The Steppes of Central Asia is some of the Russian composer Borodin's most spell-binding and evocative music. It immediately conjures up images of caravans slowly wending across vast and empty grasslands. Nonetheless, despite its exotic origins, the word 'Steppe' has been in use in the English language for three centuries. It derives from the Russian stepi which denotes a dry, cold, largely treeless grassland. Steppe landscapes are widespread in Asia, America and parts of South America (Argentina). They usually form, far from the sea, in the lee of high mountains which cut off rainfall. They represent a transitional zone between desert and forest, where annual precipitation is between 250 mm and 750 mm a year. Because of their distance from the sea, winters can be very cold and snowy. And in the case of Kazakhstan they are. Summers are hot, with frequent droughts and natural fires. It has been estimated that over 40 per cent of Kazakhstan's physical area or 1.100.000 km2 consist of Steppe and that much of this has been affected by human activity. The original chestnut coloured Steppe soils are fertile but also very sensitive, and there appears to have been large-scale degradation of Steppe soils especially in northern Kazakhstan because of mass ploughing between 1954 and 1960 and isolated instances of over-grazing. It is estimated that now two thirds of the Steppe of Kazakhstan is subject to erosion.
Kazakhstan contains a wide variety of habitats, but of these it is the steppe, the vast belt of dry grassland running across the country, which lies at the heart of the Kazakh identity. These areas, too dry for the cultivation of crops, promoted the nomadic husbandry so central to Kazakh culture. The steppe landscapes, with their scent of wormwood and billowing waves of feather grass, are an enduring memory of a journey across Kazakhstan, even if the passage may at the time seem monotonous.
Kazakhstan is the country of the Steppe par excellence, and it is estimated that over half the country is Steppe of one type or another. It is not always easy to distinguish Steppe from wetter pasture or drier desert in Kazakhstan, although it is not difficult to recognise Steppe when you see it. The Steppe is the essence of Kazakhstan, its nature, its people and its culture.
There is nothing more evocative of Kazakhstan than to sit in the Steppe, on a mid-May afternoon far from motor-roads, listening to the larksong soaring in the winds, watching the waving wild tulips and experiencing the billowing cumulus clouds as they scud across the empty heavens. The Steppe is the sound of the wind, the sun, the herby scent of the saxaul (Artemesia) plant, and the view of distant Kazakh grave sites atop a rise.
The Kazakhs, more than any other Central Asian nation, are a people of the Steppes and most of their culture has emerged from it. In fact, human culture first emerged on the Steppes of Kazakhstan some 4,000 years ago, and well before the first millenium ВС Steppe people had begun to breed and herd domesticated animals. The Steppe was too dry for conventional cropland agriculture so that the Kazakhs practised animal husbandry, moving with heir herds of horses, cows, sheep and goats in search of pastures and water. The Kazakhs therefore became nomads or transbumants (taking their animals alternately to the mountains and the plains). At Akkol in Jambyl Oblast in the south of Kazakhstan one can still come across nomadic collectives which move their animals on a seasonal basis in response to the availability of pasture and water. And from nomadism developed a whole life-style which has come to shape today's Kazakh identity and sense of nationhood. It therefore may come as a surprise to visitors to Astana Museum to view the immensely beautiful and complex gold ornamentation fashioned by these Steppe peoples. These ornaments required a sophistication and a skill in their manufacture which are not easily associated with a culture which spent so much of its waking hours on horseback.
As a physical environment the Steppe has not a great deal to offer, and it can only really serve mankind when used for nomadic herding as the Kazakhs have done. The saxaul desert forests of the Steppe have done much to make the Kazakh Steppe habitable by providing much needed fuelwood, by providing emergency supplies of drinking water (from squeezing the bark) and by creating sheltered pastures both in winter and in summer. Because it is open, offering little shelter, it is the habitat for relatively few animals. Nonetheless, the Corsac fox (Vulpes corsac), the Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) and the Saker falcon (Saker cherrug) have all established themselves in the Kazakh Steppe. Falconry is therefore a sport of the Steppes. The Steppe wolf is common all over Kazakhstan, and in Kyzylorda Oblast is widely regarded as a pest because of its depredations on herds of Bactrian camels in hard winters. Another curiosity of the Kazakh Steppe are the world's most northerly flamingoes which make brief but spectacular seasonal visits to Lake Tengiz, about 200 kms south-west of Astana.