Each family has its own unique story, passed down from generation to generation. These stories hold a special place in our hearts, connecting us to our ancestors and reminding us of our roots. I was fortunate enough to hear one such story from my grandfather when I was just 15 years old.
The story begins in the early 1930s, a time of great tragedy in Kazakhstan. Political repressions and famine ravaged the land, causing immense suffering and loss. The Kazakhs, who had lived as nomads for centuries, were suddenly faced with the devastating consequences of rapid sedentarization. Famine and epidemics swept through the population, claiming the lives of many. Sadly, my grandparents were not spared from this artificially created famine.
My maternal grandfather, Konar Omirbayevich, held his mother in the highest regard. He cherished her deeply and credited her for everything he had achieved in life. He would often say, «My life, and all that I have, I owe to her.» Through his storytelling, I came to know my great-grandmother, Byubitai, as a remarkable woman — brave, strong, and with an unwavering spirit. It filled me with pride to know that the Kazakh culture created such powerful and wise women.
Now, let me take you to a place called Bilikol. Located 70 kilometers northwest of Taraz, in a tectonic depression on the northern slope of Karatau, this place holds great significance for my family. It was once the home of my ancestors on my mother’s side. Bilikol is a breathtakingly beautiful lake, known for its crystal-clear waters. The Shu-Talas basin, where the lake is situated, was a haven for my ancestors — a place with fresh air, fresh water, and abundant resources for both humans and animals.
Legend has it that the Biys (local authorities), the wise elders and leaders of the community, would gather on the banks of Bilikol to discuss and solve the region’s problems. No issue was too big or too small for them to tackle. Even in times of disagreement and conflict between different clans, they would find common ground and reach a resolution. The powerful winds blowing from the nearby mountains of Berikkar and the healing waters of the lake were believed to have a positive influence on the Biys’ decisions. It is for this reason that the lake came to be known as «Bilikkol» or «Biy lake» in the Kazakh language, meaning «lake of power» or «lake of judges.»
However, the idyllic life in this fertile settlement was not meant to last. With the establishment of Soviet power, the Kazakh people faced numerous challenges and abuses. The inhabitants of Bilikol were no exception. Their story serves as a testament to the hardships endured by the Kazakh people during this period.
At the end of the 1920s, during a time of great turmoil and uncertainty, Omirbay, the father of my grandfather Konar, faced a difficult decision. Rumors had spread that the Bolsheviks were seizing cattle and grain, leaving many families in fear of losing their means of survival. In a desperate attempt to protect his family, Omirbay dug a hole inside their yurt and hid around ten sacks of wheat there. Above it, he placed his mother’s bed, hoping to conceal their precious grain.
But the fear of the Bolsheviks searching every house and penetrating into every corner haunted Omirbay’s soul. He felt a heavy weight on his heart, knowing that their secret stash could be discovered at any moment. However, fate intervened when Omirbay met a bearded Russian man who made a living by fishing. This man, an adherent of the Old Believers, sympathized with Omirbay’s plight and offered his help.
The bearded man promised to hide the grain at the bottom of a nearby lake, ensuring that no one would ever find it. On the appointed day, he loaded the wheat onto his boat and disappeared, never to be seen again. Difficult times came, the mother of my grandfather Omirbay died of starvation, followed by 2-3 years old younger sister Anar. B Consumed by guilt and grief, Omirbay refused to eat or drink, and he too passed away. The year was now 1932-1933, and famine began to grip their once fertile land.
Left a widow at her 30-s with two young sons, Konyrau and Konar, my grandmother Bubitai faced an uncertain future. She was determined to find a way to save her children, and news reached her that the southern slope of Karatau had not yet been affected by famine. With hope in her heart, she made the difficult decision to embark on a perilous journey back to her native land.
Crossing the majestic Karatau mountain range was no easy feat. The ridge stretched for kilometers, with treacherous slopes and the constant threat of predatory animals. Despite her gentle nature, my grandmother’s unwavering determination shone through. As they traveled along the Karatau trails, darkness fell, and they sought refuge in a cave to protect themselves from hungry wolves.
Throughout the night, my grandmother, with unyielding resolve, pounded on the stones with a stick and screamed, scaring away the wolves. My grandfather Konar, who was just a 6 old child at the time, vividly remembers that terrifying night. He realized the immense fear that gripped his mother, knowing that their lives depended on her constant vigilance.
«My mother fought so hard for my life,» my grandfather recalls, his voice trembling with emotion. «As a child, I didn’t understand why she took us on that dangerous journey. But as I grew older, I realized that she made the difficult decision to ensure at least one of us survived.» And indeed, her sacrifice paid off, as my grandfather and his brother were eventually reunited. Glory to the Almighty, both survived, got stronger and started families.
On an autumn day in 1900, my grandmother Bubitai was born — a woman who managed to overcome all hardships. She was strong and powerful, but in her proud posture, there was an elegance that gave her a unique charm.
Grandmother never got involved in gossip, did not resort to cunning, and did not offend innocent souls. And she always wore a kimeshek, the headdress of Kazakh women, which kept her ghostly image in my memory. When we came to visit our grandmother, she taught us not only economy but also respect for every subject. We didn’t throw bread crumbs in vain, and we didn’t even spill the rest of the tea on the ground. It was her way of preventing waste and teaching us to appreciate every moment, every breath of life.
Watching her, I asked myself the question: how did it happen that my grandmother, possessing such abundance, was still so frugal? But gradually, I realized that this was not only a sign of her wealth but also a great upbringing for us young people. Grandmother wanted to convey to us the value of every moment, to teach us to cherish and respect what was given to us.
As I look back to when I was 15, a vivid memory of a conversation with my grandfather resurfaces. I can still hear his hopeful words echoing in my mind, «Aigulzhan, it would be great if you wrote the story of my mother, who overcame all difficulties with courage!» At the time, I couldn’t help but laugh and reply, «How can I write this? I’m not a writer. Are you really that interesting, grandpa?!»
I’ll never forget the thoughtful look that crossed his face, as if his gaze was directed towards a distant place. Little did I know that his words would settle deep within my heart, becoming an everlasting legacy. Over 30 years have passed since that day, and in that time, I have built a family and raised my own children, guiding them towards independence. Yet, the regret of not fulfilling my grandfather’s dream, to write the story of his beloved mother, never left me.
And now, today, I am doubly happy, for I have finally been able to bring his dream to life through this project
P.S. Every time I cross the Kuyuk pass in my car, especially during inclement weather, a shiver runs down my spine. It is as if Grandma Bubitai’s image appears on the crests of the old Karatau mountains. I wouldn’t wish upon anyone the hardships she endured, but I am always reminded that if a difficult day comes, I can draw upon the same dedication as my grandmother.I believe her spirit is with us from generation to generation in my family.
Author: Aigul Kalieva
Editor: Ainur Yermakhanova
Translator: Diana Tsoy-Davis