Kazakhstan as a single entity with defined borders was an invention of the Soviet regime in the 1920s, before that, the great bulk of the territory was part of the domain of nomadic horseback animal herders that stretched right across the Eurasian steppe.
Early People. Initially nomadic people moved in from the east and left few records. Around 500BC, southern Kazakhstan was inhabited by the Saka, part of the nomadic Scythian cultures that occupied the steppes from the Altay to Ukraine. Burial mounds contain fabulous hoards of gold jewellery, often with animal motifs. Most splendid is the ‘Golden Man’, a warrior’s costume that has become a national symbol.
From 200BC, the Huns, followed by various Turkic people arrived from what is now Mongolia and Northern China. From about AD 550 to 750, the southern half was the western extent of the Manchuria-based Kok (Blue) Turk empire. From around the 9th century the south was settled by Silk Road civilizations (the Islamic Samanid people) of Transoxiana (the area between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers). They were ousted in the 10th century by Karakhanid Turks who took up Islam also. Around 1130, the Biddhist Khitans from Mongolia stretched from Xinjiang to Transoxiana. To the west, a people from south of the Aral Sea took Transoxiana and from the east, the Mongols came.
Chinggis (Ghenghis) Khan. In 1218, his Mongol army of 200,000conquered the entire area and swept towards Europe and the Middle East. On Chinggis Khan’s death in 1227, the enormous empire was divided between his sons. Jocchi and his Golden Horde controlled north and west of the Aral Sea. Chaghatai controlled SE Kazakhstan. Timur from Samarkand conquered south Kazakhstan in the late 14th century.
The Kazakhs. Their story starts with the Uzbeks, a group of Islamized Mongols controlled most of Kazakh steppe as the Golden Horde disintegrated in the 15th century. This group split in 1468 into the areas south of the Syr-Darya (to become modern Uzbekistan) and in the north remained nomadic and became the Kazkhs, descendants of the Mongols and earlier Turkic inhabitans.
Russians. By the 1700s, Russia’s expansion across Siberia saw forts constructed across the northern border and the Kazakhs swore loyalty to the Russian crown between 1731 and 1742 for protection. Russia annexed and abolished the Kazakh khanates. Repeated Kazakh uprisings resulted in the death of ¼ of the four million Kazakhs before 1870. The abolition of serfdom in Russia and Ukraine in 1861 stimulated peasant settlers to move into Kazakhstan.
With the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russian Civil War raged across Kazakhstan who sided with the Bolsheviks, only to be purged in 1920. Several hundred thousand Kazakhs fled to China. The world’s biggest group of seminomadic people became settled farmers in new collectives. Unused to agriculture, they died in their hundreds of thousands from famine and disease.
In the 1930s and 40s more people (prisoners and others) from other parts of the USSR were sent to work in labour camps and new industrial towns. 800,000 more arrived in the 1950s when Khrushchev ploughed up 250,000 sq km of north Kazakhstan steppe to grow wheat. More Soviet nationalities arrived to mine coal, iron and oil. The proportion of Kazakhs fell below 30%.
The USSR decided that Kazakhstan was empty and remote enough to use if its chief nuclear bomb testing. In 1989, a popular protest movement forced an end to the nuclear tests.
Independent Kazakhstan. Nursultan Nazarbaev began to rise up the CPK ranks in the 1970s. He became the party’s first secretary in 1989 and has ruled ever since. He did not welcome the breakup of the USSR and Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to declare independence. Multiparty elections in 1994 returned a parliament that obstructed Nazabaev’s free-market economic reforms, and he dissolved it in 1995 but majorities extended his presidential term until 2000.
In 1997 Nazarbaev moved the capital from Almaty to Astana and it has been transformed into a 21st capital with some spectacular new buildings to make his vision as a Eurasian economic and political hub.
