Kazakhstan - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Kazakhstan: the Bradt Guide

The Mongols to the Timurids

Having united a series of nomadic tribes as the Mongol Confederation, Temujin was acknowledged by a council of Mongol chiefs in 1206 as their leader, and would henceforth be known as Genghis Khan. He set about creating an empire that would become the largest contiguous land empire in the history of the world, vastly larger than those of either Rome or Alexander the Great. Famous for their horse archers, but also skilled in the arts of siege warfare, the Mongol troops were highly disciplined and mobile, wearing relatively little armour. Heading westwards, while still engaged in campaigns in China, Genghis Khan defeated what remained of the Kara-Khitay Dynasty, but appeared to be uncertain about how to deal with the Khorezmshahs, considering them as a possible trading partner. The decision was made for him by the Governor of Otrar’s seizure of a Mongol caravan and subsequent execution of its members, an act that brought on the annihilation of the Khorezmshahs at the hands of the Mongols between 1219 and 1221. The leader of the Khorezmshahs, Mohammed II, eased the Mongols’ task by dividing up his forces between several cities, in part because he feared an internal coup. Mohammed II fled from the disaster befalling his empire: the Mongols eventually tracked him down, reportedly hiding on an island in the Caspian.

Khoja Ahmed Yassaui Mausoleum Turkestan Kazakhstan by YerbolatShadrakhov, Shutterstock
Khoja Ahmed Yassaui Mausoleum was commissioned in 1389 by Timur, ruler of the Timurid Empire © YerbolatShadrakhov, Shutterstock

On Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, an assembly of Mongol chiefs ratified the choice of his third son, Ogedei, as his successor. But the control of the empire was parcelled out between Genghis Khan’s sons. Thus, for example, his youngest son Tolui received the homeland areas of northern Mongolia. His second son Chagatai was allocated lands in present-day southeastern Kazakhstan, stretching southwards to encompass much of central Asia, known as the Chagatai Khanate. The most distant lands, to the west, should have gone to his eldest son, Jochi. But he was already dead, and so these areas, which would become known as the Golden Horde, were further divided between two of Jochi’s sons, Orda and Batu. To Orda, the elder, went the eastern part of this area, running between Lake Balkhash and the Volga. Known as the White Horde, its capital became the town of Syganak, in present-day Kyzylorda Region. To Batu went the lands stretching west of the Ural River, the Blue Horde, with its capital at Sarai on the lower Volga. Batu continued the Mongols’ drive westwards, conquering the Kipchak lands west of the Volga and reaching into central Europe, a drive eventually curtailed by power disputes following Ogedei’s death.

While the Mongols have a rather barbarous reputation in the West, and their destruction of many of the cities of the Khorezmshahs and others who resisted them was certainly brutal, their rule was also marked by tolerance towards other religions (Genghis Khan was a shamanist) and a positive attitude towards overland trade. With one power, the Mongols, controlling the Silk Routes, these flourished during their rule. This was, for example, the period of Marco Polo’s journey to China.

In the west, the lands of the Golden Horde gradually became increasingly Turkic in character. Under Uzbeg Khan in the early 14th century, Islam was adopted as the state religion. It faced a number of setbacks, not least the Black Death, but in 1378 Tokhtamysh, a descendant of Orda and ruler of the White Horde, also managed to secure control of the Blue Horde, briefly re-establishing the Golden Horde as a dominant force, and invading Lithuania and Poland. But Tokhtamysh was defeated by his one-time ally, a Muslim native of present-day Uzbekistan named Timur, who claimed descent from Genghis Khan and is better known in the west as Tamerlane. Becoming the ruler of Samarkand, Timur embarked on an empire-building mission that encompassed the Chagatai Khanate and far beyond, earning a reputation for brutality to equal that of the Mongols of Genghis Khan. Timur is, however, also responsible for Kazakhstan’s most beautiful building, the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassaui in Turkestan. Following his death in 1405, Timurid rule continued under his son Shah Rukh, who ruled from Herat. But within a few years of the latter’s death, the Timurid Empire had crumbled.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Kazakhstan: the Bradt Guide

Steppe and desert

Kazakhstan contains a wide variety of habitats, but of these it is the steppe, the vast belt of dry grassland running across the country, that lies at the heart of the Kazakh identity. These areas, too dry for the cultivation of crops, promoted the nomadic husbandry so central to Kazakh culture. The steppe landscapes, with their scent of wormwood and billowing waves of feather grass, are an enduring memory of a journey across Kazakhstan, even if the passage may at the time seem monotonous.

