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<Kazakhstan - Kazakh Culture, Customs and Traditions> - Central Asia Cultures

Central Asia Cultures

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Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, with a welcome just as wide. At over a million square miles, this country has it all! Mountains and glaciers, vast steppes and desert and over a hundred and twenty nationalities! Stunning landscapes and ancient architecture conjure images of nomads and warriors, falconry and poetry, silk-robed horsemen and exotic beauty. The word “Kazakh” itself translates to “free, independent nomad.”

Kazakhstan Hospitality

The Kazakh people have a long tradition of peace, tolerance and co-existence. Children learn hospitality and respect from a very young age, and this is reflected in the wonderful hospitality offered to all guests and travelers. If you visit a Kazakh household - whether or not you are expected - those present will stand up in greeting as you enter the door. You will be seated on the tor - the special guest seat and offered a cup of either kumiss or tea. It is considered extremely poor manners to disturb the weary or hungry guest, so the host often remains silent until you are refreshed!

Kazakhstan Customs and Traditions

Kazakhstan’s territory is immense, occupying an area about half the size of the United States. Most of the vast expanses are steppe; semi-arid land, desolate and frozen in the winter that turn to lush, green meadow beginning mid-spring. The steppes are invaluable pastureland for the sheep, horses, cattle, and camels that are essential to the Kazakh people.

The ancestors of modern-day Kazakhs were nomadic or semi-nomadic, and many of their customs reflect that lifestyle. Nowadays, people live mostly in cities and villages, although many still lead an agricultural life.

Not surprisingly, horses play a large part in their traditions. It is said that in the past, many Kazakh children learned to ride before they learned to walk, and the Kazakhs are still known for their superb horsemanship. They were the first to use stirrups, and perfected the technique of shooting arrows with superb accuracy while riding at a gallop. No traveler should miss an opportunity to watch such displays of riding skill.

As a result of their nomadic lifestyle, the Kazakhs developed one of the most efficient and practical transportable dwellings - the yurt, which has many uses today. As you travel through Kazakhstan, you will see different types of these low, cylindrical felt and wood houses, still in use and beautifully decorated with tapestries, and multicolored embroidery. Overnight excursions to yurt camps are extremely popular with travelers.

Kazakhstan Weddings

According to Kazakh custom, a wedding lasts 40 days, beginning with the matchmaking. The fiance\\\\\\\\'s relatives act as matchmakers, bringing gifts to the bride\\\\\\\\'s parents and asking for their consent to the marriage. Sometimes it is the bride who chooses whether to accept the offer, using diplomacy and tact to avoid an unhappy situation.

One such case is described in legend: Abilah Khan fell in love with a beautiful girl from a poor family, but she was already promised to another man - an ordinary warrior. In order to avoid hurting Abylai Khan\\\\\\\\'s feelings and angering him, she set a task for him. She promised to marry him if he could shoot an arrow higher than a certain mountain near a lake.

She sat on a rock in the middle of the lake to watch his efforts, and no matter how hard he tried to shoot the arrow into the sky it would not rise beyond the mountaintop. Her plan had been that, should Khan have been able to fulfill the task, she would jump from the rocky island to the stones below. This mountain is now known as Okzhetpes “Unachievable with an arrow”, and the lake is called Zhumbaktas Riddle-stone”.

Kazakhstan Festivals

The first day of spring begins the Persian New Year. In Kazakhstan, this holiday is known as Nauryz, and it is said that the more you celebrate at this time, the greater will be your success throughout the year. In fact, the celebration goes on for nearly a month! It’s a time to visit and congratulate friends and neighbors, and also a time to forgive each other. Guests are met in beautifully decorated yurts where they enjoy a traditional dish of Nauryz koshe, which is made with seven different grains, representing the seven days of the week.

Many Kazakh festivals feature horse racing or other games that are played on horseback. One endurance race features as many as two hundred participants, with riders going around a mile-long track for about thirty laps. Other games include Kokpar - a type of polo, Kumis Alu, where riders attempt to pick a handkerchief off the ground while galloping at full speed, or Kuuz Kuu – “catch the girl”, where the boys try to best the girls in a race.

