Steppe Cowboys
Kazakhstan's Big Country Hosts a Breed of Hard-Riding, Hard-Drinking Drovers

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.

The snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan, at least 6,500 feet higher than our plateau and equal to anything you can find in Switzerland, dominate the southern horizon. They mark the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, also a former Soviet republic.

We push farther into the wilderness, to a camp with three yurts sheltered in a gully on the high banks of a stream. When I step out of the Lada, I know I've found Kazakh heaven. The high Assy Plateau is a giant and expanding cathedral where an intensely blue sky ranges over yellow-brown late-season earth. We're surrounded by tundra and taiga forest, a northern landscape of short grass and tall spruces that cluster together along the tops of ridges. Every now and then, a blast of icy wind from the Tian Shan mountains blows through camp and stings my face.

Livestock is brought into makeshift corrals that offer some protection against roving packs of wolves as night begins to fall. I meet Dau's partners. Mesr is a former soldier in the Soviet army with alert eyes and a perpetual grin on his weather-worn face. I also meet Suragan, an expert marksman who loves his vodka and besbarmak, a kind of noodle dish cooked with mutton. They are preparing for a three-day journey down to Chelek, a small village in the nearby low country, with horses and cattle and 350 head of sheep belonging to Dau.

Suragan takes a bottle of vodka from a box and passes it around. He wants to know what I'm doing in his camp. With the help of a dictionary and clumsy hand gestures, I explain I've escaped city living and come halfway around the world for a chance to be a Kazakh cowboy. This makes him laugh, and he invites me to join his cattle drive. It's a great opportunity, but I'm not prepared for sleeping in open, freezing conditions. It doesn't look as if these steppe cowboys have the right gear either, but they're used to it.

Meanwhile, Suragan's wife prepares tea in a Russian samovar, and Mirat, a cowboy in his mid-30s, sharpens a butcher's knife on a rock. He's the local kokpar champion, kokpar being a kind of deadly horseback rugby played with the headless carcass of a goat.

Kokpar is a sport with few rules -- elbowing, kicking and biting permitted -- where the object of the game is to gain possession of the headless carcass and carry it across a goal line. In the summer months it's played two or three times a week here, with plenty of vodka consumed by players and spectators alike. For those not too badly injured, this Kazakh rodeo ends with a big party. (Music in this place with no running water or electricity is provided by car stereos.)

Now Mirat stands over a bound ram, pulls back the head by its curved horns and expertly slices the animal's throat with the blade. The ram bleeds out fast, turning a patch of tawny steppe into a hot scarlet pool in seconds. It will provide meat for the camp's table tonight and tomorrow. There are no Borats here. This is a hard and beautiful country that produces a tough and resilient people. This is Kazakhstan at its purest -- and wildest.

Two days later Dau and I meet up again with Mesr, Suragan and the rest of the Kazakh Wild Bunch. Coming off the mountain at the rear of a big herd, Mesr's a slumped-in-saddle, chilled-to-the-bone figure in a wool cap. He looks tired as hell, and I offer him a Derbes.

I trade my place in Dau's Lada for a cowhand's horse to join the last leg of the drive. Mesr tells me he hasn't slept a wink in two nights. It has been raining, and wolves have shadowed the cattle and sheep down from the plateau.

Our small band rides through the morning sun in a dust cloud, following the cattle, which follow the sheep, cross the highway that leads to China and make for the winter corrals just a few hours away. An hour's drive down that highway, built along a northern branch of the ancient Silk Road, is Charyn Canyon, a super-deep red sandstone gorge cut clean through by a river. This Grand Canyon of Central Asia is popular with Kazakh and Russian tourists for its natural towers and bulwarks resembling a Martian landscape and for Scythian burial mounds, some still waiting to be discovered. I want to turn treasure hunter and find these archaeological gems, but there's not enough time.

Mesr watches a calf born 24 hours earlier. It trails behind its mother and wants to fall flat on its wet snout from sheer exhaustion, but Mesr keeps the newborn moving. Now and again the mother turns her dangerous horns on one of the cowboys' mountain dogs that gets too close to her offspring.

Mesr, who served in Leipzig, East Germany, and Kiev, Ukraine, as a Soviet conscript, asks how many children I have. When I explain I'm not married, he nearly falls off his horse. "How is that possible?" he demands, holding up five digits to explain he has that many sons and daughters. Most are grown and have children of their own.

When he learns I've been to Mongolia, he demands to know whether his cattle are bigger than Mongol cattle. I tell him they are, and this pleases him.

"Qitai," says Mesr, using the Russian word for China. He points east, indicating the last section of a Kazakh oil pipeline. It begins on the shores of the Caspian Sea at the other end of the country and will soon run through here. When that happens, Kazakh oil will be pumped directly into China's energy-starved economy around the clock. That pipeline is the new Silk Road, moving a different and more precious cargo in the opposite direction from the old one: west to east.

The sheep are herded into a corral and counted. Dau selects two he will slaughter for his family. Attached to the corral is a low-roofed brick compound where the sheep will stick it out during the winter months that lie ahead. They're lucky. In Mongolia they would be expected to fend for themselves in the open air.

The conversation turns to a nearby hot spring. Mesr has a bottle of vodka. Suragan has one, too. Tonight there's going to be a celebration, Kazakh style.

Erik Heinrich is a Toronto-based travel writer.

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