AS THE KAZAKH SPIRIT RISES UP LIKE A TENT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STEPPES, ASTANA IS FILLED WITH SOARING BUILDINGS THAT AT THE SAME TIME EMPHASIZE THE TRADITIONAL ELEMENTS OF THE STEPPES.

"We are Kazakhs — the residents of the steppe. We have neither rare nor expensive items and goods. Our main wealth consists of a herd of horses. Their meat and skin become our best meals and clothing, and their fermented milk is our favorite drink. In our land, there are no gardens or buildings. The grassland is our entertainment and we visit it to admire the spectacle of the grazing herds of our stallions." So spoke Qasim Khan, a powerful ruler of 15th-century Kazakh Khanate, as recorded in the Tarikh-i Rashidi chronicles by M. M. Haidar Dulat, the prominent historian of that time. 

The same annals describe the Turkic nomad tribes of the Desht-i Qipchaq Central Asian territories as Kazakhs (the freemen). Under the rule of Qasim Khan, they became masters of the entire region that spread from the Tian Shan Mountains in the south to the Aral Sea in the north.

Kazakhstan, where 130 different ethnic communities live together in harmony under one flag, used to be the meeting point for different tribes centuries ago. The history of such varied influences can be traced in many Kazakh cities, where the streets and the architecture are steeped in the spirit of the past. 

One such historical treasure exists in the southern city of Turkistan. Here, a curious traveler will find a soaring mausoleum dedicated to the life of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, the 12th-century Sufi mystic widely revered in Central Asia and the Turkic-speaking world for spreading Sufism throughout this land. Born in the modern day suburbs of Shymkent, Khoja Ahmed Yasawi spent most of his life in Turkistan — then called Yasi — which had become an important site in the region because of its prominent resident. The Khoja Ahmed Yasawi Mauseoleum has never been finished, but its imposing rectangular gate and bright blue dome - the largest in Central Asia - are awe-inspiring nonetheless. 

Another important figure born in these lands is Al-Farabi. Though his birthplace has been a matter of discussion, recent studies show that he is from Farab (Otrar) near the city of Turkistan. Known for his commentary on Aristotle's writings in logic, Al-Farabi is therefore known as The Second Teacher, the first being Aristotle. His work titled The Virtuous City is a rare example of how a virtuous city and state can be achieved. Reflecting on how to create a happy and peaceful society and work in this book, Al-Farabi was born in Kazakhstan, a country which voluntarily and without any expectation for an exchange gave up its nuclear weapons though it’s surrounded by powerful neighbors.

The Equestrian Culture on Kazakh Steppes

The centuries of nomadic life have instilled in the Kazakhs deep respect for their land, the steppe, and their faithful ally, the horse. It has been argued that without horses, Kazakhs would not have survived as a nation in these vast swaths of land. Unable to fight and move freely, they would likely have been absorbed by the numerous other tribes that aimed to conquer this area. 

One of the most intriguing stops on a trip through the country is the settlement of Botai near the town of Atbasar in the northern Akmola region. According to certain archeological theories, it is the earliest known site of the domestication of horses in the world.

Just as the mythical winged stallion, tulpar, has claimed its place on the national crest, so has a horse become a staple of Kazakh households, providing access to labor, transport, armed pursuits, companionship, and food. More than a hundred proverbs are dedicated to this animal, while the famous oral epic poem, Koblandy Batyr, describes the birth of the hero’s stallion, Taiburyl, in great detail. 

Oral literature and its eloquent verse have always been praised in the Kazakh culture. The storytellers who mastered this art form have played an important role in the tribes' lives. Traditionally, two types of professional bards have advised, entertained, and recorded the nomads' life: the zhırau and the aqın. The zhırau performed epic poems called zhırs while the aqın competed with other aqıns at weddings and celebrations. Both aqins and zhiraus were brave warriors who put away their musical dombras to go into battle and fight alongside the tribes. Such prominent oral poets as Kaztughan, Er Shoban, and Dosmambet Zhirau, who visited Constantinople in the 15th century and mentioned it in their verses, are no longer alive but their glory lives on.

 

Astana: The Modern Face of Kazakhstan

Today, more than half of the Kazakh population is urban. The capital, Astana, ushers the country into the modern age with its futuristic gold and glass skyline. Once a dusty town with a couple hundred thousand residents, Astana has been built into a shiny new city, part of the transformation driven by the president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Revealed several years ago, the plan calls for a bold vision: for Kazakhstan to become one of the top 30 developed nations in the world by 2050. The country prepares to reap the fruits of two great projects. One is the China-Europe transit road that largely passes through Kazakhstan and is about to be completed, and the other is the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which will connect Kazakhstan through the Caspian Sea and is expected to be open to service this year. These projects will not only make Kazakhstan a junction point on the trade route between Asia and Europe but also enable the country to export its natural resources to the rest of the world. With economic development at the top of the agenda, the president’s strategy, dubbed “The Path to the Kazakhstan Dream”, outlines seven areas of focus, including management, energy, ecology, knowledge-based economy, human capital, international integration, and urbanization.

Some elements of President Nazarbayev’s ambitious vision are on display in the country’s capital. A visitor to Astana will be impressed by formidable structures such as the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a sky high glass pyramid, and the Bayterek Tower, a golden sphere atop a tall metal stem, built as tribute to a mythical bird laying golden eggs on the branches of a tree of life. Completing the grandiose setting is the Khan Shatyr, a palatial shopping mall that nods to the nomadic past of the country with its traditional yurt tent shape. 

Whereas Astana stuns with its architecture, the former capital city takes a subtle approach. Tucked away against the spectacular Tian Shan mountain range rising out of the endless steppes, Almaty — the southern jewel — disarms its visitor with lively tree-lined streets, art galleries, and European-style cafés filled with hip, young, and creative crowds. In addition to boasting a vibrant street scene, the city is at the epicenter of Kazakhstan’s artistic renaissance. Modern artists such as the Almaty-born Saule Suleimenova explore the themes of national identity and what it means to be a Kazakh today, while the country’s own Fashion Week showcases young designers such as Ainur Turisbek, who is breaking conventions with her modern approach to traditional Kazakh dress.

An Ideal destination for winter tourism thanks to its climate, Almaty successfully hosted the 2017 Winter Universiade and demonstrated its young spirit once again.

Although Almaty is where the country’s cultural and financial center lies, the heart of the Kazakhs remains in the steppes. The expanse of the wild grass stretches all the way into the distant horizon and the aqın’s song soars high into the sky. The sound of the song transports a listener to the steppe. One begins to imagine walking on dry heated land and nearly feels the aromas of wild prairie grasses as the smell of dried sagebrush floods the thick air. It is no wonder that the soul of a singing Kazakh is described as beautiful as the steppe in the spring, for in Kazakhstan, the steppe is home. 

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