During my trip to Central Asia this month, I did a homestay in the small village of Kaskasu near Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan. It ended up being one of my most memorable experiences; an authentic look into the life of traditional Kazakhs. My mind was opened to a part of the world I previously knew next to nothing about, and I feel all the richer for it. If you’re still on the fence about whether or not to do a village homestay in Kazakhstan, I can only say YOLO! Here are 25 photos that describe the amazing experience.
Meet the family
My Kazakhstan village homestay was with a beautiful family of eight: mother, father, four daughters and two sons. Big families are still considered the norm in Kazakhstan, especially outside the cities. In fact, the more children a mother has, the more she is respected in the community. They apparently even have “rankings” for mothers based on number of children, which the government uses to determine how much of a stipend they get.
The children were all extremely well-behaved and an absolute delight to spend time with. The eldest daughter, 18, lived with their grandmother in a house nearby. I was told it is a Kazakh custom to “give” your firstborn to your parents to raise.
Foreigners are so rare here that my arrival was seen as quite the event, and even the neighbours came by to check me out. LOL.
Kazakhstan village homestay 101
The main house was a modest two-storey white-walled structure. On the first floor were two rooms in which the entire family slept.
On the second floor was the dining area and a spacious guestroom where they put me up.
There is a smaller house to the side of the main one, where they huddle together in winter. Because it’s smaller, it is easier to keep warm.
The sink you see outside was the only source of running water (and sometimes it didn’t really run either). When I was washing my face that night, one of the dear kids stood next to me with a jug of water and poured to simulate a faucet.
How did they shower, you ask? They didn’t. At least, not everyday. A few hundred metres away, towards the grandparents house, is a banya, which is kind of like a Russian-style sauna. Once a week or so, they sweat it out in the banya and then wash themselves by mixing buckets of hot and cold water. I didn’t try it here, but I did try it at another village stay around Almaty and it is hot in there.
As for the toilet, it is an outdoor shack sheltering a hole in the ground. Quite literally, a shithole.
Drinking water is taken from an underground spring, and boiled in this special wood-fired kettle to make delicious chai.
Beautiful nature, in every direction
Shortly after I arrived, my guide Dildabek (whom I booked on Indy Guide and was a friend of the family) took me on a stroll around the village. A handful of kids of course followed. We walked to a nearby river surrounded by a field of dandelions, which the kids plucked and blew on.
We then walked up the picturesque rolling hills in the village. As I was admiring the view and taking photos, the youngest son suddenly yelled and ran full speed down the hill. When I asked what had happened, my guide explained that he had spotted the family’s cows, which had been missing for the past few days. The boy disappeared for the rest of the stroll.
The girls were unfazed and continued to accompany us around the village. They suggested going to the main highlight of the village, a mini canyon dubbed “44 daughters” (or was it 42? Sorry, too much to remember). Legend has it that when the village was invaded by the enemies, the villagers wanted to protect their daughters from being taken away. They thus prayed to the gods to turn them into stone. And so, to this day the daughters remain in the village, albeit as giant pieces of rock.
Delicious, wood-fired cooking
After our little tour of the village it was time for dinner. Which was great because I was starving. Meals are cooked outside in a large clay oven called a tandoor, and a stove-like block. A fire is lit and the kids help to keep it burning. I also saw the father dutifully chopping blocks of wood.
It seems like a lot of hard work to prepare one meal. The end result was positively delicious, though. It was the best meal I had had in my trip so far, and I made sure to tell the mother that. Nothing beats home cooking.
The 4 sacred animals of Kazakhstan
There are traditionally four animals the Kazakhs consider sacred: horses, camels, sheep and goats. But when I say “sacred”, I don’t mean some sort of divine creature that is untouchable. Kazakhs will happily eat any of these animals. When I say “sacred”, I mean most important or most vital to life.
Of the four, horses are the most adored. To the Kazakhs, horses are everything. They are food, transport, income, and a friend. Kumis, or mare’s milk, is considered the ultimate elixir, capable of healing any ailment. It is said that if you drink mare’s milk, you will have the energy of a horse.
During my time in Kazakhstan, I saw countless horses, cows, sheep and goats. They literally wander the streets. But I did not see one pig, not once. I’m sure you can guess why.
Religion: Muslim, but a “soft” version
Like most of Central Asia, the predominant religion in Kazakhstan is Islam. However, Kazakhs adhere to a milder form of the religion. This is because, as my guide explained, before Islam entered the country in the 8th century, Kazakhs already had their own strong Shamanic beliefs and refused to abandon their tradition of worshipping the sky, fire, etc., for monotheism. As a result, the strain of Islam in Kazakhstan is far softer than ones practices in Arab countries.
Although Dildabek, my guide, was a rather devout Muslim himself (he was actually fasting for Ramadan during that week, and at times went off to pray), he had a very open mind and had no issues taking me inside Russian orthodox churches. He told me that Kazakhs are very accepting of other religions. According its constitution, Kazakhstan is a secular state.
Still, Kazakhstan is a big country (the ninth largest in the world in terms of area), and as such attitudes are different depending on where you are. For Shymkent and the village of Kaskasu, their proximity to Uzbekistan, where Islam is stronger, means people are more on the conservative side. In the north of country closer to the Russian border, Orthodox Christianity has a stronger foothold. However, when I later went to Almaty, arguably the most progressive city in Central Asia, the city atmosphere was remarkably European. It was very cosmopolitan and hardly any women wore headscarves. As another local guide would tell me, drinking alcohol or living together before marriage has even become accepted in some cases.
Lest we forget
On the second day of my homestay, the eldest son took me to visit his school, which all the village children attend. Even though it was a Saturday, all the teachers were there to do office work. They were more than happy to show me around the classrooms, library and gym.
Of particular interest was a war memorial next to the school. Although not well known in the West, Kazakhstan sent many soldiers to fight in World War II as part of the Soviet Army. This memorial commemorates those from the village of Kaskasu that perished in the war. To the left of the centrepiece are the names of those who bodies were returned and are buried in Kazakhstan. To the right are the names of those whose bodies who were not returned.
The memorial was built by one of the teachers at the school, whose father died in the war. He pointed out a name listed on the second plaque with much pride.
Tengri, the Heavenly Mountain
When it comes to worshipping nature, you can’t go past Tengri (aka Tian Shan). This “heavenly mountain” is regarded as sacred and a symbol of the country. (But when I say “sacred” that doesn’t mean people can’t climb it. Apparently some nomadic tribes still live on the mountain).
One of the longest mountain ranges in Central Asia, it straddles the border regions between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the Xinjiang region in China. And all three countries regard it with awe. There is even a religion named after it (Tengrism).
Having gazed at it endlessly at every opportunity, I can see why. It is truly postcard perfect and epic on a grand scale. From the village of Kaskasu, Tengri seems so close you can almost touch it. Like many Kazakhs throughout the ages, I rested easy knowing those majestic peaks were watching over me.
You can book an authentic Kazakhstan village homestay and many other activities on Indy Guide. I stumbled across the site while searching for local guides and it proved to be an indispensable resource in the planning of my Central Asia trip. If you wish to book this family in particular, drop me a message and I can put you in touch.