In terms of customs and how to behave in Kazakhstan, most rules are based on the country's Islamic roots and nomadic traditions. According to Islamic dietary restrictions, for example, pork should not be consumed and alcohol is forbidden. In Kazakhstan the restriction on pork is closely adhered to, but with many Christians, pork is at times available. Alcohol is, however, a part of the daily life. Vodka is imbibed, sometimes is large amounts, by Muslim Kazakhs as it is by Russians and other Soviet peoples. Only the strictest Muslims refrain from drinking alcohol. [Source: safaritheglobe.com]
Kazakhs have always revered and highly valued their national customs and traditions. The main tradition of Kazakhs, which eventually transformed into a feature of national character, is hospitality. In the Kazakh society, there is an unofficial law voiced in ancient times, which says “Meet a guest as the God's messenger”. Hospitality is considered a sacred duty in the Kazakh society. At all times, the steppe inhabitants did their best to please their guest. Therefore, each traveller knew that he or she would be welcomed anywhere in the Kazakh land.[Source: VisitKazakhstan.kz, Official tourism website of Kazakhstan]
When guests come to visit, the host will entertain them with the best foods. For highly honored guests or relatives that haven’t met for years, mutton and horse are brought out. Before eating, the host will firstly bring water, kettle and washbasin for the guest to wash their hands, and then serve the plate with sheep head, rear leg and rib meat in front of the guest. The guest should firstly cut out and eat a piece of meat from the sheep cheek and then the left ear, and give the sheep head to the host. Then every one can start eating together. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]
Respect for the elderly is another positive feature of Kazakhs. Traditionally, a child from early childhood is taught to be moderate and honest when dealing with older, wiser and life experienced people. Kazakhs respect the old. They will politely offer tea or meal firstly to the older people. Usually the elder members of the family are firstly seated and then the rest will be seated cross-legged or on knees around the table. The best meat is served to the elderly.
Customs and Etiquette in Central Asia
There are over 140 nationalities throughout the Central Asian region. Custom differ from country to country, and even from village to village, and thus sorting out proper etiquette and the "right" cultural tenets and customs can be difficult. For foreign visitors: as a guest in a region proud of its tradition of hospitality, locals will readily forgive any transgressions or missteps within reason. As is the case almost everywhere in the world, a smile and a laugh can go a long way. [Source: safaritheglobe.com]
One of the most beautiful features of Central Asian culture is found within one simple little gesture, this "silent bow". Often accompanying the handshake, men will place their left hand over their hearts and offer a slight, almost indiscernible, bow to their counterpart in a gesture of deep respect. This subtle bow or slight inclination of the head is also displayed in a variety of other exchanges among people. However, when not shaking hands, it is the right hand that is placed on the chest. You will most definitely encounter this when someone is offering thanks, saying goodbye or parting ways, or even when a younger man passes an elder in the street and wants to show his respect. [Source:orexca.com]
Greetings and Superstitions in Kazakhstan
According to kwintessential.co.uk: “Greetings are rather formal due to the hierarchical nature of society. The common greeting is the handshake, often done with both hands and a smile. Since many Kazakhs are Muslim, some men will not shake hands with women, so be sensitive to these religious differences. Once you have developed a personal relationship, close friends of the same sex may prefer to hug rather than shake hands. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk |~|]
Meeting and Greeting: 1) The handshake is the common greeting. Two hands are often used. 2) Handshakes tend to be gentle. 3) Many Kazakh men will not shake hands with women. A woman should extend her hand, but if it is not accepted, she should not be insulted. 4) Maintain eye contact during the greeting. 5) Shake hands at the end of a meeting, prior to leaving. 6) If you meet someone several times in the same day, you should shake hands each time. 7) Wait to be introduced to everyone, usually in order of importance. 8) Academic and professional titles are used in business. 9) People are called by their title and surname. 10) Wait until invited before using someone’s first name. |~|
Most Kazakhs have a first and patronymic name (the father’s name followed by a suffix -ich or –ovich for son of or daughter of, respectively). Wait until invited before using someone’s first name, although the invitation generally comes early in the relationship. |~|
The Kazakhs believe that Tuesdays and Fridays are inauspicious and they will not go out these days. They pay great attention to odd numbers, especially 7 and 9. The number 7 is the most respected number in their opinion. Number 7 has the most frequent appearance in the folk literary works of Kazakhs. For example, Kazakhs hold cradle and naming ceremonies on the 7th day after the baby is born. Intermarriage is forbidden within 7 generations, while two families who are connected by marriage should be 7 rivers apart from each other. \=/
Traditions and Customs Associated with Mutual Aid
Helping each other has always been highly valued by Kazakhs and is very important in a Kazakh community. Therefore, there are a number of traditions, which are associated with mutual aid. Some of them are listed below: According to Asar, a a family, which has to perform an urgent and sometimes a hard work, has a right to ask relatives, friends and neighbours for assistance. At the end of the work, a rich table is laid as a gratitude for those, who helped. [Source: VisitKazakhstan.kz, Official tourism website of Kazakhstan]
Zhylu is a tradition associated with the provision of material, moral and financial assistance to people affected by natural disasters (fire, flood, etc.). All supporters, not only relatives are entitled to help the victims. Many things can be given as donations - livestock, building materials, clothing, money, etc.
