What you need to know about Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan, the country of steppes, for many people in the world still remains «terra incognita», an unknown land. We, the people of Kazakhstan, are living in the center of Eurasia, very distant place, which is even today in the 21st century still is inaccessible. People who come here for the first time are asking themselves: "What is this country - Kazakhstan? Could I go there?" And this is understandable. Fortunately people who live here are not similar (on one hand) to those, who come as the guests. I have written this short article for those guests who could ask what they can expect in our country. How safe is this country for the tourists?
Probably it is a well known fact in the world that Kazakhs are very hospitable people. It is in their blood. This is their national tradition. Kazakhs say that every guest in the steppe is a guest of God. If you accept the guests badly it means you anger the Lord. Moreover Kazakhs believe in patron saint Kydyr (Hizr) Ata. If you meet him, you will have happiness for all your life. Kazakhs even believe that this saint came to you in a dream brings luck. But the saint comes in various images of a child, old person or beggar. Nobody knows when and in what image you will meet the saint. Therefore people welcome guests as if they accept very dear people, hoping that any meeting with the guests could bring a long-awaited happiness. Today also we respect the laws of hospitality.
So, when the guests are coming, especially from afar, people in Kazakhstan accept them very warmly. If you are invited do not refuse you can offend people. When Kazakhs wait the guests in their houses whole family is preparing. When they set the table, they put the most delicious food. They do not save money for food, it is moveton. People put on the most beautiful and expensive clothes to look nice. In old times, when Kazakhs lived in the steppe any traveler could stay in their house and ask for rest and bed. It was great sin to refuse. Any home owner accepted the guests with pleasure. First hospitable owner should without many words feed and water the guest to provide the necessary rest and only then could ask him who he was and where he kept his way. Only after these procedures the owner of the house could devote himself with all his heart to endless and delightful conversations and stories with traveler. Kazakhs have been always good storytellers and not bad listeners. Kazakh people have always had beautiful and fascinating tales. I think many folk tales appeared from such conversations and talks with the guests. Read Kazakh fairy tales and you will understand soul of Kazakh people.
A special theme is Kazakh celebrations. Kazakhs call it in Kazakh language "Toiy," i.e. banquet or wedding. The word is ancient and has also other meaning "to get enough”, “to eat a lot”, “to be filled.” For example, Kazakhs after good lunch are saying in Kazakh: “I am full”, i.e. "I am well fed." By the way English word "Toy" (plaything) has very similar sound and meaning as Kazakh word “Toiy” (wedding). Do you feel what connections are formed?
In old times the Toiys (festivals) in Kazakh steppe differed from today. Rich people organized big Toyis, which divided into two parts: festivities and merry-making themselves. Thousands of people were invited, the guests came from afar. Kazakh epic has even stable expression "thirty days to spend merrymaking, forty days to hold a feast". That old good times Kazakhs thirty days spent in games and entertainments including horse racing, archery, wrestling and other folk games. Any person, any common person could participate. The festivities themselves lasted forty days. Nowadays Kazakhs love holidays, love to celebrate any events. Sometimes tourists who come to our country think that people of this country only celebrate and spend the holidays.
In general today Kazakhstan is quite safe country. Fortunately big wars and conflicts for last many years passed by this country. On other hand Kazakh people most of its history spent in endless wars and conflicts. People here know what is grief and trouble. Local people as any people of East are very patient; therefore they prefer to resolve disputes by peaceful means. Hard life in the steppe has taught our people to appreciate peace and quiet. Of course in modern times because of urbanization and globalization people are losing their roots and traditions. Everything becomes the same. National traits and characters which distinguish people are erased. Unfortunately life around the world becomes gray and monotonous. But here in this steppe life in this regard has not yet changed much. I think this is very good.
