At roughly half the size of the 48 contiguous United States, Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, with spectacularly diverse geography and no shortage of places to visit. Northern forests gradually turn into wide flat steppes to more arid regions and finally to deserts in the south. Kazakhstan is rich in minerals and has large oil and gas reserves.
Islam and Christianity are the dominant religions, although religious tolerance is the widely recognized norm and, as a holdover from the Soviet era, many people profess no religious affiliation at all. The national characteristic of the Kazakh people is hospitality. Steming from the country's longstanding nomadic culture, strangers are treated as honored guests. Respect for guests and the elderly as well as tolerance and peacefulness are ingrained from childhood.
Almaty, in the east, is the country's largest city and commercial capital. The ancestral home of the world's apples has been traced to this region. In fact, "Alma" means "apple." The Great Silk Road caravans came through this ancient city carrying spices, porcelain, silk and civilizing influences from the cultured Orient to the more barbaric west.
An over night train trip to the west takes you to the Baykonur Cosmodrome, home of the Russian space program. Once a secretly guarded location, Baykonur is now open to visitors where it is possible to tour the birthplace of space flight, visit the complex where the original cosmonauts trained and where today Russian flights to the International Space Station are launched.
About 100 miles (160 km) east of Almaty are the natural wonders of Altyn-Emel National Park. The region contains rare animals such as Siberian mountain goats, ancient Scythian burial mounds, rock drawings from 3500 years ago and the Kyzyl-Auyz Gorge where there grows the "stone tree" which has bark so hard that it resists an ax. The park also contains otherworldly "lunar" landscapes and the unforgettable "Singing Dunes," which make the sound of an organ in dry weather. Imperceptible movement of grains of sand sliding down the face of the dune in dry weather creates a vibration that becomes electrified in dry conditions, which coupled by resonant conditions in the surroundings, produces powerful sound waves that can be heard miles away.
Here too is Charyn Canyon, referred to as the younger brother of America's Grand Canyon, with deep, colorful gorges, spectacular rock formations and some of the world's finest hiking, canyoning and water rafting.