Belkoterer means to treat the elderly with respect. Delicious and most importantly - soft foods such as kazy, zhent, cottage cheese are cooked for the elderly. Typically, this responsibility rests on children or close relatives, the less likely neighbours. Belkoterer tradition is an example of caring for the elderly.
Traditions and Customs Associated with Guests
Hosts work hard to be hospitable to their guests, preparing a full table of food, or, at a minimum, offering tea, bread, fruit, nuts, cookies and other sweets if someone shows up unexpectedly and there isn’t much food in the house. Show respect towards older people by shaking their hands and offering them your seat. Old men, called “aksakals” ("white beards") are treated with great respect.
Travellers in Kazakhstan are most likely to be encountered with the traditions, associated with guest reception. Here are some examples of them: Konakasy - a custom associated with treating of a guest. As mentioned above, Kazakh people since ancient times have been famous for their hospitality. Kazakhs always reserve the tastiest food for guests. Guests are divided into three types: 1) "arnayy konak", a specially invited guest; 2) "kudayy konak", a random stranger (uninvited); 3) "kydyrma konak", an unexpected guest. All these guests, despite of their type are offered a rich table — Konakasy. [Source: VisitKazakhstan.kz, Official tourism website of Kazakhstan]
Konakkade is a tradition under which a host has a right to ask a guest to sing a song or play a musical instrument (of course, as long as a guest is known for his or her talent), thus ensuring some fun and joy during the feast. Erulik - if new settlers came to a village erulik was arranged in their honour, i.e. a small celebration that allowed newcomers to quickly adapt to the new location. Also, the custom erulik includes assistance in settling of the newcomers, when neighbours provide them with firewood, drinking water, etc. for the time being.
Toy dastarkhan is a special form of celebration, organized for holiday or during it. Sports competitions, music, singing competitions (aitys) and horse riding competitions are organised in addition to the gatherings during Toy dastarkhan. Very often, dishes of Kazakh national cuisine are served during such occasions.
Home Customs in Kazakhstan
Guests should not sit on a bed when in a yurt or house; instead they should be seated on the floor mat with legs crossed instead of extending the legs. If a guest has to stand up and go somewhere he or she should not walk in front of people but rather behind them. When food is being prepared, the guest should not enter the kitchen or the place where food is being prepared.
When visiting, it is provocative or inauspicious if the guest comes rushing to the gate on a horse. The guest should slow their horses and approach the gate in calm way. It is considered to be defiant if a guest enters a yurt or house with a horsewhip. A guest should not be seated on the right side of a heating stove, which is the seat of the host.
As in all social situations avoid sensitive conversation topics, such as politics, finances, religion, and business unless initiated by your local counterpart. Also try to avoid being loud, rude, showing off wealth, or getting too public.
When invited to someone’s house for dinner, it is polite to bring something for the hostess such as pastries. Dress conservatively in clothing you might wear to the office. Kazakhs value dressing well over comfort. To dress too informally might insult your hosts. If the host asks a guest to stay for the night, do not refuse the bedclothes of offered by the host, otherwise this will cause serious loss of face.
Mosques in Central Asia are often closed to women. Some are closed to non-Muslim men too. One should ask for permission before entering. Those that do welcome non-Muslims except them to be appropriately dressed: no shorts, short skirts, revealing halter tops or exposed shoulders. Mosques that allow women often require them to at least wear a head scarf. Some require them to cover their entire bodies, except the face, hands and feet, and not wear trousers. Sometimes mosques provide women who don’t have one with a head scarf. Sometimes they have robes for men wearing shorts. When entering a mosque take off your shoes and make sure you feet or socks are clean. Show respect, remain quiet and stay out of the way. Taking photographs is
The Muslim faithful are expected to remove their shoes and wash their feet in a sacred basin before they enter the mosque. If no water is available Muslims are supposed to wash themselves with sand. Foreign visitors can usually get away with just removing their shoes and are not required to wash their feet. In any case, make sure you feet or socks are clean. Dirty feet in a mosques are regarded as an insult to Islam. In large mosques you remove your shoes and place them on a shelf in a place with a number under it.
