Shamans & Spacemen

The Ultimate Tour to Kazakhstan

Step back into the past of the ancient Silk Road and blast off into the future of space travel on this in-depth, ultimate adventure to magnificent Kazakhstan, a land of colourful characters, glittering tiled mausoleums and palaces, vast landscapes, scientific endeavours and diverse cities.

Celebrate a country whose legacy spans the days of ancient khans, nomadic pilgrimages and the cold war, and where a fierce spirit of independence and unique national identity is emerging 30 years after declaring independence. Explore remote national parks with limestone formations that rival Monument Valley and unique endemic bird life and sail the Caspian Sea. Spend a day with fishermen in remote villages in the Aral Sea, and spend a night on a honey farm with beekeepers in a fairy-tale forest, where you will be lulled to sleep with honey-steeped tea and bedtime stories.

Explore iconic Dark Tourism sites including an abandoned bomber plane hangar, visit the National Nuclear Research Facility and discover the country’s contribution to the Russian space program with a day at the spaceport of Baikonur.

This is Kazakhstan – a country of contrasts and anachronisms, of storied history, modern innovations and traditional lifestyles that simply defies being categorised. Travel where few have stepped before you and conquer one of Earth’s lost frontiers.


TRIP HIGHLIGHTS

  • Travel the shores of the Caspian and Aral Seas, hanging out with local fishermen and gaining an understanding of the impact of the Aral Sea disaster on an intimate micro level
  • Take in magnificent landscapes ranging from vast steppes, dense forests, wind swept gorges and limestone formations, and go wildlife spotting for rare birds in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Korgalzhyn Natural Reserve
  • Explore Kazakhstani culture from ancient to modern, from pilgrimage sites on the historic Silk Road, necropolises subterranean mausoleums to Soviet-era cities, cold war bunkers and dazzling contemporary architecture in the capital, Nur-Sultan
  • Go in-depth in an exploration of the Russian Space Program at the cosmonaut centre at Baikonur
  • Stay in a variety of local boutique hotels, guesthouses and homestays, including 2 nights in Sairam Ugam National Park and a home stay on a beekeepers farm that has been operating in the remote countryside for centuries

The Basics

Start: Almaty

Finish: Almaty

Trip style: Unique

Max group size: 15

32 Days

ALMATY – ALMATY

$10 950 AUD*

Departure date: 5 August 2023

OR CONTACT US for more information

Trip code: SSAA *from

ITINERARY

Welcome to Kazakhstan! After arriving at the airport, make your own way to the hotel and settle in before meeting the group and your Trip Leader for a pre-departure meeting to discuss your ultimate tour of Kazakhstan.

This evening, venture out into Almaty for a welcome dinner, introduction to Kazakhstani cuisine and some group bonding time.

Wander the streets of Almaty today amidst the backdrop of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains. This bustling city and former national capital is steeped in Kazak history and splendour.

Walk the streets of the old town, explore the colourful Green Bazaar and rub shoulders with heroes from the nation’s turbulent 20th century as we visit the Park of 28 Panfilov Soldiers which hosts the country’s eternal flame. The park is also the site of the Ascension Cathedral, a magnificent wooden cathedral that has withstood the test of time as well as a catastrophic earthquake – a testament to the resilience of the city and its people.

Soak in culture and warmth with a visit to a traditional Hamman and soothe your muscles in preparation for an overnight train to Taraz. Overnight trains are a perfect opportunity to travel like a local, and a good chance to meet colourful characters or get some shut-eye as the miles fly past.

Upon arrival in Taraz we will visit a local café to grab some breakfast, before visiting the ancient settlement of Akyrtas and watch the intriguing ruins loom out of the steppe like a mirage. Mystery surrounds Akyrtas – not much is definitely known about its history, but it is likely it was built as a palace between the 8th and 11th centuries. While its history books may be thin; the volumes of its legends and rumours abound and the UNESCO World Heritage site is known as the “Stonehenge of Central Asia” due to its murky provenance. Perhaps, like its British counterpart, an element of extraterrestrial intervention might be afoot.