Western companies paid huge amounts to get a piece of the large oil and gas reserves posting 9-10% economic growth year after year making him popular. Nazarbaev won new 7-year term presidential elections in 1999, 2005, and 2011 with over 90% of the vote. His political rivals were frequently sacked, jailed or in two cases, shot dead. Elections were considered irregular, but he has a strong personality cult. The economy comes first and government second with international investment developing vast resources of oil and gas and every other mineral. By 2013 Kazakhstan was the world’s 17th biggest oil producer with the Kashagan field in the Caspian Sea being the biggest oil field outside the Middle East slated to come on stream by 2014.
Kazakhstan is a largely peaceful and prosperous country making him popular. The new rich are numerous along with a sizeable middle-class. But corruption, poverty and poor health and education services cause disgruntlement. There is no strategy for a transition to multiparty democracy. Opponents are unfairly jailed and Reporters Without Borders ranked Kazakhstan 160th out of 179 countries in 2013 press freedom index. Transparency International ranks them 133rd out of 174 countries in the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
PEOPLE. Of the 17 million people, 63% are Kazakhs. Since 1991, over 3 million Russians, Germans and Ukrainians have left and over 800,000 Kazakhs have repatriated from other countries.
Other ethnic groups are Russian 24%, Uzbeks 3%, Ukrainians 2% and Germans, Uighurs and Tartars 1-1.5% each. Some southern towns are 90% Kazakh while some northern towns are majority Russian.
Kazakh culture is strong with family, respect for elders and traditions of hospitality remain important. Ancestry determines ones horde and clan with the best ancestor of all being Chinggis Khan. The spring festival of Nauryz is important and falconry is another beloved tradition.
RELIGION. Islam is strongest in the deep south with pilgrimages to the mausoleum of Kozha Akhmed Yasaui at Turkistan and the desert shrine of Beket-Ata are important. Christianity (mainly Russian Orthodox) claims about 25% of the population. The country is religiously tolerant. In Almaty and Astana there is no visible religious dress and they call themselves social Muslims.
The Land. Mountains are along its south-eastern and eastern borders but it is otherwise flat. It’s about the size of Western Europe. The north is mostly treeless steppe now growing wheat. A surprising number of lakes are scattered in the hills. Further south and west, most is desert or semidesert.
The Syr-Darya River flows across the south to the Aral Sea. The Ili River flows out of China into Lake Baikhash, the largest lake in Central Asia (17,000 sq km) though nowhere more than 26m deep.
Wildlife. The mountains are rich in bear, lynx, argali sheep, ibex, wolves, wild boar, deer and about 200 snow leopards. The saiga and zheyran antelope roam the steppes in decreasing numbers due to uncontrolled hunting.
Environmental issues. The Aral Sea has almost disappeared, nuclear fallout remains and industrial air pollution is severe in industrial areas. Oil development in the Caspian Sea (has risen 3m since 1970) threatens the beluga sturgeon (source of some of the world’s best caviar) and the Caspian seal, one of the world’s smallest seals.
ACCOMMODATION. Prices are high in Central Asia but backpacker hostels are common in Almaty and Astana. Homestays are common near national parks. Most hotels offer discounts of up to 50% for stays no longer than 12 hours. Couchsurfing, AirBnB and Priceline offer much cheaper options.
Activities. Hiking, riding, mountain climbing, rafting and bird-watching are all available.
Registration. For citizens of Western Europe, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand and the USA is necessary within 5 days of arriving with the migration police, many hotels and travel agencies. It is often done at some borders and airports and is indicated by two stamps on your migration card. Failure to do so can result in a fine of US$100.
Air. Air Astana and Scat (website in Russian only) offer a good network of domestic flights. They are both banned from flying to EU countries due to safety concerns.
Bus, Minibus and Marshrutka. With a few exceptions, intercity bus services are poor and getting worse. Minibuses are best for short, 3-4 hour trips.
Car. The blood alcohol limit is zero. Obey all traffic rules.
Taxi. For many intercity trips, taxis can be much faster but with a full car, are usually twice the price of buses.
Train. They serve all cities and are a good way to experience the terrain, vast size and people. Fares are available in 3rd class open-bunk carriages and 2nd class couchettes. Timetable information is best on www.poezda.net. The available number of seats or beds is listed.
Internet. VPNs are blocked and there seems to be some sort of firewall as in China.