3 Things You Need To Know Before You Travel To Kazakhstan

“When we hired you, I thought you were such a good Asian girl!”

That was my boss two months into my new job in 2010. He and the head of H.R. were writing me up for disallowing a $400 receipt for alcoholic beverages on a federal award and not budging on it under pressure. I was fired from that job a few months later for refusing to sign a $15,000 check for a local auditor, who received the contract unethically and illegally. I was never fired before, especially not for being legal and compliant with the federal and state rules and regulations on alcohol and procurement. I can laugh about it now because I obviously wasn’t good enough!

I Am Probably The Only Kazakh You’ve Met In Your Life

My name is Gauhar; my tribe is Argyn, of the Middle Horde. I was born and raised in Central Kazakhstan. Growing up, I didn’t have to say that I was Kazakh, because Kazakhs identify themselves by their family names/lineages and tribes. There are quite a few of us outside of Kazakhstan, but the majority of the North American population has never met a Kazakh person in their lives.

I speak Kazakh, Russian, and English. I am learning Hawaiian right now. When people meet me, they assume I am Southeast Asian or hapa. I know I confuse people a lot because how can a Kazakh woman possibly have a Vietnamese last name, speak Russian, and live in Hawaiʻi? And is Kazakh even a thing or did Borat invent it? 

I am often defined by others, who think they know me, but have no knowledge of my people or shared lived experiences. So let me tell you about my journey from Kazakhstan to the rest of the world and what travel means to me.

Travel to Kazakhstan; Gauhar sits holding a white mug laughing and looking to the side of the frame
At a serious meeting in Kentucky/trying to adult

Crossing Borders While Kazakh Is Like Having An Identity Crisis!

I grew up in the Soviet Union. A country which no longer exists. The Soviets implemented a passport control system, which required people to register their home addresses and allowed people to live and work only in a village or town where they were registered. People couldn’t freely travel for over 30 days or move to a different location without government permission. If you moved unauthorized, you couldn’t get a job, receive healthcare, or education. If you didn’t have a passport at all during a random I.D. check by police, you could end up in jail and eventually a labor camp.

I left Kazakhstan in 1998 on a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Hawaiʻi. Even though I had a U.S. visa and a U.S. fellowship, I still had to get permission from the government to exit the country. We were already independent, yet the Soviet mentality of tightly controlling people’s travel, especially foreign travel, and punishing any possible defectors affected even my last days before my departure. These rules are history now. It has been exhilarating to see in the last decade Kazakhs traveling and exploring the world.

In 2000-2001, my hubby (then boyfriend) and I dated across the U.S.-Canadian border. It meant a weekly ferry ride and a drive. It involved two U.S. Customs & Border checkpoints, one on the Canada side and one on the U.S. side, and one Canadian Border checkpoint.

On the U.S. border, we were thought to be drug smugglers, because of our frequent crossings. We were questioned separately and together weekly. The car was searched, and all removable parts were stripped off and put back. After a few months, one of the side panels didn’t fit well anymore. Six months of such attention, hubby developed a stutter at the border, which made the U.S. Customs more suspicious. On the Canadian side, right after 9/11, I was briefly detained and checked, because of my Kazakhstani passport. They were worried whether I was from a wrong “STAN”, a.k.a. an Islamic terrorist. After we decided to get married, I wrote and delivered a personalized wedding invitation to the whole U.S. Customs team, since we knew them very well by then. None of them showed up.

Travel to Kazakhstan; Gauhar is winking at the camera within a giant brown frame that reads, 'WANTED; $5,000 REWARD'
For all the trouble I cause……        

Even with my U.S. passport, I have been asked to provide a second document to prove my U.S. citizenship (“Kazakhstan” is listed as my country of birth on the front page). What I say to Immigration officers:

  • “Kazakh” means “free person, nomad”, not a terrorist, defector, or a drug smuggler.
  • “STAN” means “place, land, country”, not a terrorist camp.
  • Kazakhstan is a real country; its presence in my U.S. passport doesnʻt make the passport fake.

Stereotypes Of Kazakhstan

There is absolutely no one way to be a person from Kazakhstan. It’s the ninth largest country in the world, with varying climatic and landscape conditions. Besides Kazakhs, it’s a home for 130+ ethnic groups, who practice every major religion or are not believers. Except, we don’t get the luxury of a well-established narrative, told by us and about us to the world. So we end up dealing with stereotypes before we even get to tell our own story.