Travel cross country today to Shymkent, a trade city close to the Uzbekistan border which was once a busy stop on the ancient silk road. While one of the larger regional cities of Kazakhstan, the South-East Shymkent has a small town feel which adds to the excitement in a hunt for treasures at one of its many bazaars.

On the way, visit the beautiful terracotta mausoleum at Aysha Bibi with its stunning carved façade and distinctive conical roof. Wander the rose-scented grounds as you take in the sad tale of Aisha who is interred within the geometrically-patterned walls. Somewhat of a fairytale figure in local folklore – part Juliet, part Cleopatra, legend has it that Aisha defied her wealthy father to be with her true love – a man he had originally rejected due to his poor lineage. Aisha fled, but was tragically bitten by a snake on her desperate flight and died before the star-crossed lovers could be reunited.

Tonight, perhaps venture into town and sample some of the city’s famous brews – two of the more popular and unique Kazakh beers are brewed right here in Shymkent.

Zoroastrian legend abounds today with a visit to Sayram, or ancient Ispijab, the only city in the country to garner a mention in Avesta. Once a medieval settlement in its own right, Sayram is now a district of Shymkent and lies at the crossroads of major caravan routes.

Overnight in Sairum Ugan National park and take in the awesome sights of its vast gorges, soaring mountains and scattered steppes. Marvel at the stunning Suly Ungir gorge and perhaps spot some local wildlife amidst the region’s distinct landscapes and flora.

We continue our exploration of the national park today, including a hike to the tranquil alpine lake of Sairasmsu Kol, located at 2350 metres above sea level in the Sairasmsu Gorge. Enjoy views of the crystalline turquoise waters with a picnic lunch upon its shores, and dip your toes in to the chilly waters afterwards if you dare.

Survey the magnificent landscape of Saryaigyr Gorge on an optional horse ride this morning like a true Kazakh nomad or just enjoy the morning at our eco-lodge before travelling to Turkestan city.

After some free time to grab some lunch, take some time at leisure to explore the city streets that follow a path across the Syr Darya river plain. Here, you’ll see many references to Sufi, a 12th century Muslim mystic who earned the city much of its fame during the days of the medieval silk road.

Optional Experience: Horse Riding

This morning, explore the religious legacy of Turkestan with visits to the Friday Mosque, the city fortress and the Hazrat Sultan Reserve Museum. Be awed by the majesty of the Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmet Yassawi, an imposing and intricately designed 14th century complex with Persian tilework and gentle gardens which are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Once one of the biggest cities in Kazakhstan, wander the ruins of the ancient, fortified city of Sauran this afternoon. Abandoned in the 17th century, the desert sands have preserved much of the city walls, which once successfully defended the city against the Mongol horde. Marvel at the display of incredible medieval ingenuity here, with the city’s underground canal system almost as impressive as its defenses.

Enhance your travels along the ancient silk road today with a visit to another key pilgrimage site, the ancient ghost city of Otrar, situated at the intersection of the caravan ways.

With some free time in the afternoon, perhaps take the opportunity to visit the new Karavansaray complex, a venue in the city with live entertainment and demonstrations that aims to keep Kazakh culture alive and enthralling.

Travel by train today for the next stage of our journey – the Final Frontier. While this trip may not leave the Earth’s atmosphere, tomorrow’s activities focus on Kazakhstan’s contribution to space with a visit to the cosmodrome museum at Baikonur.

On arrival, we will be greeted by a representative of TsENKI (the Russian space program) to check in for the start of the adventure.

Leave Kazakhstan’s ancient past behind and explore humanity’s future with a comprehensive tour and visit of the cosmonautical complexes at Baikonur from which Russia and even the US have launched their space expeditions.

Explore the cosmodrome museum, examine the Buran space shuttle up close and visit historical houses where the likes of Yuriy Gagarin and Sergey Korolev, the USSR’s chief rocket scientist, lived and worked.

After some time at the hotel, return to the cosmodrome and visit the TsENKI command post, and the Zenith, Union and Energy-Buran complexes and learn about how many parts make up the whole of the Russian space program.

* Please note that the situation at the Cosmodrome of Baikonur is highly changeable and the itinerary can change at any time. While we will endeavour to provide the itinerary as stated, it is inevitable that the itinerary will change due to local conditions. This disclaimer allows Inverted Atlas absolute discretion in changing this part of the itinerary – this also means the itinerary can be changed if we are able to secure exclusive access, witness a launch or other access to something really special at the Cosmodrome.

