Although Kazakhs form the majority of Kazakhstan’s population, this is a multiethnic country, made so by the sheer diversity of peoples deported to Kazakhstan under Stalin from every corner of the Soviet Union, from Greeks and Koreans to Chechens and Jews. Interethnic harmony generally reigns, and the government encourages everyone to think of themselves as Kazakhstanis as well as ethnic Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians etc. Of the 17 million population, 65.5% are Kazakhs – a big upswing since Soviet times. Since independence in 1991, over three million Russians, Germans and Ukrainians have left Kazakhstan and over 800,000 oralman (ethnic Kazakhs repatriating from other countries) have arrived. Other ethnic groups are Russians (21.5%), Uzbeks (3%), Ukrainians (1.8%), Germans, Tatars and Uyghurs (1% to 1.4% each), and more than 100 others. Southern areas of Kazakhstan today are about 90% Kazakh, while in some northern towns the majority population is ethnic Russian.
Kazakh culture, rooted in oral tradition, survives most strongly in the countryside, although urban Kazakhs are also showing a growing interest in their roots. City-dwellers often still decorate their homes with colourful, yurt-style carpets and tapestries.
Family, respect for elders and traditions of hospitality remain very important to Kazakhs. Ancestry determines a person’s zhuz (horde) and clan. The best ancestor of all is Chinggis Khan, and right up to the 20th century the Kazakh nobility consisted of those who could trace their lineage back to him.
Kazakh tradition is most on display during the spring festival Nauryz (Navrus; 22 March), when families gather, don traditional dress, eat special food, and enjoy traditional music and games rooted in their equestrian traditions, such as kokpar (local traditional polo played with a goat carcass) and kyz kuu (a boy–girl horse chase: if he wins he gets to kiss her, if she wins she beats him with her riding whip). Falconry (hunting with birds of prey) is another still-beloved Kazakh tradition. Also lingering from the past is the practice of bride stealing (with or without the bride’s consent), which can still happen in some rural areas and the more Kazakh-dominated towns in the south.
Islam, Kazakhs' predominant faith, is at its strongest in the deep south and has a strong Sufic strain. Pilgrimages to the mausoleum of Kozha Akhmed Yasaui at Turkestan and the desert shrine of Beket-Ata, east of Aktau, are important ways for Kazakh Muslims to affirm their faith. The younger generation tends to be more religious than their Soviet-born parents, and some – to the concern of the general population – are turning to the more severe form of Sunni Islam, exported by Saudi Arabia, that funds some of Kazakhstan's mosques. Christianity (mainly Russian Orthodox) claims about a quarter of the population. The government stresses Kazakhstan’s tradition of religious tolerance.
The seeds of Kazakhstan’s feisty film industry were sown when Stalin relocated the main Soviet film studios to Almaty during WWII. The biggest recent productions have been two lavish historical epics aimed at fostering national pride: Nomad (2005) and Oscar-nominated Mongol (2007). Young Kazakhstani directors are also making thought-provoking movies tackling more sensitive realities. The best include Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan (2008), about a young man returning from the Russian navy to a shepherd’s life in the Betpak-Dala; Song from the Southern Seas (2008), directed by Marat Sarulu, focused on contemporary Kazakh-Russian interethnic relations; and the Oscar-shortlisted Kelin (2009) by Ermek Tursunov, a silent movie whose erotic scenes upset some in Kazakhstan.
The highest-grossing Kazakh film ever (US$1 million) was Akhan Sataev’s The Racketeer (2007), about a young man drawn into the post-Soviet gangster world in Almaty. Sadly, many other Kazakh-made films, despite garnering awards at international festivals, are largely ignored by their home audiences, who much prefer Hollywood productions. Globally better known than anyone working in Kazakhstan is Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in Atyrau in 1961 but has made his film career in Moscow and Hollywood, directing international successes Night Watch, Wanted and 9. Harmony Lessons (2013) explores the teenage psyche and relationships and won an award for an outstanding artistic contribution.
The annual Eurasia Film Festival, held in Nur-Sultan, showcases recent films from throughout Central Asia.
Music & Literature
Kazakh traditional music is popular, but you are more likely to hear it at organised concerts; buses and minibuses tend to play contemporary pop instead. The music is largely folk tunes: short on pounding excitement, it captures the soulful rhythms of nomadic life on the steppe. The national instrument is the dombra, a small two-stringed lute with an oval box shape. Other instruments include the kobyz (a two-stringed fiddle), whose sound is said to have brought Chinggis Khan to tears, and the sybyzgy (two flutes strapped together like abbreviated pan pipes). Keep an eye open for shows by the colourfully garbed Sazgen Sazy and Otrar Sazy folk orchestras. Roksonaki and Ulytau are groups that provide an interesting crossover between indigenous sounds and imported rhythms like rock, pop and jazz.