I try to volunteer some info about myself without sounding like an oversharing weirdo, except it doesn’t work well–a lot of people don’t even know it’s a real country.

“Oh, you are Mongolian!”

No, I am not. Also, Mongolian grills have nothing to do with Mongolians or Central Asians. This dish was invented by a Taiwanese person.

“You speak Russian, so you are a Cossack!!!!”

No. There is a difference between “Kazakh” and “Cossack”. The Kazakh and Russian languages are not related. We had to speak Russian during the Soviet occupation because education was in Russian. Speaking Kazakh meant that you were uneducated and worthy of only menial jobs.

“Yes, you guys were brutal warriors!”

For centuries, our people practiced freedom of religion and created complex political and economic systems, which supported a thriving trade along the Silk Road. We were scientists, merchants, leaders, explorers, builders, artists, and herders. Genghis Khan and the Central Asian tribes, that joined him, are credited with transforming warfare, diplomacy, arts, cultures, and languages. Some historians say that the Renaissance in Europe wouldn’t have happened without the Mongol Empire, which smashed assumptions and opened borders and consciousness. And yet, to this day, I hear the same story of utterly barbaric marauding and thieving savages, who just happened to stumble all over the world and somehow create the largest contiguous land empire in history by sheer brute force. Also, the Mongol Empire existed in the 13th and 14th centuries A.D. The steppe has moved on, Genghis Khan has moved on, and yet, this is the only thing you know about Central Asia! We gave you horses and apples. A fully-functioning space launching pad, hosting many international space missions. Dude, you need to catch up on the last few centuries!

Travel to Kazakhstan; Gauhar stands next to her husband knee deep in water at a beach while her husband holds a paddle
A horseless Kazakh who paddles

Have you seen “Borat”?

No, I haven’t, and, no, I won’t. My people went through the Communist occupation, genocide, wars, starvation, militarization, food rationing, and forced assimilation. I will not be a prop for your entertainment.

“You should do a DNA test!”

No, thank you! I have seen a DNA test result. The test will not tell you what kind of Central Asian you are (Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, Tatar, Uyghur, Dungan, Tajik, etc.) or what tribe you come from. I know where I was born. I know I am Kazakh. No DNA test will ever tell me the names of my great-grandmothers or their tribes. The only genetics-related conversations I will entertain is about bone marrow donation and adoptees. (1) There are many adoptees, trying to locate themselves in this world. (2) I have seen several of my friends and acquaintances go through tough times because there are so very few people of color on the bone marrow donor registry. (3) And there are also adopted kids from Kazakhstan, living in the U.S. The majority are under the age of 25. There are not that many Kazakh adults in the U.S. It is highly unlikely I will ever be a match for any of them. And yet, just in case.

Travel to Kazakhstan; Gauhar hugs a young woman who is smiling
Ran into a Kazakh adoptee

Communism and its symbols also come up frequently when I first meet people. I do not understand why people, who have never lived under a Communist regime, call themselves “Communists” and romanticize or intellectualize a type of government that when implemented by the Soviet regime resulted in colonization and genocide. The Soviet Communist Regime systematically executed, tortured, imprisoned, and made more people disappear than the Nazis. So don’t be surprised if people who grew up during the Soviet period are not excited to idealize and intellectualize over this regime.

So You Want To Travel To Kazakhstan? 3 Things You Need To Know Before You Go

When people find out I am from Kazakhstan, they get excited about the possibility to visit. But, such conversations go sideways fast. People want a traditional nomadic experience, just like Julia Roberts did in a PBS documentary. Thanks to that documentary, people think that you, too, could be an adventurous Westerner and effortlessly move through the steppes by attaching yourself to a nomadic family without knowing the language or culture!

First of all, Julia Roberts went to Mongolia, not Kazakhstan. You’re confusing the countries.

Second, “nomad” is not something exotic or made-up. Eurasian nomads existed in Central Asia since the 9th century B.C. Nomadic lifestyle is a system of beliefs and behaviors, which are rooted in the most efficient use of very limited/seasonal resources while preserving them for future use. It came from a deep understanding and relationship with the land. Mobility is how you thrive in those circumstances. Mobility also means that you travel lightly, come and stay with the permission and blessing of your host, eat whatever is offered, and leave every place better because you might be coming back though.

