While still off the beaten path, Kazakhstan is benefiting from its oil-rich status to make a new image for itself. The country's decade-old capital is a showcase of modernity, rich with newly constructed skyscrapers and multicolored city lights. It's a multibillion-dollar flashy showcase, and it shows. This said, much of this country's vast landscape remains the way it was when Genghis Khan and his hordes swept across the Central Asian steppes: vast, desolate and empty.

In these vast landscapes, travelers will feel as if they've reached the final outposts of the civilized world: Bleak desert scenery leads to flat, seemingly endless plains, broken occasionally by isolated cities, many of them industrial wastelands dating from the Soviet era.

The plains end abruptly at sharply rising foothills and high mountains along the country's eastern and southeastern fringes, where the best attractions lie. According to Asian legend, somewhere in the Altay Mountains, which straddle Kazakhstan's borders with Russia and China, is Shambhala—the paradise that will someday reveal itself.

The country's biggest promise today lies below the waters of the Caspian Sea, on Kazakhstan's western border, where oil and gas reserves have made the country the richest of the republics in the region. The deposits found there are some of the largest found in modern history, and have laid the foundations for a more prosperous future for this central Asian state. But its strategic geopolitical situation has left this country flatly between Russian, Chinese interests—with U.S. interests also drilling in some of the most rich oil-fields.

Visiting Kazakhstan can still be challenging, especially for independent travelers. To this day much of the population speak only Kazakh or Russian languages, and public English-language signage is hard to come by. Crime rates can be high, especially in the cities, and foreigners are a target because they are widely perceived to be rich.

Also, Soviet-era suspicion of foreigners can create bureaucratic problems for those traveling alone. We recommend that visitors to Kazakhstan travel as part of an organized tour. That way costs will be fixed, and your tour guide will have the headaches.

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