Monthly Archives: October 2014

Waiting for the dombra… with musical musings


A dombra player serenades at the entrance of the old market

Call me crazy, but I had obsessed about it since I arrived in Kazakhstan… the dombra. The national instrument features in historical depictions and even on building gables, but I hadn’t actually heard one yet. Then last Saturday as we entered the old city market, there he was; an elderly fellow, resplendent in his costume, strumming his dombra. Few took notice except us; two ‘part-time tourists’, eager for culture. No it didn’t sound brilliant, a little twangy and scratchy, but then could you expect more from a two stringed instrument? As I placed a few tenge into the man’s pot, the musician glanced up and smiled. I stepped back to appreciate, intrigued with the simplicity of the tune. Yet I imagined that there must be more to this skinny long necked lute than his gentle strumming would suggest, perhaps it was the wrong setting?

On our recent trip into the ‘outback’, I had attempted to set the scene with some authentic Kazakh music. After jumping into the 4 x 4 and hearing the young driver’s stereo system, I innocently thought of dombra music. Even though Bon Jovi, Sting and the odd Russian ballad was on his playlist, I had the audacity to ask nonetheless…

“Sergei, would you mind playing some dombra music, pazhalsta?” He smiled politely, chuckled and shook his head decisively. All the while he must have been thinking… NYET!  You silly foreign woman, don’t you realize I’m a 25 year old with a very decent truck and stereo, not to mention I’m Russian! We don’t play dombra music, that’s Kazakh and so not cool!

Complete cultural faux pas on my part… no dombra music on that journey then!

I can’t help it that I love music of all kinds and for me, the music should compliment the time and place. My kids would often cringe in an Italian or Thai restaurant when I’d suggest that the ‘music should really compliment the menu and surroundings’. They were used to my pursuit of music authenticity. Ud music in Oman, Mozart in Salzburg and maybe it wasn’t culturally authentic, but it was always Tom Petty while sand-duning in Qatar. So this week when the newsflash came through that there would be a dombra performance at the local philharmonic hall, I could barely contain my excitement. I summoned hubby home early from work.”We’re going, be home on time!”

Actually, Bruce is usually quite accommodating with these things. When we lived in Scotland he surprised me with front row tickets to a Fiddler’s Rally, a romantic indeed!  There were the fiddlers and accordion players in their kilts, mesmerizing us with Strathspeys, Marches and Reels; bagpipers in the back row droning at opportune moments. As memorable as it was, I’m ashamed to admit that my enduring recollection of the evening was of an old kilted fiddler, front row centre. In the passion of playing, he ill advisedly crossed one leg over the other, a few gasps were heard from the crowd as he revealed more than we wanted to see.  A wee nudge from a fellow musician, the leg went back down, and the mercifully the music played on.


My young performing days

It is however, far more difficult to cross one’s leg while playing the accordion. I should know as I am one… a proud player who has been teased about it throughout my life. I was only eight when my mom ‘gave me the gift of music’. There I was, a skinny wee thing, lugging my massive Italian squeezebox up and down the stairs to my lessons. More often than not, I was reprimanded by Ms. Bergan for not having practiced enough, yet I did eventually perform in a concert or two. Certificates prove that I was part of a duet called Two Freckles, yet I would set it aside for sports and other pursuits. I can still play that beloved instrument which is stashed away in a closet, ‘set free’ maybe once a year. I lug it out of it’s tattered blue case and summon a tune or two on its aged keys. I’ve since learned to play the piano, yet there is nothing quite like heaving those bellows in and out as a rollicking song somehow materializes from that mass of buttons and keys. No, it isn’t glamorous, but I tell myself we’re a select bunch that can play.. that reminds me to thank my mom for those long ago lessons!

A second chance in the 'spotlight'

A second chance in the ‘spotlight’

As I got ready for our dombra outing, I recalled what I had read about the intriguing instrument, vital to Kazakh culture. It’s an essential part of their oral and musical culture; excavations of ancient cities have revealed terracotta statuettes two thousand years old, plucking similar instruments. Nowadays whether it be a staged performance or a traditional gathering in a yurt, the dombra represents the heart and soul of the Kazakh nation. Musicians tour the country vying to outdo each other, eager to share their virtuosity in styles that vary from region to region.  Would any of them be performing this evening, I wondered. Yes, they’re as integral to this culture as the bagpipes are to Scotland, as the sitar is to India. Or, as it’s Octoberfest this time of year, as oompah music is to Germany.  Which reminds me, allow me one more musical digression if you will.