Inside a mosque don't walk in front of someone who is praying, don't touch the Koran, never sit or stand on a prayer rug and never place a Koran on the floor or put anything on top of it. Also, don't cross your legs in front of older people and don't step over someone who is sitting down. Some historical mosques require visitors to pay an admission fee. Some also require them to pay an attendant a small fee for taking care of their shoes. It is best for foreigner to avoid visiting mosques at prayer time on Friday. Women and men are segregated in many mosques.
Knocking on the door of a yurt is considered rude. There is a taboo about stepping on the threshold of the yurt, which is viewed as the equivalent of stepping on its owners neck. When entering a yurt, many people open the door flap with their right hand, from the right side. Doing otherwise invites bad luck. Tall people should watch their head; the door opening is usually very low. Some of the customs and taboos associated with yurts also apply to houses.
When entering a yurt, visitors are supposed to go to the left and sit on the ground, a stool, or a bed. The host family sits on the right. Inside the yurt you are expected to relax and make yourself at home. It is fine to take a nap if you want. That is preferable to acting nervous and bringing in bad vibes. If you spend the night sleep with your feet pointing towards the door.
Don’t touch the central pole, whistle, take food with your left hand, throw any trash in a fire, walk in front of an older person, turn your back to the altar or touch anyone’s hat. These things are considered disrespectful and are thought to bring bad luck. Don’t roll up your sleeves in a yurt. It implies you want to fight. If you have short sleeves try not to expose your wrists.
Gift-Giving Customs in Kazakhstan
There is not a great deal of protocol in gift giving. Observant Muslims refrain from drinking alcohol but many Muslim Kazakhs enjoy a drink now and again but make sure your hosts before giving him alcoholic beverages. Gifts are usually opened when received. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk]
Guests are very often have to receive or give presents; in addition, there are often times, when gifts should be given in some special occasions according to the traditions. Some examples are given below: Suyinshi is a custom according to which a traveller or any other person who brought home a good message (news) receives a valuable gift from the owners in gratitude. Sometimes before telling good news a person says ‘Suyunshi’ or ‘what would you give me for a Suyinshi?’, thus implying that he or she has something great to tell. [Source: VisitKazakhstan.kz, Official tourism website of Kazakhstan]
“At mingizip shapan zhabu" is a high honour. According to the tradition, a respected visitor, who may be a poet (akin), a hero, warrior (batir) or other very respected man receives a gift from local residents: a horse and a splendid shapan (robe of camel's hair with a cotton lining) in recognition of their merit. Baygazy is a tradition of giving a gift to a person, who acquired a new valuable thing.
Eating Customs in Kazakhstan
Kazakh’s are very hospitable people and enjoy hosting dinners at their homes. When guests come to visit, the host will entertain them with the best foods they can. For highly honored guests or relatives that haven’t met for years, mutton and horse are brought out. Before eating, the host will firstly bring water, kettle and washbasin for the guest to wash their hands, and then serve the plate with sheep head, rear leg and rib meat in front of the guest. The guest should firstly cut out and eat a piece of meat from the sheep cheek and then the left ear, and give the sheep head to the host. Then every one can start eating together. Before slaughtering a sheep, a man gives thanks to Allah. When the prayer ends he wipes his hands down his face to affirm the blessing. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]
There are lots of eating taboos among the Kazakhs. The following are the main taboos. 1) In accordance with Muslim beliefs t is forbidden to eat pork or any animals that has not been slaughtered or had its blood drained; 2) Animals are usually killed by male. 3) Don’t hold and eat the entire Nang (a kind of crusty pancake) when having meals. 4) One should not place food on wooden cabinets or on any daily living goods. The guest should follow the host’s lead. 5) When having meals or drinking milk tea, it is not allowed to stamp on the table cloth or walk over the table. Do not leave until the table is cleaned. 6) When eating or talking with others, it is forbidden to pick noses or ears, spit, or yawn. 7) The guest should not fiddle with dinnerware or food, nor should they open the pot cover. 8) Before and after meals, the host will pour water for the guest to wash his hands. Do not slosh after washing hands; wipe hands dry using towels and politely return it to the host. \=/
Table manners are not terribly formal in Kazakhstan. Food is eaten with a knife and fork. Some foods are meant to be eaten by hand. According to kwintessential.co.uk: 1) Table manners are Continental — the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating. 2) You will be served tea and bread, even if you are not invited to a meal. Since Kazakhs consider bread to be sacred, serving bread is a sign of respect. 3) It is not imperative that you arrive on time, although you should not arrive more than 30 minutes late without telephoning first. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk /]
