Title Image: A painting of traditional Kazakh life. National Museum of History, Astana
Not every country with -stan in its name is a scary place. Kazakhstan definitely is not.
Kazakhstan Nomadic life
Traditional Kazakhs, like their Mongolians neighbors to the east, are nomads. Half of the Mongolian population today is still nomadic. The same cannot be said of the modern Kazakh population, although President Nursultan Nazarbayev recruited symbols of traditional Kazakh life to create the capital, Astana, in 1997.
One such traditional symbol is the eagle Samruk, pictured on the Kazakhstan flag:
Eagle hunting is a 4000-year-old tradition in this part of the world. After the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Nazabayev called for ethnic Kazakhs, many of whom lived in Western Mongolia, to come live in Kazakhstan. The eagle-hunting Kazakhs came but ultimately didn’t stay. Their way of life was not supported in Kazakhstan and so they eventually returned to Mongolia.
As a newspaper report from 2013 put it:
“… the native traditions which the nomads represented, whatever their sentimental value, have no place in the country [Nazarbayev] has engineered – a place which today, thanks to its huge oil reserves and the ambition of Nazarbayev himself, has more in common with the hyper-modern monarchies of the Gulf than with Mongolia.”
Mongolia and Kazakhstan lie in the midst of a vast steppe.
Here’s the steppe rolling away into the distance as I looked out a window of the Astana airport:
Speaking of airports (and flags), note the design on the glass found everywhere at the Astana airport. It’s the same design on the left-hand side of the flag:
Back to nomads. Nomadic life makes sense given the geography of the region, where nomads follow their herds as they graze through the seasons. Nomads live in yurts, which can be taken down and put back up in a matter of hours. Fixed plumbing and electric lines have no place on the steppe, as they do in cities. Nomadism is, of course, directly opposed to urbanism.
Although there were a few routes of the Silk Road that ran through Kazakhstan, most of the trading action was to the south. This means that while Uzbekistan, for instance, has places like Samarkand https://julietetelandresen.com/on-the-road-in-uzbekistan/ it’s no surprise that neither Mongolia nor Kazakhstan have great and historic cities.
My point is: the Kazakhs have been leading their lives in the harsh conditions of the steppe and generally minding their own business for a long time. Nothing to fear here.
Kazakhstan Social life
Minding their own business has included keeping track of the tribes. Our Kazakh language teacher, Yesset, explained to us the system of:
It means literally ‘one hundred’ – as in the 100 people related to you (I think!) – but it isn’t taken literally. I’ve seen it translated as ‘small horde.’ I think of it as ‘extended clan.’
There are three zhiz in Kazakhstan, and they are distinguished geographically:
Yesset belongs to the Kishi Zhiz, and he comes from Aktobe, which lies above the green letter Ж on the map.
He said that Kishi are traditionally farmers and herders. They are stereotypically said to be fond of food. They’re considered the youngsters.
The Orta Zhiz is in the yellow middle (both geographically and conceptually), and Astana lies just above the orange letter Ж on the map. I’m not sure what the stereotype of this zhiz is, but I do know that, Aidana, the coordinator our program, belongs here.
The Œli Zhiz is the pink part in the southeast. Almaty lies just below the red letter З on the map. The Œli are the elders. Here’s their stereotype: they’re called ақ саузақ ak sauzhakh ‘white finger,’ meaning they’re lazy because … they’re writers and composers. (Hey, writers aren’t lazy!)
President Nazabayev belongs to the elders zhiz.
You can marry within your zhiz if it’s outside of seven generations of relatedness.
I love learning these. Here are a couple to suggest traditional Kazakh life:
- Horse doesn’t leave footprint
Your horse’s footprint is gone = You haven’t been here for a long time.
- He will not take grass from the sheep’s mouth
Which means (can you possibly guess?): He is a quiet, calm person.
- dog died place = very far (a dog always goes far away to die)
All in all, I found Kazakhstan to be a place of warm, welcoming people, and I want to continue learning a Turkic language.
See also: All my Asia blogs
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen