I took the kids to visit friends for eight days in Kazakhstan. Yes, as in, the country with the 9th largest landmass in the world, in Central Asia. A friend living in Almaty invited me and my monster gang to visit her and her own monster gang, and I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My own leave wasn’t confirmed until shortly before the trip, and my spouse wasn’t able to get off, so it was just me and the girls.
When I say it’s one of the best trips we’ve ever taken, it’s not because I took the kids to visit friends for eight days in Kazakhstan. Yes, as in, the country with the 9th largest landmass in the world, in Central Asia. A friend living in Almaty invited me and my monster gang to visit her and her own monster gang, and I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My own leave wasn’t confirmed until shortly before the trip, and my spouse wasn’t able to get off, so it was just me and the girls. When I say it’s one of the best trips we’ve ever taken, it’s not because my spouse couldn’t come, but it definitely showed me that I can travel alone with the girls, and that they’re definitely old enough for us to take a trip with the girls when one of us can get off and the other can’t.
Imma deep dive into some of the mini-trips we took from Almaty over the next few posts (and share some of the GORGEOUS photos I took!), but what we did is not bad as an itinerary. Some city time. Some excellent food time. And lots of time out in the wild, enjoying nature. What follows are the hi lights, but you can also scroll to the bottom of this post for some practical information about the trip.
We landed, taxi’d to my friend’s house, and promptly woke up all of her kids at something like 3 in the morning. She was kind about it, and we eventually got everyone into beds and asleep. I didn’t want to do anything serious on the first day—a local SIM card, cash, and maybe wander around a few parks with the girls. And that’s basically all we did, once everyone finally dragged themselves out of bed.
I hired a guide, a car, and a driver to take us on our overnight out of Almaty. You can definitely do this trip on your own if you have a car. Charyn Canyon was beautiful. It’s a place that we could have turned into a multi-day technical hike, but there’s also a 3km smooth gravel path that you can walk from the drop-off area down to the river and eco-lodge. With the kids, there wasn’t any question. We took the easy walk in, and then caught a taxi to drive out. It ended up being just about perfect.
Kolsai Lake was similar to Charyn Canyon, in that it can be as easy or as hard as you like. There are actually three Kolsai Lakes. You can drive to the first (which we did), then hike 8km through the first to get to the second (which we didn’t). The third is currently a military installation, so off limits to casual hikers like us. I had arranged horses to take us from the first lake to the second, but it was wet and rainy and didn’t work out. Instead, we visited the lake, enjoyed taking some photos, and let the kids play in the dirt for a little bit before heading to the warmth of the guest house where we spent the night.
Getting to Kaindy lake was an adventure. It’s probably the only thing we did that I couldn’t have arranged on my own, with infinite time and patience to prepare. Our guide rented Soviet Area 4x4s to drive us through the mud and a river (note: THROUGH a river, not OVER a river) to get to the drop-off. After that, we walked a few kilometers down a well cared for gravel path to reach the lake. It was STUNNING. There were more hiking opportunities in the area, but we were tired and cold and the kids weren’t up for it. So I just let them play in the mud for a while , while I enjoyed the peaceful beauty of the earthquake-created lake.
Shymkent is a bustling city in Central-South Kazakhstan. The food is amazing (so much kebab, so much Bourchan). The people were incredilbly friendly and welcoming. And of course, everyone drove like a maniac. Srsly. I’ve lived all over West Africa. I’ve explored Europe and the Middle East. The driving in Shymkent was out of this world.
My friend had to work, so she hired a babysitter for her kids, and together, we made our way through some of Shymkent’s kid friendly attractions, like the zoo and a trampoline park.
Turkestan is mostly famous as a Muslim pilgrimage site. There are beautiful mosques and mausoleum that are well worth a day trip from Shymkent. I hired a driver and guide because honestly, it was too difficult trying to figure out how to rent a car for a day. Again, an expense I probably could have avoided had I not been so hassle-averse on this trip, but well worth it for the extensive historical perspective on everything we saw.
Oi-Qaragai Lesnaya Skazka
We ended the trip at an amazing resort in the mountains about 45 minutes outside of Almaty. The girls and I slept in a Yurt! A yurt! A LUXURY yurt, actually, with heat and an indoor bathroom and an incredible shower. We didn’t do any hiking there, although we certainly talked about doing it. I think I was mostly tried from everything we’d squeezed into this short trip and just not up to Making Things Happen (TM). But the kids had a great time doing a quick horse ride and rolling down hills and just generally being kids in a beautiful outdoor setting. So worth it.
Here’s some practical information to help you plan a trip to Kazakhstan.
8 Day Itinerary in Kazakhstan
Day 1: Land in Almaty (maybe at 2am), and explore the city
Days 2-3: Travel East to visit Charyn Canyon, the Kosali Lake(s), and Kaindy Lake.
Day 4: Spend some more time in Almaty
Days 5-7: Fly out to Shymkent and explore that region, including the Turkestan pilgrimage sites
Days 7-8: Sleep in a yurt in the Oi-Quagalai resort, and let the the kids run wild before heading home.
Money and Communications in Kazakhstan
It took me about 20 minutes in a mobile store to obtain a SIM card. I just walked towards the shopping district looking for either a KCell or a Beeline shop, and went into the first one I found. I spent less than $10 for a card and more data than I could ever use during my week long trip.
I was able to use a credit card most places in Almaty and Shymkent (except the market and street vendors). Outside of the cities, cash was king. ATMs were plentiful in Almaty and Shymkent, much less so outside of the cities. I didn’t run into any issues using my debit card.
Kazakhstan with Kids
Frankly, like most places not in the US or Europe, everyone is incredibly warm and welcoming about kids. There are many cafes and restaurants with children’s play areas, and while there was definitely pressure to move into the kids’ section if we sat elsewhere, folks were happy to accommodate.