They say it takes a village, and the town of Baikonur itself has played a large part in hosting the cosmonauts, engineers, scientists and civilians whose lives have been dedicated to the Russian space program. Tour the town by coach and view the Soyuz rocket and the various monuments to the men and women whose legacy lives on here.

Walk the Cosmonauts alley, lined with trees each planted by a cosmonaut before their flight into space, and have lunch in a local café before travelling by train to Aktau.

Continue to Aktau, an impressive yet young city set against imposing cliffs on the Eastern shores on the Caspian Sea.

Visit the main sights of the city including the mosque and orthodox church, walk the main promenade and embark on a sunset cruise on the Caspian Sea.

Today, we roam the vast and fascinating hinterland of the Mangistau region, using its capital Aktau as our base.

Descend through limestone canyons to the underground mosque of Shakpak Ata, a distinctive, cross-shaped subterranean wonder, carved out of swiss-cheese like limestone in an area which would once have been underneath the Caspian Sea. Even further underneath Shakpak Akta you’ll find a vast necropolis of more than 2000 tombs, which complement the burial niches carved into the surrounding cliff face.

Visit the amusingly-named Valley of the Balls, where the incredible spherical geological formations are no less impressive despite the silly nomenclature. Watch the sunset over the Salt Lake of Tuzbair and set up our accommodations for the evening a desert camp in the wilds of Ustyurt.

Explore the remarkable clay landscapes of the Ustyurt plateau today, starting with a short trek to a viewpoint overlooking the great salt lake.

Visit the underground mosque of Beket-Ata, whose calm sandy walls belay the depth of its significance and ties to Beket-Ata, an 18th century healer, prophet and astronomer. Enjoy a picnic lunch on the steppe and visit the stunning Boszhira Valley, where white geological outcroppings loom over the vast landscape, rivalling the beauty and majesty of Arizona’s more famous yet no less photogenic Monument Valley.

This evening we will spend another night wild camping in the desolation of Ustyurt National Park.

Start the morning with a photo of Bokty Mount, a staggering limestone formation that dwarfs the flat landscape around it. The boldly-coloured striations are a geologist’s dream, and they make for a pretty picture too.

Continue downwards to Karagiye depression, the lowest point in Central Asia, and return in the afternoon to the town of Aktau.

Transect the countryside North-West by overnight train to the fishing village of Aralsk on the shores of the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea port towns of Kazakhstan have had a recent revival, and the fishing industry here is growing once more despite the bleak state of the inland sea.

Arrive in Aralsk in the early morning and transfer to our homestay guest house.

After lunch, visit the local museum and learn about the human-led environmental destruction of the Aral Sea disaster. The sea, once one of the region’s largest inland lakes, was all but neglected by the Soviet government leading to a collapse of the ecosystem. The lake has been slowly drying up, devastating the fishing villages along its shores dependent upon its waters for their survival. The Aral Sea disaster is a sobering lesson on the impact of poor environmental management both on our natural resources and on human populations.

Today, visit another of the villages on the Kazak side of the Aral Sea, Tastubek. Join a local family for lunch and taste a true central Asian delicacy, Shubat – camel’s milk. Take a boat ride and perhaps glimpse Uzbekistan on the distant shore.

Continue your exploration of the Aral Sea by exploring its natural wonders – the network of canyons and hot springs that surround it is ideal for some scenic walks and a relaxing dip.

Take a train to the city of Zhezgazgan in the centre of the country, arriving in the late afternoon.

While the city’s economy is primarily rooted in the nearby copper mines, the wide-open plains here have also served another purpose – the countryside surrounding Zhezgazgan is used as the landing site for cosmonaut crafts as they come down to Earth, and the small city is filled with monuments to the Russian space program.

The train will arrive in the late afternoon and we will proceed directly to our local hotel and then to a traditional restaurant for dinner.

This morning, travel out to the Alash-Khan mausoleum and take a guided tour, marveling at its azure turquoise dome. The mausoleum, likely built in the 11th century BCE in honour of one of the steppe governments, is a symbol of accord, representing a time when the different nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes united.

