Kazakhstan is quickly emerging onto the world stage for many reasons, including its nuclear nonproliferation work, its service as a bridge between East and West as well as its contributions to international security and energy. Much of that attention is focused on its two major cities: Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital, major population metropolis and business capital, as well as Astana its new capital filled with buildings designed by the world’s top architects. But far less is known about the rest of the country, in what are called “auls” or villages. There, in a country the size of Western Europe but only 17 million people, life is changing, but traditional. Here, we tell that lesser-known story.
The Smagulov family lives in an aul called Bosaga, located in Karaganda region, around four-five hours driving from the nearest large city.
Bosaga is not just an aul, it is also a railway station, through which many railway routes pass, including the ones from Astana to Almaty. Many travellers do not pay attention to small railway stations, where trains usually stop for only two-three minutes. But all those places have something that big cities are missing – harmony with a nature and a calm rhythm of life.
From Astana the place can be reached by train in just under eight hours or by car following the route to Balkhash city. Located in the Shetsky district, Bosaga has nearly 1,000 citizens. The male population mainly works in local Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, or national Railway Company, branch, while females work in school or shops.
The Smagulov family has been living in the Bosaga aul for three generations. The father Murat and his wife Bagdagul have been married for more than 30 years. Murat’s parents are also from the aul. Bagdagul was born in the East Kazakhstan region and came to Bosaga to teach after she graduated from university. After meeting her future husband, she settled down in the village and has worked in the local school as a chemistry teacher for more than 30 years.
Out of eight children in Murat’s family, only two our left in the village with their families – he and his brother Dulat. The rest of his brothers and sisters have moved away to Karaganda or Astana.
Murat and Bagdagul has three sons – Sanat, Sungat and Rinat, 31, 28 and 24 years old. The oldest son lives in Astana and has two daughters and a wife Aigul. The younger brother lives in Karaganda.
Aigul, despite moving to the big city, spends half her time in Bosaga, and understands the different dynamic between rural and urban Kazakhstan.
“We have been married with Sanat since 2012, we have two little daughters and I’m on maternity leave. Since my husband works all day long, we usually spend time home, in a little apartment. But his parents live in Bosaga and he grew up there, so we go to the aul very often. For example, we spent this year’s whole summer there. I’m a village girl myself. I grew up in the Aktobe region,” she told us.
She says that she enjoys every trip because parents have a big house, a lot of land and she enjoys the fresh air of the country. Sanat’s parents became her parents too, she calls them Mom and Dad.
While in village, she performs all the duties her mother-in-law does, except she is not adopted the early morning of many in the villages.
“The morning in the village begins really early with the rooster crowing. Mother and father they wake up really early almost with the first sunlight. Our mom milks cows, while father waters the garden and later releases cows and horses to the field. Around 7-7.30 a.m. they have a breakfast and discuss plans for the day. Then father, my father-in-law, heads to work. He works at the rail road. My mother-in-law retired last year and now she spends most of the time home,” said Aigul.
Around 9 a.m. Aigul and her daughters wake up. “Mom and dad know that we are not used to that schedule, so we are not forced to wake up early. After I wake up, I feed girls. And that’s when home routine starts for me. Usually I give my children to their grandmother and start preparing a lunch for the whole family,” she said.
Mainly all the food in aul is prepared using a gas tanks. But that innovation does not refer to all homes at the moment, some use self-made ovens. There are ones outside used for cooking only, and the ones inside houses our used for the heating during winter as well.
The challenge in auls is the fact there is often no central water supply like in in the city, but almost every house has hoses right to the territory with the water from nearest water source or well.
Many associate village houses with outside toilets, but that is changing. People are able make in-house bathrooms by providing self-made sewerage and water supply right to the homes.
“We are so glad that there is bathroom now inside the house. Earlier, it was really difficult for us, especially during winters,” said Aigul.
So after a lunch is over, it is time for Aigul to clean the table and maybe wash the floors in the house. After sometime, the children go to sleep, while Aigul and her mother-in-law continue house works. Bagdagul works in her garden, she grows everything possible to provide for the family.
“She really loves the garden, we grow potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumber, salad, strawberry, pumpkin and many other things. It is another amazing thing during our time in the village. Along with the fresh air, we eat everything fresh, right from the garden. We also have our own meat, milk, kumys (horse milk), vegetables and fruits,” said Aigul.
In addition, Bagdagul makes her own cottage cheese, cream cheese and Kazakh traditional sweets made from milk.
After finishing the garden and house work, there is time for 5 p.m. tea in the family of Smagulovs. It is also a time to relax before the evening milking of the cows.
After tea time, Aigul heads to the kitchen again and prepares the dinner. And it is the time when the grandfather returns from work. But he does not relax, he goes and ties cows that came from the field. Roaming horses return for the evening as well.
The family has sheep but they are not kept home, usually they are far in more distant fields where they are tended by a shepherd.
After finally whole the work is done, it is time for a dinner. Family sits together, discusses the day. After the dinner it is time for relax, whether it is watching TV, going to banya, which is also present on the territory of Smagulov’s family.
The day finishes really early in the evening – around 10 p.m. and then is time for sleep.
And while this family and many others in rural Kazakhstan live a quieter more slow-paced life, technology is making its way to the outer reaches of the world’s ninth largest country by land.
“Almost everyone has cell phones, every house has satellite dish. There is an Internet. Overall the average person in aul has everything he needs,” said Aigul, adding that it does not mean they spend a lot of time in social networks, they do not have time for that.
Despite the technology, however, the concept of community remain strong in the auls.
“When I’m in an aul everyone knows who I am, who’s wife I am, they greet me, talk to me. It is an amazing atmosphere. Bosaga is very united, really friendly. All people support each other in every situation. I love it,” said Aigul.
“Probably it seems like life in an aul is about work, work, work, but it is not. It is way more than that. For my parents-in-law it is the way of life, which they have followed for many, many years. They are not afraid of work and I see they are happy and healthy. Time in auls lasts much longer than in the city, it allows to enjoy every moment. My children are very happy here, they like playing outside, watching cows and horses. They are not surrounded by tablets and smartphones, they are becoming closer to nature. Also, they see how their father grew up. Since my husband and his brothers live in the cities, they do not have an opportunity to visit their parents very often, but I have and I really want my little daughters to spend time with their grandparents,” stated Aigul.
Aigul, admitted that life is easier in the city but noted that convenience comes with a downside. “Of course, in the cities there are certain things that make life more comfortable, you don’t have to cook all the time; you can just buy prepared food. In the auls you work for your food. But at the same time, in Astana. time flies. It like you our running all the time, everyday stress, etc. Both locations have pros and cons. I wouldn’t say living in one of them is easier,” she said.
“But, when you look at the clear sky in the night in Bosaga, filled with starts, you just realise how amazing is the universe is. It is just inexpressible emotions and you think how happy a person can be with fewer things, just having that view.”