Trip to Dungan village in Kazakhstan: Masanchi
On a cold day in November when the tour season in Kazakhstan is over we decided to go see the little but mighty village of Masanchi. Dennis Keen, the founder and guide of Walking Almaty tours, has always been fond of multicultural diversity in Kazakhstan, so when he offered to go see Kazakh island of Dungan culture, I was very excited to join!
There are 72000 Dungans living in Kazakhstan, they moved to the territory of Kazakhstan in the late 70s – early 80s of the nineteenth century from the oppression of the imperial Qing dynasty. Hundreds of thousands died during the difficult transition. More than one hundred and forty years ago, the Dungan people found a new home on the Kazakh land. There are approximately 13600 Dungans live in Masanchi village.
We were picked up from Almaty in the early morning by a private taxi-share car that is used by Masanchi locals to go to Almaty or back to the village. We got contacts of the taxi driver from our Dungan friend. The road is not short, it goes almost all the way to Korday border with Kyrgyzstan, so usually it takes around 3-4 hours of road trip (depends on road condition and how risky your driver is).
On the way we saw beautiful landscapes with hills, valleys and Tian-Shan mountains somewhere far away. Lots of Scythian burial mounds are located along the road, but unfortunately most of them are hidden behind the fence of private lands. Another historical jem, UNESCO-heritage place, is also located on the way to the Masanchi – legendary Tanbaly Tas Petroglyphs.
However, on that day we had plans to dive into the everyday life of Dungans, so at the midday we were left at the main market of the village.
After an unrushed walk at the bazaar we went to the central cafe (to be exact – the only one in the village) and ordered some good Dungan food. Lots of dzhusay herb, noodles, mushrooms and spice – it was delicious! Talking about Dungan cuisine, one of the most important components is a big set of traditional (and not traditional) dishes called shi. It is usually served for very important guests such as future in-laws for example. During our lunch we noticed that most of the guests of cafe were speaking some dialect of Chinese language. By the way, if you like to have beer with your food, I should dissappoint you: Dungans are very strict Muslims, there are around 15 mosques in one village, so you will not find any alcohol in any shop around the village. In case if someone craves for some beer or vodka, he or she should drive all the way to one of the Kazakh villages nearby.
From Almaty we called the history museum’ director to set the meeting and it appeared that he will be in the village only in the afternoon, so after lunch we still had some time to wander around the backstreets of Masanchi. Our first big finding was an amazing mosaic complex at the kindergarten: it had two big parts on the sides of the building and a little part at the playground.
After our unexpected beautiful finding we continued our walk around the village.
On the way we met pleasant local guy Hussein, who kindly invited us, total strangers, to his home! I suppose the main reason for our luck was the fact that Dennis took his little son Arman for our adventure and Hussein was a bit confused why the child was walking on a cold November day. At home his daughter served us tea with sweets and fruits. During our talk Hussein said that most of the people in both villages are occupied with agriculture: we were surprised to know that most of onion production comes from this region! Also Dungans are very talented entrepreneurs.
And after we were fueled up with local hospitality, we were ready to meet the director of the local history museum Musa Gubarovich and explore the history and culture of Dungan people. He told us a lot of interesting stories and showed many historical heritage items such as elements of wedding costume and rare old photos of significant Dungan personalities.
It was a very memorable day of discovering the beautiful culture and history of Dungans in Kazakhstan! We met amazing people, tried finger-licking cuisine and felt very welcomed! Thank you, Masanchi!