Driving in Kazakhstan is for the intrepid traveller who revels in the freedom of charting his own course in a journey filled with surprises.
Of course, an adventure comes with risks too, and wise travellers would do well to arm themselves with all the necessary information to avoid disruptions or even danger. Here’s what to know before embarking on your road trip in Kazakhstan.
Central Asia’s road safety record is, to put it bluntly, dismal, due to factors such as poor road safety conditions, and lack of road safety education. But travellers will be glad to know that Kazakhstan has in recent years scaled up its adoption and enforcement of road safety legislations, and made several improvements to road and transport infrastructure. Traffic accidents are also on the decline.
Still, road conditions vary from place to place — while driving in major cities such as Nur-Sultan and Almaty do not pose much of an issue, travellers venturing to the smaller cities and off-the-beaten-path destinations may find themselves navigating rougher roads.
Motorists are strongly advised to take safety precautions. This means staying within speed limits, checking out road conditions with locals before setting off, careful planning to minimise driving at night when roads can be dark and unlit, and only driving in conditions that you are comfortable with — not many can take driving in Kazakhstan’s cold winters where temperatures dip to -40°C!
If emergency services are required, 112 is the number to dial. Make sure you have a (fully charged) working mobile phone with you.
Driving licence and rental requirements
To drive in Kazakhstan, an International Driving Permit (IDP) that meets the requirements of the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic is required. You also need to be at least 23 years old with at least two years of driving experience to rent a car there.
You can rent a car from major car companies such as Avis, Dollar and Thrifty. Cars can be easily rented at the Almaty or Astana airport, or via third-party websites. For a seven-day rental period, the average rental cost ranges from $63 per day for a sedan to $140 per day for an SUV.
You must own a valid third-party vehicle insurance in order to drive. Centras and Nomad are the most common insurance companies located in most major cities. You can also find them after the border at bigger crossings.
Traffic rules and regulations
Traffic rules are strict and enforcement is tight in Kazakhstan. Think of it as driving in Singapore – follow the rules and you won’t get into trouble with the police. Here are some important laws to obey:
- Cars drive on the right side of the road.
- Speed limits are 110km/h on motorways, 90km/h on rural roads and 20-60km/h in urban areas.
- No drink driving (of course!)
- Ensure everyone’s buckled up before you set off.
- Using a cell phone while driving is prohibited unless you are using a hands-free set.
Road conditions in Kazakhstan are extremely varied. They can range from wide, well-paved asphalt motorways in the bigger cities, to bumpy and patchy tracks, especially in rural areas. Some roads date back to the Soviet era and truly show their age.
If you are setting off from Nur-Sultan, the roads connecting the capital to the cities of Petropavl, Karangandy and Pavlodar are generally well-built and safe.
If Almaty is your starting point, the roads to Taldykorgan, Kegen and Bishkek (in Kyrgyzstan) are also well-paved.
There are many new roads linking Shymkent in the south to Tashkent (in Uzbekistan) Almaty and the Western cities of Turkistan, Aralsk and Aqtobe.
Do ample research beforehand or you might pay the price by getting stuck in potholes or traversing poorly paved roads at a snail’s pace. The easiest way is to check in with a local, who can fill you in on what to expect on your journey.
If you intend to drive into the mountains, make sure you rent a four-wheel drive. These roads can be tricky to navigate, and will require no less than a hardy vehicle and a highly seasoned driver to tackle them!
Stay safe, buckle up and enjoy the ride!