10 Observations on Kazakhstan culture and society
Travelling, couchsurfing and hitchhiking across Kazakhstan for one month was one of the most unexpectedly thrilling experiences of our Long Way Home adventure and during that time we tried our best to observe the culture and society of this vast, friendly and contrasting land.
Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s largest country and is a unique mix of barren landscapes, soaring mountains and chic cities as well as maybe the most hospitable people we had met so far. We must highlight, however, that these are just our subjective observations and we would love to hear what you think. Have we misunderstood anything? Do you have any observations to share yourselves?
Kazakhstan culture and society
Our first observation probably has more to do with our preconceptions than anything else. Before we entered Kazakhstan we had the notion that its people would be less than friendly. Perhaps because of the unforgiving environment, strict political system or just because they were wealthier than their southern neighbours, we believed that people would be colder and less hospitable.
What we encountered completely stunned us and only served to highlight the foolishness of forming opinions without any prior experience. Nearly everybody we meet was so warm it was just crazy. We lost track of the amount of times we were invited for lunch by people we meet on the street or hitchhiked with. We were introduced to families, made to feel like guests of honour, given water, food, you name it, we were offered it. When we went to camp next to a lake we had barely set foot on the sand before some people came over, made conversation, invited us to dinner and plied us with vodka. Kazakhs are some of the nicest people in the world, fact!
Kazakhstan really is a melting pot of different people. In 1999, it was estimated that the population comprised of 46% Kazakhs, 34.7% Russians, 4.9% Ukrainians, 3.1% Germans, 2.3% Uzbeks, 1.9% Tartar, and 7.1% others. That is quite the ethnic mix!
The first thing that stands out is the high percentage of ethnic Russians in the country, more so than any other Central Asian ‘stan’. This division is even more pronounced geographically with more Russians in the north and more Kazakhs in the south. The times are a changing, however, as since the break up of the Soviet Union, emigration of ethnic Russians and Germans has increased and many believe that the demographics will only continue to alter in the favour of ethnic Kazakhs. The tension that this is manifesting under the surface is probably one for the future.
To our eyes, Kazakhstan was certainly the most Russified of all the Central Asian countries. Traditional or native clothes were seldom worn and Islamic head scarves extremely rare. The clothes people wore wouldn’t look out of place on any European street. Shops sell Russian products, people watch Russian news(!) and listen to Russian music. They eat Russian food (especially Pelmeni) and very often identify themselves as Russian, despite being born in Kazakhstan and in many cases never having visited Russia itself. They have Russian names, use patronymics and in a point in which we will discuss below, speak Russian as opposed to the state language of Kazakh. The undeniable effects of history are plain to see.
Kazakhstan is officially a bilingual country but in practice things work a little differently. The official state language is Kazakh, a Turkic language, which is spoken by roughly 65% of the population. The de-facto language of Kazakhstan is in fact Russian which is spoken by almost everybody and is an ‘official’ language of the country. The major cities of Almaty and Astana are in essence Russophone where the Kazakh language will not get you very far. Russian is the language of business, commerce and when different ethnicities want to communicate. The Kazakh authorities have been trying to promote the indigenous language for a number of years and it will be interested to see how successful these measures prove to be.
Food in Kazakhstan is, as you would expect given the demographics, an international mix. There is a lot of influence from Central Asia including Uzbek pilaf (plov), manti (something akin to dumplings) and shashlik (barbecued meat), Russian influenced pelmini (small, stuffed, dough balls) and borscht (beetroot soup) as well as local specialities such as beshbarmak (horse/mutton meat, served with noodles and onion & broth sauce).
Read: How to make Kazakh beshbarmak
Meal-times are an extremely important part of the social fabric, with tables heaving and families all eating together.
Kazakhs are big on meat and it was the first country in Central Asia where pork was widely available. It is very common to see people eating with their hands alone, even in the large cities.
