This entry reads much more as a diary or travelogue than most. I don’t like simply reciting my adventures, but I think this most recent excursion bears retelling.
22 March was Nauryz (Kazakh: Наурыз), which is the Kazakh spelling of the Persian “Nowruz,” meaning “New Day.” It marks the vernal equinox and the beginning of the new year in the Persianate world. Originally a Zoroastrian festival, its celebration has carried through to the contemporary era in many countries. It is the most important holiday in the Kazakh calendar despite the fact that modern Kazakhstan on the surface has few connections to Iran. The roots of Nauryz in Kazakhstan must be a shared pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition and the impact of the Persian empires on all of Central Asia during the spread of Islam and before the Mongol expansion (i.e. 8th to 13th centuries… although I’m not going to vouch for those dates).
The best place to celebrate Nauryz in Kazakhstan is widely held (among former Peace Corps volunteers, at least) to be Shymkent, the largest city in southern Kazakhstan. Like the southern US, southern Kazakhstan is associated with hospitality, religiosity, conservatism, good food and red-necks (Kazakh-Russian: мамбеты, mambety). And like any region known for traditional values, the citizens know how to celebrate a national holiday the right way.
I traveled to Shymkent by overnight train with nine friends of various ages and origins, but most of whom are teaching English in Almaty with a private company. We arrive on Thursday morning – the actual day of Nauryz – and traveled straight to Shymkent’s “Ippodrome” (i.e. the Hippodrome). The Ippodrome is a large, depressed mud field circumscribed by a dirt oval and with bleachers dug into the earth on one side. On Nauryz, though, the Ippodrome comes to life with people selling traditional dishes (meat on a stick; meat in greasy rice; corn and barley in slightly curdled, slightly sour milk; flat nans), constructing and hosting parties in yurts in the parking lot, and spending time with family.
I have never, ever in my life seen so many children in one place. Not even in an elementary school. One of the most noticeable things about Shymkent, especially in comparison to Almaty, is that all women between the ages of 18 and 35 (I didn’t ask – these are eye-ball estimates) is pregnant. I saw pregnant women with four and five children in tow. I saw dads with children hanging off all limbs. You’d think these were the last people on earth and they were doing their duty to save humanity. And In a sense, they are survivors: there aren’t that many Kazakhs on the planet. Shymkent wants to change that.
The highlight, however, was definitely watching kokpar (Kazakh: көкпар, buzkashi in Dari). This game is famous in lore and legend – and the film Borat did a lot to advertise its existence. In essence, two teams of horseback riders compete to drop a 50 kilo (110lbs) sheep’s carcass filled with sand into the opposing team’s mud pit at the end of a mud pitch. It is a cross between polo and rugby, and although I had almost no idea what was going on, it was impressive to watch. At one point, a horse ran full-tilt into the “goal” structure (which is reinforced by rubber tires). The horse flipped heels over head, and it goes without saying that the rider was thrown. Both got up and continued to play.
The next day we traveled to Turkistan, site of the late 14th century mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassaui, a 12th century Sufi mystic. Timur (aka Tamerlane, of warrior fame) constructed the mausoleum in the poet-mystic’s honor. It stands today as one of the few examples of great Islamic architecture in Kazakhstan.
The crazy thing about Turkistan is the amount of foreign money on display in the middle of the desert. The drive from Shymkent to Turkistan took 3 hours, and our bus passed through a small handful of the most down-and-out farmstead-villages I’ve ever seen. Hardly anything distinguishes the buildings in these “towns” from the earth on which and out of which they are built. They are in some cases tens of miles apart from each other. The people who live in these places, especially in the cold winters and baking summers, are like the bacteria that thrive in the sulfur-rich thermal springs at the very bottom of the oceans: extreme life forms adapted to extreme climates.
Then, out of nowhere, the nicest building we’ve seen for a hundred miles is the Sinooil (a Chinese oil company’s) gas station announcing your arrival in Turkistan. Then we pass the gleaming steel-and-glass (and thus entirely impractical) new university and clinic facilities, both funded by Turks from Turkey. In the center of town there are new public toilets and vegetarian options on menus (a sure sign you’re not in Kazakhstan). All of this is explained in part by the fact that 3 (or 4, we disputed) pilgrimages to Yassaui’s mausoleum is considered by some Muslims to be equivalent to completing the Hajj. Representation from Western donors was notably absent. This is how we are losing ground.
Despite all of what we’d seen and done, the real treat came next. We drove into the steppe on the straight, flat and pot-holed Shymkent-Kyzylorda highway on our way to Sauran. Our car broke down on the way, leaving us temporarily stranded in the middle of nowhere. See the photo at the top for what “nowhere” looks like. This was the view in all directions except for where the road came and went. We maintained high spirits by spelling things with our shadows.
After a replacement an arrived, we continued to Sauran – an archeological site stranded in the middle of the steppe much as we just had been. But it was not always so. Sauran was a ceramics center along this Silk Road. Now all that is left are crumbling remnants of once robust city walls and an enclosed area littered with medieval pottery shards. Despite the fact that there were obvious archeological digs underway, there was not a single other soul in sight. We had free reign to clamber about and no doubt distort the archeological record. We also enjoyed the sun setting over the steppe as we defended our make-believe new capital against imaginary hordes.
What a way to start the new year!