If you’re the kind of person who finds yourself scrolling through Instagram and adding destinations to your bucket list, photographer Diana Takacsova might be able to pique your travel curiosity in new directions. Last October, she set off to Kazakhstan for two weeks, arriving in the capital Nur-Sultan (then named Astana), before journeying on to Almaty by train. She then rented a car and travelled across the south-eastern part of the country, seeking out steppe landscapes, mountain views, and crystal-clear lakes along the way.
“Some of my personal highlights were the views of the snow-capped mountains surrounding Almaty, river-crossing and off-road driving in the northern Tien Shan Mountains, the sunrise on the steppe, the Aktau Mountains for the colours, and Lake Kaindy for its unique setting,” she recalls.
Without doubt, the most breathtaking photos from her trip are those which capture the startling vastness of the land. The scale and glitz of Nur-Sultan, by contrast, made the photographer miss the presence of cafes and historical buildings. She recounts locals’ excitement when she told them about Budapest (the photographer is Slovak-Hungarian). On one occasion, a cab driver exclaimed: “Such a beautiful, old city [Budapest], so full of history! Look around here, everything is completely new!”
Driving and being able to stop anywhere is something of a blessing in a country where the roads are long and the horizons wide. Among the many landscapes in her series are various places of respite. “In the vast nothingness,” Takacsova explains, “small roadside restaurants were like oases.” The Kazakh mountains appear even within these quiet interiors, whether as part of the décor or spied from a window. One of the least touristy places was Zharkent, a town situated approximately 30km from the Chinese border and known for its rare Chinese-style mosque.
As sometimes happens during travel, the most memorable photos were taken over lunch. In Zharkent one particular setting reminded Takacsova of a house, rather than a restaurant: “Family members were doing accounting and children were playing, hiding from the direct sun outside. The only dish on the ‘menu’ was a traditional meat soup.” These stop-offs gave her the chance to interact with friendly locals, exchange anecdotes, take portraits and selfies. They are moments of calm that punctuate an otherwise whirlwind journey.
“As a photographer and traveller, I always want to get under the surface, and experience the everyday reality in each and every country I visit,” Takacsova reveals of her process. “I actually don’t insist on seeing the main sights and places many tourists see — and often include remote places based on photos spotted somewhere on the internet. Of course, the unexpected happens somewhere between the two, so you have to be ready to change plans.” Read on for Takacsova’s travel tips to make the most of your Kazakhstan adventure.
I know that Kyrgyzstan is a more common travel destination, and I would often hear “there isn’t much to see in Kazakhstan,” but I believe the opposite is true. I would like to return and visit some parts we had to skip this time around, such as Turkistan or the Aral Sea. I would also like to delve deeper into the nomadic traditions and everyday life.
That’s when the weather is great across the country. However, we visited in autumn, which is outside the peak season but meant the number of other travellers we encountered was lower. Some of the places we visited weren’t that well-known; therefore, if we met any tourists there, they were experienced travellers who were able to share some great tips and stories. I would say that the most touristy places were Almaty and Charyn Canyon.
We took the overnight train from Nur-Sultan to Almaty, which is faster and more comfortable than the day train. We did so purely because we had limited time: with only a few stops, it took 13 hours in total. I imagine the day train would make for a more authentic experience. In either case, though, you’ll be able to experience the distance, the seemingly monotonous landscape and silence interrupted only by the sound of the train tracks. This is also a cheap and comfortable option to travel across the country. The fast trains don’t have a “platzkart” (an open wagon with no compartments) option anymore. Also, as trains might be sold out in the summer season, I would recommend booking your ticket in advance online.
The reason isn’t traffic, but the road conditions in the mountains, the lack of street lighting, and — sometimes — the roaming livestock.
Overall planning was useful, too — especially when covering great distances.
I would say it all starts with planning and research: my aim is to experience and, ultimately, understand the place I’m shooting. Once I choose my destination, I use all available sources of local knowledge and points of interests, and ask friends who have visited the country before. I have to admit I can become quite obsessed with the planning phase, digging up the most interesting, and often fairly unknown places. At the same time, I always try to find a balance between planning and spontaneity: I would pick the places that I really want to see, but remain completely flexible when it came to practicalities such as accommodation, whenever possible.