A travel blog about Scotland, Italy, Central Asia, and everywhere else

Nauryz Kutty Bolsyn

Sayram, Kazakhstan

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 .

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.]

Somewhere In Kyrgyzstan (Barskon Valley)

Along the south shore of Issyk Kul, near the village of Barskoon (Барскон), the single road that hugs the perimeter of the lake splits off to the left. This was once a Silk Road shortcut, providing access over a towering mountain pass into China. Now the road is largely maintained by Canada.

Why.

The Kumtor Gold Mine (operated by a Canadian mining company) sits at 4,000 meters above sea level on a mountain plateau, only reachable by the abovementioned road. My traveling companions and I had no interest in the gold mine itself, but a decently maintained trucking route into the elusive far reaches of these mountains seemed like a guaranteed scenic detour on our meandering eastern Kyrgyzstan drive. Why should a gold mine be allowed to spoil all those dramatic mountainous landscapes for everyone else?

The road is closed to the public, but like most things in Kyrgyzstan that are closed to the public, you can enter anyway if you have some extra cash for the guard on duty and are competent at negotiating in Russian. So we weaseled our way in. It was a special occasion, after all: Our last trip in Central Asia for a very long time.

The road heads up into the mountains via a tight series of switchbacks. The road is paved and fairly wide, but there are seldom guard rails. Every so often, there is a landing where mining trucks can safely pass each other, and that’s where you’ll get out to take photos of the plunging rock walls surrounding the valley.

Eventually, the road emerges onto a marshy plateau sprinkled with small clear lakes. A handful of people seem to live up here but there are no visible settlements; Just miles of grassland hemmed in by snow-capped peaks, now considerably less towering. We did feel like we might be pushing our luck to continue too close to actual mining operations, so we headed back down from there, past stunning cliffs and fields of grazing horses, back to Issyk Kul.

 

Foreigners In First President’s Park

Almaty, Kazakhstan

After a month or two of Russian classes at KazNU, some of our teachers loaded all the beginner students onto two buses and took us on a tour of Almaty. By this point I had already seen a lot of the city myself, sometimes the extremely hard way, with a working knowledge of a few main bus lines, a pair of good walking shoes, and roughly a 50-word Russian vocabulary. But there was one place that always seemed too far, at the extreme southern end of the city and the end of Al-Farabi Avenue: Парк Первого Президента, or First President’s Park.

“More like only president’s park,” mumbled a student from Afghanistan, nailing both the Russian genitive case and the appropriate level of sarcasm.

He wasn’t wrong. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and thus far only president of Kazakhstan, has been in office since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He was a well liked leader of the Kazakh SSR in various capacities for over a decade prior, and the election, in which he appeared alone on the ballot, was a no-brainer for most people. But anyone who does want to see Kazakhstan under different leadership will likely be waiting until he dies.

For now his image remains synonymous with Kazakhstan itself, and as our group of sixty students gathered together for a group photo at the end of our visit, it was not the elegant colonnade at the park’s entrance or the stunning mountainous backdrop of the park that our teachers herded us toward. It was the massive bronze statue of Nazarbayev, seated in front of two looming and less-than-suble abstract eagle wings bearing inscriptions in Kazakh and Russian. My classmates couldn’t sit still, but our teachers were beaming in every photo.

I returned to the park in the morning of my last day in Kazakhstan. The early summer weather had tripled the amount of green space and brought the detailed landscaping to life. A series of paved paths leads deep into the park, towards the foothills of the Alatau. Seeing those mountains every day is, without any doubt, the thing I will miss the most about living in Almaty, and First President’s Park yields a completely unobstructed and relatively smog-free view.

First President's Park Mountains