Third, during the Communist colonization, Kazakhs were prosecuted for being nomadic.

Travel to Kazakhstan; Gauhar and her husband hold each other and kiss in front of a giant mural on a wall behind them of two men kissing

1. The Disruption of Nomadic Lifestyle: A Brief History

The disruption of the nomadic lifestyle started in the 18th century. Russians began advancement into the Kazakh steppe. They built military forts and moved Russian farmers onto our land. Colonization and mass Russian resettlement into Kazakhstan intensified in the 19th century and led to hunger, uprisings, and a rapid decline in the Kazakh population.

The two man-made famines made Kazakhs a minority on their own land. In 1919, there was the first Kazakh famine due to the Russian Civil War. Central Asians were deemed as inferior and likely to die anyway, so all food and resources were taken away to support the war effort. 400-740 thousand Kazakhs died.

Then in 1930, the second famine happened, also known as the Goloshchekin genocide. From 1925 until the early 1930s, the Russians forced Kazakhs to settle by killing our livestock, our food, and means of travel. Over 30 million heads of cattle were killed. People starved. Many Kazakhs tried to escape with their herds only to be executed by the Soviet military. The human loss is estimated to be between 1.5-3 million Kazakhs and even more. About 1 million Kazakhs managed to escape as far as Afghanistan, Siberia, and Mongolia. The push to make Kazakhstan agricultural continued through the 1960s (the Virgin Land Campaign) with mixed results.

Travel to Kazakhstan; Gauhar's husband smiles at the camera wearing a baseball cap and holding a glass of wine while he sits at a breakfast table
Batumi, Georgia – Got treated to Georgian wine at 8 am in the morning by a Georgian, whose family was relocated to Kazakhstan during the Soviet occupation. From the 1930s up to the 1950s, over 6 million people were forcefully transferred to rural areas to build the Soviet Union. Many of them ended up in Kazakhstan.

I wasn’t brought up in a traditional nomadic environment. I only rode horses and camels a few times in my entire life. By the time I was born, my family, like many other Kazakhs, lived in a big city and didn’t participate in horse husbandry daily. The modern Kazakh culture still carries the nomadic worldview through the language, food, beliefs, calendar, and traditions. Kazakhs still raise cattle, and there are still some families, who are nomadic or semi-nomadic. This is due to the persistent generational effort to preserve the culture, history, and traditions. Do enjoy it! Just don’t be careless in using the word “nomad”, when you mean “frequent traveler”.

2. Kazakhstan Is Beautiful And Burgeoning

If you ask me whether you should visit Kazakhstan, I would absolutely advise you to go and to be smart about it, just like in any other country. Kazakhstan lived through the Independence day only to experience its share of internal chaos, typical for previously colonized and destabilized countries. There are tour companies, which will expose you to some traditional living. Kazakhstan has breath-taking natural beauty – mountains, rivers, lakes, etc. I would also encourage you to spend some time in big cities and experience the current lifestyle.

This year there will be a new election in June. And for the first time in years, Kazakhstan might be able to get a president that is not a relic of the Soviet Union. The current one has been in power for 29 years. Youth have been historically at the forefront of the resistance in Kazakhstan. It has been amazing to watch the current level of civic engagement and the sophistication of peaceful protests and rallying for a fair election. The rallies and protests we grew up on at the end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Independence were raw and unruly. We were not anywhere near this level of political acumen.

So if you wish to experience Kazakhstan or any other country in Central Asia, you need to understand our histories, cultures, and socio-political landscape of the region. It’s young and rapidly changing, trying to define its identity and determine its course.

Travel to Kazakhstan; a sign reading
“Glamping” on Kahoʻolawe (sign reads: “Danger Keep Away Bombs in Land & Water Kapu Authorized Access Only)

3. Food In Kazakhstan Is A Way Of Life

Food is a significant part of everyday life. You can find many different ethnic foods there – Uzbek, Korean, Russian, Ukranian, Georgian, Western, etc. Beshparmak, the traditional Kazakh dish of rolled dough and meat, is eaten by hand; use your right hand. Tea is the main drink in the country. If you do not care for tea with milk, you can always ask for black tea with lemon, a.k.a. Russian tea.