Perhaps the two most important items are bread and tea which come attached with a whole range of symbolism and social importance. If you visit somebody’s house you will always be offered bread and it should never be refused. Bread should also never be put face down on the table. Tea is also served to all comers but don’t expect it to be filled to the top. That would a sign that your host wants you to leave. So once you have finished the tea, hand it back to the person (usually a woman) doing the filling and it will be replenished.
After travelling through the overwhelmingly Muslim Central Asia, it was quite a shock for us to see so many different religions represented in Kazakhstan. It is not uncommon to see a Catholic church and a Muslim mosque lined up across the road from each other, as well as Protestant and Orthodox churches and even synagogues dotted across a city.
Of course, Islam is still the predominate religion but that is not to say that Kazakhs are a particularly devote people (see point 8) and we found the religious tolerance on show to be reassuring after visiting the more traditional and strict countries of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan further south.
Read about the time we stayed with a pastor in Karaganda and visited a Polish Catholic church as well as a mosque
How would you feel about being raised by your grandparents? Or about being tied to your parents until the day they die? Kazakh family life can seem so alien to a Western onlooker!
The first tradition to get your head round is the practice of the oldest son being passed off by the parents to the grandparents as soon as the weaning period is over. The son is then raised by the grandparents like he is their own. The thinking behind this is two fold, one the burden of raising a son is removed from the parents who usual marry extremely young and two, the grandparents would be able to use their wealth of experience to help nurture the child as well as ensuring they themselves will be cared for when they reach a more advanced age.
The second tradition is that the youngest son must always live with the parents, as previously discussed in the observations on Kyrgyzstan, it is a job I am not sure I would be too happy with, but at least it helps to ensure a tight family unit is maintained.
In spite of the familial and religious pressures of living in Kazakhstan we found the Kazakh people to be amongst the most liberal and fun loving of all the Turkic central Asian folk. Kazakh’s simply love to party and any excuse to crack open a bottle of vodka and light up was taken. Almaty is the party capital of Central Asia with enough pubs and clubs to find something for everybody – expect dance floors heaving with those in best dress chic right through to clubs specialising in electronic griminess.
Read about Jon turning thirty in Almaty where we hit some clubs
The latest Kazakh election results are in and shockingly on April 26 2015, Nursultan Nazarbayev was reelected as president of Kazakhstan with 97.7% of the vote. Seems a bit suspicious, right? Well yes, and no. Of course anybody who has been in power for nearly 25 years and still garners nearly all the votes is running a crooked game. He is a dictator without a doubt but within Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev is extremely popular. Why is this?
The reasons for this are numerous. Since independence, the standard of living in Kazakhstan has improved tremendously, fuelled by the abundance of natural resources in the country, and is now classified as middle-income country. Sporting events, such as the Asian winter games have brought the country international recognition and prestige, and Astana, the new and shiny capital has been built. Many Kazakhs are proud of these achievements.
Fearmongering plays its part too. Whipping up fear of Russian encroachment, Islamic extremism and economic crises helps to focus a nation’s mind on stability and familiarity in a fast changing world. Throw in a predisposition of nomadic peoples to a deference to authority, control of the media, fear of the police and a side lining of alternative political parties and you have yourself a pretty efficient one-man state.
Finally, on a lighter note, what exactly is wrong with whistling? While travelling across the oh so boring steppe, I attempted to raise my spirits, and pass the time, with a little joyful whistle. The anger in our driver’s voice was palpable.
‘Just stop it! Now!’
Rather than press the issue I forwent my innocent pleasure. Only to forget myself 30 mins later and break into birdsong once again. He got angry, again, and after pushing him a little further to explain his problem, we finally got out of him that apparently whistling indoors (and this seemingly includes inside a car) brings terrible luck especially with money. Who’d a thunk it?
Have you been to Kyrgyzstan? What were your impressions of this fascinating country? Which part of the article did you find the most surprising?
written by: Jon