Friday, June 5, 2009


There's much, much more to Kazakhstan than Borat. Thank goodness.

For starters, Kazakhstan in the 9th largest country in the world, right after Argentina and before Sudan. It's also the country that's the furthest from an ocean of any country in the world, meaning it has a very continental climate (not to mention an appalling lack of beach-resort developments.) So it's incredibly hot in the summer and incredibly cold in the winter, with not much time in between for my favorite season (autumn.) Packing will be a challenge.

Traditionally, Kazakh culture was nomadic. Turks, Mongols, and other empires had control at various times throughout history. In the early 19th century the Russians first started colonizing Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia. Cossaks, Tartars, Ukrainians, and Russians began to immigrate to the region and plow up the steppe, building roads and towns where none had been before. Kazakhstan became part of the Soviet Union, and when it declared independence in 1991, the head of the Kazakh Communist Party, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was elected president. He is still in power.

Nonetheless, the government is relatively liberal by regional standards. The parliamentary democracy has a secular, pro-Western approach, despite its authoritarian leader, similar to the government in Turkey. Working from its crumbling Soviet infrastructure base, Kazakhstan is attempting reform its economy, educational system and social services. Considering that it has about 60% of all of the former Soviet Union's mineral resource, including oil and natural gas, development is much more feasible than in the much poorer neighboring countries like Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan.

Kazakhstan is a very diverse country. Nearly two centuries of immigration means that only about 53% of the people who live in Kazakhstan are ethnically Kazakh. Another 30% are Russian, and the rest are a mix of Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Greeks, Germans, Tartars, Koreans, Poles, and many others. (Soon to include one more American!) This also means that there is a fair amount of religious diversity. About 47% of Kazakhs are Muslim, while 44% are Russian Orthodox. Another 2% are Protestant.

Both Kazakh and Russian are the official state languages, although Russian is much more widely spoken. Kazakh is a Turkish language, but is written in the Cyrillic alphabet.

One of the most popular sports in Kazakhstan is called kokpar. In kokpar, men on horseback ride around fighting over a headless goat carcass, trying to carry it across their team's goal line. I sincerely hope I will get to watch a match. I also sincerely hope I'm never asked to participate in one.

For more information about my soon-to-be home.