Nauryz, the coming of spring celebration, is one of the biggest holidays in Kazakhstan (they name the whole month of March after it!). It is celebrated on March 22 every year at the spring equinox. The festivities are a-plenty, and this year we had a spectacular week of celebrations.
South Kazakhstan has a prominent ethnic Uzbek minority, and within a few hours drive of Shymkent there are several predominantly Uzbek villages. Several Americans in the area have worked with these villages now, and found that their teachers and students both are highly motivated and that English language is a priority in these communities. In fact, several of us (Echo, Aaron and I) have recently made it our little “mission” to try to get some of these villages their very own Peace Corps Volunteer, instead of all of the English-language resources being conglomerated in the regional capital of Shymkent, where I and at least 7 other Americans currently live.
One of the most developed of these villages is called Sairam, which is of historical significance as home to the mausoleum of Ahmad Yasavi’s grandmother (his own mausoleum built by Timerlane, as you might recall, is in Turkestan). Sairam is home to two fantastic English teachers, who are also U.S. Program Alumni and our dear friends, Dilorom and Ulugbek. Thanks to them, the students of Sairam have some of the best English in the entire oblast! They took us out and showed us Uzbek Nauryz hospitality with some of their star students, who have participated and excelled in our Model UN program and other youth development activities.
Sairam celebrated Nauryz a day earlier than in Shymkent, so we got to leisurely enjoy the village and its festivities. This included braving the crowds at the village fair, enjoying smoke-filled shashlik grilling and traditional Uzbek plov, riding a Soviet-era ferris wheel, watching the school babushkas boil up a ginormous kazan of special Nauryz stew, and touring the Sairam museum, mausoleum, tower, and mosque (which featured beautiful carpentry and carpeting, courtesy of donations from Qatar).
The very day that Janet arrived to Shymkent to visit for the holdiays, we whisked her off for what would be a grueling but gorgeous trip to the mountains. This was no joke – we climbed for 4 hours, some of it on hands and knees, with no trail, up to the very snow-capped top of the Kazygurt mountain. Kazygurt is apparently famed for its pure white tulips, which can only be found there – and indeed, the pretty bulbs were already everywhere as we hiked. I should find time to pay a visit now that it is May, to see the full bloom!
The hike was grueling, but we made it to the very summit, where Janet and I staked our imaginary American flag (though no one on the hike probably believed we were American, ha. We caused much confusion). After we finally descended another three hours later (probably the hardest part), we were greeted by a calm valley of grazing horses. Truly some of the most beautiful representative scenery of South Kazakhstan.
So on the day of the holiday itself, March 22nd, we joined the hoard of visiting Americans (Peace Corps Volunteers on their annual pilgramage down to Shymkent, organized by none other than yours truly, the poor Shymkent PCVs;) to check out the cultural bonanza being held around town. In every park there were yurts set up with lavish displays of national food, plus arts and craft exhibits, traditional instrumental orchestras, swings, cultural dancers, live bunnies and bunny costumes (for the year of the rabbit! Or maybe a tribute to easter?;) and every other possible myriad display of Kazakh tradition.
We helped ourselves to shashlik and some of the best plov I’ve had so far here (the chopped green onions I think made the difference – it tasted more like Chinese fried rice!). We were also greeted hospitably by the local yurt hostesses, who represented different private and public organizations around town. In this gorgeous yurt hosted by a children’s hospital, displayed below, we were fed the one dish that no Nauryz is complete without – Nauryz kozhe. It is a soupy porridge traditionally made with seven ingredients – meat, salt, fat, onions, wheat, kurt (a strange ball of fermented dairy with a chalk-like consistency) and irimshik (cottage cheese). I will let you, dear readers, imagine for yourself what this unique concoction tastes like.
We discovered that the local Akimat (government) officials were to come by the yurts throughout the day to feast, and that after they had passed the tables would theoretically be open to welcome any wandering visitors. Generally though, the age of open communality seems indeed to have passed in Kazakhstan, for from observation most hungry celebrators were made to purchase their own fare at the many capitalistic stalls and providers around the parks.
Finally, after nearly two years, we got to see the traditional games on horseback! Last year, to many a Kaz-20’s dismay, all of the activities were cancelled do to Hippodrome “remont” (reconstruction). But this year, things were up and running at full scale! A throng of curious Americans settled in under the hot Shymkent sun to watch the match with their ice creams. 🙂
First up was Kokpar, a sport played on horseback with a sheep’s carcass as the “ball” and goals on either end of the field (see below). The red and white teams faced off in what was indeed and exciting and very physical match, with many scuffles and much galloping. It is one of those things that you can enjoy without really knowing the rules!
Equally amusing was Kyz-Kuul, the traditional racing contest between man and woman on horseback. First, the man chases the woman down the track (she gets a head start, of course!) and tries to plant a kiss on her. Then, on the way back, she chases him and beats him with a leather whip as punishment! You can’t make this stuff up. One of the star maidens let us pose for pictures with her – as you can see, her national costume was stunning, and she was also very successful at giving her guy a good beating. What that says about gender roles I will leave my readers to decide, though I can say that any mock-violence here was taken in good will!
The games were definitely an unforgettable experience, and I’m very glad all our visiting PCVs got to experience them in the heart of the Kazakh south!
And of course, no Nauryz would be complete without another pilgrimige to the holiest Muslim site in Kazakhstan – Turkestan. The Hodja Ahmet Yasawi mausoleum, a UNESCO world heritage site, is no less impressive the third time around. And now, with this third trip, I can finally boast of having been to Kazakhstan’s “Mecca” (according to local lore, 3 times to Turkestan = 1 hajj to Mecca, go figure). Will hopefully get in one more trip before I leave, when Dad and Jo come visit!
And that concludes my very belated post about how I spent a hectic but wonderful week celebrating the country’s most important holiday. A shout out to my wonderful guests, Janet, Bree and Matt. I will leave you with this final collage of friends and fun moments. Til next time!