Traditional meals are not a fast affair, they usually last at least a few hours. If you are vegetarian, there are many options to eat meat-free. However, that would exclude you from many traditional foods and meals, which are all meat and dairy-based. Refrain from praising vegetarianism. People will be polite, but you are seriously bumping against the traditions and culture of cattle herding. When eating a traditional meal, do not take more than you can eat. Just don’t waste food. Traditional meals are labor intensive, it usually takes several people from a few hours to a few days to prepare certain dishes. Try a little bit of everything. People will attempt to feed you for hours, so pace yourself.

Horse meat is fantastic! However, it’s usually served for significant events. Kazakhs eat horse out of respect. The original horses come from Central Asia; they are an integral part of the culture. A horse is the cleanest and most trusted animal. Beef and lamb are more common. And then there is kumis! It’s fermented and smoked mare’s milk, highly prized and slightly alcoholic. It’s nothing like you have ever tasted before. If you have never had it, try to drink it cold and as a shot.

If you travel to Kazakhstan during Ramadan, your food experience will be slightly different from usual. Observing Muslims will follow the fasting schedule, and meals will be lighter. Also, don’t try to convert anyone into another religion. Proselytizing is viewed as a lack of manners and ability to exist with other people. Take your shoes off when entering. Never come empty-handed.

Travel to Kazakhstan; Gauhar kneels on the ice holding a curling broom next to a friend doing the same
Learning how to curl in British Columbia, Canada

Working and Traveling While Kazakh

I couldn’t find a job in my field after graduation. I know that my education and work experience from Kazakhstan didn’t inspire many places to call me back for an interview. I had better luck with international non-profits and organizations. My first job in the U.S. was for a non-profit, which managed USAID grants for U.S.-Russian partnership projects in the Russian Far East. After that job, I worked as a grant writer and manager at different organizations – non-profit, state, county, federal.

Through all my jobs, I have seen how travel (and professional development) is not afforded to certain positions. When I worked for an international organization, where I managed multi-year, multi-million-dollar federal awards in foreign countries, our Executive Director and higher-ranking staff (predominantly White staff) would often go on extended trips to those countries. Meanwhile, the team, responsible for fiscal, administrative, and operational management and compliance (predominantly People Of Color), were not considered critical in delivering successful projects. So we managed those projects without ever leaving the U.S. headquarters. If you want to set up international federally-funded projects for failure, this is the way to do it. So no, I have never been to those countries, where I managed projects. I would love to visit one day.

In 2010 after my firing, I thought I would have a hard time finding another job. But, instead, I started getting job offers. And that’s also when work-related travel started.

Travel to Kazakhstan; a group of people are holding a white net as they wade together into the water off a beach with lush green trees in the background
Aquaculture trainings in the Republic of Marshall Islands

In 2011 I got a call from a fish researcher/farmer who was starting a new aquaculture project in the Republic of Marshall Islands. The U.S. nuclear bombing of the Majuro and Bikini Atolls had long-term impacts on the local food supply, health, and employment options for Marshallese. Kazakhstan has endured 40 years of nuclear testing by the Soviets. I couldn’t decline the offer, and we wrote several grant applications together. It took a few years to build up the program and grants. As a result, the project received several grants, and I got to support the Marshallese team during a federal pre-audit in Majuro.

Between 2010 and 2015, I visited Maui, Kauaʻi, and Hawaiʻi to participate in community meetings and project development.

In 2015, I supported a start-up called Kūlaniākea, a Native Hawaiian-led and serving organization. The organization provides multi-generational Hawaiian culture-based educational opportunities. Kūlaniākea is rooting children and their families in their Native identity and communities. I am a co-founder and COO. This work took me all over the United States.

travel to Kazakhstan

Why am I listing all these business trips to you? For some, it might sound just like a light year at work. Others might think I am trying to impress them too hard. For me, these trips are meaningful, because each one was organized by a Person or People of Color. Yes, these trips have a different feel to them. I wasn’t just invited to sit at a table, I was invited to be a contributor and collaborator. I have been fortunate to learn, listen, help to operationalize community projects, design internal processes and systems, and to support several teams in bringing funding to their communities. My greatest growth and deepest work have happened in this space, because People of Color shared their experiences, challenged me, and pushed me to grow. It’s also space, where my identity, languages, and complicated history haven’t been misunderstood or used against me, but fully accepted. This is also the time when I made enough money to go on vacations to Germany and Japan.