One of the most distinctive mammals of the steppe is the saiga, an antelope distinguished by its distinctive bulbous nose, a humpy, flexible proboscis somewhat reminiscent of that of the tapir. This complex nose serves several important functions for the saiga, including helping to warm up the icy air in the winter and filtering out the dust of the steppe. The saiga is a nomadic species, moving northwards in spring, and back southwards in the autumn, travelling in large migrating herds. It can cover 100km a day. Unfortunately for the saiga, the horns of the males are much valued in traditional Chinese medicine. With rhino horn becoming increasingly difficult to obtain due to growing international protection for the animal, the demand for saiga horn rose quickly. Poaching caused a catastrophic drop in the numbers of saiga in Kazakhstan, from perhaps two million in 1950 to approximately 260,000 in 2014. An epidemic of pasteurellosis served to wipe out 12,000 of the animals in 2010 and subsequently in 2015 a bacterial infection led to the death of almost 130,000 saigas nationwide. To save the remaining species and to prevent their extinction, the government issued a hunting ban in late 2015 valid until 2020.

Conservation efforts are fighting back. All hunting of saiga is banned in Kazakhstan, though the enforcement of this across the huge territory of the Kazakh steppe is difficult. And a range of international environmental organisations, including the WWF, Frankfurt Zoological Society and Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have joined forces with local partners in the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, which has advocated the establishment of the Irgiz Turgai Nature Reserve to protect wild ungulates like the saiga as well as the rare bird species, including the Dalmatian pelican, found among the lakes of the lower Irgiz and Turgai river basins. You can find out more about efforts to conserve the saiga from the Saiga Conservation Alliance.

Other ungulates of the steppe and semi-desert include the central Asian wild ass, known in Kazakhstan as kulan, an onager that became locally extinct in Kazakhstan in the 1930s. The species was reintroduced from Turkmenistan at the nature reserves of Barsakelmes and later Altyn Emel. The goitered gazelle, known locally as the jieran, takes its name from its enlarged larynx.

Not all of the mammals of the steppe are under threat. Numbers of wolves remain high: indeed it is now believed that Kazakhstan may have up to 90,000 wolves, more even than Canada. The reduction in the saiga population, once a key component of the diet of the wolves of Kazakhstan, has, however, had the knock-on effect of increased attacks by wolves on livestock and, on occasions, children. Not surprisingly, the wolf is therefore seen as a threat in rural communities in Kazakhstan.

Saker falcon Kazakhstan by BildagenturZoonarGmbH, Shutterstock
The saker falcon is a raptor of open grasslands © BildagenturZoonarGmbH, Shutterstock

The lakes of the steppes play an important role for many migratory bird species, from Dalmatian pelicans to demoiselle cranes. Lake Tengiz in Akmola Region plays host to a large colony of flamingos, which arrive from the Caspian in the late spring. With reduction in precipitation and increase in temperatures further south, the steppeland gradually turns to belts of semi-desert and then desert. Kazakhstan’s main deserts include the Betpak Dala, north of the Syr Darya; the Kyzyl Kum (‘Red Sands’), south of the Syr Darya, running into Uzbekistan; and the dry Ust-Urt Plateau, between the Aral Sea and the Caspian. These desert areas vary greatly in character, including deserts of sand, of stone and of salt flats. The wildlife of Kazakhstan’s deserts includes endemic species such as the desert dormouse (Selevinia betpakdalaensis) and greater fat-tailed jerboa (Pygeretmus shitkovi) as well as the large desert monitor lizards, the caracal, a wildcat mostly found in Mangistau Region, and such bird species as the desert lark, houbara bustard, steppe eagle and saker falcon. Among the plants of the desert areas the bushy saxauls, whose deep network of roots helps to bind the sand, have a particularly important place in the lives of the local people, not least as a source of fuel.

Mountain, forest and water

The mountain environments of the Tian Shan and Altai ranges offer further habitats. The wild apple trees of the lower slopes of the Zailysky Alatau are reminders that many researchers consider this area to be the homeland of the apple. Along with apricot, aspen and birch they give way at higher altitudes to species such as the Schrenk spruce. The trees most characteristic of the Altai include birch and cedar. The animals of the mountains include one species that is rare, with a population of between 100 and 200 in Kazakhstan, and seen even more rarely, but that is close to the heart of the Kazakh consciousness. This is the snow leopard, which sports a beautiful whitish-grey coat with numerous blackish rosettes, and a long tail, used for balance in difficult mountain environments. It lives above the treeline in summer, coming down into the forests in winter. Other mammals of the mountain areas include the Tian Shan brown bear, Tian Shan ibex and wolverine. Across a lowland belt in the far north of Kazakhstan stretch pine and birch forests, and there are more forested granite outcrops, ‘islands’ in the steppe, forming the popular resort areas of Borovoye, Karkaraly and Bayanaul. The forests are home to such species as the elk and Eurasian lynx.