The most skilled singers or bards are called akyns, and undoubtedly the most important form of Kazakh traditional art is the aitys, a duel between two dombra players who challenge each other in poetic lyrics. You might catch one of these live during Nauryz (Navrus) or other holidays.
Kazakhstan has a rich literary heritage, with folk stories, heroic legends, long narrative poems and love ballads handed down orally and traditionally performed by jyrau (lyric poets).
Art & Crafts
In pre-Soviet times the Kazakhs developed high skills in the crafts associated with nomadic life: brightly woven carpets, wall hangings and ornate wooden chests for yurts, chunky jewellery, elaborate horse tackle and weaponry, and splendid costumes for special occasions. You can admire these in almost any museum in Kazakhstan. Sadly, unlike its neighbours, Kazakhstan now makes very little in terms of crafts – much of what you see is mass-produced in China.
Except for mountain chains along its southeastern and eastern borders, Kazakhstan is pretty flat. At 2.7 million sq km, it’s about the size of Western Europe. Southeast Kazakhstan lies along the northern edge of the Tian Shan, where Mt Khan Tengri (7010m) pegs the China–Kazakhstan–Kyrgyzstan border. In the northeast, some peaks in the Altay top 4000m.
The north of the country is mostly treeless steppe, with much of its original grassland now turned over to wheat or other agriculture. A surprising number of lakes and scattered ranges of hills break up the steppe. Further south and west it is increasingly arid, becoming desert or semidesert.
The most important rivers are the Syr-Darya, flowing across the south of Kazakhstan to the Aral Sea; the Ili, flowing out of China into Lake Balkhash; and the Irtysh, which flows across northeast Kazakhstan into Siberia. Lake Balkhash in the central east is now (following the demise of the Aral Sea) the largest lake in Central Asia (17,000 sq km), though nowhere more than 26m deep.
Kazakhstan’s mountains are rich in wildlife, including bears, lynx, argali sheep, ibexes, wolves, wild boar, deer and the elusive snow leopard, of which an estimated 200 roam mountainous border areas from the Altay to Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve. Two types of antelope – the saiga and the goitred gazelle (zheyran) – roam the steppe in much smaller numbers than they used to. The saiga's numbers fell from over a million in the early 1990s to about 40,000 by 2002, largely due to uncontrolled hunting for meat and horn after the Soviet collapse. It's staged a bit of a comeback with the help of a combined government-NGO program to conserve steppe habitats in central Kazakhstan and in the Uralsk region, but in 2015 the conservation efforts suffered a blow due to a disease that felled thousands of saiga. As of 2017, the population hovers around 108,000. In Altyn-Emel National Park, Przewalski’s horses, extinct in Kazakhstan since 1940, have been reintroduced from zoos in Europe. For some encouraging wildlife conservation news check out the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (http://acbk.kz).
The golden eagle on Kazakhstan’s flag is a good omen for ornithologists. Hundreds of bird species are to be seen, from the paradise flycatchers of Aksu-Zhabagyly and the flamingos and sociable lapwings of Korgalzhyn to the relict gulls of Lake Alakol.
Kazakhstan is still grappling with the fearful legacy of Soviet exploitation and mismanagement. The Aral Sea catastrophe is well known, and the country also continues to suffer from the fallout, literal and metaphorical, of Soviet nuclear tests, conducted mainly near Semey. Industrial air pollution continues at high rates in most of the Soviet industrial centres, including Ust-Kamenogorsk, Karaganda, Ekibastuz and Kostanay.
The development of Kazakhstan's oil reserves in and near the Caspian Sea is adding to concerns for the world's largest lake. Nearly 1500 oil wells lie within reach of Caspian storm-surge floods, and there have already been leaks from wells submerged by the sea's 3m rise since the 1970s (the Caspian's level oscillates periodically, as a result, it's thought, of climatic factors). The pumping of the giant offshore Kashagan field is now well under way, and environmentalists fear that it could put paid to the last natural breeding ground of the beluga (white) sturgeon, source of the world's best caviar, and threaten the breeding grounds of the endangered Caspian seal, one of the world's smallest seals.