Finding the music in Hamburg

I was in Germany, almost two years ago enjoying a ladies Christmas Market trip. The previous day had included choral music in a cathedral in the beautiful northern town of Lubeck, yet I felt that I hadn’t experienced that defining music that would encapsulate my travel experience. And so the last day found us in Hamburg’s Christmas market, steamy mugs of glühwein warming us in the frigid December air.

DSC02160 - Version 2

Any ideas on the name of this ‘stick’ instrument?

We wandered through the fairy tale atmosphere where every festive delight surrounds you; from the folksy hand carved decorations in evergreen stalls, to endless creations of marzipan, to the twinkling tanenbaums and painted nutcrackers. With food so irrisistedly delicious you smile as you compliment it with yet another mug to keep you warm. All of it was perfect and then we heard it! It was the music that I had so longed for; horns blasting, accordions blaring and a ‘stick a thumping’. Five minutes later there we were… dancing, twirling and shaking tambourines. Singing, laughing and soaking up the moment; musical and cultural perfection that I had hoped for. I then considered my trip complete.

But back to the dombra, surely you’re curious about the concert after all this rambling?!

It was brilliant, simply brilliant. We had expected simple musical fare, but bouquets of flowers decorating the stage and richly dressed musicians hinted otherwise. When the statuesque compere took the stage, her diction was lyrical, rolling and guttural, beautiful even if incomprehensible to us. Her flowing red dress and fur-lined ‘saukele’ with a feather-tipped ‘spire’ transported us to a different world.

Rows of male dombra players to the left and, to the right, in pale blue flowing dresses, an array of ladies with two-stringed kobyz ‘fiddles’ nestled in their laps. Violinists, drummers, bassists and accordion players, all poised to respond to the precise commands of the conductor. The music was of the country and it flowed like the wind ripples through the steppe, like horses rush on the prairie. My imagination conjured winter sleighs and cozy yurts. It was truly music sculpted by the landscape and the culture of the open plains.


An Akyn with dombra players to his left

Dressed in full-length boots, deep blue tunics and fur-brimmed hats, the dombra players were mesmerizing. Their style was at once simple and evocative – profound and lyrical.


The lovely Compere, hostess of the evening


The iconic Bibigul

And then came the Akyn, tall and broad in a long Kazakh robe and fur hat.  These minstrels of bygone years once traveled to nomadic camps to entertain and enlighten. The Akyn tells tales that range from epic battles, to rich folklore to simple village gossip. I could hear it now in the music. First his dombra punctuated his words in rough accompaniment, then gave forth an eloquent display of virtuosity, widespread hands flashing across the strings. The crowd responded in the time honoured way, the way an audience around a camp fire or village square might have yelled out… “it can’t be so!” or “tell us more Akyn!” or simple whoops of approval.  I didn’t understand the words but realized that this interaction was steeped in tradition. The Akyn was the master of the story, the dombra his canvas, the audience his confidants.

And so it continued, different styles all telling of a vast musical heritage, unbroken across the centuries. Dombra masters such as Serzhan Shakrat and young pretenders alike were given their place in the programme. Our favourite was without a doubt the young soloist who played with such delightful arrogance; clearly vying for deserved notoriety and acclaim. Beloved opera star Bibigul Tulegenova had obviously won the nation’s heart long ago. This great musical icon was surely the star of the evening, presented with bouquets of flowers after each song and lavishly lauded in closing speeches from admiring dignitaries. However, what touched me were the countless young people in the audience who rose to their feet the moment the revered Bibigul was introduced. Cameras poised, videos readied, they nudged each other as if in disbelief that the great star was before them. That in itself was comfort; that the respect and love for this music is very much alive and will continue to be passed on to new generations.

We were dazzled by the absorbing and unique atmosphere. There were more than a few glances in our direction as locals sensed that we were ‘visitors’. They smiled knowingly as if to say, “This is our heritage and we’re proud to share it with you.” We were honoured to be there.








