I’m not entirely sure how it all started, but somehow this year we got the idea in our heads that driving across Kazakhstan would be a fun thing to do. At the very least, it would be an adventure.
We knew that most of Kazakhstan would be big, flat, empty, and hot. Some thorough planning for the drive seemed like a good idea.
Where to stay, which route to take, and what the roads would be like were all questions we wanted to answer before we started driving across the steppe. We drove across Kazakhstan in August and September 2016, and while there was plenty of outdated information available online, I’m hoping that sharing some of the practical information we gathered might make a few future road trips a little easier.
The best route to drive across Kazakhstan
Looking at Google Maps, there appear to be several possible routes across Kazakhstan (West to East). We quickly learned that many of those “roads” that look almost like highways on the map are often little more than dirt or sand.
Fortunately, Kazakhstan has undertaken a massive project over the last 7 years to upgrade highways across most of the country. It is now very possible to drive from West to East across most of the country in relative comfort.
However, the only viable route takes what appears to be a rather large detour through northwest Kazakhstan. This is unavoidable. We were advised by both Kazakhs and travellers not to try and take shortcuts.
That said, most of the highways we travelled on in Kazakhstan were of an international standard – fast and comfortable – with a few exceptions, I was thoroughly impressed.
We had no idea what to expect when we started driving across Kazakhstan. Having made it across most of the country in relative comfort, I wouldn’t recommend against driving across Kazakhstan because of poor quality road conditions (however, lack of sights to see along the way may be one reason to reconsider).
Driving from Astrakhan (Russia) to Atyrau (Kazakhstan)
Point A to B on our map.
Those exceptions I was talking about start right when you enter the west of Kazakhstan from Russia. The road from Astrakhan to the border is in okay condition and passes along a joyfully rickety floating river across the Buzan river at Krasnyy Yar (there is a small toll to cross).
Right after entering Kazakhstan, the highway turns into the worst 300km of road I have ever driven on. Tens of thousands of deep potholes cover the entire length of the highway to Atyrau. It’s difficult to drive over 40 or 50km per hour along many stretches, and the who journey is clouded in the stress of hitting another gaping hole in the road at speed.
In many places, the potholes all join together, and you need to watch out for the pieces of road that remain. In other places, it’s simply faster to drive along the dirt track on the side of the road.
There’s a small turn-off to the right immediately after the border (the route marked on the map), that some border guards told us leads to a bypass that cuts out some of the pain for the first 50km, but I hardly noticed a difference.
Expect a long, hot drive through the oil fields of West Kazakhstan, and make sure your spare tire is in good shape.
Zhanaul border crossing from Astrakhan in Russia to Atyrau in Kazakhstan
We arrived at Zhanaul border crossing early in the morning. We waited about 4 hours in line before exiting Russia, and another 40 minutes before entering Kazakhstan.
Operations on the Kazakh side appeared to be far more efficient than the Russian checkpoint. The Kazakh guards were friendly and eager to practice English, rather than try and comprehend my terrible Russian.
You will find a small stretch of shops and tea houses at both checkpoints selling sim cards and car insurance, along with money changers offering reasonable rates.
Driving from Atyrau to Uralsk
Point B to C on our map.
After the nightmare road from Astrakhan, the highway from Atyrau to Uralsk (passing through Chapaev) in the north-west of Kazakhstan was a dream. There are a few potholes along the way, but after the previous day’s driving, I wasn’t going to complain about 500km of mostly smooth, uncrowded highway.
Google Maps shows two roads from Atyrau to Uralsk, one one each side of the Ural river, the dividing line between Europe in the West and Asia to the East. The road to the west of the river is the main highway.
Driving from Uralsk to Aktobe
Point C to D on our map.
Driving east from Uralsk towards Aktobe (through Zhumpity and Kobda) is an entirely unremarkable drive. The road is long, straight, and in good fairly condition. Put on a good playlist, and enjoy the drive.
Aktobe to Aralsk – Kazakhstan’s Road of Death
Point D to E on our map.
620km from Aktobe to Aralsk (passing through Khromtau and Karabutak) across the desert with nothing to see but a few camels – if you’re lucky. This drive would be exhausting if it wasn’t for the flawless, smooth new highway that covers the entire stretch. I couldn’t help but smile for the whole ride, grateful for such a smooth journey across what looked like an otherwise uninhabitable landscape.
We were a little worried about finding good quality petrol along this stretch of highway, but I was happy to come across the largest petrol station I’ve seen in Kazakhstan shortly after Karabutak.
Like many of Kazakhstan’s new highways, this stretch of road is dotted with highway-side rest stops every 30km or so. Enter the toilets if you dare – but finding an empty patch of steppe is probably a much more peaceful way to handle your business.
Driving from Aralsk to Shumkent
Point E to G on our map.
You’ll find more smooth, modern highway from Aralsk to Shumkent (passing through Baikonur, Kyzylorda, and Turkistan), but in mid-2016, we hit a few patches of construction outside of Shumkent, where the road was being upgraded from single to dual carriageway, and the speed limit was reduced to 50km per hour for large stretches.
We split the drive into two days, spending a night in Kyzylorda.
Staying in Baikonur
Unless you have pre-arranged permission, staying in Baikonur, or even entering the city is next to impossible. We turned up, thinking we could spend a night at the Central Hotel, only to be stopped at a Russian checkpoint outside the city. The border guard explained that the whole city is closed to pretty much everyone without a permit, not just the Cosmodrome as we had assumed. He pointed us in the direction of a decent hotel, 60km up the highway, and even let Alisa slip over the border to a shop to pick up some supplies.
Driving from Shumkent to Almaty
Point G to I on our map.
The highways between Shumkent and Almaty (passing through Taraz and Shu) are all at the tail-end of a long period of reconstruction. In mid-2016, we made most of the journey along the international standard dual-carriageway highway, broken up with long sections of construction where speed limits drop to 50km per hour. Even with the construction, traffic was light, and we were able to make steady progress.
We divided the trip between Shumkent and Almaty into two days, staying in Taraz.