Kazakhstan: History, Culture and Things to do

Kieran Meeke / 03 November 2016

Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia, bordering both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Read more about its history, culture and things to do here.



Discover more about Central Asia, a region once very much at the heart of the ancient Silk Road. Find out more here.

History

Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia, landlocked between Russia and China and also bordering both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The size of Western Europe, but with a population of only 15 million even today, it is a land of endless empty plains best suited to nomadic pastoralism, swept over in history by waves of horse-born invaders.

The country began to take shape in the 15th century, after which the Kazakhs fought off various Mongol tribes until falling under the Russian Empire in the 19th century.

Its history since is best understood under the process of Russification, which intensified after the birth of the Soviet Union. 

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants came from European Russia, taking nomadic pastoral land for agricultural use and forcing up to 300,000 Kazakhs out of the country.

Forced settlement of nomads and a major famine from 1922 onwards caused the death of up to a million Kazakhs. 

Then Khrushchev’s disastrous “Virgin Lands” policy of the 1950s converted vast swathes of land to Soviet grain production and brought in even more immigrants. By 1959 Kazakhs were only 30 per cent of the population.

Kazakhstan regained its independence in 1991 and Kazakhs now make up a majority again, following the repatriation of millions of ethnic Russians. 

Large families are encouraged by government policy and the birth rate is on the Kazakh side, with the average Kazakh age being a youthful 27 while ethnic Russians average 46 years old.

A quarter of the population is still Russian, however, and Russian remains the language of business and politics.

The country’s self-image and economy has been boosted by large reserves of oil, the ninth largest in the world. Oil wealth has dramatically improved living standards and built a modern new capital in Astana within a few decades.

Kazakhstan is also a vital trading route between both China and South Asia, and Russia and Western Europe, with road, rail and pipelines links as well as the Caspian Sea.

Culture and traditions

Kazakhstan is the Central Asian state in which the Soviet past is most still evident in daily life. Many Kazakhs in urban areas have lost fluency in their native language and have little knowledge of Kazakh culture and history.

Local writers, poets and other cultural figures were wiped out by the Soviets in an attempt to erase Kazakh identity. However, intellectuals are leading a revival and it is fashionable to wear traditional Kazakh costumes and play music Kazakh music.

Parks and statues commemorate national heroes such as Abylay-khan who led the resistance against foreign invaders in the pre-Soviet era.

Another is Abag Kunanbaev, a 19th century poet who straddled Islamic, Kazakh and Russian cultures, translating major Russian and European works (including Byron) into the Kazakh language.

The nationalist revival has been helped by the Soviet suppression of Islamic culture, which allowed older nomadic beliefs to endure.

The majority of Kazakhs are nominally Muslim (the country is 50 per cent Muslim, 45 per cent Russian Orthodox) but the faith here always retained at least some elements of Shamanism. Tengrism – which mixes Shamanism, animism and ancestor worship – is also being promoted as the “natural” religion of the people of the wider region.

Religion has more of a hold in rural areas, where a moderate form of Sunni Islam is practiced, as do traditions such as arranged marriage. 

The extended family is vital to nomadic security and a Kazakh saying is: “Matchmaking lasts 1,000 years but a son-in-law only lasts 100.”

Uzbekistan: History, culture and things to see and do

Shopping

Carpets are a distinctive Kazakh souvenir, a reminder of the past when everything in the household had to be portable. 

They are brightly coloured and embroidered in rich detail, recalling when women would spend long evenings decorating them.

Bargaining is part of the fun but the value you put on them should reflect the hours of work and skill they take to create. 

Felt rugs from Kyrgyzstan are also widely available, as are expensive hand-woven carpets from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in silk or wool.

Embroidered felt is used for slippers and hats, while felt dolls in colourful national costume come in all sizes. 

Embroidery also covers the national costume for both men and women, particularly the latter’s velvet waistcoat, again reflecting a time when you carried all your valuables on your person.

Other authentic Kazakh souvenirs include carved wood items such as birchwood cups and leatherwork. Metalwork is a skill in abundant supply, judging by the number of lamps, trays and replica weaponry for sale.