An adventure steeped in time… of camel caravans, limestone sculptures and peace


Embracing silence in The Ustyurt


They say that in the Ustyurt area of Kazakhstan, you will be cured of your vanity, your petty desires…

I understand why – so dramatic is the scenery, so soulful is the silence, so humbling is the history. It lingers in the ancient sea bed, it lives in the chinks of rocks.

The silence was all embracing, only the noise of travellers disturbing the chalk and limestone mountains; hewn of tawny whites, creams and gelato pinks. Muted tones in the rocky sculptures of castles, arches and chalky yurts… a tapestry of life in pastel hues.  Yet a lime green succulent bloomed defiantly on the parched, desert floor. A dash of violet showed off in the distance.


A ‘yurt’ and a ‘fortress’

I’m sure it was forever this beautiful, but it wasn’t always this silent. Once the water flowed and the tides crashed. Sharks swam and fish gurgled.


The Bakty Mountain, tawny whites and gelato pinks

Caravans with countless camels trekked along the ‘silk route’. Laden with bounties of sables, silk and honey, falcons, birch and slaves. These caravan tracks of the Manqystau were well trodden, ‘ships of the desert’ shuffling to and fro, east to west… west to east. Merchants traded, a mingling of cultures and religions, of Indian and Babylon goods. Clay bricks that reveal secrets of roadside settlements, fortresses and homes.

Yet, uncovered layers hint at Stone Age migrations; those long ago nomads following tracks of gazelles, antelope and sheep.


“Ships of the desert’

They live on still, graceful mouflon sheep prancing through the steppe, antlers of forebearers crumbling into the cracked and crusty earth. One and two humped camels shuffling through the sand, steppe eagles gliding overhead. Horses foraging for survival, herders tending torpidly.

A breathless trek to a high outpost. Through remnants of a stone walled fortress, where animals once were hidden, sheltered from enemy tribes. That safe haven, now a portal to a view of peaks. Peaks reaching to the desert sky, piercing the autumn breeze, drawing the glance of a soaring eagle.


A pinnacle piercing the desert sky

We camped in the shadow of a yurt, erected by nature itself. Its domed roof echoing our small, intimate, manmade shelters.  Now the valley was alive with crackling embers and sizzling meat. With campfire chat, Russian and English washing across the chill desert air. Yet deafening stillness… in the surrounding cliffs, in the moonlit crevices, in the dark holes of sleeping lizards.


Mausoleum at Shopan-ata

And it ended where it was meant to; in a sacred place.  The Manqystau ground is so. Legends hold it was blessed by as many saints as there are days in the year. Shopan-ata, an underground mosque where we were welcomed, shoes slipped off on rich carpet, beckoned inside. A maze of recessed spaces and cool in the caverns half light. Lizards dart in and out of niches. Sufi prayers etched on worn stone, a carved open palm for happiness. Our departure, a gifted white linen cloth, blue stitched for blessings. On the trail of pilgrims, since the fourteenth century. A place where all can enter, of any religion or creed.     Peaceful… as it should be.


The Necropolis of Shopan-ata

Outside that tiny carved door, near that hallowed ground, grows a mulberry tree.  Wrapping it’s wizened limbs around sinking tombstones, a scene unchanged. Did it once nourish those worms that would become silk…it is the mulberry leaves they eat.



Perhaps the pilgrims that rested here, had traveled this route. Perhaps they gazed at the same wondrous sights, in awe of the luminous moon, endless stars.



The underground mosque at Shopan-ata




On the ‘high outpost’

There is no perhaps… the wonders and vistas were theirs and they are ours. And that, is a joy, a joy to be had in the Manqystau.




Sculptures in the silence


First Dispatch from a former Soviet city… where the streets have no names


The Hotel we call home, with a preserved Soviet jet fighter in the nearby park

Not counting a few jet lagged days, I’ve been a resident of Kazakhstan for two weeks. Let’s begin with first impressions on arrival, tired and bleary eyed after an overnight layover in Istanbul. Thankfully, my long awaited visa barely received a glance and Bruce was there to greet me; as was the driver in a 4 x 4 fitted with a roll cage. I would immediately see why as impatient drivers weaved in and out along the chaotic, single lane highway. New and rustic vehicles zipped past as our driver kept steadfastly to the company mandated speed limit. Soviet style military trucks lumbered alongside shiny new Range Rovers, Land Cruisers and an inordinate number of Ladas. These boxy, toy-like cars were manufactured in the Mother Country and were popular behind the Iron Curtain. You could even choose your colour, as long as it was white! They were a symbol of city life and yet here they were in the ‘outback’ of Kazakhstan.

