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Nomads fest and other interesting facts about Kazakh traditions


Kazakh people historically lead a nomadic way of life. Despite the fact that now most of the country dwellers are settled, some of us still adhere the traditions of nomadism, tough in a modified way. The modern semi-nomadic cattle risers of Almaty region, in particular, take their livestock to the highland Asy plateau for the summer period, and, watching those huge flocks of sheep and horses travelling up by the Turgen gorge every spring, you cannot stop thinking of the inseparable link that ties down generations of nomads making this path for centuries.

Their way normally starts at a village, or at a winterland camp, and it may take up to a week to make this transhumance happened (the normal distance is 150-300km up to Asy highland plateau which is considered the best summer pasture in the region). There are two main ways to enter Asy: from Turgen side and from Bartogai lake, therefore those herd hosts living in Kokpek area usually take a way via the lake.

The semi-nomadic community is not as large in Kazakhstan nowadays; it consists of individual livestock owners, and their assistants (mostly shepherds). Every May, the families of owners (it is normally done in the family) start moving with herds of horses up: the young are chased first, the broodstock and stallions follow later. The breeds of horses are different: the Mulgazhar or the Novoaltaics can be met often. Why the horses come first? As an old experienced shepherd said: because they are organized. So, the same way for the cows and sheep may take two or three times longer.

A well-to-do cattle riser may own alone two or three herds of horses (with 250-300 species in each), a herd of thousand cows and sheep. Of course, there are small nomadic farmers as well, but for any of them this annual “ride” up the pasture takes weeks of hard work.

Being a shepherd… everyone would love to try, but the “chaban’s” (as they are called here) everyday life contains much less romance than it seems. There is even a caste division exists: for example, the “tabunshik” (shepherd taking care of horses) is an upper class among other shepherds working with cows, goats and sheep. The ability to graze horses needs extraordinary skills – by the way, some of them are former rustlers J. They can distinguish the thousands horses on their heads, they know the terrain perfectly, able to find the safe route through mountains or forest. They spend 24 hours under the sky, when it’s snowing or raining; and almost never sleep (as well as horses). They protect their herds from attacks of wolves, and sometimes people. But they remain faithful nomads.

The pastoral life of semi-nomads revolves around yurta: it is a place of living, cooking and even birth of children. Despite some farmers now use small houses (built at a plateau during Soviet period) for their summer staying, most Kazakhs still prefer the traditional yurta to all other types of dwellings. It is convenient in transportation and installation (nice to see it is carried disassembled in an old-style Russian jeep, with other stuff, kids and dogs – just after the herds of caws). Many centuries have passed since the appearance of nomadic yurta. But it still remains the most reliable of portable homes. It is cool inside in hot summer, warm and dry on rainy days. It is resistant to wind. Yurts differ in size (and sometimes on purpose), but on the whole they have the same design. Now many of the yurts on the Asy Plateau are equipped with solar panels and satellite television antennas. Looks very authentic!

An everyday shepherd’s life seems to be hard, but there are also holidays. Every year, at the end of July, a Nomad’s festival is held on the Asy Plateau (zhailau-toi - in the translation from a Kazakh it is a holiday on a summer pasture). For a few days the event brings together all the community members: elegant white yurts are set up at a huge glade, games and traditional competitions are held: baiga (horse racing), kokpar (battle for a carcass of the goat), kyz kuu (“catch the girl on horseback”), aitys (singer’s competition). Kazakhs are known as meat eaters, and the festival looks the right place to try the real Kazakh beshparmak or kuyrdak cooked here, on zhailau. Many shepherds produce kumis (fermented horse milk), which looks like an excellent addition to the traditional dishes.

Such a menu, of course, is not a daily diet of a shepherd - basically it contains snacks with cakes that are cooked in the oven right in the yurt or next to it, kourt (salted dried cottage cheese) and tea. But the festival is a place for rest, experience and news sharing, talking and fun, so there are no limits.  

Asy is a great place: the history and modern life are intertwined here, at a green highland plateau (2500-3000m ASL) surrounded by the snow peaks of Tien Shan. The modern nomads still put their yurta between the majestic Scythe burials, the rocks represent in carvings the life scenes repeated here for the thousands of years. Wild eagles, vultures, marmots, wolves live close to the horses and goats. If you’re in Almaty, never miss a chance to explore the untouched beauty of Asy and harsh life of the Kazakh nomads.

More info about Asy plateau is here.

Old pictures used to illustrate the Nomad’s festival, which held on Asy in late 1980-s were taken at open source: Yandex.Pictures, album “Turgen gorge. Asy tract” of photographer larigma 

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