National Geographic : 2012 Feb
, horsemeat sausage and koumiss---the fermented and mildly alcoholic mare's milk that is the Ka- zakh national drink---watching in amusement as Michelle gamely tries a few sips before passing it over to him. Zharkeshov came by his tastes honestly. e son of a former Communist Party o cial, he is a member of the ethnic Kazakh group that makes up more than 60 percent of the coun- try's 16 million people. Famed for their horse- manship, the Kazakhs lived as nomads in the centuries before their vast, empty homeland, roughly the size of Europe, was absorbed into the Soviet empire. But the Zharkeshov family worked hard to preserve their Central Asian traditions. ey had kept livestock in their vil- lage southeast of Astana, where Yernar herded sheep on horseback and made koumiss in a birchwood churn smoked with herbs that grew wild on the steppe. Six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Zharkeshov moved with his parents and four siblings to the new capital, where his father worked for an insurance company and later became a bathhouse owner. Zharkeshov had grown up speaking Kazakh, but by the age of 15 he had mastered both Russian---now as then the dominant language in urban areas of Kazakhstan---and English. He eventually won a government scholarship to study in Britain, where he earned his undergraduate degree be- fore heading to Singapore. He had come home to Astana to hunt for a job. Zharkeshov was thrilled with the new capital and what it seemed to promise, both for him and for a country that in his view is too o en lumped with its unstable neighbors---"there's a problem in being a 'stan,' " he says (or worse, there's ridicule, as in the 2006 hit movie Borat). But Astana, says Zharkeshov, is the new face of Kazakhstan. "It's remarkable, seriously, just being part of this process." The Baiterek, towering over Astana's central promenade, flares green against a dappled evening sky. Intended as a symbol of the new capital, the 318-foot monument evokes a giant tree with a golden egg in its branches. In the Kazakh myth of Samruk, a sacred bird lays a golden egg in the branches of a poplar each year.