Kazakhstan Cuisine

Just as other aspects of Kazakh culture reflect its nomadic past, its cuisine retains many of these traditions. Of prime importance is hospitality to the guests, who receive a special welcome and are offered a place of honor. After the guest has enjoyed kumiss or another fermented milk drink like kefir, the meal is served.

Also of historical importance are the main ingredients of the meal. Traditionally, Kazakh cuisine was based mostly on meat (including horse meat) and milk products. The dastarkhan - feast table, is always laden with good things to eat. Kazakhstan is famous for its apples, for shashlik – a kind of shish-kebob, for plov – rice pilaf – found everywhere in Central Asia and for its tradtions of taking tea – many times a day! As in the rest of Central Asia, the chaikana or tea house is a relaxing meeting place for friends and conversation.

As Kazakhstan has moved into the modern world, dishes and ingredients from other cuisines have also found their way to the table. Now you will find Uzbek, Russian, Tatar, and Korean dishes intermingled with Kazakh ones, and many introduced fruits, vegetables, and herbs and spices now available locally have also broadened the cuisine.

Kazakhstan National Dress

The country\\\\\\\\'s nomadic past is reflected in traditional clothing. Outerwear was historically made from leather, felt and fur. For indoor wear, beautiful satin gowns and trousers were richly decorated with embroidery that often included beads and precious stones.

The wedding headdresses of Kazakh brides were especially striking, tall caps with intricate filigree work and a diadem set with semi-precious stones, as well as pendants hanging from the temple and chin adornments.

As the population became more urbanized and more and more people began purchasing clothing, even the traditional costumes sewn at home were simpler and made of less opulent materials. Nowadays, the Kazakh national dress varies according to region.

Kazakhstan Music

Ancient cave paintings found in Kazakhstan show people dancing and making music. From these roots, the musical and poetic tradition has continued to the present day. However, those cave paintings may be the last recorded image of Kazakhstan\\\\\\\\'s music. Created and sung by nomadic tribes for thousands of years, these songs have been preserved only through oral tradition for most of their history. It wasn\\\\\\\\'t until the early part of the 20th century that Kazakh music was recorded . Visitors to Kazakhstan will be captivated by incredible solo vocal and instrumental music reflecting the spirit of the landscapes and natural world.

Kazakhs have a great love of the spoken word. The akyns -poets, are an important part of society, improvising at public competitions to the musical accompaniment of the stringed dombra or kobyz.

Kazakhstan Bazaars

Every town and city has a bazaar in Central Asia. It’s the center of life and business. The Zelyony Bazaar in Almaty has hundreds of stalls offering everything imaginable, including the wonderful Alma-Ata apples that are local to the region and fantastic fresh spices. Here you can find handicrafts, clothes, and toys, and experience the sights and sounds of a traditional bustling bazaar. Near the bazaar, on the side streets, local residents from all walks of life bring items they may have for sale for a makeshift flea market. Here you may find some real bargains, including memorabilia from the Soviet era.

Kazakhstan Applied & Decorative Art

Carpet weaving and decoration in Kazakhstan is unique. Besides the traditional loomed rugs, Kazakh artisans are also known for their remarkable felt work. Several different techniques are used for various types of carpeting, such as the beautiful and complex applique work of tuskiiz, used on walls, or the intricate mosaic carpets made from fabric patches for guests to sit on.

During the middle ages, Kazakhstan was a center for the manufacture of enameled ceramics. Wood and leather were mostly used for vessels, and these are still made today. Steppe zergers – jewelers, favor white silver and the ornate Kazakh bracelets are irresistible.

Everywhere you look, you will see a love of beauty, as even the most commonplace articles are lavishly decorated. Women\\\\\\\\'s headdresses, articles of clothing, even saddle-cloths are exquisitely embroidered. Leather articles, such as harnesses, water flasks, and belts, as well as wooden cups, large bowls and ladles are all beautifully decorated with traditional designs.