One Small Steppe

Our car sunk into some mud while fording a stream. We had to call for help, which took several hours to arrive.

I spent last weekend on the true Central Kazakh steppe in and around the city of Karaganda. I hope to post at least a few times about my trip and this unassuming city, because I found the former so enjoyable and the latter so interesting. Today, however, I am going to post only about the steppe.

I traveled to Karaganda with Ashleigh, a fellow Fulbrighter and PhD candidate in archeology. Ashleigh lived in Karaganda from August 2011 through the long winter months before moving to Almaty, and she needed to return to say her thank-yous and goodbyes. Generously, she let me and another American friend tag along.

Leroy, Victor and Ashleigh in Victor’s office.

On the middle day of our three-day trip, Ashleigh’s academic supervisor in Kazakhstan, Victor, offered to take us out onto the steppe. Victor is an ethnic Russian born in Kazakhstan and has made a career and international name for himself as an expert on the early populations of this area. He is short, pot-bellied, and his is shock of white hair and bright blue eyes stand out against his tanned, leathery skin.

Victor also struck me as the quintessential archeologist: his animation belied his age, and while he seemed distracted and absent-minded in his office, he was altogether different once on the steppe. We drove for kilometers over what appeared to me to be untouched terrain before suddenly stopping and piling out of the SUV. Victor would then stalk around in the grass for a bit, eyes focused on the ground as (Ashleigh explained to me) he kicked over rocks looking for archeological remnants. Then he would call us over and show us, hidden under the grasses or shrubs, an artificial arrangement of rocks marking a grave or structure from (depending on the arrangement) the Turkic period, the Iron Age, or even the Bronze Age. He showed us kurgans, the grave-mounds famous across Eurasia, and identified the value of various geologic formations to the early peoples of what became Kazakhstan.

Descriptions of the steppe tend to focus on its emptiness. Lev Gumilev, perhaps the most famous Soviet ethnologist and anthropologist, described the steppe as “monotonous,” and a 1917 description by one M. Dostoyevsky (no known relation to the famous Dostoyevsky) emphasizes how ethnic Russians felt upon first beholding the steppe:

Travelers, coming to Turkestan from Russia on the Samara-Tashkent railway, as soon as Orenburg begin to feel the influence of Asia. The first thing thrown before their eyes is the incomprehensible steppe—flat, without a single tree; desert, with out any signs of life. Infinite—they stricken by the greatness of death; they are charmed by the beauty and peace. (Quoted in:

However, other observers have seen more potential in the steppe. According to the ancient animistic religion known here as Tengrism, Tengri is the god of the sky, the mother goddess Umai is the earth, and people live between them. The photo above suggests the ideational origins of this creation story.  More recently, the contemporary artist Elena Vorobyeva writes: “The steppe is a huge exhibition space where the artifacts are “shown’.” Indeed, many artists before Vorobyeva have also depicted the Kazakh landscape as a dramatic backdrop or stage upon which histories large and small have been enacted.

Picnicking from the back of our car before it got stuck. We kept warm with vodka – or, at least, I did.

I have found the steppe beautiful since I crossed Mongolia by train in 2004. I was impressed by the expansiveness and temperament of the steppe. There is an almost constant wind, which in the winter months can drive temperatures far down. We were even buffeted in the spring. But with Victor and Ashleigh, I came to see the steppe in a new light. They pointed out to me the varieties of grasses and flowers that each survive the harsh climate in their own way; they explained the ancient geology (that the extensive coal deposits indicate that this was once a forest, and that the steppe is created by wind-borne loess burying mountains geography beneath it); and most of all, they illuminated the cultures of the people who lived here millennia ago. The number of pre-modern graves we spotted during just our one “expedition” made it clear that this land is and has been far from empty for centuries.

Of all the unexpected revelations, however, I was most invigorated by something entirely unexpected: the smell. Artemisia, which smells a bit like sage, and other fragrant grasses grow in patches across the steppe. The spring wind carries their scents to the lucky noses of whosoever happens to be there to smell them.

I should be careful. It is easy to wax lyrical about the steppe after a visit in spring in a comfortable car. As I mentioned, and as the passaged quoted above emphasizes, the steppe is also a very violent and inhospitable place. Ashleigh describes living through the winter in Karaganda with colorful, evocative language, and I am not envious of that experience. Moreover, life on the steppe has never been easy, whether one was a nomad here centuries ago or a labor camp prisoner under the Soviets (the subject of my next post about Karaganda). Even today, maintaining infrastructure in this region is difficult and expensive. Nonetheless, the steppe undoubtedly possesses a remarkable romance.

Looking down on my companions from a hill.

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3 comments
  1. kazaknomad said:

    Did you visit Dolinka and the KARLAG? I know, so much to see, so little time.

    • Sorry I didn’t answer your question earlier – I was saving thoughts about Karlag for the post that just went up. As you say, so much to see, so little time…

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