In the afternoon, visit the necropolis and mausoleum of Bolgan-Ana and the Kulan Ana mausoleum before boarding an overnight train to Nur-Sultan.

Arrive in Kazakhstan’s charismatic capital, Nur-Sultan, this morning, and begin your discovery of this modern city with a steeped past.

View some of the most iconic sights of the city, including two distinctive buildings designed by British architect Norman Foster. The distinctive Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a golden pyramid crafted according to the mathematical “golden section” shines brightly against the city skyline. Its presence in Nur-Sultan is intended to foster religious understanding, promote faith equality and represent the renunciation of violence, and is often used to host international delegations for government conferences and peacekeeping talks.

Next, head to the clouds by taking a lift to the top of the Baiterek Monument, another Foster and Partners building which is considered the symbol of Nur-Sultan. Take in the city sights from its lofty viewing deck.

Next, enjoy a taste of contemporary Kazakh culture at Khan Shatyr, a new lifestyle and entertainment centre which is also rumoured to be the world’s biggest tent-shaped building.

Head out of the city today for some wildlife spotting in UNESCO World heritage-listed Korgalzhyn Natural Reserve. Spend the full day in the midst of some 300 species of wildlife, and perhaps catch a glimpse of some rare and endangered species including the Siberian White Crane, the Dalmatian Pelican, and Pallas’s Fish Eagle. Lucky visitors will encounter the reserve’s most colourful inhabitant, the resplendent pink flamingo.

After a morning of leisure, take a train to the city of Pavlodar, the capital of the Pavlodar region and a legendary Dark Tourism destination thanks to its Soviet era throwback architecture and monuments, including not just one but two Lenin monuments and an eerie memorial honouring victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

Take a walking tour of Pavlodar this morning, taking in some of the more classic sights including the Main Mosque and Orthodox Church, as well as some of the city’s more quirky buildings and anachronistic monuments. The main mosque itself is something of an intrigue with a design tending more towards modernism and brutalism than classical, its distinctive neon turquoise dome cuts an odd figure and resembles an elongated UFO, appearing to float alongside the mosque’s minarets.

Continue by overnight train in the evening to Semey in the East of the country in the Kazakh part of Siberia.

After arriving in Semey in the morning, transfer out to the eerie Ghost Town of Chagan, once a top-secret base for Cold War era long range bomber air craft. Walk the abandoned town’s most distinctive feature, the 4.5km long aerodrome runway.

After lunch at the local canteen, visit Kazakstan’s National Nuclear Centre where research still takes place today. Much of the USSR’s space and nuclear research programs during the cold war era were based in Kazakhstan, and are still part of the country’s legacy and economy today.

Finally, visit the pièce de résistance of our stop in Semey, with a visit to the restricted area of the Semipalatinsk Polygon, the base for Russia’s nuclear testing program and a place most dark tourism buffs can only dream of visiting.

Please note that like Baikonur a visit to the Semipalatinsk Polygon and associated sites is at the sole discretion of the Russian government. At the time this itinerary was put together no special permission was required; however, this could change at any time. While we will endeavour to provide the itinerary exactly as described, Inverted Atlas reserves the right to change this part of the itinerary at its absolute discretion.

The next section of our trip takes us off-roading through stunning countryside, past photogenic bridges and through the Uba River by 4WD vehicles. Stop along the way and take in scenic vistas and rugged landscapes before arriving in the village of Ermolayevka in the early afternoon, accessible only through the 45-km off-road slog. For the daring, take a dip in the icy waters of the river and relax afterwards in a riverside banya (traditional sauna).

Stay tonight in a local guesthouse in the village and share an intimate meal with your hosts.

Start the day with a traditional breakfast of local produce at the guesthouse before embarking once again on another cross-country trek by all-terrain vehicle. Do your best Indiana Jones impression as you cross a wooden suspension bridge over the river Uba, and see its sisters, the Korolyovka and the Chesnokova. Along the way, stop and follow our guide on a short walk through the thick dark coniferous taiga forest. Birches and aspens here alternate with coniferous firs. Learn about medicinal Altai herbs and enjoy a bonfire lunch on the banks of the Chesnokova before continuing to our accommodation for the evening – a working bee farm.

