What to Expect in Terms of Culture and Dressing When Visiting Central Asian Countries


One of the biggest concerns that I had on my trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is the cultural differences. I expected these countries to be conservative which will be filled with fully-clothed people visiting mausoleums and mosques.

But that is so far from the truth. I mean, yes, they have a traditional culture which they still follow but they are not as conservative as we think. Also, the dressing in these countries greatly differ from each other as their cultures were slightly different too.

Eagle Hunters in Kyrgyzstan. Picture Credits: Rachita Saxena

Photo of Central Asia by Rachita Saxena

Also, since Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were a part of the USSR earlier and had a major Russian influence, they have modernized in their culture. And it might actually end up surprising you!

So, below, I have mentioned how both the countries are culturally and dressing wise and burst some of the myths around these Central Asian countries.

Culture of Kazakhstan

Well, as I said earlier, Kazakhstan is culturally rich and is made up of different sources. However, the main thing to remember is that Kazakhs originally followed a pastoral nomadic lifestyle.

You can still see the touches of this lifestyle in the traditional yurts which can be found all over the country. A traditional yurt is a tent made using felt and is used as a home by the locals.

Yurts in Kazakhstan. Picture Credits: Rachita Saxena

Photo of Kazakhstan by Rachita Saxena

Kazakhs were also highly influenced Russian and Chinese culture. And you can also see the widespread Turkish culture as they were the ones who introduced Islam in Kazakhstan between the 7th and the 12th century.

Kazakhstan Etiquette and Norms

Due to their traditional way of life, Kazakh customs are actually quite formal.

They are very friendly people though and will often invite you to their home as their guests. It is polite to accept their offer and not offend them. Also, the dinners at Kazakh households can be long so it is always better to have sufficient time at hand for interacting with your hosts.

Local Kazakhs in traditional clothing. Picture Credits: Rachita Saxena

Photo of What to Expect in Terms of Culture and Dressing When Visiting Central Asian Countries by Rachita Saxena

Since majority of the population is Muslim, it is advisable to not gift them alcohol unless you are sure they drink. Also, they usually consider left hand reserved for unclean tasks so, make sure you pass objects with your right hand only.

You will also be offered a cup of tea and local bread every time you enter a traditional Kazakhstan household. And in the dinner yurts, they offer different types of sweets to all their guests by placing it on display for them.

Dressing in Kazakhstan

As I said before, people in Kazakhstan have become quite modern in the recent years. In fact, when we landed in Almaty, we were quite blown away by the modern infrastructure and design of the city.

It felt like we have been transported into a European city. The roads were clean and broad and there were trees and parks everywhere. And the building designs, all of it was completely different from what we were expecting.

But the thing which really blew our mind was the modern dressing style which was followed here. Locals were wearing dresses with fancy jackets (as it was a little cold) and were fashinably dressed.

We saw so many people in the city wearing long or short dresses with stockings. And it was quite normal to wear shorts, sleeveless tops, heels, etc. in the city and nearby as well.

However, when we reached Turkestan, we saw a slightly conservative side of Kazakhstan. But this is because there were a lot of mosques and mausoleums here. And to enter these sacred places, your knees and shoulders should be covered.

So, if you wear a dress, it should cover your arms and shoulders and should be below your knee. But apart from that, we didn't face any issue for dressing up in this country.

Traditional Dress of Kazakhs

You will still find a lot of locals in the traditional Kazakh dresses which are full-length and loose. Women wear Koylek and men wear long shapan. These are made up of cloth or silk material in the summer and heavier material in the winters.

Also, women wear headdresses which is often used to portray their relationship status. Unmarried women wear a skull cap whereas brides often wear an ornate headdress called caykene.

Culture of Kyrgyzstan

Yurts in Kyrgyzstan. Picture Credits: Rachita Saxena

Photo of Kyrgyzstan by Rachita Saxena

Similar to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan culture is also influenced majorly from their nomadic lifestyle. It also has traces from Russia, Persia, and Turkey, but there is a lot of unique additions as well.

One of the most famous cultural aspect of Kyrgyzstan is their Epic of Manas which is one of the longest poems in the world that is still passed down the generations orally.

Due to their original nomadic lifestyle, Kyrgyz people stay close to nature and usually make yurts as they are easy to transport and build wherever they want. And the decorations inside the yurt is inspired a lot by the nature too and all of it is made up of natural material which is comfortable yet stylish.

Horses are also a crucial part of Kyrgyz culture in both food and transportation. In fact, the nomadic games played on the back of horses is quite famous in this country. Kok Boru is one of the most horse games that is still played in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan Etiquette and Customs

Horses in Kyrgyz Culture. Picture Credits: Rachita Saxena

Photo of What to Expect in Terms of Culture and Dressing When Visiting Central Asian Countries by Rachita Saxena

Kyrgyz people are very friendly and hospitable. However, they don't smile at strangers so don't be offended if they don't return your smile.

They might also end up inviting you after just meeting you for 5 minutes and it is perfectly fine. We were invited to a locals house in Bishkek and unfortunately, we didn't take anything as a gift which is not a good tradition. So, make sure you take a gift if you are invited to a Kyrgyz house. The best gift would be to take some chocolates or sweets for them.

You are also supposed to take off your shoes in the corridor before entering their house. And by default, you will be served tea and bread and it is always polite to accept it.

Dressing in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz people also dress quite modernly in the cities nowadays. So, you will find the locals all dressed up in jeans, dresses, shorts, and so on.

However, once you leave the cities and venture to the highlands and smaller villages, you will find people are more covered up or in their traditional attire. So, it is better to dress up more conservatively in towns like Osh or other smaller villages.

One of the most prominent Kyrgyz clothing is the kalpak which is a tall hat made up of white felt. This item is usually worn by men who are aged 6 or above. They also wear a coat with a high collar known as chapan which is paired up with leather/suede trousers.

Traditional Dresses in Kyrgyzstan. Picture Credits: Rachita Saxena

Photo of What to Expect in Terms of Culture and Dressing When Visiting Central Asian Countries by Rachita Saxena

Women wear traditional skirt which is called beldemchi and has a slit in front. This skirt is worn over a basic dress or a gown. They also wear a conical hat which has feathers on top known as shokulo.

Hanging Out with the Locals in Kazakhstan. Picture Credits: Rachita Saxena

Photo of What to Expect in Terms of Culture and Dressing When Visiting Central Asian Countries by Rachita Saxena

Honestly, visiting these both 'stan' countries was an eye opener for me. It was a nice way to learn more about these countries and get rid of so many prejudiced thoughts that we had in mind.

However, you don't have to worry too much while visiting Central Asia. People are very friendly over here and as long as you aren't disrespecting anyone, no one is going to create an issue for you.

So, do plan a trip to Central Asia soon because it is going to just make you fall in love with it!

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