Our country is great in terms of areas and distances. It is in fact the 9th largest country in the world. We got a huge country from our ancestors. But the population in terms of quantity, it is fact of the history, is small relatively to the territory. Population of Kazakhstan according to official figures is only about 17 million. It's a small, if we compare this figure with the size of the country. Approximately half of population is living already in the cities. Still a lot of people live in rural areas or in small towns. Life here, for various reasons, is not so easy. Today life in the village and small provincial town is far from comfort and benefits of so-called civilization. In contrast to life in the big cities and major centers. Today, therefore, people welcome the guests in different ways. I think, people are more cordial, hospitable in the villages and small towns. Lifestyle here is not so crazy and fast as in the large cities. People here are still closer to mother Nature. So if you want to know real Kazakh hospitality you need to go to Kazakh hinterland. However in the big cities there are small islands where people are respecting the laws of hospitality.
What surprises may expect the foreigners when arriving to our country? In general our people are quite open and go well on contact. Therefore the tourists must be ready for such direct and open contact. Famous Kazakh hospitality is really surprise for those who come for the first time. It is unusual, especially for people from Western countries, where individualism is a priority. Sometimes such hospitality can be very burdensome. It needs time to get it. It needs to understand and accept, because hospitality is our heritage.
What do Kazakhs eat?
You should also be ready for that fact that the locals eat a lot of meat of domestic animals, especially horse meat. For some guests it looks shocking. But it is understandable, because it is a national tradition, which we got from our ancestors. In those ancient times our ancestors mainly lived in the nature, led a nomadic lifestyle. Very small number of people lived in the cities. People had very active lifestyle, which required a special food mode. The word "Kazakh", by the way, in the middle ages meant “free”, “free man”. Or “vagabond” depending on attitude to this free lifestyle. In order to survive in such harsh natural conditions it was necessary to obtain a lot of vital energy in large quantities. For this they should eat meat, which is main source of protein. Today when people no longer lead nomadic way of life and live and work more in comfortable conditions, they still are of eating a lot of meat. They are moving less but consumption of meat remained on previous level and even increased. And now it turns into a real health problem. I see only one way out of this problem. Modern man must return to his only proper way of life, to the life in the nature. Mankind should live in harmony and happiness with mother Nature. But this is a topic for another conversation.
Distances and time in Kazakhstan
Another surprise for the guests can be factor of enormous spaces and distances. As stated above, Kazakhstan is a country of vast territories. Therefore local people think in different categories in terms of distances. For local resident, for example, distance between cities of 300 - 500 km is a very small distance, which is easily taken for a trip to visit friends or relatives. While for a European or Asian citizen this distance is a very serious obstacle (to visit friends).
In old days, when our ancestors in the steppe did not use high-speed trains and planes and used horses, they did not measure the distances in kilometers or miles. Way was measured by number of days, nights on the road. For example, a distance of 100 km can be described as a way of two days and one night. By the way, in Kazakh language a word “day” as a measure of time also means “sun”. For example, in Kazakh language one day also means one sun. Or, for example, Kazakhs a distance of about one kilometer called "shakyrym", which means “Shout”. This meant the optimal distance between people who could hear shout of each other. Here is a natural arithmetic. There is also an amazing attitude of the locals to the time factor. The concept of time is very different from the understanding of time of foreign visitors. Therefore, punctuality and time accuracy is not our strongest feature. But this is not because we are ignorant and sloppy. This is because we still see the world with different eyes.
This issue always makes me slightly annoyed when I have to work with foreign guests. In the West people are very crazy of planning for a long time ahead and trying to provide for every small thing. But when they come here all the plans, graphics and tables fly into the abyss. Here in the Steppe, we can’t do such. Well, at least, ordinary people do not live like that. Of course, there is some planning for the very near future. But for half a year or a year ahead, and even in small things, very few plan. I mean some simple household and family issues. Probably most of these planners live in the cities and work in state and business organizations, where hard planning is part of their work and lifestyle. Our people, of course, plan, but they always understand that this is just plans that can change any time. Life in the Steppe has always been very unstable, especially with a nomadic way of life. Kazakhs even have such a special expression: Zhalgan Duniye, Zhalgan Omir. It means “a changing world”, “an elusive life”.
Today, Kazakhs no longer nomadize, but we still have an unstable and difficult life. In the old days people's lives were very busy: roaming, life in motion, wars, conflicts, hunger, various joyful and not very events. And today, unlike the more stable and calm (relatively) life of people in the West, our life is still far from quiet. The life of ordinary people in Kazakhstan is very much saturated with various events. Everything changes very quickly, every day brings something new, sometimes very unexpected. People of my generation and elders have even managed to live in different state formations in different social and political systems. They were born and lived in the USSR, but now we live in the Republic of Kazakhstan. What will happen next, only Allah knows. What can we do, this is our life. Therefore, to plan ahead long and even in small things it is very difficult. People before and today simply can’t think for a long. Everything changes very quickly and often does not depend, unfortunately, on us. "If you want to make God laugh, share your plans with him" - so our ancestors said, and, in my opinion, they were right.
So now, we always prefer to say when are drawing up plans (which then change quickly): "Kudai kalasa (if God wishes)”, understanding and taking into account that it can still change many times. We live here, as if we live on a volcano. People prefer not to predict ahead, but to live for today. And enjoy it. And this is very obvious to people who come to us from another world. Well, and accordingly our people are perplexed when they meet such things with foreign guests.Kazakhs have a special attitude to Time. Here, you can see the difference in world views, way of thinking, difference in worlds and way of life between the West and the East. And Kazakhs, even in comparison with the East, are very far from the classical East. Here, it is not Europe, here the boundless and endless Steppe and its original genre. Therefore, let such our uncomplicated lifestyle and attitude towards time do not shock foreign guests. This is normal for us, this is our life. And this is the most interesting thing, why our guests come to us.
Weather in Kazakhstan
The country and distances are so big, that the difference in temperature and weather conditions also can be very significant in different regions. For example, temperature in winter in Northern Kazakhstan reaches 30 degrees by Celsius of cold, while in South Kazakhstan temperature in winter could be 10 degrees by Celsius of warm. Or vice versa temperature on South Kazakhstan could be 45 degrees by Celsius of hot, while in North Kazakhstan temperature reaches only 20 degrees of warm. And seasons come in different regions not in one time. For example, spring comes to South Kazakhstan at the beginning of March, but in North Kazakhstan spring comes only at the end of April or even in May. Our nomadic ancestors used this difference in seasons and time. Migration of nomads with livestock was mainly in direction from south to north following warm weather and green grass. Nowadays we migrate only between the cities following a job.
The cities of Kazakhstan
Having small population the country has not so many large cities. Actually, you can account really large cities on the fingers of one hand: Almaty, Astana, Karaganda, Shymkent, Aktobe, Ust-Kamenogorsk. All above cities are located in different regions. Almaty and Shymkent are on the South, Astana and Karaganda are in the Centre, Ust-Kamenogorsk is in East, Aktobe is on the West. In general life in the big cities is the same. Life here is concentrated around production, trade, excavation of natural resources and other economic factors. People as everywhere are working a lot or looking for a job, bear and raise children, have a rest.
If we talk about details, of course, each city is interesting in its own way and people are different. If you travel around these cities you can notice that characters are also different as well as facial features. But for this you need to look very carefully. And, of course, nature in each region is beautiful and special in its own way. Uniqueness of Kazakhstan nature lies in the fact that all climatic and geographic zones present here. Kazakhstan is the country of steppes, mountains, deserts, forests, inner seas, lakes and rivers.
It is really paradox. Despite the hospitality of ordinary people we do not have modern tourist infrastructure in the country. There is no developed tourist industry, when you pay money to get the services. Somewhere on subconscious level Kazakhs despite the pressure of modern civilization do not understand why they need to ask money when they accept the guests. Therefore this fact should also be taken into account. There are modern luxury hotels, modern means of communication, transport, restaurants. But at the same time there are problems with the roads, protection of historical and natural sites. But this is not first priority. Main thing is ordinary people who are always ready to help and warmly welcome the guests.
As for the rest, it is the same as elsewhere in the world. The guests who are coming to our country just need to observe basic safety rules and respect local culture and traditions. In some complicated situations the tourists can ask help from ordinary people, they always are ready to support.