I imagine they wouldn’t stand a chance against one of these bactrian camels that wander so perilously close to the road; good call on the roll cage! The hairy, two humped beasts ambled along, at home in this barren, limestone landscape. They crossed paths with shaggy horses as they both foraged in the scrub. I would soon discover that one of these beasts is a staple of the Kazakh diet. In this hazy dream-like scene, I could picture Ghengis Khan and his warriors riding this parched steppe, once again staking their claim as they did in the 1200’s.  In reality, it was only a goat herder recklessly shunting his precious flock across the busy highway. I gasped and the driver chuckled as I clutched Bruce’s hand; he sensed his normally intrepid travel companion was momentarily in culture shock!


A row of Khrushchyovkas often with painted murals decorating their ‘gabled ends’..either folk art, political or cultural


A dombra – the national instrument

The first glimpse of the city itself, Aktau, confirmed my bemusement. I’ve lived in similar cities in varying stages of development, notably Doha and Muscat. They weren’t as modern as they are now, yet it was in their tucked away labyrinth of streets and souks that they came to life; exotic scenes, smells and intrigues. Would it be the same here? Please tell me that’s the case, I feel as if the clock has been rolled back.

At first sight; drab, little greenery, crumbling sidewalks, haphazard and care worn.  And then I see them, the Soviet style apartments. They go on and on and I know I’m in a former Eastern bloc state. Even with a smattering of modern buildings, one could imagine a city in decay or, with a positive outlook a city on the cusp of rejuvenation. Had one lived here during the Soviet days, it could appear progressive and modern. If not, it might seem outdated and dowdy, eager for a makeover. For all that, it’s a mere forty years old, originally founded in a quiet corner of U.S.S.R. where nuclear testing would go relatively un-noticed. I’ve met Westerners who enjoy living here because of that open space (happily now without the testing) as well as the traditional simplicity. As always, it’s relative and personal.



1, 2 and 3, with a neighbourhood shop


A patriotic mural

By the time I arrive at my hotel, a sleek building of steel and glass, I realize this will be my oasis of modernity. I look out from our suite on the top floor and the Caspian Sea rolls before me like a beautiful canvas.  It shimmers and promises something exotic. But that would be stretching the imagination. The hotel stands out incongruously amongst the apartment blocks, a glaring counterpoint to the hastily erected utilitarian structures that give Aktau and any former U.S.S.R. city their character. The majority of the population call them home, some refurbished, most are not. Their once uniform appearance now stamped with a patchwork of individual modifications and candy stripes of pink, yellow and sickly hospital green. They are called ‘Khrushchyovka хрущёвка’ and were constructed from pre-fab’d concrete, mostly trucked out of Moscow. Usually only built up to five stories (this way they didn’t require elevators), they were only intended to stand for twenty-five years or so. They are carbon copied throughout the city, each with seven foot high numbers at the top of each, denoting their address.


The other part… well about those streets with no names, it’s true, there are no names!  Even

Mingling of new and past culture along with a few Ladas

Mingling of new and past cultures, with a few white Ladas

the busy street I live on which runs close to the Caspian Sea, doesn’t have a name. I suppose you would say it’s the busy street where the modern hotel is. People here would know and if they didn’t, you would tell them it’s in Microdistrict 9… that’s it. The city is divided into these districts, as was Soviet style. One’s address is a series of numbers; the Microdistrict, building number and apartment number. Structured, simple, no nonsense.  What I have noticed is that these areas seem to be neighbourly, often with ‘hole in the wall’ corner stores and colourful playgrounds.  Children play in the fading warmth of autumn. Grandparents watch from nearby benches as they chat. And so I walk past their endless rows, intrigued with these homely homes, though I’m not quite sure why… not yet.


