The traditional people of Kazakhstan, who share a Mongol and Turkic heritage, moved into the Central Asia region sometime after 1200 CE. The expansion of the Russian Empire under the tsars integrated Kazakhstan and its neighbors, which eased their transition when the tsarist system of Russian government gave way to the Soviet Union. The influx of Russian people and culture had a major influence on Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, thereby creating the world’s largest landlocked nation. It is the ninth-largest state on the planet in terms of square miles and is larger in physical area than of all of Western Europe. This vast land is host to a wide variety of physical landscapes, including the high, snow-capped peaks of the ranges on the Chinese border. The western portions are lowlands bordering the Caspian Sea. The seemingly endless grasslands of the interior are one of the largest steppe regions in the world.
The western part of the Kazakh Steppe is very sparsely populated. The Kazakh people, a Turkish ethnogroup, live in this region. The Kaazakhs also live in parts of Russia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and China.
The steppe produces grain in large quantities and other agricultural products, while the productive mining of minerals adds to the national wealth. Kazakhstan ranks high in the mining of many metals and uranium. Even diamonds are found here. Oil and natural gas extraction accounts for the largest sector of the country’s economy and generates the largest export income. Kazakhstan has the largest and strongest performing economy in Central Asia.
The Tengiz basin around the northeast shores of the Caspian Sea is home to extensive petroleum reserves. Oil pipelines are expanding to transport the oil to port locations and other countries, including China.
Kazakh cuisine traditionally is focused on mutton and horse meat, as well as various milk products. For hundreds of years, Kazakhs were herders who raised fat-tailed sheep, Bactrian camels, and horses, relying on these animals for transportation, clothing, and food. The cooking techniques and major ingredients have been strongly influenced by the nation’s nomadic way of life. For example, most cooking techniques are aimed at long-term preservation of food. There is a large practice of salting and drying meat so that it will last, and there is a preference for sour milk, as it is easier to save in a nomadic lifestyle
Uzbekistan physically borders all the Central Asian countries. It is the most populous Central Asian country, with a population that exceeds twenty-seven million. Uzbekistan’s eastern boundary extends deep into Kyrgyzstan territory. The boundary lines were created during the Soviet era to provide the central government with more control over its republics by politicizing enclaves to their benefit. Geographers call Uzbekistan a doubly landlocked nation because all the countries that surround it are also landlocked. The main source of fresh water comes from the Eastern Highland regions. The main rivers have been heavily diverted for irrigation and are often depleted before reaching their destination at the Aral Sea.
Cotton is the main agricultural crop. Uzbekistan is one of the top producers of cotton in the world and is a major exporter to world markets.
The central and western regions have mainly arid desert climates and rely heavily on the fresh water flowing in from the mountains. Agriculture employs a full one-fourth of the population and accounts for one-fourth of the gross domestic product (GDP). The extraction of gold, minerals, and fossil fuels are also prime economic activities. The country has been transitioning from the old Soviet Union’s command economy, which was controlled by the central government, to a market economy competing in a global marketplace.
Uzbekistan is a country of young people: about one-third of the population is under the age of fifteen. Education was heavily emphasized during the Soviet era; as a result, about 99 percent of the population is literate—though about one-third of the people still live in poverty. Islam emerged in this country after Uzbekistan won its independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. In a culture of openness, Islam has risen in prominence to the point that approximately 88 percent of Uzbeks profess Islamic beliefs. The most commonly spoken language is Persian/Farsi.
Samarkand and the country’s capital city, Tashkent, are located in the eastern core region, which is home to most of the population. Tashkent has an unofficial population of more than three million people. The city, which sits on the confluence of a local river and its tributaries, started as an oasis for trade, along the Silk Road.
Samarkand is Uzbekistan’s second-largest city and is most noted as the central city of the Silk Road as well as an important historical city for Islamic scholars. In 2001, UNESCO declared this 2,750-year-old city a World Heritage Site. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and has been one of the more important cities in Central Asia. The historical architecture is heavily influenced by Islamic styles from Iran.
The region around Bukhara, Uzbekistan’s fifth-largest city, has been occupied for at least the last five thousand years. Bukhara was another important city on the Silk Road and is known for its Asian carpet and textile industry. This region has been an important cultural, economic, and scholarly center for most of its known existence.
Aral Sea Environmental Disaster
Central Asia’s shrinking Aral Sea is shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The sea was once the fourth-largest body of water in the world, but it has been reduced to a fraction of its original area. In 1960, the Aral Sea covered about 26,254 square miles, an area larger than the size of the US state of West Virginia. By 2009, the sea covered less than 10 percent of the same area. The entire eastern portion of the sea has become a sand desert, complete with the deteriorating hulls of abandoned fishing vessels. The loss of water is approximately equivalent to the complete draining of both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in North America.
The water loss escalated when the Syr Darya River, which flowed into the northern part of the sea, and the Amu Darya River, which flowed into the southern side of the sea, were diverted for the irrigation of cotton and other crops. At about 1,500 miles long, the Amu Darya is the region’s longest river.
Its source is the high mountain streams and lakes of the Pamir Mountains.
