Since 1997 the capital of Kazakhstan has been Astana (formerly Akmola), a medium- sized town on the windswept plains in the north of the country. The former capital, Almaty, remains Kazakhstan's main commercial and cultural center and its only city with a population over one million. Most foreign embassies have moved to Astana, with a handful still in Almaty.
Almaty is located in the country's southeastern corner. Towering over the city are the snow-topped Mountains of Heaven (Tienshan), over which lie neighboring Kyrgyzstan and China. Unfortunately, the mountains trap the traffic smog, so you may not be able to see them clearly through the haze. To get a better view, climb the foothills to the new suburb of Medeu, where Almaty's wealthy live. Medeu hosts the Voice of Asia Rock Festival every August and is home to the world's largest ice skating rink.
Most of Almaty was developed in the late Soviet period. Two sets of long parallel streets running east-west and north-south divide the city into rectangular blocks. There are many tree-lined boulevards and parks, one of which hosts the Great National Kazakh Circus. The recently created business centers, luxury hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and big stores like the Tsum supermarket, are located in the city center. The outlying residential areas consist mainly of five-story cement buildings built around large yards, often with trees and children's playgrounds. Among the few historical buildings are the small wooden Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Park and the nearby Arasan Baths.
Besides ordinary stores, local goods as well as those from China and the West are sold from thousands of street kiosks and a number of open-air bazaars. The biggest outdoor market is the huge Chinese Bazaar (also called Barakholka), which occupies several fields on the city outskirts. One field is devoted solely to selling used cars.
Kazakhstan is large but sparsely populated with many different landscapes and ways of life. The countryside around Almaty is fertile, but northwest into the middle of the country lays a vast and monotonous expanse of semi-desert scrub, interrupted only by metal-ore and coal mining settlements.
Beyond Almaty lie the decaying industrial cities of northern Kazakhstan and the open plains. In the south, near the border with Uzbekistan, are the Kyzyl Kum (Red Sand) Desert and the irrigated lands along the banks of the Syr Darya River. And in the west of the country, arid semi-desert pastureland—and the booming oilfields on the Caspian Sea coast.
A new Silk Road
Construction has continued on an ambitious program to build a 1,700-mile road from Khorgos on the border with China to Aqtobe near the border with Russia. Completion of the Kazakh section is planned for 2013, and its goal is to contribute to Kazakhstan’s greater inclusion into the global economy.
The Kazakhs used to live as nomads, migrating with the seasons in family groups (auls) from one pasture to another. The auls joined together to form clans, tribes, and hordes (Juz), all based on common descent. Most Kazakhs are still aware of belonging to these groups, though how important they are in everyday life is unclear. But people in Kazakhstan—not only ethnic Kazakhs—do very much rely on informal support networks of friends and relatives to survive under conditions of economic disarray and near-universal corruption.
Important Muslim holy days include Eid-ul-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan, and Eid-ul-Azha, the feast of sacrifice. But the ancient pagan spring festival of Nauruz (New Year's Day in Persian) is by far the biggest holiday, with traditional games and sports, music and drama festivals. Some of the sports are played on horseback. Kökpar is a kind of polo using a headless goat carcass instead of a ball, while qyz quu is a boy-girl horse chase.
Traditional Kazakh cuisine relies mainly on animal products that the Kazakh nomads kept as livestock—cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and camels. All parts are consumed. Meat is boiled to make a broth or—together with rice and apples, apricots, raisins or prunes—the dish called plov. Popular dishes are qazy (smoked horsemeat sausage served sliced with cold noodles) and chebureks (pastries stuffed with lamb and onion). There are many kinds of milk—for example, kumys (fermented mare's milk), shubat (fermented camel's milk), katyk (baked sour clotted milk), and irkit (fermented sour milk). Tea is also drunk. Bread is eaten as flat cakes such as baursak (fried unleavened dough with eggs and sugar). Further information on traditional foods in Kazakhstan.