The farm has been run for centuries by local hunters and beekeepers – while the facilities may be basic, the farm is a haven of rustic charm and hospitality abuzz with a nostalgic atmosphere and industrious insects. Enjoy a homecooked, stovetop dinner and finish the day with honey-infused Altai tea and bedtime stories.

Our hosts this morning will send us off with a warm breakfast before we start the trek through the stunning fairytale countryside and dense forests. The 10km trek will take us through the Yermakovka village and finish back at the Ermolayevka village for a hot farm-style lunch made from homegrown and natural produce.

Relax with a banya before transferring in the afternoon to Oskeman.

Return by overnight train to Almaty. The trip will take just over a day, so pack some snacks and entertainment or reminisce with your travelling companions as you watch the scenery whizz past – some of it probably very familiar and nostalgic by now.

Arrive around midday in Almaty and celebrate the final night of the tour in style by getting dressed up to the nines and attending an opera at the Abai Opera House.

Strut the streets of Almaty in your finery and toast the end of the trip with the group with a sumptuous, themed farewell dinner at Alasha restaurant, one of the best-loved dining spots of Almaty which has been designed to resemble the ancient palaces of the Khans. Eat like the kings of the steppe with dishes like roast mutton and tandyr (oven) dishes including tortillas and plov (rice), especially the famous wedding plov and the regional Fergana plov. Prepare for more than just a culinary adventure, come and step back in times of wild steppe and great conquerors, and take in the spectacle of a cultural dance performance alongside a feast fit for a khan.

Your ultimate adventure in Kazakhstan comes to an end after breakfast this morning.

Ultimate Kazakhstan - Shamans & Spacemen
Trip Map – Shamans & Spacemen

Details

Duration: 32 Days

Trip style: Unique

Group size: Minimum 6 / Maximum 15

Trip code: SSAA

Cost: $10 950.00 AUD twin share

Single supplement: $1150.00 AUD

Inclusions

  • 31-nights accommodation in local hotels, guesthouses, eco-lodge, inns, farm stay, overnight trains and wild camping (2-nights)
  • All transport as specified in itinerary including train tickets
  • Meals as specified in itinerary (B = Breakfast / L = Lunch / D = Dinner)
  • Services of your Inverted Atlas trip leader and local guides
  • All entrance fees as per itinerary

Optional experiences (not included):

  • Sairam Ugam National Park – Horse Riding

* Please note some optional experiences must be booked prior to travel. You will be given the option to add these experiences at check out

Trip price does not include

  • International airfares or domestic airfares
  • Airport transfers on arrival and departure
  • Visa for Kazakhstan
  • Any expenses associated with COVID-19
  • Meals not included as per trip itinerary including drinks and mini bar
  • Additional accommodation before or after the tour
  • Items of a personal nature including but not limited to laundry, souvenirs, porterage etc.
  • Travel insurance – please note comprehensive travel insurance is a condition of travel with Inverted Atlas

Journey Rating – Adventure

This trip travels through Kazakhstan, a wonderfully vast and varied country but one where things might not always go to plan and should you definitely pack your sense of adventure and more importantly your sense of humour. There are a few very long travel days where we will be getting up early and arriving into our accommodation quite late, sometimes the accommodation will be a local guest house, farm stay or wild camping with no facilities (2-nights). We will mostly travel by train on this trip, however there are a few coach trips included where train travel is not practical. At some religious sites women may be required to cover themselves fully including a headscarf. Men are expected to dress conservatively also. The quality of amenities such as hospitals and pharmacies will be limited to large cities. Be prepared for eastern-style squat toilets in public places (not hotels). The weather is likely to alternate between humid heat and cool.

A note about fitness

This trip is a bit of an adventure and as such requires a good level of physical fitness. You should be able to walk up to 2.5km during scheduled sightseeing, climb up to 200 stairs unassisted, use an eastern-style squat toilet (beware if you have knee issues) and confidently walk over uneven surfaces. You will need to be able to carry your own luggage to and from the coach/bus, as well as on and off the train. (Due to OH&S regulations our trip leaders are not able to assist with luggage.)

