Saturday, December 30, 2006

Steppe: A Central Asian Panorama
has arrived!

On day 19 of the 7-21 day mailing period, the inaugural issue of Steppe finally appeared in the mailbox. It was well worth the wait.

An amalgam of high-end travel magazine, coffee-table art book, and National Geographic, the writing is intelligent and informed, and the photographs are a mix of art and information. Covering six of the seven ‘Stans (Pakistan properly falls into South Asia, I think) plus the Xianxang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, the articles include an overview of the region by historian Hugh Pope (author of Sons of the Conquerers: The Rise of the Turkic World), book and music reviews, interviews, photoessays, and even Central Asian recipes. The plov recipe is quite tasty (even when made non-vegetarian), though the addition of cumin seeds is very different from Gulnara’s wonderful plov. There is also a recipe for Korean carrot salad, of the type available in Kazakstani markets and enjoyed by many a visitor to the RK.

So, what is Kazakhstan-specific in this issue?

• The cover photo, for starters, is of a “little house on the steppe” in SE Kazakhstan, in the middle of the the flat flowering plain with low blue mountains off in the distance.

• An article on the detailed golden ornament of Scytho-Siberian animal art, currently on display in the Of Gold and Grass: Nomads of Kazakhstan” exhibit at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego.

• A review of The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov (currently only in print in the UK), one of the only published first-hand accounts of the 1932-1934 famine. Caused by forced collectivization of the nomadic population, 1.7 million Kazakhs (one-fourth of the entire population) died of starvation during this time.

• Five of the “Top Ten Bus Stops” of Central Asia are in Kazakhstan,including a yurta and a mini-mausoleum.

• A multi-page feature on the Arasan Public Baths in Almaty. Sigh. Oh to be there . . .

• A short review of The Story of the Apple, the history of which would be utterly incomplete without its birthplace in the orchards of SE Kazakhstan.

• And, for sporting folk, a ski guide to Central Asia, with downhill (Chimbulak near Almaty), cross country (everywhere,including along Astana’s River Ishim) and (gulp) heli-skiing in the Tian Shan. Kazakhstan’s got a lot going for it in its bid for an upcoming Winter Olympics, including the gi-normous skating rink at Medeo (on the way to Chimbulak).

And of course, much more. My only vested interest in Steppe is wanting enough subscribers to keep the magazine afloat, since it’s the only publication even remotely of its kind. I am waiting for a feature story on the valenki factory near Semey/Semipalatinsk (hint hint) - aren’t they just gorgeous?

Find out about the rest of Steppe, and how to subscribe, at their website. My subcription is a $43 indulgence I’m completely satisfied with.

С Новым годом!
Happy New Year!

1/8/2007 - A review of Steppe was posted today at EurasiaNet, whose writers know a lot more than I. They like it too.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Wind Rider: Horses and History in Kazakhstan

Several weeks ago, archaeologists published findings of what is believed to be a prehistoric corral, at the Botai settlement of Krasny Yar in Northern Kazakhstan (articles at and Scientific Since the only animals in the southern steppe that might have needed a corral would be horses, this discovery is seen as further evidence that the Botai people domesticated and possibly even learned to ride horses as early as 3500 BC.

Though research shows the Botai to have been a completely new kind of civilization from previous steppe peoples, interest and research has been concentrated on their relationship to the wild horses of the steppe, and on what light their civilization can shed on the history of equine domestication. Archeological sites in Ukraine have some evidence of earlier horse domestication (breeding them in captivity as opposed to taming wild horses), ca.5,000 BC, so the question of “who rode first” is a hotly debated topic in contemporary archeology.

The domestication of the horse was a watershed moment in human history -- with a year-round source of meat and milk (as cattle have been in the West), nutrition and migratory patterns of the nomads would have been drastically affected. Once horses were used as tools, for carrying loads, and for travelling long distances when migrating and hunting, the possibilities for human development increased dramatically. Until recently, the Botai have been considered to be Caucasoid/European, but other researchers have used computer modeling to reconstruct a Botai skull, the results of which resemble a modern Kazakh male (the image actually looks a lot like a young Kazakh grad student I know). has an entry on the recent discoveries, with lots of links to great background research.

With synchronicity factor in full gear, I soon stumbled across a recently published young adult novel called Wind Rider. The author, Susan Williams, has written a richly-imagined tale of the first person, a teenage girl, ever to tame and ride a wild horse in the Central Asian steppe. Young Fern, daughter of a family of hunting and gathering Earth People, finds more comfort in her animal friends than with humans, and is not looking forward to the limited life destined for her as a woman. The five families of her clan travel together during the warm months, and live with other clans in a protected settlement of pit houses during the storms of winter.

One spring, Fern saves the life of an orphaned filly, which she names Thunder. Secretly keeping Thunder in a makeshift corral to protect her from being killed for food, Fern tames the filly and learns to use the young horse’s strength to assist her and her people. In dreams, she has seen herself flying on the back of a horse, and eventually Fern learns to ride Thunder, inventing a leather bridle, bone bits, felt blankets and other riding tools.

This imagined scenario is entirely plausible, and the details are well-researched (as described in the author’s note at the end). For example, the Earth People (Botai?) respect and pay tribute to the life spirits inherent in all things, a possible precursor to the animistic beliefs of pre-Islamic Kazakh nomads. They fear the Night People, a harsh, cruel tribe who worship the god White Horse as master and creator. Night People keep a captured white stallion as the incarnation of White Horse, and to this horse they give ritual sacrifices; there is archaeological and anthropological evidence of horse-worship among the pre-Botai cultures on the steppe.

The novel is well crafted, though the basic story isn’t wildly original. For readers looking for a strong female coming-of-age tale, for all horse-lovers, and anyone interested in Kazakh prehistory, this is a solid recommended read.

For middle graders & up.

More About the Book
Author Interview with Susan Williams
• Author's Website
• Chapter One Excerpt

More About the Botai Culture
Prehstory of Kazakhstan at the Carnegie Mellon Museum
Botai Discovery page (in progress)