The Republic of Kazakhstan is located in Central Asia. The country borders on Russia in the north and in the west, on China in the south-east and on Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in the south. Kazakhstan occupies the very center of Eurasia, and is the ninth largest country in the world.
Kazakhstan is a country of marvelous nature, majestic mountains, glistering glaciers, rocky canyons, deep rivers and crystal-clear lakes, fiery deserts and singing sands and most diverse flora and fauna. The greater part of Kazakhstan’s territory is represented by vast steppes and pastures.
Kazakhstan is the cradle of one of the ancient Eurasian civilizations, the homeland of nomadic people. A large part of the Great Silk Road went through Kazakhstan’s territory. This is a country of boundless steppes, wildlife sanctuaries and health resorts, and introduction to this world full of remnants of ancient civilizations, the unfamiliar culture of bellicose honorable nomads will simply render you speechless!
Kazakhstan offers almost any type of tourism: educational, entertaining, recreational, mountain tourism, ski and other sports tourism, business tours, pilgrimages, ethnic tourism, ecotourism, medical tourism, as well as mountaineering, rafting, hawking etc.
The origins of Kazakh traditions go back to distant past. The culture of nomadic people was forming under the influence of the harsh climate and constant wandering from place to place. Sometimes life and prosperity of a whole tribe could depend on how a steppe traveler was welcomed by people. Kazakh people count their willingness to lay the table (so called ‘dastarkhan’) for a guest among their most important virtues and values. The tradition requires that any guest should be well fed and treated to tea.
From the ancient time, yurt was the traditional dwelling of Kazakhs. It is one of the oldest and the largest inventions of Eurasian nomads, a practical and comfortable housing. Its main advantages were its mobility (it could be carried by a camel or a horse), light weight and simplicity. Yurt also reflects religious beliefs of ancient people. For instance, the shanyrak represents continuity of generations, unity of time and harmony of life. Shanyrak, passed from one generation to the next, represented life of future generations, protection of ancestors and benevolence of celestial bodies.
During a yurt installation, the first thing was to mark the place for the door. Traditionally, the entrance was facing the east. It was important, because it was believed that a blessing was carried by the rays of the sun entering the yurt first thing in the morning.
Decorative and applied art of the Kazakh people
Applied arts have been developing in Kazakhstan since ancient times, and people have been crafting things from glass, clay, wood and leather. Wood, bone and stone carving practices were commonly spread. Ornamental casting and bronze and tin hammering were developing. Kazakh craftsmen created amazing wares and weapons: war axes, battle axes (ay-balta), bows (sadak), quivers (koramsak). Another interesting kind of applied arts was creation of ornamental wickerwork made of cheegrass (straw).
Embroidery was also well-known among the ancient Kazakhs. For that purpose they used colored thread, beads, bugles and pearls, as well as cloth, leather and felt as materials. Ornamental carving was also one of the kinds of decorative and applied art practiced by Kazakhs; it was used to decorate household items, houseware and furniture. Original ornaments were used in decoration of house elements and other architectural structures.
Carpet weaving is a native Kazakh art. Since ancient times and till present day, the inner house walls are often decorated with hand-made traditional carpets called ‘syrmak’. Of these people used to say: ‘The carpet is of modest colors, but the ornaments are precise; looks simple, but it’s hard to craft’. To make such carpet, one has to mow some steppe cheegrass in advance, prepare buck fleece, wash it thoroughly and paint each pile in its own color. The process of syrmak making is rather labor-consuming.
Customs and traditions are an important element of culture of any people. It can be said that they represent the essence defining self-consciousness of people and the pride they take in their traditions, culture and ancestors, thus being the base for a nation’s unity passed from one generation to another.
Jewelry is a peculiar craft requiring professional skills and training. Kazakh applied art in general could be described as domestic crafts, but jewelry crafting was an exception, since in this case a professional industry was in place. Kazakh jewelers were called ‘zergers’ (‘zerzar’ meant ‘gold’ in the Persian language), worked individually and passed their skills to their children. Silver was the most popular crafting material.
Kazakh women favored triangular amulets (tumars), removable trinkets and bracelets (blezyk), various rings and earrings, and ‘shashbau’ – long and intricately weaved chains (often double or triple). On their ends, shashbau had magnificent silk tassels made of lace, or silver pendants. Shashbau were attached to the base of a woman’s braid and ran along the entire length of the braid.
Every zerger had a set of special ‘kalyps’ (forms) for jewelry crafting. The craftsmen used a wide variety of tricks and techniques to create jewelry, among which were shape casting, cold hammering and silver inlaying. Kazakh jewelers were also practicing filigree and granulation (creation of jewelry patterns from tiny metal balls).
