Kazakhstan is a strangely great place. As long as you love desert, whooping distances between cities and a bit of chaos and disorganization. I had no great expectations, it was supposed to be a visa run (getting an exit and entry stamp to prolong my Chinese visa) country for 2-3 days. I stayed 3 weeks. I wanted to cross the border from Kyrgyzstan but due to some issues at the crossing I went directly to Kazakhstan from China.
The border and already small problems. Walking forbidden, the only way to cross is to take a bus which runs from China to the border town in Kazakhstan. Small explanation of my hitch hiking trip guaranteed me a free ride to the town. From there I was supposed to hit the road.
I got to Kazakhstan in July 2017. After 6 months in China, being used to the size and infrastructure of Chinese cities. Also to the language, although not great, but I could defend myself. Now here, across the border everything was new and like all the travel destinations, it takes time to learn how to function there. Suddenly my Internet support was gone (I also find out that my old Motorola phone from Latin America doesn't work in Kazakhstan, neither my Chinese one); I was back to basics - my old fashioned travelling style (paper maps, asking around, occasional wifi).
Luckily I had a host in the biggest city in the country - Almaty. Hitchhiking was not bad, although a little weird (the first oldish guy wanted to get me married), distance covered was maybe around 300 km most of which was a desert, I had to explain I hitchhike (unlike some locals who flag down buses). Managed to get to the city, but even when I was told I was in the center I haven't noticed. Being used to Chinese mega-cities with monumental buildings and super wide streets in the city center I hoped to see something a little similar (in the end I was in the biggest Kazakh city, right?). Nope. Only 1-2 story buildings, architecturally resembling Eastern Europe. And the supermarkets! I was overwhelmed by the products they sell. Milk, yoghurts, cheeses, bread! All of which I was lacking in China. I felt like back in Europe even though it's still a couple of thousands km away.
My host is surprised I wanted to come to this country which (in her opinion) has nothing to see nor do. She was Russian Kazakh, one of the few ethnic groups that was sent there by Stalin and others in Soviet government. Until today there's a number of Russians, Polish, Latvians, Germans etc. Different cultural background, different opinion about Kazakhstan. I guess they don't even treat it as their home country. Asking Kazakh person about his country, he would describe it in only superlatives. Asking Russian/other migrant ethnicity - quite opposite.
I was planning to get to only a few places but this terrible promotion of the country by my host worked counterproductive on me - I was even more intrigued. I extended initial plan, decided to go up to Aralsk to see the infamous "sea", and then up north to a few Polish villages. These distances can really give you a headache. I start and my final destinations is 1800 km away. When I'm some 400 km further, next driver (mostly truck drivers, unlike China where mostly private cars give lifts) offers to take me directly to Aralsk. So here we go, over 1000 km with one lift. I ended up spending 1,5 days with the driver and sleeping in the truck (bunk bed, veery comfy - again - unlike China where they mostly travel in pairs and the trucks are far from comfortable and spacious).
Aralsk sort of disappointed me - I expected to see the famous ship graveyard. Turns out that the ships are long gone, being cut into pieces and sold. Some parts of old port and smaller ships still remain there. Worth going at least for the tiny museum (I was the only visitor) which shows the highlight days of Aralsk but also leaves depressing impression (I'm not very sensitive but different types of fish in formalin kinda impressed me) of what human activities lead to.
That's for sure - Kazakhstan is not the country full of cultural and historical places. Very few UNESCO sites and a few other monuments, some summer resorts, mountains and lakes (I'm more into man-made places, so I'm not commenting on nature places). This country is about its people, the variety of ethic groups, customs, traditions, food. Their hospitality is outstanding indeed. Once I was invited to stay for a night in the village, numerous times I was treated to a lunch or dinner.
I happened to be (for the fisr time in my life) in a country hosting EXPO. Couldn't miss the chance to check it out, though not my thing - future energy theme. It was interesting to hear most of Kazakh people complaining about the amount of money "wasted" on EXPO and government forcing everyone to visit it (on their own expense).
Quite unusual experience was to meet Polish people in that remote place. I was heading to "Polish villages" (where the majority of population is ethnically Polish but not necessarily speak Polish language) but on the way I met a couple of nuns, priest and volunteers - all from Poland working in Kazakhstan for Polish community (anything related to the church activities). In the end I visited about 4 villages in two different parts on the country.
Final part was The Polygon - nuclear bomb test site, where until 1991 Soviet government made over 456 tests. The site is located very near cities. Until today some believe deformation and cases of cancer or other genetic diseases are caused by the radiation. It's not officially proven though.
While heading to the Chinese border I was a bit anxious already. Saturday afternoon, rumor had it the border was opened till 5 pm. I still had some 2 hours. I technically made it but crossing was already halted. I was told to come back on Monday. Perspective of 1,5 days in tiny village without even a hotel was not very appealing. I was brought to the border by two local villagers (I was very suspicious at first); after observing my misery one of them offered to host me till Monday in his house in the village (he quickly added his entire family lived there, so I had nothing to be afraid of). I didn't want to be a burden for 1,5 days but he assured it was fine. So, we came back to the village located 20 km from the main road, in a Kazakh steppe.
The place was small indeed but big enough to have a local school. Family of my host was living in 2 neighbouring houses - one for him, his wife and children, the other for his mother and other cousins. I guess the wife was not the happiest when she saw me but after some time spent together I'd say she was OK with that. Saturday night was "party" time. With shashlyks, vodka and kumis (fermented mare's milk). I was the only woman staying on men's side; women were also present but according to Islamic custom they stick together and don't mix with men (even with a husband). Some of the men, heavily drunk (small glasses of vodka as one shot) went sleep as early as 8 pm. I got accommodated in one of 4 bedrooms, on the mattresses placed on the floor (I loved it! it reminded me of South East Asian style).
On Sunday me and the host went to his farm in the hills to check on his workers and a horse which they reported had some problem. I was particularly excited coz the workers lived in the yurt so I had the chance to see how it looks like from the inside (for the first time in my life). Quite impressive that 3-4 people can live there for up to 3 months (with supplies delivered from time to time) and that the yurt is spacious enough to accommodate all the necessary equipment (when I was there, they were mounting a chimney).
Impossible to forget part of the stay there was the food - mostly home made, butter, raspberry jam and sour cream were especially good. It was one of the most authentic experiences of my travels (the other one that always comes to my mind is the village stay in Tunisia) and definitely the highlight of the trip in Kazakhstan. Try to find it on the travel agency brochures ;)