Environmental problems were further exacerbated by the extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers in agricultural processes. The chemicals contaminated the water flowing into the Aral Sea. Once the water dried up in the sea, the winds carried the buildup of chemicals and salt from the dry seabed over the land, causing serious health-related problems in the nearby human population. Cancer and respiratory illness rates continue to be higher than normal. Water and land pollution is a serious problem. Even the climate around the Aral Sea has changed gradually because of the loss of water from evaporation for precipitation. The climate is getting warmer in the summer and colder in the winter. The moderating effect that this large body of water had on its surrounding area is no longer as prominent as it once was.
The decline of the Aral Sea has destroyed habitats and the local economy. The fishing industry, which employed more than sixty thousand people, has been devastated. The remaining western portion of the sea has a rising salt content that is contributing to the decline of the fish population. Adding to the environmental devastation, the Soviets conducted biological weapons experiments on an island that was once in the middle of the Aral Sea. Hazardous wastes such as anthrax and toxic chemicals contaminated the land and found their way into the sea. Efforts have been made to marginalize the environmental damage of the contamination, but the damage has not been completely ameliorated. The sea has historically been an important environmental location for wildlife. It is located in a major flyway for migratory waterfowl in Central Asia and served as an important habitat. The deterioration of the Aral Sea and the destruction of habitat for waterfowl and other organisms is one of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes. The fact that the Aral Sea is located in a region that is not part of the core economic area of the global community has rendered it “out of sight and out of mind” by entities that could potentially provide economic support.
To the south of the Amu Darya River is the desert country of Turkmenistan, which extends from the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan in the east. Turkmenistan is slightly larger in physical area than the US state of California. Roughly 80 percent of the country is covered by the Kara Kum Desert, which is among the driest in the world. Its name means Black Sand in Turkic languages, in reference to the dark soil that lies beneath the sandy surface of much of the desert. In the Kara Kum, there is the Darvaza gas crater. Geologists intentionally set it on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas, and it is thought to have been burning continuously since 1971.
The southern mountains along the Iranian and Afghan border reach as high as 10,290 feet in elevation. Water from the Amu Darya River has been diverted by the seven-hundred-mile-long Kara Kum Canal through Turkmenistan to help grow cotton and other agricultural products.
The transition from a Soviet republic to an independent state in 1991 brought many changes. The former leader of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, Saparmurat Niyazov, who went by the name Turkmenbashi (leader of the Turkmen people), dominated the presidency for fifteen years. Through his authoritarian rule, he promoted a traditional culture—with Islam as the predominant religion—and was notorious for developing a cult of personality. For example, he changed all the names of the days of the week and the months of the year to his name, the names of his family members, and the names of Turkmen heroes or famous people. Turkmenbashi’s image was printed on the currency, and large posters of him could be seen throughout the country. His book on important concepts, the Ruhnama (The Book of the Soul), was to be read by all schoolchildren and the public. After his death in 2006, many of his actions were reversed. The country continues to transition to a stable democratic state, though many of the same dynamics of corruption and authoritarian rule remain.
According to Reporters Without Borders’s 2014 World Press Freedom Index, Turkmenistan had the 3rd worst press freedom conditions in the world (178/180 countries), just before North Korea and Eritrea. It is considered to be one of the “10 Most Censored Countries”.
Turkmenistan is blessed with the fourth-largest natural gas reserves in the world; the top three are Russia, Iran, and the United States. The income from natural gas exports has become the country’s greatest means of gaining wealth. Because Turkmenistan is landlocked, its government has been forced to partner with Russia to use of Russia’s pipelines to export natural gas. Not wishing to rely on Russia’s monopoly on the pipelines, Turkmenistan developed an additional pipeline to China to help boost income and profits. Many international corporations are seeking to do business in Turkmenistan and Central Asia to corner a piece of the vast natural resources. It is unclear how much of the country’s wealth filters down to most of the population. Over the past decade, unemployment rates have exceeded 50 percent, and more than half the population lives below the poverty line.
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Additional information and image credits:
Aral Sea and nearby areas: courtesy of NASA – public domain
Aral Sea satellite image
By NASA. Collage by Producercunningham. – 1989: aral sea 1989 250mFile:Aralsea tmo 2014231 lrg.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35813435
Kazakh steppe map
By Terpsichores – Own work Source :background : Natural Earth II (public domain) by Tom Patterson, US National Park Servicenational borders : File:NED worldmap 110m.svg by Gringerecoregion shape : File:Eastern palearctic biomes.svg by Terpsichores, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23605504
Kazakh steppe info
Uzbekistan relief map
By File:Uzbekistan location map.svg: NordNordWestderivative work Виктор_В – File:Uzbekistan location map.svg by NordNordWestGLOBE, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11301641
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32650118
By Ken and Nyetta – Central Downtown Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17144872
By A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7446724
By Igors Jefimovs – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18800767
Horse meat platter
By Sara Yeomans, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7444171
Bread sellers in Urgut
By Betta27 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7519367
By Shuhrataxmedov – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23525233
By The original uploader was Atilin at French Wikipedia. – Transferred from fr.wikipedia to Commons by Korrigan using CommonsHelper., LGPL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4764362
Rivers near Aral Sea
By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61598543
By Mats Halldin – A map from demis.nl (PD) with borders and country names added., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1478342
Aral Sea ships
By Ecpirolli – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63909659
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44597904
Karakum Desert info
Darvaza gas crater info