Whenever I think of Kazakhstan, I think of that movie “Borat” that came out a few years ago. I never watched it just because it gave me the feeling that perhaps it was putting the country of Kazakhstan in an unfair light. Purely based on the trailers, it just seemed that it was making these people seem so backwards and unaware of any American customs (or anything outside of their small village). Granted, this is a comedy. I get that. And there are always customs whenever you go to any country that may be new. I get that, too. Maybe I should give it a shot, but it just seems like there are so many other movies out there worth watching first.
Following in the same format of several other countries, the ending –stan means “land of.” So, essentially this is the Land of the Kazakhs. The term “Kazakh” itself was stemmed from an Old Turkic word meaning “independent or free spirit” and was in reference to their nomadic horseback riding traditions. (In the popular Game of Thrones, the fictional Dothraki people were thought to be based on these horseback riding cultures. The Rohirrim of The Lord of the Rings also draws inspiration from this as well.)
Kazakhstan is a very large country. In fact, it’s the world’s 9th largest country by land. Not only that, but it’s THE largest landlocked country in the world, which should go right at the top of its résumé. It’s bordered by Russia to the north and west; China to the east; and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to the south. Kazakhstan’s land is quite varied with mountains, steppes, canyons, deserts, rivers, lakes, and hills. It does claim quite a bit of coastline of the Caspian Sea on its western border, across from Azerbaijan and Iran as well. Incidentally, the Caspian Sea is also the world’s largest lake, despite its misnomer. I wonder if they have ever used the tourism slogan “Everything’s Bigger in Kazakhstan,” or if Texas would get mad if they did.
The earliest groups of people living here were Indo-Iranian nomads, the most well known being the Scythians. They domesticated and trained horses early on and many of the people of Central Asia became adept at their skills in riding. Later the Cumans and Kipchaks (both nomadic Turkic groups) joined forces and ruled the area. Although there were a few cities that benefitted from being near the famous Silk Road, they were more concerned with the Mongol invasions, which eventually did happen because the Mongols kind of took over most of Asia during the 13th and 14th centuries. Real estate moguls would be an extremely euphemistic term (I mean that sort of sarcastically, although their empire was twice as large as the Roman Empire). By the 15th and 16th centuries, the Kazakh people began to emerge with their own identity along with their language, economy, and culture, and the next couple of centuries would consist of fighting between various other nomadic groups in this region as they began to establish themselves here. During the 19th century however, the Russian Empire began to start stretching the boundaries of its territory. Not only did they push their way into other European countries, they also pushed their way into Central Asia including Kazakhstan. They would stay in control until Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991 (they were the last to break away from Russia). Even though there were many unpleasant things that happened while the Russians were there (as if forcing your way into another country wasn’t bad enough, there was also the stifling of the Kazakh culture in order to assimilate to theirs, forced collectives and mass hunger causing mass emigration, assassination of anyone involved in the arts, academics, and other people who think for a living, Soviet labor camps, using their land to test nuclear bombs, etc.), there were other effects of the Russian occupation: they adopted Russian cuisine, culture, and the Cyrillic alphabet and the Russian language as well as the building of schools, hospitals, train lines, roads, and other governmental buildings in an effort to modernize the country. The interesting part is that Kazakhstan has only had one president since 1991. Six years into its independence, the capital city was moved from Almaty along the southeast border to Astana, which is more centrally located albeit slightly north.
Astana is the current capital city of Kazakhstan, and like Canberra, Brasília, and Washington, D.C., it is a planned city. It’s also had as many name changes as P. Diddy or whatever he goes by now. Located along the Ishim River, it was once a small village known as Akmoly. When it was actually granted a town status, the name changed to Akmolinsk. In 1961, the Russians changed its name to Tselinograd. After the country gained its independence, it was changed yet again to Akmola. However, once the decision to move the capital here, they agreed to change its name to Astana, which means “capital” (just so there’s no confusion). Today it’s quite a modern city filled with universities, world-renowned architecture, an economic and commercial center, sports venues, government centers, shopping and arts districts, and modern public transportation. Astana is known for its modern, futuristic skyline.
Among Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan’s economy is the largest and strongest in the region. Economic drivers include crude oil and agriculture, and the country is also a leading exporter of uranium. Even during the economic crisis of 2008-2009, Kazakhstan’s economy remained fairly stable. The government implemented stimulus packages to the banks and other financial entities to promote growth. Part of what makes their economy strong is their abundance of natural resources. The country has large reserves of chromium, lead, uranium, zinc, iron, gold, copper, coal, manganese, petroleum, natural gas, and diamonds. They are currently working toward expanding their housing market and infrastructure.
Nearly 70% of the population is Muslim while only a quarter is Orthodox Christian. Many times, countries will retain a large number of followers of the colonizing or occupying country. Not so in this case. Because the Russians banned religion during those Communist years, many Kazakhs looked to their own heritage and history once they gained their freedom back. There are several different denominations of Islam practiced in Kazakhstan as well as smaller populations of Roman Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Bahá’ís, Buddhists, and others.
Kazakhstan has two official languages: Russian, which is the language used in education, government, many businesses, and often as a lingua franca between peoples of different ethnicities (although Kazakh is slowly replacing it on that term) and Kazakh, a native language that is spoken by roughly 65% of the population. Although currently, Kazakh is written using the Cyrillic alphabet, there are plans in place to change over to using the Roman alphabet within the next decade (I’ll be interested to see how easy of a change this will be, but since I live in the US, I’ll hear nothing of it here. I’ll be lucky if I happen to see it mentioned on BBC or Al Jazeera.). There are several other minority languages spoken throughout the land: Tatar, Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Ukrainian, and Uzbek. English and Turkish are popular second languages learned in Kazakhstan. However, unlike many other countries, there is very little that is translated into English, so you better brush up on your Kazakh or Russian if you want to survive your visit.
Kazakhstan does have a lot of rural areas. The barren, flat areas called the steppes can attest to that. And there are many things they do differently, like I saw that many areas have their water pipes run above ground. (It would certainly make repairs easier, and according to my husband, it still has the same chance or slightly less of a chance of freezing whether it’s underground or above.) The other thing I read about is that it’s widely thought that apples originated from Kazakhstan, and many apple forests are still found there. It’s interesting because in the US, we have the legend of Johnny Appleseed who was actually a real person traveling across the eastern portion of the US planting apple trees; his grave is in Fort Wayne, Indiana, about two hours northeast of where I live. However, I didn’t choose any apple recipes this go around, but I did choose several other tasty dishes. And as I read on someone’s blog, “This country is nothing like the movie Borat.” For that, I’m glad to know.
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