The largest of all the former "stans" of the Soviet Era, Kazakhstan
is the size of Western Europe, with 2.7 million square kilometers. South
of Siberia, Kazakhstan is bordered by the Caspian Sea, China and 3 of the
other stans: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan. There are about 15
million people in Kazakhstan. Over 50% are ethnic Kazakhs and the remaining
a mixture of Russian, Ukrainian, German, Uzbek and other minorities. While
nearly 50% are culturally Muslim, 44% are Russian Orthodox and the decades
of Soviet influence left the Kazakhs very liberal in terms of their Islamic
practices. Vodka is consumed and produced on large scale.
The President, Nurzultan Nazarbayev, has been quite controversial, making
the decision to make Kazakh the national language and moving the capital
from Almaty to Astana, an underdeveloped city in the north, closer to the
Russian border. Oddly, many people, including native Kazakhs, speak only
Russian, with about 40% of the population speaking Kazakh.
The predominant industry, is of course, oil and many multinational oil
industries have country offices there. Most industry collapsed when the
Soviet Union collapsed, leaving a major economic crisis, high unemployment
and slow growth. GDP per capita is $6300.
Kazakhs are quite easy-going people, having constantly had to adapt to
new conquerers throughout the centuries. They are friendly, photogenic people
who at many turns, welcomed me in for tea; a tradition well-known in that
region. The woman I worked with owned a sewing factory with 20 young female
employees. My first day in Taldykorgan, a city about a 4 hour drive through
the desert from Almaty, I was treated to an "official" tea drinking
ceremony where, as guest of honor, I was given ample gifts of sweets and
savories along with endless cups of green tea.
There is a heavy Asian influence and many ethnic Koreans and Chinese live
in Kazakhstan today. Actually, the entrepreneur with whom I worked is ethnically
Korean, married to an Uzbek and speaks Russian and Kazakh fluently!
Statistics, map and flag come from the CIA world fact book.
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