I have experienced first hand what travel and growth look like when we create opportunities for each other. This is something Kūlaniākea is doing as an organization – offering all our staff to go to conferences/on professional trips. Itʻs not enough for People of Color to travel just for leisure; we are leaders, educators, speakers, consultants, and organizers. We need to be seen as such when we travel. However, this year I am also trying to be a good role model for our staff and take a real vacation, which is not combined with some business or community meeting somehow. Hubby and I are going to Kaua’i for two days; let’s see how I survive without a laptop!

Travel to Kazakhstan; Gauhar smiles at a woman who is waving her arm to the side
A networking event in D.C./my colleague is showing me a way to a brighter future

What Does Travel Mean To A Kazakh Woman

My niece, who grew up and lives in China, received a scholarship to a University in another Asian country last year. This was her first time outside of China and without her parents. She was excited about traveling. My husband and I were planning for her to visit us in Hawaiʻi. But her U.S. tourist visa was denied without an explanation. Was my affidavit of financial support not financially-sound? Was it because the U.S. doesn’t give many tourist visas to applicants from China? Was it her headscarf? Was it because of her Kazakhstani passport?

In a perfect world, this incident wouldn’t mean much, maybe just a fluke. Except we don’t live in a perfect world where travel is free of racism and colonialism. I see how travel is becoming a privilege–safe, easy, and accessible only for a few. At the same time, our ability to travel or lack of it is a dead giveaway of how fast some people will lose their human and civil rights – the Muslim ban, deportation of the Vietnam War refugees, criminalization of asylum seekers, children’s detention centers, and the death of the Indigenous children in ICE custody. This list grows longer each month. Each attempt to take away the freedom of movement from People Of Color is personal to me because itʻs a history of me, my family, my people, and many other peoples in the world.

Travel to Kazakhstan; two men stand together in front of a stone plaque while one man pats the other on the back
At the opening of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial (Washington). My husband was in an orphanage and a refugee camp during the Vietnam War; his foster family was imprisoned in the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII

I worry about my niece, as she returns to China. 1-3 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Tatars, Han, Hui, and other Turkic Muslims in China are in internment camps. Even if they are not physically in a “re-education” camp, East Turkestan has become an open area prison, where people move through multiple high-tech surveillance checkpoints as they go with their daily lives. They face discrimination in accessing education, jobs, and medical care. They canʻt practice their faith. They can be detained for traveling abroad or having a relative, living abroad.

Mistreatment of Uyghurs and a play for their land, East Turkestan, are not new issues. The Chinese government have labeled Uyghurs as “extremists” and “terrorists” and treated them as such for decades. They are emptying the land of its people, because the land is a key piece in the latest trade project to link China with the rest of the world via railroads, gas pipelines, shipping lanes, etc.

How You Can Help

  • Share your platforms with Uyghur activists. Understand that some people will speak about their experiences, and some will not. China doesnʻt arrest just one person, they usually detain immediate and extended families. It’s an old method to put pressure on the whole family.
  • Uyghur Human Rights Project posted a list of actions we can do to support them – https://uhrp.org/what-you-can-do.
  • Donate to the Xinjiang Victims Database, https://www.gofundme.com/xinjiang-victims-database-testimony-imports. It’s documenting testimonies from friends/relatives of people currently detained in East Turkistan (Xinjiang).
  • Read the latest news and support the World Uyghur Congresshttps://www.uyghurcongress.org/en/. Itʻs an international umbrella organization promoting Uyghur human rights

As for me, I will continue my traveling; I am reclaiming every space, denied to my ancestors. They used to travel far and wide. They were neither savages nor a model minority. They were not defined by borders or stopped by the Great Wall of China! They were explorers and travelers, very worldly people. I am just following their path.

Travel to Kazakhstan; Gauhar stands behind a giant bar of chocolate with her head peeking through a hole in the chocolate bar
Eating our way through Germany
Travel to Kazakhstan; Gauhar sits holding a white mug laughing and looking to the side of the frame

About the Author

Gauhar Nguyen is Ka Pou Nui (COO) at Kūlaniākea, a Native Hawaiian-led organization, whose mission is to Advance Indigenous Education. If you wish to learn more and to support Native Hawaiian children, visit www.kulaniakea.org or https://www.facebook.com/kulaniakea/.

You can find her on the social media buttons below where she posts about her travel and work, but also on Twitter where she posts grant opportunities. If you are searching for specific funding, let her know.

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