Not so good
Kazakhstan was the first of the Soviet states to seek to make a break from the old empire. The peacable transition they are making to a democratic market economy is commendable. Not all the Russian influence was negative however, and since independence standards of health and education have fallen as the subsidies provided by the Soviet system have been withdrawn. Social welfare is another casualty, especially for elderly Russians, for whom life is very hard indeed. A few tenge dropped into the hand of an old babushka will make a big difference to her - you won't miss them.
A man and his horse
The horse has been central to Kazakh culture throughout the ages and even in today's Kazakhstan the horse holds a pivotal place. Whether as a working animal on the steppe, a source of entertainment and pleasure - for the spectator if not the rider at the races and games that are very much part of national, local and family celebrations, or as an important part of the local diet, horses are regarded as the most important animal in the country.
Even in today's urbanized society Kazakhs take pride in their horsemanship, and in the claim that both the stirrup and the chariot originated with their ancestors.
The Kazakh horse is a tough little animal, bred for hardy endurance and its milk-producing capacity rather than beauty or speed. Races featuring boy riders are feats of endurance - 200 or more riders in a "race" that goes on for hours around a course on the steppe the winner being the one who lasts longest.
Few weddinga in any ex-Soviet country are complete without a visit to the local war memorial. Kazakhstan is no exception and, even the pouring rain, the bridal parties will make their way to the burial place of the Unknown Warrior and the Eternal Flame to lay the bride's bouquet on the monument.
This ritual, to be seen right across the old Soviet Union, speaks so eloquently of debt people know they owe to the sacrifice of the soldiers of WWII and the suffering of the Soviet peoples in the war against Fascism that even the breakup of the old empire has not repaid.
Most of Kazakhstan's ethnic Kazakhs, especially those who live in the countryside, are Sunni Muslims. However, they are not strict adherents to Islam, nor is the religion a major political force in the country. The primary reason is that the Kazakhs' semi-nomadic lifestyle does not lend itself to central religious authority.
Despite the large number of Muslims in Kazakhstan, Islam does not have an imposing physical presence. Although mosques can be seen in Almaty and in the countryside, they are often next to Russian Orthodox churches. The Sabbath is observed on Sunday, not Friday as in most Muslim countries. And during the week I spent in the country, I did not see one woman wearing a veil or chador. One of the most visible aspects of Islam is the cemeteries containing large and ornate Islamic-style mausoleums (such as the one pictured here).
The return of religion
The effects of seventy years of Communist secularity are fast disappearing in Kazakhstan. Whilst the vast majority of the population practices no religion, the revival of religious observance - both Muslim and Christian - is remarkable, with new mosques and churches being built all over the country. Churches that were used as concert halls and museums once again hold daily services. Madrassas hold classes for men and women to teach them the faith of their grandfathers, though this can be an Islam underpinned by much older shamanic practices and beliefs, and it would seem unlikely that strict adherence to the rules of dress and abstinence would become the norm here.
Not many Kazakhs actually live in yurts any more. Decades of city living or collective farming have put paid to an ancient way of life for most people. Those you do see around Almaty are more likely to be a teahouse or put to some other sort of tourist-focussed use, and far more likely to be made of heavy-duty nylon canvas than felt.
This one was being lived in and we were invited to see inside, take tea and given some home-made cheese (very hard and salty)
You can see clearly the woven wooden slats that form the frame work of the yurt. Inside was a dazzling rainbow of colourful embroidered hangings, woven straps and elaborate tassels. Quilts and rugs were folded and stacked neatly to one side and there were thick rugs covering the otherwise empty floorspace.
About half (46 percent) of Kazakhstan's population is made up of ethnic Kazakhs, a Turkic people who originated in what is now western China and who now occupy the region between Siberia and the Black Sea. They began populating this area between the fifth and thirteenth centuries as hordes of various nomadic Turkic tribes invaded and conquered the northern portions of Central Asia.
In Central Asia, there are about 14,000,000 Kazakhs, of which a little over 10,000,000 inhabit Kazakhstan. There are smaller communities of Kazakhs in Uzbekistan, China, Russia, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey.
Even today, many Kazakhs still lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving with their flocks of sheep or herds of horses from wintering areas to rich summer pastures. Most of these semi-nomads are expert horsemen, a skill which they inherited from the Mongols who ruled Central Asia under the leadership of Genghis Khan in the 1200s
Driving through the countryside you pass many of these small cemeteries, walled around and with various structures visible over the wall - often a tall ziggurat tower, maybe a yurt (sometimes just the frame) or a small castellated pavilion or covered gateway. They have a permanence that seems at odds with the nomadic life led by the people who lie buried there and speak of an older world and belief.
Love that hat!
The Soviets may have left Kazakhstan, but they left their hat maker behind. No matter what the uniform, the hat is always Russian-style with an enormous high round crown and lots of gold braid. They add about 10cm to anyone's height.
The Infamous Sheep's Head
Kazakhs and other nomadic Central Asian peoples eat an enormous amount of mutton. Much of the food you will get in Central Asia will have mutton in it - samsa - small meat pies in flaky dough (like Indian samosas, but typically with mutton and onions) - and plov (pilau, palou) - rice, carrots, onion, and mutton - are two of the most popular foods in Kazakhstan and in the rest of Central Asia as well.
If you are invited to a banquet, or if you are being hosted by a nomadic family, the typical dish at a feast is to cook a whole sheep. The head is considered the best part, and so, as an honored guest, you will be required to take part in eating the sheep's head. Sometimes the sheep is served in a broth of random sheep's parts (here an ear, there an eyeball), or, as in our case, the head will be presented and an ear will be cut off for the most honored guest, followed by the other ear, the nose, the cheeks, etc. They may understand that foreigners are not used to eating the same things, but try to show respect by at least accepting something, even if you cannot eat it.
1-2 January - New Year 8...
1-2 January - New Year
8 March - Women's Day
22 March - Nauryz
1 May - Day of Unity of Peoples of Kazakhstan
9 May - Victory Day
30 August - Constitution Day
25 October - Republic Day
16 December - Independence Day
The traditional home for...
The traditional home for Kazakh nomads is the yurt, a wood-frame felt tent that is decorated on the inside with intricately woven carpets, cushions, and wall hangings. You won't see a lot of yurts if you're in the city, but out in the countryside people often have them set up next to their houses. This photo was taken at the annual fair in Almaty, when many local organizations and businesses set up their own yurts as sort of a PR measure. Looking inside them is fascinating.
What no AC?
As I rode taxis (actually private cars but more on that later) around in Almaty, I noticed none would turn on the AC. It wasn't that hot but we still could've used AC some of the time. But none would turn it on. The driver may roll down the windows a bit for us but no AC. I found out later that Kazakhs don't like to use AC. They think it somehow brings on bad spirit so they don't like to use AC. I did see lots of apt/office building with mini AC units installed on the outside of the building though.Related to:
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For those that think they have seen it all, then the crazy world of Kazakh wedding traditions is sure to present something new! (Or rather a mixture of Korean, Beyelorussian, and Kazakh in this cultural mixing pot).
In memory of the traditional Kazkah bride stealing traditions, there is a traditional rugby scrum to try to capture the bride from her parents (from personal experiece I would advise on having one ex-US football pleyer on your side to help in the rucus).
This is followed by what can only be described as a high speed chase through the central sights (horns fixed on to warn any others in a ten block radius). Any other person is advised to avoid the automotive stampede.
This is followed by a ceremony, with some beautiful words (depending upon your knowledge of Russian), followed on by some obligatory vodka drinking.
Whereupon friends, I am sad to say my memory fades........
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