4) Meals are social events. As such, they may take a great deal of time. 5) Your host or another guest may serve you. 6) In more rural settings, you may sit on the floor. 7) Expect to be served second helpings. 8) Leave something on your plate when you have finished eating. This demonstrates that you have had enough, whereas if you finish everything it means you are still hungry and you will be served more food. Kazakhs often indicate they don’t want more by placing a hand over their bowl or plate. /
The sheep’s head ritual: In rural settings it is a sign of respect to offer the most honoured guest a boiled sheep's head on a beautiful plate. The guest then divides the food among the guests in the following fashion: 1) The ear is given to the smallest child so that he or she will listen to and obey the elders. 2) The eyes are given to the two closest friends so that they will take care of the guest. 3) The upper palate is given to the daughter-in-law and the tongue to the host’s daughter so both women will hold their tongues. 4) The pelvic bones go to the second most respected guest. 5) The brisket is given to the son-in-law. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk /]
Drinking Customs in Kazakhstan
1) Young people should not drink alcohol in front of old people. 2) If alcoholic beverages are served, expect a fair amount of toasting. 3) If a guest is offered alcohol or koumiss (fermented mare’s milk), and they don’t drink alcohol or don’t like the taste, they should at least sip a to bit show gratitude, otherwise, the host will be unhappy. 4) To avoid getting completely wasted, some Westerners take a shot and then spit it into the chase cup.
When served tea, your cup will often only be filled halfway. To fill the cup would mean that your host wanted you to leave. You will be given a bowl to drink broth or tea. When you do not want any more, turn your bowl upside-down as an indication.
Koumiss (slightly fermented mare’s milk) is usually ladled out of a large container and served in pint-size bowls. It is often handed around in a communal bowl. One must drink a lot of it to get high. It is sometimes poured from glass to glass several times to make it thick like whipped cream. Before drinking it many Central Asians dip their ring finger in it and smear some of their forehead and flick it in the four compass directions as a sign of respect to airag itself. Some Mongolians drink ten liters of the stuff a day. Describing a herder drinking koumiss, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “He lifts a bowl to his mouth, drinks deeply and practically belches an emphatic, ‘Ahhhh!’ He licks his lips...Then he does it all over again.”
Russian Drinking Customs
Meals are often repeatedly interrupted by toasts, speeches and shots of vodka. Russians like to make lots of toasts. They make toast to your health, to your mother, to the moon, to Russia, to America, to world peace, to beautiful women, anything. They toast a birth in a ritual called "washing a baby" in which a military medal or something else of value is placed into a glass of vodka and passed around the table.
Russians typically begin a meal with a toast and shot of vodka downed in one gulp. To take a drink before the first toast is the height of uncouthness, Toasts are then repeated through the meal and afterwards. The word “droog” ("friend") comes up often. Foreigners are often asked to make a toast. It is a good idea to have one ready.
Russians often drink communally from the same cup or glass which is passed around. They often eat bread, snacks and other food when they drink, reportedly to keep them from getting too drunk. They don’t take kindly to people who don't join them for a drink. Refusing a drink can be quite difficult. To avoid getting completely wasted, some Westerners take a shot and then spit it into the chaser cup.
Vodka Drinking Customs
Vodka is often consumed straight and cold. It is swallowed in one gulp. No sipping allowed. Three glasses in a row — for starters. The night is not considered over until all the bottles of vodka are empty. Vodka is often consumed with a chaser, often juice. Many beer drinkers add a shot of vodka to their pints. During banquets, guests sometimes pour their vodka into their water glasses.
Traditionally the difference between a vodka and alcohol drinker was that the later waits until 5:00pm. Two-hour vodka lunches are popular with some people. Others drink vodka for breakfast. Sometimes it seems like the smell of stale vodka is on everyone's breath. Shops that sell vodka don't open until 2:00pm to keep workers from drinking it on the job and some people from drinking it all day.
A common superstition among vodka drinkers is not to eat after the first glass. But most Russians seems to ignore the custom and consume things like jellied meats, fish, salted gerkins and sauerkraut. A popular evening dish is vodka and water poured over a bowl of red berries. Many Russians become excited just by the thought of eating pelmeni (dumplings) with their vodka.
Kazakh funerals mix Islamic and traditional beliefs with most relatives and community members taking part in the funeral itself. After a person dies he is washed and wrapped in a white shroud in accordance with Muslim customs but it is done so in yurt specially erected for the occasion. The body is not left unattended until the burial takes place.
