Monday, November 5, 2007


[WARNING: this post is relatively academic in nature!! J ]

Kazakhstan is a relatively new country, achieving independence only in 1991. One of the fascinating questions (for me, at least) is how people and the government of the country have shifted from accepting a common Soviet identity to a new vision of what it means to be Kazakh. Within a very short space of time, the citizens of the Kazakh SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) had to re-imagine themselves as citizens of a country that had never before existed in the modern sense of statehood. To complicate the matter even further, ethnic Kazakhs did not even comprise a majority of the citizenry. According to the 1989 Soviet census, the population of the region was about 40% Kazakh and 38% Russian. How, then, would it be possible to create a new Kazakh identity that validated the country’s existence? An obvious solution for the government was to draw upon the history of different groups in the region, and to create historic sites as well as to construct monuments and markers throughout the country. [In case you are wondering, this is an abridged version of a section of my Master’s thesis and will likely show up in the dissertation. It’s definitely a little more readable in this format—omitting such references as “Hooson’s seminal work on effective national territory” and “Agnew’s imperative not to view the state as a container of a homogenous society”. So now you know a large portion of what I do, without all the extraneous verbiage!]

Tamgaly-Tas is a great example of a site established by the government that emphasizes modern-day Kazakhstan’s connection with the far-reaches of history. It is located in the middle of nowhere—as I described in a previous post, it took over an hour to drive between 20 and 30 kilometers to the site. There is also nothing at the site—no souvenir shops, no restaurant, no place to buy anything. The only amenity is what was described to me as a ‘primitive bathroom’. That statement is an exaggeration (the word bathroom suggests that there is some sort of plumbing—which does not apply to a thatched-roof hut with a rough hole cut in the wooden floor. Outhouse is a better word). I do not want to suggest, though, that it was impossible to spend money at the site. When we arrived, we were met by several men on horseback. For about $10, you could take a horseback ride around the site and across the steppe. Kazakhs were historically a nomadic people, and horses have always been an important part of the culture. It is truly a beautiful sight to see someone riding a horse across the steppe—a National Geographic photo brought to life.

As we drove closer to Tamgaly-Tas, I began to understand more about the decision to use brilliant turquoise blue and goldenrod-yellow in the Kazakh flag. It was a beautifully clear day, without a cloud in the sky. The colors perfectly reflected the colors of the flag, from the blue sky to the yellow of the grassland vegetation. Driving across the steppe—on a path that had first been built for the merchants of the Silk Road—it looked as if the sky was reaching down to the ground. When we finally stopped and got off of the bus, the first thing I noticed was the air. It was the first time that I could truly breathe since arriving in Kazakhstan. The air in Almaty is incredibly polluted—so much so that I have developed a (second hand) smoker’s cough. In Tamgaly-Tas, the air was incredibly clean and pure, laced with a faint spice from the grasses—a wonderful scent.

The site at Tamgaly-Tas was established more than 3,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age by the Sakha people—or Scythians. The religion at the time was based on the worship of Mithras, the sun-god. However, this god was replaced by Tengri, the sky-god. The petroglyphs are part of a sacred site, located where the gently rolling plains of the steppe abruptly rise up in a series of low hills that have large areas of exposed slate (perfect for petroglyphs). The inhabitants of the area viewed Tengri as the originator of the universe, to be worshipped by all animals and people. Tengriism was an animist religion, in which shamans played a key role in bridging the gap between the heavens and earth. The petroglyphs at Tamgaly-Tas reflect this religion, depicting both mythical and real animals, the creation of the universe by Tengri, and shamanic ceremonies (including one of the most important, that of sexual relations between the shaman and an animal—usually a bull—which was seen as a sacred and desirable event joining the animal and human worlds. The site is situated so that on key days during the year (vernal and autumnal equinoxes, summer and winter solstices) very specific and sacred areas receive direct sunlight. Ceremonies were held to celebrate these events, and their locations are marked by sacred trees where people still tie white ribbons to mark their prayers.

It was very easy to see why the worship of Tengri might have replaced the worship of Mithras—the sky in the steppe is incredibly vast, and dominates the visual landscape. It seems to be a much more dominant power than the sun, and the light and shadows take on a life of their own. From the top of the escarpment, the steppe fades away into the horizon—very similar to the way the ocean shimmers off unendingly into the distance.

Even after the time of the Sakha people, the site continued to be used for ceremonial purposes. There are several graves from the Andronov period, as well as a burial kurgan (barrow) which would have marked the grave of an important personage within the tribe. The graves are all situated so that the individual’s feet pointed directly to the location of the sunrise at the time of their death. Women were buried facing the steppe, and men faced the sacred sites.

Two thousand years later, these same hills were part of the famed Silk Road. Markers (which have since been reconstructed) at the peak of each hill pointed travelers toward the main road which would eventually take them west to Europe or east to China.