Kazakhstan is a popular destination for fishing holidays, with visitors seeking such challenges as the huge carp to be caught in the Ile River delta. The country’s distinctive ichthyofauna includes the uskuch, a variety of Siberian lenok found only in Lake Markakol in East Kazakhstan. But pride of place among Kazakhstan’s fish probably goes to its sturgeon of the Caspian and rivers such as the Ural: from the beluga, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, to the much smaller sterlet. But the prices commanded by the roe of the sturgeon, a dish better known as caviar, have led to its over-exploitation, and the beluga is for example now categorised as an endangered species. Other distinctive fauna of the Caspian includes the Caspian seal, a species known for its prominent spots. Large numbers of seal deaths in the past have been attributed to a virus related to canine distemper, but poaching is also one of the reasons why this marine mammal is now considered threatened. In 2017, there were only around 200,000 Caspian seals left. An intriguing animal of the Ural River basin is the Russian desman, a semi-aquatic mammal related to the mole family, but with webbed hind feet.

People and culture

Multi-ethnic Kazakhstan

A stroll around central Almaty will give you a clear sense of Kazakhstan’s ethnic diversity, as a broad mix of European and Asiatic faces greets you. The most recent census data, from 2011, recorded that ethnic Kazakhs comprised 63.1% of the population, with ethnic Russians comprising 23.7%. Other minority groups are much smaller: Uzbeks were, in 2011, the next most numerous, at 2.9% of the population, followed by Ukrainians (2.1%) and Germans (also 2.1%). There are a large number of other groups with smaller but significant populations, including Koreans, Chechens, Uyghurs, Tatars and Greeks. Kazakhstan is also home to the largest population of Meskhetian Turks. Originating from the mountain region of Meskheti in Georgia, almost all members of this ethnic group, namely 90,000 people, were deported to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in November 1944, because Stalin was concerned about their pro-Turkish views.

But the ethnic composition of the country is changing. The proportion of the population comprising ethnic Kazakhs, for example, stood at around 74% at the turn of the 20th century. By 1989, mainly through the in-migration of settlers and deportees, it had slumped to around 40%. But following the break-up of the Soviet Union, there was a strong out-migration by a number of mainly European groups, perceiving opportunities to be greater in their ethnic homelands. The overall population dropped in the first few years following independence. A large proportion of Kazakhstan’s ethnic German and Greek populations departed, as well as smaller percentages, but considerable numbers, of Russians and Ukrainians. Following the establishment in 2006 by the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, of a programme of assistance for the voluntary resettlement of Russians living abroad, many Russians have opted to leave Kazakhstan. The numbers of Kazakhs, in contrast, increased. Birth rates among the ethnic Kazakh population are higher than those of the Slavonic groups. The latest figures show a fertility rate for ethnic Russians of just under 1.4, compared with 1.9 for Russian-speaking ethnic Kazakhs, and 2.9 for Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs. The in-migration since independence of oralmans, ethnic Kazakhs from outside Kazakhstan, has also contributed to the rise in the ethnic Kazakh population, an in-migration that was officially encouraged through the establishment in 1997 of the National Immigration and Demographics Agency.

Thus today, ethnic Kazakhs form a clear majority and it is expected that by 2020 they will comprise 75% of the population. The percentage of the population from other parts of central Asia, especially Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks, is also rising, with inflows, especially of seasonal and other temporary migrants, related to the better employment opportunities and salaries available in Kazakhstan.

The Kazakhs

The complex genesis of the Kazakhs, as descendants of a mix of Turkic tribes, Mongols and to some extent Indo-Iranian groups such as Sarmatians and Scythians, has resulted in a marked diversity of Kazakh physical features. Common attributes include Mongoloid features, relatively fair skin, high cheekbones and a tendency towards black hair.