Customs and traditions
Customs, ceremonies and celebrations were very important in a nomad’s life. Kazakhs celebrate two annual religious holidays – uraza-ayt and, in 70 days, kurban ayt – just like any other Islamic country. During this time people bring money and other offerings to mosques, holy people and places, go on pilgrimages and have family celebrations.
The holiday of spring and new life – Nauryz – has been playing a special role in Kazakhs’ lives since ancient times. This holiday marks the coming of spring and awakening of nature from its long winter sleep. It was believed that the better was the celebration, the better the coming year would be. That is why Nauryz is celebrated for 7 days and involves abundant feasts, games, honoring traditions and other elements of general celebration.
However, not all of Kazakh customs and traditions are related to celebrations. There also were common, day-to-day rites. For instance, Kazakhs believed in the purifying power of fire, and while striking camp, ancient Kazakhs would lead their livestock in between large bonfires to protect the tribe from evil powers.
Attention should also be paid to traditional games, of which ‘ak suyek’ was the most popular. The game involved searching for a white sheep cannon bone thrown to the steppe. Children’s games were also widespread. The most popular one was called ‘alchik’ or ‘asyk’. An ‘asyk’ is a colored sheep pastern. Asyks were placed in a row, and a player threw a peever asyk to knock other asyks from the circle. It was also necessary for the peever to take a certain position afterwards. The game of asyks helps to train visual estimation and agility. The ancient origins of this game were confirmed by archeological finds throughout the entire Kazakhstan territory.
Hospitality is the main feature of Kazakh culture and customs. Warm welcoming of guests was above all; they were treated to hot aromatic tea or cool kumis and national food. During a visit, the guests were given a special honorary place, the so-called ‘tor’, they were treated to the most delicious morsels of each dish, and they were the first to taste the food. In harsh steppe environment, hospitality traditions meant a lot and contributed to building good relationships between different tribes, as well as mitigated existing conflicts and prevented new disputes. There were also traditions related to welcoming of travelers, such as the interesting ‘konakkade’ or ‘trial by art’. This tradition gave the host the right to ask the guest to sing or to play a musical instrument. This custom was not really a trial, but a way to make the feast exciting and funny.
Konakasy is a tradition also related to welcoming guests. In Kazakh culture, guests are divided into three types: arnayi konak (invited guest), kudayi konak (accidental guest) and kydyrma konak (unexpected guest). Special rituals were to be observed during welcoming of each type of guests, to the extent that in ancient times special ‘penalties’ could be imposed on a host who failed to observe hospitality standards.
Meat is the main component of the most national dishes. Beshbarmak is one of the most well-known and popular Kazakh dishes; it is made of fresh boiled mutton and boiled pieces of rolled dough. Other popular dishes include kuyrdak (roasted pieces of liver, kidneys, lungs, heart etc.), kespe (noodles) and sorpa (meat broth). Local population also favors ‘kazy’ (horsemeat sausage) which may be fairly exotic for foreign tourists.
Apart from meat dishes, there is a great variety of dairy food and drink: kumis (sour mare’s milk), shubat (sour camel milk), ayran (kefir), kaymak (sour cream), suzbe (farmer cheese), kurt (dries salt farmer cheese), irimshik (dried farmer cheese made of sheep’s milk) etc.
The most common type of traditional bread is ‘baursak’, round or square pieces of dough roasted in boiling oil in a pot. It can be easily cooked in field conditions.
The main and most favorite drink is tea. By the way, Kazakhstan is included in the top-10 of world countries in terms of tea consumption. Average Kazakhstan citizen consumes about 1,2 kg of tea annually, and it is one of the highest rates of tea consumption on the planet. By way of contrast, in India it is only 650 grams per citizen. Kazakh tea is very strong and is served with cream.
Traditionally, Kazakh music was performed solo. Another peculiarity is that for a long time Kazakh music had no written language. Due to its mobility and corresponding environment, a nomadic civilization could not develop art genres requiring stationary environment and urban way of life, such as painting (although, there are some rock paintings), monumental architecture and sculpture, theatrical art genres etc. This also was the reason behind the development of oral artistic creation genres. That is why all cultural and spiritual energy of nomadic people was concentrated in music, words and ornaments. Probably none of the other peoples at that stage paid such close attention to musical art as Kazakhs. Kazakhs were great performers and musicians, and their traditions involved passing of experience to younger generations.
The spreading of musical art was facilitated by professional singers (olenshi, enshi) and musicians (kuyshi) who continuously traveled between settlements. The most popular were those performers who could combine the skill of singing and playing musical instruments with lyrical improvisations on various society issues. Storytellers and poets-improvisers delivered the performance of legends, stories and epic tales not only by way of singing and playing, but also by expressive body language and facial expressions.
Production of national musical instruments is one of the most interesting courses in the current craft revival, and nowadays it has got a second wind, as many amateur and professional musical bands and artists tour and spread their music extensively. There is a demand for quality musical instruments among these musicians, and collectors as well.