Kazakhstan to a Nittany Lion

My thoughts and perspective on Kazakhstani culture. (These are my thoughts and opinions alone and do not reflect the policies or opinions of the Peace Corps or the United States Government)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spring Shimmy in Shymkent

March 22nd marks the day Kazakhs celebrate Nauriz, or “Kazakh New Year” as it’s sometimes referred to. Though most Kazakhs identify as being Muslim, this is a holiday based more on Zoroastrian traditions celebrating the vernal equinox and the equality of day and night than a holiday based on Muslim traditions. Given the Kazakhs’s history as nomads into the 20th century, they still upheld lots of their former traditions such as Nauriz celebrations rather than abandoning them following the introduction of the Islamic faith, despite their occasional jive against Islamic teachings. Naturally, this holiday is as much a day to celebrate being Kazakh as it is to honor the new year.

This year I had the pleasure of making the trip to the southern Kazakhstan city of Shymkent to watch the celebrations. On the morning of the 22nd, a couple of volunteer friends of mine and I rode the bus to the edge of the city to the “hippodrome”. Immediately upon entering the grounds of the hippodrome I was struck with the colors on display. Dancers, musicians, and even some spectators were dressed in bright, traditional Kazakh costumes, including many with designs embroidered in gold, amid countless flags and banners hung throughout the grounds. Tall structures resembling Maypoles stood with bright streamers flowing from the tops of the poles. The crowd was forced to weave around groups of Kazakh children dancing, couples swinging on large swings consisting of long, wide planks suspended from three meter tall frames, and orchestras of Kazakh instruments.

The sound coming from one orchestra was like a Siren drawing me near. A group of around twenty five musicians, each wearing costumes, were playing dombras (two-stringed Kazakh guitars), Kazakh violins, a flute, drums and cymbal, and another large guitar-like instrument. The music was overwhelming for its intensity and fervor and its melody heavily influenced by Chinese chords. The music combined with the pageantry on display produced palpable visions of large groups of Kazakhs on horseback racing across barren, grassy steppes in the not too distant past.

Reluctantly moving away from the orchestra, I continued towards the racetrack where I passed numerous yurts assembled by people from villages around Shymkent. Each group had also set long tables (dastarkhan) out in front of the yurts and covered them with fried breads, candies, and round handle-less teacups. Though these dastarkhans were tempting, the smell of cooking meat drew me further into the stadium.

All along the walkway at the top of the stands of the hippodrome built into a hill were numerous vendors fanning shashleek (skewers of lamb and chicken) on long grills, mixing round cauldrons of plov, ladling kumiz (fermented horse’s milk) into round hand-less cups, and hydrating the crowd with brown half-liter bottles of the local brew, Shymkentskoye. I shared a cup of kumiz with a friend and offered a few sips to some visiting parents of another volunteer and witnessed puckered lips and a tepid “I’m glad we tried it” response. Then I dove into a delicious lunch of plov, a rice pilaf dish with shreds of carrot, garbanzo beans, and a few raisins, served in a bowl and topped with some chopped onions, followed by a couple sticks of lamb shashleek doused in vinegar, all accompanied by pieces of bread ripped from a communal flat, round loaf and washed down with a Shymkentskoye.

Begrudgingly moving on again after my delicious lunch, I grabbed a beer and walked into the stands to secure a seat for the games. Similar to a sporting event elsewhere, the participants took the field, though on horseback since these were the Nauriz games, and the crowd rose to its feet and hummed along to the national anthem. Following the anthem, most of us fair-skinned Americans applied sunscreen to prepare for a few hours of sitting in the warm sun watching Kazakh men, boys, and girls gallop, jump, dangle, whip, and wrestle on horseback.

The first event was horse jumping, similar to what you’d see at the Olympics, over three jumps, each of increasing height. The crowd cheered as the graceful animals and their riders successfully leapt over the obstacles and gasped with fear when the occasional horse balked at the third and most challenging jump.

The next event was a crowd favorite, kyz koo, or kiss the girl. In this event, a girl rider around 16 or 17 years in age must sprint away from her male pursuer who rides a different horse started a few seconds behind. If the male reaches and grabs a hold of the girl before the girl rides past a designated mark, he wins a kiss; and in very traditional interpretations, marriage. But if the girl can outrun her potential groom, on the return run she beats the boy with her whip. The four or five sixty-year-old Kazakh men who sat behind me got a great kick out of this game and it was hard to tell if they cheered harder when the boy won a kiss or the girl beat her companion.

The next couple events required incredible riding skills and strength. The first game was wrestling on horseback where two shirtless riders on their own horses would try and drag their opponent off of their horse. The strategy seemed to be to grab a hold of your opponent’s arm or leg and lean the other way in your saddle while inching your horse to move in the opposite direction of the other horse. After this game was a test of the rider’s balance and leg strength, and how tightly he had fastened his saddle to his horse, as a number of red handkerchiefs were placed on the dirt at intervals of four meters, requiring the rider to ride at a canter or slow gallop and lean down to the ground to grasp as many handkerchiefs as he could. (Picture credited to PCV Kate Reynolds)

Lastly, and with great anticipation, came the roughest and wildest of all the games, kokpar. Kokpar, also called buzkashi in other countries like Afghanistan, requires two teams of about eight riders to muscle, beat, and claw their way towards scooping up a wooly, dusty sheep or goat carcass from the ground and haul it towards the rider’s goal. Meanwhile, all the opposite team’s riders are in pursuit trying anything short of knifing the rider with the carcass to prevent further progress. This game resembles rugby for the scrums of horses inching for position over the carcass and then a horserace when one rider does his best to drag his hard earned prize towards the goal. Dusty, brutal, and primal, if I were a khan I would chose my bodyguards based on someone’s success in this game alone.

As the dust settled for a break in the kokpar match, I slowly left the hippodrome with a full stomach, a tan face, and a mind awash in Kazakh culture. Nauriz is Kazakhstan at its finest and a gem in anyone’s trip to this country whether for one week or two years.

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