Most ethnic Kazakhs are members of one of the three zhuzes (the name literally means ‘hundred’ and is also translated as ‘horde’), broad tribal groupings: the Great Zhuz predominating in the southeast, including Almaty, the Middle Zhuz further north, including Nur-Sultan, and the Junior Zhuz to the west. Within each zhuz are a number of tribes, known as taipa. Each taipa in turn comprises a number of clans, ru. It is important for each Kazakh to know their family tree back for seven generations on the male line. President Nazarbayev once described the knowledge of genealogy for the steppe Kazakh as akin to the compass for the sailor: that which fixes their position. By tradition, marriage between individuals related over seven generations was forbidden. Traditional positions of authority included the bi, a wise man appointed to the role of arbiter by virtue of the respect he held in the community, and the batyr, or warrior. The heroic deeds of many Kazakh batyrs in their fights against their Dzhungar adversaries are commemorated in equestrian statues appearing right across Kazakhstan.

Two groups, considered to represent a steppe nobility, or ‘white bone’ (in contrast to the ‘black bone’ of ordinary Kazakhs), lay outside the system of zhuzes. The Tore, who traditionally bore the title of sultan, traced their lineage back to Genghis Khan himself. The Khoja were descendants of Arabian missionaries who had brought Islam to the area, and carried a spiritual authority. A less exalted group outside the zhuzes was the Tolengit, descendants of Dzhungar captives.

Kazakh culture

While around 40% of the population of Kazakhstan lives in rural areas, this is overwhelmingly in settled, not nomadic, communities, although some pastoralists do still move animals seasonally. Nonetheless, the traditions and artefacts of nomadism lie at the heart of Kazakh culture. The yurt, hunting with eagles, and beshbarmak (traditional nomad dish of finely chopped boiled meat) are invoked frequently in the symbolism of the post-independence state, whether by government sources or advertisements on television. Epic poetry, recounted by akyns (improvising poets and singers) and accompanied by dombra playing, remains popular, and some young Kazakh pop bands are experimenting with the use of traditional Kazakh instruments and musical styles alongside Western ones. Horsemeat remains a revered part of the Kazakh diet, even if the urban elite has also developed a decided fondness for sushi.

Following independence, there has been an attempt by the authorities to further promote Kazakh cultural traditions, though with some awareness of the need to also balance this with the cultures of the other ethnic groups present in Kazakhstan. Traditional horse-based sports are a good example, where at race tracks across the country you may find, especially on public holidays, performances of some of the games dating back to Kazakh nomadism alongside Western-style horse races. One of the most popular is kokpar, whose rules are basically about horsemen grabbing the carcass of a headless goat and scoring a goal with it. The rules of the game have, however, been modernised: there is even a federation governing the sport. Rather than the scrums of old, there is a marked pitch and four players from each side are on the field at any one time. Unlike kokpar, kyz kuu (‘catch the girl’) is regarded more as a piece of fun than serious sport: on the outward leg of this two-horse race, whose participants usually wear traditional Kazakh costumes, boy chases girl, aiming to kiss her if he catches her. On the return journey girl chases boy, her objective being to give him a good thrashing with her horse whip. Another horsebased sport enjoying a revival is alaman baiga, a long-distance horse race, which originated with the need of the nomadic Kazakhs to promote endurance in horses. The jockeys are by tradition small boys.

Hunting with eagles Kazakhstan by Rawpixel.com, Shutterstock
Hunting with eagles is at the heart of nomadic Kazakh culture © Rawpixel.com, Shutterstock

The way in which Kazakh traditions have often been preserved, sometimes revived, but also adapted for changing times (in which they sit alongside practices drawn from other cultures), is seen clearly in contemporary Kazakh weddings. These remain major events, taking place across several days, with a reception given by the family of the bride preceding the wedding proper, whose components include civil registration, possibly a religious ceremony, and a drive around town to the main monuments of the city accompanied by noisy honking of car horns, bottles of sweet Soviet ‘champagne’ or vodka, and the inevitable video camera. A reception hosted by the groom’s family rounds off the proceedings.

A typical wedding of a middle-class urban Kazakh family will include many elements familiar internationally: the bride in a white wedding dress, fireworks, and embarrassing disco dancing from the bride’s father. But it will also incorporate a number of modern takes on Kazakh traditions. One of the most important is betashar, a ceremony of the revealing of the bride’s face to the relatives of the groom, accompanied by gifts from the latter. Shashu, the showering of the wedding couple with sweets and coins for prosperity, is another popular element of the wedding. The elaborate traditional procedures associated with matchmaking have largely died out, yet parents do frequently retain an influence in the choice of spouse, and the payment of a bride price, kalym, although formally abolished in 1920 as part of a wave of Soviet reforms, is still common.

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