Overnight train travel in Kazakhstan is in a 4-berth bunk style configuration, in addition to being able to haul your luggage on and off the train, you must also be able to climb into a top bunk via the use of a narrow ladder as bottom bunks can not be guaranteed.

In addition, you should be in good health, with no major chronic conditions requiring frequent medical attention. This trip often travels through remote locations where the availability of a hospital or even phone reception to call an ambulance is limited. While all our trip leaders are required to have a valid first aid certificate, they are far from doctors and any assistance they are able to provide will be limited to basic first aid. For more information, please see our booking conditions.

In addition, you should be in good health, with no major chronic conditions requiring frequent medical attention. This trip often travels through remote locations where the availability of a hospital or even phone reception to call an ambulance is limited. While all our trip leaders are required to have a valid first aid certificate, they are far from doctors and any assistance they are able to provide will be limited to basic first aid. For more information please see our booking conditions.

Single supplement

Traveling by yourself? No problem, we love single travelers and don’t believe in penalising them by charging half the trip price again for our single supplement. With us you are only paying the actual cost to have a room all to yourself. If you’re up for making a new friend, you can elect to share with another single traveler of the same sex and only pay the twin-share price. The choice is yours!

Please note the single supplement on this trip does not apply to the overnight trains, some of the smaller guest houses or while camping.

Trip leader description

Accompanying you along your journey will be your Inverted Atlas trip leader. Your trip leader is a logistics extraordinaire, keeps the trip running smoothly and ensures you have the best time possible on your trip. It is important to know that while your trip leader has the best job in the world, they aren’t actually on holidays, but rather they are there to make sure you have the best time while you are on your holiday! Your trip leader may at times need some time out so that they can complete back of house tasks that ensure everyone continues to enjoy the trip. It is also your trip leaders’ job to handle any issues (heaven forbid!) that come up while you’re on your trip like:

  • If you lose your passport or other travel documents
  • If there is a problem with your room at the booked accommodation – seriously please tell your trip leader don’t wait until you leave
  • If you become unwell and need to find a pharmacy
  • Assisting with restaurant recommendations or additional sightseeing during free time
  • Questions regarding the itinerary

Your trip leader will have some good local knowledge about the destination in which you are traveling, however they are not a ‘local guide’. You’re welcome to ask your trip leader anything about the trip and if they don’t know they will find out and get back to you. Other people you will meet along the way are ‘local guides’ who are generally available to the group in specific towns or at specific sites like national parks, temples or archaeological sites. These people are the local experts and will be able to answer any questions you may have about the history and culture of a specific site.

Itinerary disclaimer

This itinerary is correct at the time of upload to our website and we have composed it in good faith. From time to time we may elect to make changes before departure, if we are making a big change we will of course notify you, however if it is a small change this will be reflected in the final trip notes. So, make sure you download these prior to departure. Small changes prior to departure are usually made with the groups best interests in mind and come about due to liaising with our best resources – our past travelers and of course our trip leaders! The ability to change and evolve depending on what our travelers enjoy is what makes us such a great trip operator.

While we strive to operate our trips exactly to the letter of the itinerary, sometimes we may need to make changes on the ground while the group is on the road. This is all part of the adventure of traveling and we would ask that you come on your trip with an open mind and a good sense of humour because as much as we want it to, everything doesn’t always go to plan. In fact, these impromptu situations often make the best stories that you can have a laugh with your friends about later.

Age requirements

Minimum Age: 16 years

We do not recommend bringing you children on this trip due to the remoteness of some of the destinations visited and shared nature of some of the accommodation.

There is no upper age limit for this trip but you should consider the above fitness requirements prior to booking. If you are 65 years or over you will be asked to complete our Health Check Form and have your medical practitioner sign it to confirm you are good health and able to participate safely on this trip.

Travel insurance

Please note that comprehensive travel insurance is a condition of travel with Inverted Atlas. Insurance must include provision for medical situations, emergency medical repatriation to your home country and personal liability at a minimum. Proof of valid travel insurance will be requested by your trip leader on arrival at the pre-departure meeting. Please have this paperwork available for them. If you are unable to provide proof of comprehensive travel insurance, you may not be allowed to join the trip and no refund will be payable.

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