I found it interesting that most people had never heard of Tamgaly-Tas until very recently (the last five or ten years). Although people knew of the existence of Tamgaly-Tas, it was not ‘discovered’ until the middle of the 20th century, when a Russian scholar explored the area. When I asked why the site was discovered so recently—and by a Russian, no less—I was told that the Soviet government did not view these to be appropriate cultural artifacts and preferred to forget their existence. More recently, though, the Kazakh government has cooperated with UNESCO to document and preserve the site. It is now an officially recognized World Heritage Site. In a relatively short space of time, the government has created a popular tourist site that celebrates the long-standing history of those who inhabited the vast steppes of Kazakhstan. Additionally, the site connects Kazakhstan to the Silk Road, even though most of the trade routes were further to the south. [As a note—the Caspian Sea, which borders Kazakhstan to the west, is named for the Silk Road. Caspian is a Persian word for silk, so it is the ‘Silk Sea’.] It was a remarkable opportunity to see such a beautiful place, one that tells so much about both ancient and modern Kazakhstan.


A few people have asked about sending postcards from Kazakhstan. While I would love to be able to do so, there is a problem. They don't have postcards here. Tourism is not as well developed as it is in other areas, and the idea of the 'souvenir stand' has not reached this area of the world. I'm posting a picture of the UNESCO designated "World Heritage Site" at Tamgaly-Tas to show just how little there can be at tourism sites.

There's also another factor in sending postcards--if you think that everyone looks at them in the US, it is nothing compared to here. Who knows what might happen--and if a postcard would even arrive? I will do my best to send something to those who have asked, but there are no guarantees.

Image from petroglyphs

More on the petroglyphs's a picture from yesterday, in the meantime. Just as a note--out of the 50+ people who were on the trip, only one other person wore hiking boots. I couldn't imagine hiking through all the loose shale in nothing more than a pair of Keds, but then...I'm American and fashion doesn't always come first. Instead, safety is a little more important.

Prospective roommates

After a few hours of sleep and vast quantities of tea, I am once again alert enough to sit down in front of the computer and write. It is a beautiful morning here in Almaty, and I’m enjoying the sunlight streaming through my kitchen window as I listen to the cheerfully subversive music of Elvis Costello (insert comment about the Grand Hotel Krasnapolski here, Mom and Dad!)

These last few days, I have not been quite alone in my apartment. It began on Friday night, while I was writing a few letters on my computer. Normally, the stairwell here is very quiet—most people who live in this part of the building are elderly, so it is pretty quiet. On this occasion, though, I could hear several people speaking loudly in the stairwell. It was pretty obvious that they had been indulging in some sort of alcoholic beverage (an educated guess would be Baltika 9, since that seems to be the local favorite). So…I was not about to go out and see what was going on—especially I haven’t learned how to say “can you please keep the noise down and go drink somewhere else” in my Russian class (maybe I should ask my teacher to teach me, though!). Also, confronting at least one drunken man in the hallway doesn’t quite seem like a safe thing to do. Fortunately, the noise dropped off after about 30 minutes. Since I was focused on writing, the situation entirely slipped my mind. That is, until I was about to go to bed around 11pm. I was sitting in my kitchen with just a small lamp for light (I don’t like the overhead light). The weather was nice, so I had opened the doors to the balcony in the living room earlier in the evening. Suddenly, my house was filled with the sound of very loud breathing. I couldn’t tell where it was originating from, so I very cautiously walked to the living/bedroom and turned on the light. It didn’t seem likely that anyone would be able to get into the living room—unless they came down from the roof, but this IS Kazakhstan, after all. Fortunately, there was no one there. That’s when I realized that the loud breathing had become louder snoring. Yes, there was a drunk man sprawled across my doorstop. Yurya (my landlord) tried to wake him up to tell him to leave, but the man was insensible.

The next day, I asked Lyudmilla and Yurya about the situation. They told me that it is not uncommon in the colder months. Sometimes it is someone who is homeless, but unfortunately most often it is someone who is too drunk to stagger home. We have an outer door that is supposed to be closed and locked during the night, but not everyone shuts the door behind them. And, of course, the top floor (where I live) is the most desirable location to pass out, since there is less likelihood of being disturbed. They normally leave early in the morning (which around here is about 9am)—but I’ve been told that sometimes it might be necessary to step over someone while heading off to work. Just when you think you know what to expect here, something new happens!

Sitting down to write this update, I suddenly heard another strange noise. This time, it was coming from the window—a continuous low tapping sound. I had left the window cracked open last night to try to lower the (incredibly hot) temperature in the apartment. When I looked over at the window this morning, I found another prospective roommate—a 4 inch preying mantis. Now, I have some standards after all—no strange drunk men, and no one/nothing that consumes its mate are allowed into my house. I usually have no problems with getting rid of insects and other creepy/crawly visitors (including drunks). A preying mantis, however, is slightly different. I have strange images of opening the window wider to get rid of it, but instead allowing the mantis into the house. And I really don’t want to chase a 4 inch bug all over the apartment. So…instead I closed the inner window and effectively shut the preying mantis between the inner and outer windows—kind of a homemade terrarium. It is now staring at me out if its huge pug-like eyes, and using its long legs to tap on the glass. I can really see why there are so many Far Side cartoons with at least one preying mantis. Just as long as it remains a case of “same planet/different worlds”!

I’ll write more later either today or tomorrow about the trip to the petroglyphs. Right now, I need to head off to the store—it’s time for a slight change of hair color and I’ve been told that Dastarkhan has a recent shipment of American products. I don’t mind experimenting with different shades of red, but I just don’t want one of those strange shades that don’t occur in nature…