The seafront

The seafront

My solace is the sea. Twice a week I walk and chat with a lively group of expat ladies. We meet at various points along the seafront, some with precious cargos in tow, (toddlers or wee dogs), though most of us are here alone.   Accompanying our ‘oil and gas’ husbands, we have nothing but ourselves and time. Many of us are at the stage where adult children are scattered around the world. We speak of them and miss them, of course. But there’s a sense of wanderlust as we recall countries we’ve lived in, adventures remembered and those that are being planned.  I’m reminded that living in any new country is always about the people. I’ve been welcomed into the expat group with open arms, lunches, seaside walks and apparently a crazy night of Karaoke is on the cards. No, I can’t sing, but one must be respectful of the local ‘culture’ so I’ll have to be dragged along! If you’re lucky in a new ‘posting’, you meet that one person you just kind of click with… that ought to be here the same time you are.


Molly is also new to the country and as Bruce and I waited for the hotel elevator that first day, she was exiting it. I was an exhausted mess, but I do remember her saying “I’m so glad you’re here now!” I don’t think that’s how I felt, but it was nice to hear. Within days, Molly strolled from her end of the corridor to mine for tea. Admittedly, a farewell one as she and her husband were off to an apartment. There went my new friend and neighbour with her red bucket, rubber gloves and a suitcase. I went back into my suite to ponder if we should also consider an apartment, an option open to us. Our hotel suite suite had been cleaned, our laundry just delivered and I haven’t thought much about it since. Well, maybe once or twice as I shuffle my microwave off my tiny counter to make way for my ‘stove’. Admittedly this isn’t for everyone, being confined to a small space.  Let’s see if that view of the sea and ease of life keeps us here.


A breezy Wednesday morning walk

A breezy Wednesday morning walk

But what is it like, life in a hotel?  Well it’s a delightful revolving door. From the people that work here, to the visitors, to those that call it home. The world seems to come into ‘my’ lounge and I love it. Also wonderful are the local Kazaks and Russians, eager to befriend you. I hope to meet with one of them this week as she’d love to tell me more about life here.  For that and for friendship, I’m thankful.



A fisherman and a wedding shoot

Of course, there are a multitude of questions I have that in time will hopefully be revealed.  To begin with there’s the food, fodder for it’s own entire blog entry. Not to mention the cultural differences, history and the language. My Russian lessons begin soon and admittedly, I’m frightened to death. Firstly, there’s that pesky ‘other’ alphabet to contend with (it’s called cyrillic.) I’ve left other countries not having made an effort with the language and I’m determined to not repeat this. Most people in the traditional shops don’t speak English.  Nada, nothing, so it’s rather important. My first word… спасибо, sounds like spasiba… it means thank you. If I’m in the room about 4 pm, our laundry is delivered by a friendly lady named Amanguel. She comes in, hangs up the pressed shirts, plunks down the rest, and proceeds to chat. We point and motion, a game of charades which often ends in her grabbing a pen to illustrate her point. She smiles freely through her front gold-capped teeth, her jet black hair pulled back in a bun. We like each other, even though we can’t communicate.

A piece of Kiev cake and a stab at Russian

A piece of Kiev cake and a stab at Russian


And so, this new adventure is just that, an adventure. I’m enjoying that guy beside me again after mostly living apart the last year. We’re suddenly in a suite together with no housework, laundry, chores, weeds to pull, or kids to cook for? It’s pretty darn brilliant actually, the time is ours. As Bruce has always said, ‘Terry Anne, I haven’t experienced it unless you’ve been there to share it with me.”  So now I’m here and we’ll see how I manage.  It should be alright, unless those walls start to close in, that Siberian wind blows me away or I never get past спасибо!


Late night Limoncella with Molly

Late night Limoncella with Molly







In the meantime, Molly and myself are planning a trip with our guys, into the countryside to photograph those odd looking camels, just for starters. She’s a photo journalist, another reason we seem to get along just fine.  For me, our friendship was pretty much sealed when I boarded the company bus recently.  I really feel like a school child as we’re not permitted to drive here, I miss my Aspen!  Once seatedMolly pulled a small vial out of her bag and slipped it into my palm. “Some lavender oil for you, I know yours broke on the way here.  Have some of mine.” And that about sums it up. You can weather just about anything if you have friends at your side, a deep blue sea to gaze upon and a trip into the unknown to look forward to!

The Caspian, no seashells in sight, just sea glass

The Caspian, no seashells in sight, just sea glass