Horses loom large in the Kazakhstani imaginary. When Kazakhs were still a nomadic people, a person’s wealth was calculated based on the horses they owned. Horses were transportation and a source of sustenance: they carried people around on seasonal transhumance, and provided the sour fizzy mildly alcoholic mare’s milk drink khymyz to quench one’s thirst after a long day in the saddle. Kazakhstan’s national dish beshbarmak also features horses: rounds of richly fatty khazy horse sausage served on top of a mound of greasy boiled flat noodles and onions. Ask a Kazakh person about the importance of horses, and they will wax on about the ancient ties between horses and nomads. They might also regale you with a number of ailments that eating horsemeat may cure you of, from heart problems to high cholesterol. Alternatively, they might trot out this proverb my Kazakh instructor taught me last week in class:
Орта жолда атың өлмесің,
Орта жаста қатының өлмесің
(May your horse not die in the middle of your journey
May your wife not die in the middle of your life)
This past Friday, I had my first face-to-face encounter with horses this summer, which did not disappoint. On Friday our program director, an avid hiker, organized a group ascent to Kok Zhailau (Green Meadow) – an area of alpine meadows where traditionally Kazakhs had pastured their summer flocks, fattening them on the tender and abundant mountainous vegetation. The path was steep and slow-going, with twisting switchbacks, but through breaks in the trees, we got gorgeous views of the Tien Shan mountains and views of Almaty from above.
After about a 2-hour long hike, we reached the meadows.
As we recovered our breath and snacked, enjoying the scenery and idyllic landscape, a herd of horses appeared from a copse of fir trees.
They were curious about what we strange humans were doing on their grazing lands, and were completely unafraid of approaching us. We cooed over the foals and watched on as more and more horses poured out into the clearing. Then these horses decided they had had enough of human intrusion on their pastures.
Kazakhstani horses are smallish in stature, with broad short necks – they are said to be descendants of the wild Przewalski horses, who may be the only extant wild horses in nature today. This august lineage showed some of the stubborn independence of their forebears as they approached our group of Americans and a local group of picnickers – boldly snapping up a whole banana (peel and all) and nuzzling all items on the table, nudging people out of the way. Our initial wonderment at these gorgeous creatures turned into disgruntlement and trepidation, as we realized that if there were to be a conflict between these large animals and us, we would be on the losing side.
Our foray into nature ended with the Kazakhstani horses reigning supreme over their Green Pasture, as we scuttled back to the more predictable environs of our city lives in Almaty.
By: Laura Tourtellotte
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2018