Interested in learning about nomadic cultures, or what modern life is like on the Silk Road? Consider Kazakhstan! Sharing borders and history with Russia and China, and a stone’s throw from many of the geopolitical hotspots of the world, this Central Asian Republic holds rich potential for cultural discovery and study abroad. From the soaring Tian Shan mountain peaks over Almaty’s urban skyline, to the magnificent steppe covering thousands of miles before meeting the forests of Southern Siberia, the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan is a land where Christianity meets Islam, where youth tweet from old world bazaars, and where faces and features bear hints of the country’s links to the world beyond. Almaty and Astana’s excellent infrastructure, cosmopolitan flavor and hopping nightlife contribute to the excitement of the country. What about business opportunities in a country booming in oil and gas? Students, scholars, and curious backpackers might consider the following cultural tips to maximize their journey:
Language – While English is taught beginning in elementary school, anyone coming for more than a short visit will benefit tremendously from learning the Cyrillic alphabet. Outside of the former and current capitals of Almaty and Astana, a working knowledge of Cyrillic is a must, to make sense of streets signs and get around. You’ll also do well by learning basic polite phrases in both Russian and Kazakh. While Russian is still widely spoken in major cities and is the main language of social media in the country, a few words of Kazakh can go a long way toward showing respect to the locals. Laugh off your mistakes – we all make them, and the more effort you make in local languages, the more cultural insight you’ll have! You’ll make a Kazakh person’s week by greeting them with a few phrases in Kazakh.
Essentials – While you can get almost anything in Almaty or Astana, you’ll probably want to take at least a travel-sized supply of your ‘must needs’ such as preferred medicines. Also, winter is long…and cold! Consider ordering yaktrax through Amazon.com before your trip to slip over for your winter shoes – well worth the $15 investment to prevent those icy slips and falls!
Prices – Surprisingly, Almaty and Astana rival most big western cities for food and entertainment prices, and a cup of coffee in a local coffee shop can cost more than Starbucks. Quality clothing and shoes can be double, if not triple, the prices in North America or Europe – mostly because they have to be imported from great distances. If you’re on a budget, check out the food chain ‘Kaganat’ for relatively affordable high quality local food, or learn where locals shop at the town grocery stores and bazaars.
Food and Drink – The Kazakhs were a nomadic people for hundreds of years, and the largely meat-based diet reflects this. Horsemeat is considered a delicacy, and mare’s and camel milk are consumed widely. Kazakhstanis love to drink tea, and often pair it with cakes or cookies as a mid-day snack. If you’re vegetarian, find the Korean salad section of the local market for a wide variety of spicy pickled salads that can be paired with flat bread (lepeshka) for a tasty lunch. The country’s cafes feature a mix of Asian (Korean, Chinese, Uighar) cuisine, as well as Turkish kebabs and shawarma. Russian and Central Asian meat, rice and salad dishes abound as well. If someone invites you to their home for a meal, custom is to bring something small as a token of thanks for hospitality – a beverage for the table or a bouquet of flowers will suffice. If giving flowers, always go with an odd number; as even numbers are reserved for somber occasions. It’s custom to take off your shoes when entering a person’s home.
Sights and Scenery Drive just 20 minutes out of Almaty and you’re in some of the most spectacular mountains in the world. Locals love to snowboard and ski in the winter, and go for hikes and picnics in the summer. An hour out of town is Lake Kapchigai, an enormous lake with numerous resorts built along its coast that provides a nice respite from summer heat. And of course, if you have the time and budget, consider a trip to neighboring Uzbekistan to check out the spectacular mosques on the Silk Road cities of Samarqand and Bukhara, or spend a night in a traditional yurt through one of Kyrgyzstan’s bustling ecotourism centers.
Contemporary Issues – Whether it’s politics, language, health, there are a number of excellent web resources in English and Russian that provide a window to the Central Asian world. Rferl.org and registan.net are a good place to start for English, and voxpopuli.kz is an excellent site that features contemporary Kazakhstani social and cultural issues through photojournalism. The ‘What’s On’ Almaty group on Facebook offers great hints and resources for expatriates and Kazakhstanis alike.
Stanley Currier works in the Office of Development for KIMEP University, and has lived in Central Asia for over 10 years. KIMEP offers a variety of study abroad programs and scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students.
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