Kazakhstan's Big Country Harbors a Breed of Hard-Riding, Hard-Drinking Cowboys

By Erik Heinrich
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 12, 2009

I'm riding into Kazakhstan's high country, to the Assy Plateau deep in the marrow of the Turgen Valley, bearing down hard on the Chinese border only about two hours away. To the south is the impenetrable barrier of the Alatau Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks are an offshoot of the Tian Shan, a muscular range that sweeps down in a semicircle to the Hindu Kush and Tibet before linking up with the mighty Himalayas some 500 miles away. The Alatau spring skyward like heavy prehistoric monsters and pierce through a cobalt-blue canopy.

The morning air packs a clean bite that will soon get burned off by the hot sun; a thin frost makes farmers' fields shine like diamonds. Dau, a heavyset 37-year-old Kazakh with penetrating dark eyes, is in the driver's seat of the Lada 4x4. He doesn't say much, in part because we're able to communicate only with the aid of an English-Russian dictionary.

We met only the day before, at a beer garden in the old capital of Almaty, where I persuaded Dau to take me on this trek into Kazakhstan's high plateau. In exchange I have promised to pay for gas and Derbes beer. We will eat whatever food is offered to us by the cowboys of Kazakhstan's Big Country.

Dau, a married man with two young kids, must bring his herd of sheep down from the rich, thin-aired alpine meadows where they have grown fat these last months. It's early autumn, but winter snows will soon arrive on the high steppe, and his prized livestock must be moved to lowland quarters.

When most Americans think of Kazakhstan, they probably think of Sacha Baron Cohen's character Borat, a clueless Kazakh TV personality from the film of the same name. (Borat, who does not have Asian features, more closely resembles an Uzbek or Tajik in appearance.) In fact, Kazakhs are nothing like that. Even beyond the language barrier, they're often hard to read, perhaps because this country of 15 million has a complex and at times painful history.

In the Bronze Age it was populated by Scythian tribes that left behind mysterious kurgans, or burial mounds, containing gold rivaling that of the Aztecs. Modern Kazakhs are descended from Turkic and Mongol tribes that settled this semiarid plain about twice the size of Alaska in the days of Genghis Khan, some 800 years ago.

The area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century, and Kazakhstan became a Soviet republic in 1936. It remained under Soviet control until that empire broke apart in the 1990s. Today Kazakhstan's nomadic and communist past is at odds with a new capitalist energy fueled by natural resources, including uranium and rich oil deposits in the Caspian Sea. This is my first trip to Central Asia, and I have not come to see the fancy Land Rovers and BMWs that are so conspicuous in Almaty and the new capital, Astana, which in many ways resembles the United Arab Emirates' Dubai.

Kazakhstan has moved more quickly toward a modern and prosperous future than any other former Soviet republic, with cranes erecting shiny towers in Astana at what seems like a floor a minute. Under development is Khan Shatyry, a giant glass tent that will cover an area equal to 10 football fields when completed next year.

On this trip I want to experience the flip side of Kazakh life. I have flown thousands of miles to get a firsthand look at the steely men and women who stubbornly cling to ancient customs and traditions in what can best be described as the Texas of Central Asia.

We turn off the highway to China and stop next to an empty field. Dau checks to see if I'm impressed. I shrug. "Saka!" he cries, poking his finger at a hillock in the middle distance for emphasis. Okay, I get it: I'm looking at a Scythian burial mound from the Bronze Age, long ago plundered for its gold. Behind it is a second one, and to the right a third. Yes, I'm impressed.

Soon we're negotiating a mountain pass, and the wheels of our Lada spin out perilously close to the edge of a deep gorge, hurling rock and shale over the side. Dau remains stoic, and after more than an hour of upward slogging, at 10,000 feet we suddenly pass through an imaginary gateway to Shangri-La.

The country opens up to reveal rolling grassland steppe, ideal pasture with dozens of grazing horses and a smattering of yurts, felt-lined, nomadic tepees that make sub-zero temperatures bearable. Cattle and sheep dot the horizon, and a steppe fox nervously trots along a hillside, wary of eagle talons that can sweep down at any moment.

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