Swords and shields worthy of Genghis Khan are a common sight in tourist shops. Ceramics, particularly bowls in all sizes, also make popular souvenirs.

Musical instruments were one of the few leisure possessions a nomad family might carry with them and there is a wide variety on sale. The dombra, a two-stringed long-necked lute, may be thousands of years old in design.

The strings are made of sheep or goat gut and plucked or hit. A kobyz is a similar bowed instrument with two horsehair strings but with an echo chamber covered in goat leather and is played between the legs.

In legend, it could banish evil spirits and played a major role in the healing rituals of Shamanism. 

The easiest instrument of all is the metal shan-kobyz (“Jew’s” harp) which is made in a large number of styles and metals, including silver, many ornately engraved.

Discover more about Kazakhstan and take a look at holidays visiting the Silk Route. Find out more here.

Cuisine

Kazakhstan’s mix of cultures and its position on a crossroads between Russia, China and the rest of Asia are reflected in the variety of its cuisine.

Its major cities have restaurants offering everything from a typical Russian experience to the latest in modern European cuisine, although typically with a stylish Central Asian twist. 

Almaty also has a large number of Korean restaurants and even a Hard Rock Café.

Russian food tends to be hearty and filling, with dishes such as borsch (beetroot soup), beef stroganoff and pelmeni (meat dumplings). 

Kazakh dishes include specialties such as horsemeat steak or the national dish of kuyrdak, a kind of goulash made from horse, mutton or beef topped with an onion sauce.

Potatoes or dumplings are also added and the type of meat varies depending on budgets. Offal or goat is used in rural areas but restaurants aimed at tourists opt for better quality cuts.

Horsemeat is a staple in the countryside and is often seen in the form of sausage, perhaps on a bed of noodles and always with bread. 

Bread is the traditional symbol of hospitality and “non”, the tandoor-baked flatbread, accompanies every meal.

Those wary of meat hidden in pastries, dumplings or even in stews will prefer shashlik, skewered meat grilled over a fire. Vegetables are increasingly finding their way into the local diet, while bread, rice and potatoes are staples.

Dried fruit and nuts are also easy to find. Overall, food tends to be bland and a bottle of hot sauce is worth packing by those spending any time in rural areas.

Must see

Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty has boomed with oil money to become a cosmopolitan centre of coffee bars, nightclubs and streets lined with shopping malls and luxury car dealers.

There are also lovely parks, a superb Soviet-era Metro and an Opera House. The Central State Museum holds an interesting display on nomadic life, and a priceless collection of 2,000-year-old gold burial jewellery.

The Russian Orthodox Zenkov (Ascension) Cathedral is one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings.

Fans of The Beatles should take the cable-car to Kok Tobe, Almaty’s highest point, where there is a photo-worthy bronze statue of the Fab Four. This hill also holds an amusement park, teahouse and souvenir shops.

Almaty has a huge all-year skating rink on its outskirts at Medeu. A road and cable car takes you on toward the thoroughly modernised resort of Shymbulak, which is popular with skiers in winter and hikers in summer. 

Prince Harry enjoyed a skiing holiday here with former girlfriend Cressida Bonas in 2014.

Charyn Canyon is Kazakh version of America’s Grand Canyon, with red sandstone eroded into similar shapes to its bigger rival. Swim in the Charyn River at its bottom, or take a white-water raft or kayak trip. 

It is less than three hours from Almaty, close to the border with China, and the drive through the Kazakh steppes makes for an interesting day trip.

Tamgaly-Tas (“Written Cliffs”) on the Ili River have petroglyphs with images of Buddha and Tibetan inscriptions, dating back to the 15th century.

Astana is a planned capital, like Brazil or Canberra, and a wonderland for those interested in modern architecture. 

Highlights are Norman Foster’s “Pyramid of Peace”; the Baiterek Tower, representing the tree of life topped by a golden egg laid by the magic bird Samruka in Kazakh mythology; and the Central Concert Hall by Manfredi Nicoletti.

Norman Foster also designed the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, which is claimed as the world's highest tent. Its translucent dome covers a mixture of shops, restaurants, cinemas and entertainment spaces and even a jogging track.

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