from Almaty International Airport.
- Baggage charges.
- Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings.