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Kazakhstan is by far the largest of the Central Asia's states of the former USSR. It has borders with Russia, China, and the Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. It is the world's ninth biggest country by size, and it is more than twice the size of the other Central Asian states combined. Its lack of significant historical sites and endless featureless steppe have put many off Kazakhstan, while many still are captivated by the emptiness and mystery of this goliath state. It will be many travelers' first port of call on their Central Asian adventure, and there is much for the intrepid traveller to enjoy.
Native Kazakhs, a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who migrated into the region in the 13th century, were rarely united as a single nation. The area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century, and Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic in 1936.
During the launching of the 1950s and 1960s agricultural "Virgin Lands" program, Soviet citizens were encouraged to help cultivate Kazakhstan's northern pastures. This influx of immigrants (mostly Russians, but also some other deported nationalities) skewed the ethnic mixture and enabled non-Kazakhs to outnumber natives. Independence has caused many of these newcomers to emigrate.
Current issues include: Developing a cohesive national identity; expanding the development of the country's vast energy resources and exporting them to world markets (an oil pipeline to China has been built; the gas pipeline is under construction); achieving a sustainable economic growth outside the oil, gas, and mining sectors, and strengthening relations with neighboring states and other foreign powers.
Kazakhstan has been inhabited since the Stone Age: the region's climate and terrain are best suited for nomads practicing pastoralism. Historians believe that humans first domesticated the horse in the region's vast steppes. While ancient cities Taraz (Aulie-Ata) and Hazrat-e Turkestan had long served as important way-stations along the Silk Road connecting East and West, real political consolidation only began with the Mongol invasion of the early thirteenth century AD. Under the Mongol Empire, administrative districts were established, and these eventually came under the emergent Kazakh Khanate.
Throughout this period traditional nomadic life and a livestock-based economy continued to dominate the steppe. In the 15th century, a distinct Kazakh identity began to emerge among the Turkic tribes, a process which was consolidated by the mid-16th century with the appearance of a distinctive Kazakh language, culture, and economy. Nevertheless, the region was the focus of ever-increasing disputes between the native Kazakh emirs and the neighboring Persian-speaking peoples to the south. By the early 17th century, the Kazakh Khanate was struggling with the impact of tribal rivalries, which has effectively divided the population into the Great, Middle and Little (or Small) Hordes (juz). Political disunion, tribal rivalries, and the diminishing importance of overland trade routes between East and West weakened the Kazakh Khanate.
During the 17th century Kazakhs fought Oirats, a federation of western Mongol tribes, among which the Dzungars were particularly aggressive. The beginning of the 18th century marked the zenith of the Kazakh Khanate. During this period the Little Horde participated in the 1723–1730 war against the Dzungars, following their "Great Disaster" invasion of Kazakh territories. Under leadership Abul Khair Khan the Kazakhs won major victories over the Dzungar at the Bulanty River, in 1726, and at the Battle of Anrakay in 1729. Ablai Khan participated in the most significant battles against the Dzungars from the 1720s to the 1750s, for which he was declared a "batyr" ("hero") by the people. Kazakhs were also a victims of constant raids carried out by the Volga Kalmyks.
In the 19th century, the Russian Empire began to expand, and spread into Central Asia. The "Great Game" period is generally regarded as running from approximately 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. The tsars effectively ruled over most of the territory belonging to what is now the Republic of Kazakhstan.
The Russian Empire introduced a system of administration and built military garrisons and barracks in its effort to establish a presence in Central Asia in the so-called "Great Game" between it and the United Kingdom. The first Russian outpost, Orsk, was built in 1735. Russia enforced the Russian language in all schools and governmental organizations. Russian efforts to impose its system aroused the extreme resentment by the Kazakh people, and by the 1860s, most Kazakhs resisted Russia's annexation largely because of the disruption it wrought upon the traditional nomadic lifestyle and livestock-based economy, and the associated hunger which was rapidly wiping out some Kazakh tribes. The Kazakh national movement, which began in the late 1800s, sought to preserve the native language and identity by resisting the attempts of the Russian Empire to assimilate and stifle them.
From the 1890s onwards ever-larger numbers of Slavic settlers began colonising the territory of present-day Kazakhstan, in particular the province of Semirechye. The number of settlers rose still further once the Trans-Aral Railway from Orenburg to Tashkent was completed in 1906, and the movement was overseen and encouraged by a specially created Migration Department (??????????????? ??????????) in St. Petersburg.
The competition for land and water which ensued between the Kazakhs and the newcomers caused great resentment against colonial rule during the final years of Tsarist Russia, with the most serious uprising, the Central Asian Revolt, occurring in 1916. The Kazakhs attacked Russian and Cossack villages, killing indiscriminately. The Russians' revenge was merciless. A military force drove 300,000 Kazakhs to flee into the mountains or to China. When approximately 80,000 of them returned the next year, many of them were slaughtered by Tsarist forces. During the 1921–22 famine, another million Kazakhs died from starvation.
Although there was a brief period of autonomy (Alash Autonomy) during the tumultuous period following the collapse of the Russian Empire, many uprisings were brutally suppressed, and the Kazakhs eventually succumbed to Soviet rule. In 1920, the area of present-day Kazakhstan became an autonomous republic within RSFSR.
Soviet repression of the traditional elite, along with forced collectivization in late 1920s–1930s, brought mass hunger and led to unrest. Between 1926 and 1939, the Kazakh population declined by 22%, due to starvation, violence and mass emigration. Today, the estimates suggest that the population of Kazakhstan would be closer to 20 million if there was no starvation or massacre of Kazakhs. During the 1930s, many renowned Kazakh writers, thinkers, poets, politicians and historians were slaughtered on Stalin's orders, both as part of the repression and as a methodical pattern of suppressing Kazakh identity and culture. Soviet rule took hold, and a communist apparatus steadily worked to fully integrate Kazakhstan into the Soviet system. In 1936 Kazakhstan became a Soviet republic. Kazakhstan experienced population inflows of millions exiled from other parts of the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s; many of the deportation victims were deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan merely due to their ethnic heritage or beliefs, and were in many cases interned in some of the biggest Soviet labor camps. (See also: Population transfer in the Soviet Union, Involuntary settlements in the Soviet Union.) The Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) contributed five national divisions to the Soviet Union's World War II effort. In 1947, two years after the end of the war, the Semipalatinsk Test Site, the USSR's main nuclear weapon test site was founded near the city of Semey.
The period of World War II marked an increase in industrialization and increased mineral extraction in support of the war effort. At the time of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's death, however, Kazakhstan still had an overwhelmingly agricultural-based economy. In 1953, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev initiated the ambitious "Virgin Lands" program to turn the traditional pasture lands of Kazakhstan into a major grain-producing region for the Soviet Union. The Virgin Lands policy brought mixed results. However, along with later modernizations under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, it accelerated the development of the agricultural sector which remains the source of livelihood for a large percentage of Kazakhstan's population. By 1959, Kazakhs made up 30% of the population. Ethnic Russians accounted for 43%.
Growing tensions within Soviet society led to a demand for political and economic reforms, which came to a head in the 1980s. A factor that has contributed to this immensely was Lavrentii Beria's decision to test a nuclear bomb on the territory of Kazakh SSR in Semipalatinsk (also known as Semey) in 1949. This had a catastrophic ecological and biological effect which was felt generations later, and Kazakh anger toward the Soviet system has escalated. In December 1986, mass demonstrations by young ethnic Kazakhs, later called Jeltoksan riot, took place in Almaty to protest the replacement of the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR Dinmukhamed Konayev with Gennady Kolbin from the Russian SFSR. Governmental troops suppressed the unrest, several people were killed and many demonstrators were jailed. In the waning days of Soviet rule, discontent continued to grow and find expression under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost.
Caught up in the groundswell of Soviet republics seeking greater autonomy, Kazakhstan declared its sovereignty as a republic within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in October 1990. Following the August 1991 aborted coup attempt in Moscow and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared independence on December 16, 1991. It was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence.
The years following independence have been marked by significant reforms to the Soviet-style economy and political monopoly on power. Under Nursultan Nazarbayev, who initially came to power in 1989 as the head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and was eventually elected President in 1991, Kazakhstan has made significant progress toward developing a market economy. The country has enjoyed significant economic growth since 2000, partly due to its large oil, gas, and mineral reserves.
Democracy, however, has not gained much ground since 1991. "In June 2007, Kazakhstan's parliament passed a law granting President Nursultan Nazarbayev lifetime powers and privileges, including access to future presidents, immunity from criminal prosecution, and influence over domestic and foreign policy. Critics say he has become a de facto "president for life." Over the course of his ten years in power, Nazarbayev has repeatedly censored the press through arbitrary use of "slander" laws, blocked access to opposition web sites (November 9, 1999), banned the Wahhabi religious sect (September 5, 1998), and refused demands that the governors of Kazakhstan's 14 provinces be elected, rather than appointed by the president (April 7, 2000)."
With an area of 2.7 million square kilometers (1.05 million sq. mi), Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world and the largest landlocked country in the world. It is equivalent to the size of Western Europe. It shares borders of 6,846 kilometers (4,254 mi) with Russia, 2,203 kilometers (1,369 mi) with Uzbekistan, 1,533 kilometers (953 mi) with China, 1,051 kilometers (653 mi) with Kyrgyzstan, and 379 kilometers (235 mi) with Turkmenistan. Major cities include Astana, Almaty, Karagandy, Shymkent, Atyrau and Oskemen. While located primarily in Asia, a small portion of Kazakhstan is also located west of the Urals in Eastern Europe.
The terrain extends west to east from the Caspian Sea to the Altay Mountains and north to south from the plains of Western Siberia to the oases and deserts of Central Asia. The Kazakh Steppe(plain), with an area of around 804,500 square kilometres (310,600 sq. mi), occupies one-third of the country and is the world's largest dry steppe region. The steppe is characterized by large areas of grasslands and sandy regions. Important rivers and lakes include: the Aral Sea, Ili River, Irtysh River, Ishim River, Ural River, Syrdariya, Charyn River and gorge, Lake Balkhash, and Lake Zaysan.
The climate is continental, with warm summers and colder winters. Precipitation varies between arid and semi-arid conditions.
The Charyn Canyon is 150–300 metres deep and 80 kilometres long, cutting through the red sandstone plateau and stretching along the Charyn River gorge in northern Tian Shan ("Heavenly Mountains", 200 km east of Almaty) at 43°21’1.16"N 79°4'49.28"E. The steep canyon slopes, columns and arches rise to heights of 150–300 m. The inaccessibility of the canyon provided a safe haven for a rare ash tree that survived the Ice Age and is now also grown in some other areas. Bigach crater is a Pliocene or Miocene asteroid impact crater, 8 kilometres (5 mi) in diameter and estimated at 5 ± 3 million years old at 48° 30'N 82° 00'E.
Before the Russian colonization, the Kazakhs had a well-articulated culture based on their nomadic pastoral economy. Although Islam was introduced to most of the Kazakhs in the fifteenth century, the religion was not fully assimilated until much later. As a result, it coexisted with earlier elements of Tengriism. Traditional Kazakh belief held that separate spirits inhabited and animated the earth, sky, water and fire, as well as domestic animals. To this day, particularly honored guests in rural settings are treated to a feast of freshly killed lamb. Such guests are sometimes asked to bless the lamb and to ask its spirit for permission to partake of its flesh. Besides lamb, many other traditional foods retain symbolic value in Kazakh culture.
In the national cuisine, livestock meat can be cooked in a variety of ways and is usually served with a wide assortment of traditional bread products. Refreshments often include black tea and traditional milk-derived drinks such as ayran, shubat and kymyz. A traditional Kazakh dinner involves a multitude of appetisers on the table, followed by a soup and one or two main courses such as pilaf and besbarmak.
Because livestock was central to the Kazakhs' traditional lifestyle, most of their nomadic practices and customs relate in some way to livestock. Kazakhs have historically been very affectionate about horse-riding. Traditional curses and blessings invoked disease or fecundity among animals, and good manners required that a person ask first about the health of a man's livestock when greeting him and only afterward inquire about the human aspects of his life. Even today, many Kazakhs express interest in equestrianism and horse-racing.
Kazakhstan is home to a large number of prominent contributors to literature, science and philosophy: Abay Qunanbayuli, Al-Farabi, Mukhtar Auezov, Gabit Musrepov, Kanysh Satpayev, Mukhtar Shahanov, Saken Seifullin, Zhambyl Zhabaev, among many others.
Kazakhstan has developed itself as a formidable sports-force on the world arena in the following fields: boxing, chess, kickboxing, skiing, gymnastics, water-polo, cycling, martial arts, heavy-athletics, horse-riding, tri-athlon, track-hurdles, sambo, greco-roman wrestling and billiards. The following are all well-known Kazakhstani athletes and world-championship medalists: Bekzat Sattarkhanov, Vassiliy Jirov, Alexander Vinokourov, Bulat Zhumadilov, Mukhtarkhan Dildabekov, Olga Shishigina, Andrey Kashechkin, Aliya Yussupova, Dmitriy Karpov, Darmen Sadvakasov, Yeldos Ikhsangaliyev, Aidar Kabimollayev, Yermakhan Ibraimov, Vladimir Smirnov, among others.
Kazakhstan features a lively music culture, evident in massive popularity of SuperStar KZ, a local offspring of Simon Fuller's Pop Idol. Almaty is considered to be the musical capital of the Central Asia, recently enjoying concerts by well-known artists such as Deep Purple, Tokyo Hotel, Atomic Kitten, Dima Bilan, Loon, Craig David, The Black Eyed Peas, Eros Ramazzotti, Jose Carreras, Ace of Base, among others.
During the recent years, Kazakhstan has experienced somewhat of a revival of the Kazakh language, which is returning into mainstream usage both in media, law and business, as well as the general society. This is widely approved by Kazakh people and the international organisations as a way of preserving the national identity and culture, but has in some cases caused anxiety among Russian-Kazakhstanis, Russia-sponsored special-interest groups in Kazakhstan and some high-ranking politicians in Russia.
The Parliament is considering the introduction of Latin-based Kazakh alphabet to replace Cyrillic-based. The reasons that are popularly cited are cultural considerations and the Turkic nature of the Kazakh language. Turkic languages such as Turkish and Uzbek use the Latin alphabet. However, the imposition of the Latin alphabet in Kazakhstan would involve massive costs of translation and replacement of the vast Kazakh literature.
You can travel within country using taxis, buses, trains and planes, it depends on your budget and demands. Renting a car is rather costly compared to other means of transport.
In Semipalatinsk (Semey) a minivan cost 30 tenge, and a large bus cost 15 tenge, common taxi fare was 150 tenge (at the time, December of 2008, USD1 was approximately 120 tenge).
By public buses
Public transportation in big cities is rather popular. You can use buses, trolleys, trams and minibuses. One big minus of all of them is that they never come on schedule and very crowded on peak time. Moreover, there is absolutely no plan with bus stops and schedule whatsoever. If you don't speak russian, taking the bus will be quite tricky but not impossible.
Use taxis as they are very cheap (1-4 euros within city). You don't have to use official taxis, basically you can stop almost any car on the street by raising your hand. Official taxis cost 3-5 times more.
A note of warning, getting to the Almaty airport can be expensive, a taxi to the Airport can cost USD50. Taxis to the airport vary greatly in price. Any foreigner will be quoted a fantastic rate but usually cabs will come down once they see they aren't going to be able to get that much. USD50 is outlandish. Do not accept the first price as it will result in your being overcharged. It should be less than USD10, although it can never be guaranteed that a foreigner will get that price. A better option are the minibuses and buses that go to the airport. The word "airport" is very similar in Russian and English.
A common way to get around is by unofficial taxis. Any time of day, just wave your hand and someone will stop. Locals do this all the time. Negotiate the price and destination before you agree to go. About $2-$4 is fair for a ride within the center of Almaty. If your russian is poor or nonexistent, you will be charged a lot more than locals; to avoid this, try to use public buses as much as you can and don't hesitate to tell the driver how much you are ready to pay (do this before he tells you how much he wants!). To be safe though, do not get in a car if more than one person is driving. Also, do not take these kind of taxis for long distances or anywhere that goes through remote areas, as there are frequent robberies- especially of foreigners.
Train is the most popular way of covering the huge distances between Kazakhstan's main cities. Main train stations are located in Astana, Karaganda and Almaty, but they can be found almost in every big city.
You will have to buy a ticket in advance (sometimes even one day before departure) and a seat/bed number will be given to you. Ticket offices can be found in other locations than the really busy (and extremely slow, I mean it!) ticket offices found in the train stations. Also don't forget that you will need your passport to buy a train ticket.
Most long distances trains leave in the evening and provide beds with clean sheets for the journey ahead.
By long distance buses
They are a popular alternatives to trains and are faster but less comfortable than them. As for trains, you will need to buy your ticket in advance and will be given a seat number. Be careful when the bus makes a bathroom stop, the driver don't check if all passengers are on board before resuming driving!
Air Astana provides offices in a few major hotels in big cities; it's the fastest way of travelling within the city for those who can afford it. Planes are brand new and match european standards in quality.
A fun and cheap way to get around is by taking a marshrutka. These are the dilapidated vans that cruise around town. They usually have a sign (in Russian) listing the destination, and the driver will usually call out where they are going.
The Kazakh language is very difficult to understand and to pronounce, though it is notably easier than some other regional languages like Kyrgyz. Actually, travellers proficient in Turkish might be able to get by.
If you speak and/or understand the Russian language, then you should be fine. But still Russian is considered to be tougher to learn (grammatically speaking). At the very least, become familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet (it's easy) and learn a few phrases.
Note that despite the president's campaign to stamp out the Russian language, Almaty and much of the north are still predominantly Russian speaking.
Many people under age 20 will know some English. Most customs officials and airport people know English.
It is difficult to get around the country without some Russian or Kazakh language skills. Within the city it is easier. Have your place of residence written on a card and get a cab if you get lost (you might be somewhat overcharged by the cab, but it is better than being lost).
Even for people who are not big shoppers, the beautifully crafted felt items will appeal. They are also easy to carry, and inexpensive to post.
Meat, potatoes, rice and pasta. And lots of it. If you're vegetarian be wary, because if it doesn't have meat in it, it was almost certainly cooked on meat stock.
Some recommend dishes:
Laghman - a thick noodle dish, usually served as a soup
Manty - large steamed dumplings full of meat and onions
Plov - wonderful dish of fried rice, meat, carrots, and sometimes other bits such as raisins or tomatoes
Besh parmak - wide, flat noodles, with boiled mutton on top - the traditional meal of Kazakhs
Shashlyk - skewered, roasted chunks of meat, served with some sort of flatbread (usually lavash) and onions
If you're a vegetarian, you're probably thinking there's nothing for you in Kazakstan. And you're right - so long as you eat out. But if you're cooking your own food, you'll be more than satisfied. Kazakstan has some excellent produce available at little markets everywhere. For a treat in Almaty, try Govinda's, a delicious vegetarian Hare Krishna restaurant. Malls have food courts with some vegetarian options too. Even some small Kazakh eateries will prepare vegetarian meals for you if you make it very clear to them (e.g. "byez myasa" (without meat), "ya vegeterianetz" (I [male] am a vegetarian), "ya vegetarianka" (I [female] am a vegetarian) in Russian). At some places (e.g. smak) you can even find vegetarian manty made with pumpkin.
The legacy of Korean resettlement in Kazakhstan means that Korean dishes, particularly salads, are very common. At the country's many bazaars (independent food and goods markets), look for the Korean ladies selling these. They will wrap you up any number of delicious, often spicy and garlicky salads to take away in plastic bags. If you are vegetarian, this may be the only decent thing you get to eat while you're in the country.
On the other hand, in Kazakhstan you can find any dishes you want, but Chinese and Japanese dishes are very expensive. The most delicious is caviar, which is very cheap, you can buy 1 kilo of caviar for less than USD300 in Almaty Zyeloniy Bazaar, but you can't export or take it with you home, you will be stopped at airport and pay high fines...
Eating out is relatively cheap, you basically order the meat dish and then add rice, potatoes, etc. Each element is priced individually, so you can order for instance only meat or only rice. Prices are relatively cheap, count 300T for chicken and up to 600T for beef. Of course, the fancier the restaurant, the higher the price. If you don't speak russian, things are relatively hard as the majority of restaurants don't have english menus (with the exception of some hype places in Alamty).
If you plan on eating dog meat, you better go to a Korean restaurant. But this kind of meat is not allowed in Kazakhstan, so you will have to do some research before finding a restaurant serving you dog meat.
You can find any sort of drink you want, some of the traditional beverages include:
Kumiss - fermented mare's milk.
Kumyran (Shubat)- fermented camel's milk
Kvas - described as similar to root beer it can be bought in a bottle in a store, or by the cup from people with giant yellowish tanks of it on the street
Cheap alcoholic drinks can be found at every little corner shop (called the astanovka). These places are open 24/7, just knock on their door if the shopkeeper is asleep. Kazakhstan's specialty is cognac, though stores still sell vodka cheaper than bottled water at times. However, some of these astanovka sometimes sell alcohol of dubious origin; for the sake of your stomach you may want to buy your beverage in a supermarket, although the price will definitely be higher.
The juices, in cartons, are delicious, especially peach juice.
The general rules of safety in Kazakhstan are the same as in any other civilized country of the world. Besides the normal risk of pick-pockets etc, the main risk is meeting a group of corrupt police. Try to avoid being taken to the police station. But in general this is a very friendly country where foreigners are respected as the hospitality is one of the Kazakh main traditions.
Fire brigade: dial 01 (land line phones), dial 101 from any mobile
Police: dial 02 (land line phones), dial 102 from any mobile
Ambulance: dial 03 (land line phones), dial 103 from any mobile
Currency Tenge (KZT)
Area 2,717,300 km2
Language Kazakh 64.4%, Russian 95%
Religion Muslim 47%, Russian Orthodox 44%, Protestant 2%, other 7%
Hotels in Kazakhstan
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Hotels in Almaty
Hotels in Shymkent
Hotels in Atyrau
Hotels in Kyzylorda
Hotels in Taraz