The funeral is presided over by a mullah and traditionally features a chorus of moaning women. The deceased is brought to the cemetery on a special stretcher, prayers are said and the body is lowered into the ground and buried. At the yurt of the deceased a spear is set up with a mourning flag on it. If the flag is red the dead was a young person; if it is black he was middle aged; if it is white he was elderly. Ablations are performed, clothing of the deceased is distributed among family members and food and drink are served.
The yurt and spear remain in place for the year-long mourning period, The third, seventh and 40th days after the funeral are observed with special banquets in which participants recite Muslim prayers and feast on lamb and horse. One year after the death a large feast is held, with many people and official representatives from the tribes with associations to the deceased. The deceased’s favorite horse is slaughtered after its tail and mane are shaved on the anniversary of the actual death. Other animals are slaughtered for the feast. Sometimes several hundred people show up and horses races are held and the winners are given generous prizes.
Graves are usually marked with domed monuments made of stone, adobe bricks and clay or piles of stones with a pole attached to a bundle of rice surrounded by a stone fence. Sometimes sacrifices and representation of nines are made at the grave.
Holidays and Festivals in Kazakhstan
The Kazakh calendar has traditionally revolved around religious festivals and the rhythms of nomads. Holidays are often celebrated with people dressing up in traditional clothes, setting up yurts and eating special foods. People usually visit relatives and friends and give gifts. Festivals, holidays and festive occasions of ten feature various games and activities such as snatching sheep, horse racing, chasing girls, singing contests and dancing. The Kazakhs also give feasts when there are births, engagements or weddings. Corban and Id El-fitr — the two most important Muslim celebrations — are occasions for feasts of mutton eating and mutual greetings. Many communities, villages and towns have their own local festivals and events.
Public Holidays: The national holiday is October 25, Republic Day. Other holidays are International Women’s Day (March 8), Novruz (spring equinox, March 21–22), Unification Day (May 1), Victory Day (May 9), Constitution Day (August 30), and Independence Day (December 16). Russian Orthodox citizens celebrate Christmas on January 7.
New Year's Day on January 1st is the traditional gift giving time for Russians and many other people of the former Soviet Union. Under Communism, it incorporated many traditions associated with Christmas: decorated trees, gift giving, Ded Moroz, Father Frost (the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus) and Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden. It is celebrated according to the Western calendar. It is often the most festive holiday of the year. Many is celebrate New Years Eve with vodka, champagne, and Napoleons, similar to the French pastry.
Navruz is a spring festival held throughout Central Asia on the spring equinox (March 21st or 22nd) which used the mark the beginning of a new year. A Muslim adaption of a pre-Islamic vernal equinox festival with Zoroastrian roots, it features poem reading, singing, wrestling, tug-of-wars, dancers and horseback riders. Navruz is a Persian word meaning "new." Many people dress in traditional costumes and craftsmen prepare their best work. There are many traditional foods associated with this holiday. Huge pots of sumalak (a kind of porridge), khalim (a meat stew), samsa (dumpling) and milk dough. People believe these dishes cleanse the body and make people friendlier. Navruz is a grand occasion to say good-bye to the old, usher in the new, and hope for a better year in stockbreeding.
Navruz (also spelled Novruz, Nowrouz, Nooruz, Nauroz, Nevruz, Noruz, Nowruz, Nowrooz and Nawruz) marks the beginning of the traditional new year for Iranians, Caucasians, Central Asians and the Turkic peoples. It is celebrated in Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Pakistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, parts of Russia, Xinjiang (western China) and Turkey.
The Navruz celebration lasts for around two weeks and has links with the 3000-year-old Zoroastrianism fire rites and sacrifices to the sun. According to tradition ancient Muslims of the East withheld from quarreling and sought forgiveness, honesty and general goodwill at Navruz. Some Central Asians set fir tree branches on fire and spread its smoke around their homes as they believed that it would keep away potential misfortune and catastrophes. They also wore soft colors like blue and white. Today, people wear often don new clothes and prefer bright colors such as red as well as white and blue.
During Navruz, special dishes are cooked and gifts are exchanged between friends, relatives, neighbors. Parents give gifts to their children, close friends and to each other. Rich people usually give money, clothes and food to poor people. As this day marks the vernal equinox – the day is usually symbolized by the sun. Villagers light fires and jump over them to purify the heart, mind and soul. Congregational prayers are held for future good luck, harmony and protection from famines and other disasters. [Source: kyrgyz.net.my, official Kyrgyzstan tourism website]
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated April 2016