Nauryz Kutty Bolsyn! (Happy Nauryz!) exclaims every neighbor, vendor and storefront window across Kazakhstan this week. Spring has arrived. The nation is on vacation.
In most Central Asian countries the spring equinox is celebrated as the beginning of the new year. In Kazakhstan specifically, people celebrate by eating, hanging around outside, eating some more, and playing a sport that vegetarians might not wanna watch called kok-par.
In a week or so of Nauryz (or Nowruz) celebrations, I was lucky enough to spend the second day in a majority Uzbek village called Sayram, just outside the city of Shymkent. It’s not a village I would have thought to explore— or would ever have been able to find— on my own, but a local connection of ours had invited us to a community picnic which would be the center of the Nauryz festivities for the town. When we arrived, he introduced us to some of his older students at the after school program where he teaches English, and they very graciously showed us around for the rest of the afternoon.
Sayram isn’t much to look at initially, but it is over 3,000 years old. The remnants of various empires dating back to its first contact with Islam (766 AD) are still visible, but you need to know where to look. The most obvious distinguishing feature of the town, even to the untrained eye, is the lack of Soviet planning. The streets curve in random directions while the town center sits on the same crossroads that have been used for centuries. In contrast the rest of Kazakhstan, I don’t think I saw a single building more than two stories high. So although most people spoke to us in Russian and there were a fair number of Ladas driving around, it was interesting to get a taste of a culture that passed through the Soviet era largely untouched.
I think we ate four lunches that day, one of which involved a bottle of red wine bottled in The Kazakh Soviet Republic (no date) along with a plate of lamb plov served from a steaming cauldron that could have fit twelve people inside. The cook proudly told us he had used 20 liters of oil that day as he gave the plov a stir with a paddle the size of a cricket bat.
Everyone we met wanted to feed us and there didn’t seem to be any shortage of food, so we just kept eating. Some kids brought us over to another table laid out by the local school where I ate my first pumpkin samsa (similar enough in concept to a samosa, but completely different execution). And our final meal for the afternoon was mostly just Turkish desserts.
It was the men from the Turkish Culture Society who took us perhaps too seriously. We were all asked up to the main stage of the event to address a small crowd while they were waiting for some musicians to get started. We obliged in English, Russian, French, German and extremely limited Kazakh, and I guess we were a hit. If I had known we would cause that much of a ruckus, I might have voted to spend another day in Shymkent instead, but we were finally able to escape the attention once the musical and dance performances began.
We can’t be the first out-of-towners who have ever stumbled into the village of Sayram during the holiday, but with everything we did turning into a public display of foreignness, it only took a few hours to wear us out. Our student chaperones were sympathetic, but adamant that we make one last stop at a drama theater that hosts Uzbek language productions. The director treated us like some kind of official European delegation and let us watch part of a performance for free. We understood very little of the production itself but the cultural importance of the theater was clear. The director showed us photos from the opening ceremony in 2003, attended by President Nazarbayev himself to promote his platform of support for ethnic minorities in Kazakhstan. We couldn’t quite escape before they pulled the staff photographer off work to come take pictures of us, but he didn’t really seem to mind.
[On an unrelated nerdy typography note, major shoutout to the creators of the SignPainter HouseScript font, which I used in my Nauryz postcard. Besides being a gorgeous font, it supports Kazakh characters “қ” and “ұ”! There are very few fonts, even those with cyrillic support, that include the extra letters used in the Kazakh alphabet and it’s literally a design issue in Kazakhstan. Look at printed things. You will see what I mean.]