Having New Years during the darkest, gloomiest part of the year doesn’t make a lot of sense does it? “Happy New Year! Now, go back to sulking and reading Scandinavian murder fiction.” Having New Years on the Spring equinox, when the daylight is returning and the flowers are poking up makes a lot more sense. Hence, Nauryz. Celebrated throughout the region, Nauryz is a multiday New Years celebration, held on the equinox. Banned during the Soviet times, it’s become a major part of the festival calendar in Kazakhstan since independence.
Celebrations for Nauryz range from the personal and intimate to the big and festive. For many, it’s a chance to return to a home village and spend time with extended family. We were lucky enough to participate in a whole set of Nauryz festivities, starting on Wednesday and continuing through the weekend.
On Wednesday I was invited to an intimate celebration at the Central State Archive. The celebration was very focused on children, and the soon-to-be-born. There was a nativity-esq celebration of marriage and childbirth, singing, dancing, and loads of food. The most important food for Nauryz is Nauryz Kozhe (pronounced like ‘coughet’). Made from grains, milk, noodles and meat, it’s important to finish at least one bowl during Nauryz to ensure good luck. It’s a set of flavors that aren’t common in Western cuisine, but we need all the good luck we can muster.
On Thursday and Friday, we were invited to join a two day rolling Nauryz celebration organized by the Mayor for foreign guests. The group mostly consisted of academics – professors from the UK, a student from Japan, an administrator and historian from the US, along with professors from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere in the region. Our “ringmaster” for the event (heh) was the director of the State Circus. On first glance, you wouldn’t guess him to be the type of run a circus, but he turned out to have quite a sense of humor and fun.
The event had all the elements of “herding cats” that one would expect from such a thing. We started out at the beginning of a Nauryz parade, and then were loaded into vans to go up to Shymbulak. After enough photos (this was the important bit) were captured, we headed back down to the city for a traditional meal. Our experience with the history department last week gave us an inkling of the food overload to expect, and this one did not disappoint. We finally got to try fermented camel and horse milk (both really interesting and no weirder than drinking cow milk), plenty of meat, soup, more meat, and a couple vegetables. With 30 or 40 people around a table (this meal included more local Important People), there were plenty of opportunities for speeches. Everyone at the table was invited to talk, followed by more speeches. A couple young ladies from the Zoo had been drafted to serve as our escorts and translators, and did an admirable job with a mix of Russian, Kazakh, and Turkish.
From lunch, we all went to the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments (where we’d been the week before) for a tour of the museum, speeches, and a concert. We had a very nice English speaking guide to show us around the museum, and learned about the different instruments, including regional and world instruments. Perhaps the biggest takeaway (no surprise here) is that the instruments long predate the drawing of borders, though the instruments now serve to represent their states.
During the speeches, representatives from our group were invited to give talks about what Nauryz means in their home country. This quickly went off the rails, and the increasingly antsy circus director eventually cut the speeches to get us into the concert. The concert itself was fantastic – incredibly talented musicians doing a mix of old and new. We really need to get back to the museum on our own to enjoy it further.
From the museum, we all took the gondolas up to Kok Tobe to take more photos, then it was back down the hill for another massive dinner at the Republic Palace (a concert/theatre venue). We made the major strategic mistake of thinking that the mountains of food piled on the tables when we arrived were dinner, and ate accordingly. Then they started bringing out the Real Dinner – a fish course, followed by another intense meat course. There were endless toasts. While I was joking accused of being a fascist for not drinking, in truth there is no pressure for one to drink here, thanks to the influence of Islam. If you want some vodka or wine, go for it. If not, there’s plentiful fruit juice, water and tea.
Far too late in the evening, a couple members of our group discovered that our private dining room had a door into the theater, with its own private balcony. A big Nauryz event was taking place, with singing and dancing. We were able to enjoy it for a few minutes before being told that it was time to go for the evening. Sniff.
Our group gathered again Friday for another day of Nauryz festivities. We’d shrunk in number, and the day itself was less strictly regimented. We started the day with awesome seats for the city’s big Nauryz song-and-dance fest. There was a speech from the mayor, speaking to the changes happening in the government and the importance of not worrying too much about such things. Then there was a solid, action packed hour of song, dance, crowd interaction and pyrotechnics. What a treat to experience it up close!
Afterwards, our group was ushered into a yurt for another meat-fest. From there, we wandered through the crowd of the festival, making mental notes about things to return to. Eventually we got in the vans, though there was no clear destination in mind. The Director of the Zoo, who was riding in our van, briefly attempted to kidnap us to the zoo, but after some arguing with (presumably) the Circus director, we ended up at the Halyk Arena, a big sports venue in the north east of the city. There are 7 official celebration sites for Nauryz (7 being an important number) in the city, and this was one of them. We wandered around the venue for a while, until our escorts from the Zoo recognized the Rector of the Agriculture University (they are recent graduates) along with some of their faculty. They were very proud to be seen showing around a group of foreigners and positively beamed. The folks from the University invited us into their yurt for another lunch. Mind you, this is about an hour after the first one. We did our best, but there’s only so much someone can eat in a day!
From the arena, we headed to the circus, where we were invited to watch the visiting Russian circus from the front row. The historic of circuses in the Soviet Union and former Soviet states is surely fascinating – there are a number of state circuses that still tour. This one was a very traditional circuit in the spirit of Barnum and Bailey, though the director was proud to note that a number of (presumably very flexible) Kazakh performers have gone on to join Cirque Du Soleil. There were clowns, jugglers, acrobats, along with animal acts. The animal acts started out cute (poodles jumping through rings), transitioned to somewhat questionable (very lovable moon bears doing tricks but seeming quite content) to very unfortunate (pissed off tigers being made to jump across gaps and stand on their hind legs).
With that, our day was done and we all went our separate ways, with plenty to digest (physically and morally).