Category Archives: Kazakhstan

Every market tells a story…


Tomatoes with a story

You’ll remember when I wrote my first dispatch from Kazakhstan I hoped for… “a labyrinth of streets and souks that come to life; exotic scenes, smells and intrigues.” I’m pleased to report that such markets are here in Aktau. They are lively, authentic and represent certain aspects of Eurasian culture and hospitality. Is a market not a place that tells stories and allows glimpses into cultures? I believe that to be true and so I give you….

Three markets known for their meat, fruit, vegetables, spices, plastic goods, cheap clothes and more.

Markets, where many of the vendors are from other lands. Home is Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan; all those new Republics that were suddenly cut adrift from the Soviet Union, encountering unprecedented challenges in the years since. Some people have struggled, the next generation has found it easier.

“Many poor people,” Samira, my Azeri friend tells me.


A simple market display

We are at the small Volna Market, stalls and stores just off a busy, main street. When the vendors discover that Samira is from Azerbaijan, she is surrounded.

“Please send greetings back home,” they say wistfully… they seem ever so homesick. A lady with striking red lipstick and tidy blond hair wraps smoked fish, then puts her hand to her heart.

“I’m from Sakhalin, Russia,” she says, seeming lonely despite the bustle around her. Perhaps like many, she was sent here as a dissident, never managing to find her way back home.


The friendly vendor from Azerbaijan

Eager for our attention, the vendor across the way gestures to her pyramid of eggs. I gladly buy some; she is ecstatic to have her photo taken, to have chatted with Samira in her native language. She pecks me on the cheek bidding farewell, pressing her jolly self against me for a friendly hug. Of course, being at the market with a ‘local’ is a different experience. Even our taxi driver has refused to leave us, now willingly laden with our purchases. He chuckles alongside the humourous Samira.


Warm smiles

On other days at two of the larger markets, my husband and I are mostly made to feel welcome. Tea and dumplings are offered, photos taken, stilted but eager conversation. Always we’re asked, ‘Which country are you from?’

“Ah, Canada good, Ottawa?” Our capital they know. Yet on one occasion, we are thought to be suspicious and we’re followed, told brusquely to put the camera away. I comply until I’ve turned the corner.

We buy produce that journeyed across the country by train from the fertile region of Kazakhstan, bringing staples such as apples from Almaty. This mountainous area in the Southern part of the country is the ancestral home of the apple… of all apples on earth, geneticists have recently confirmed.


‘Azerbaijani pomegranates’ and Almaty apples

Many of the ‘greens’ arrive from across the Caspian, grown by the Azeris and the Georgians. The vegetables are plentiful but one day I’m refused service. I’m too choosy about the tomatoes I’m selecting. The vendor shoos me away with a scowl, a holler and a flick of her hand. I’m offended until I ponder, Perhaps her family has memories of the ‘hunger winters?‘ Those that starved, the fate of half of the Kazakh population in the winters of 1931-33, did so because of Stalin’s forced collectivisation.

I regret being picky about which tomatoes I’m piling into my basket. Perhaps everyone should take some over-ripe and some firm, just thankful that there is food.



The essential sheep’s head

Meat is ample and readily available as Kazakh culture dictates.

Here, they opine that chicken is merely a vegetable; sheep, beef and horse reign. Vital to any celebration, or dastarkhan, a sheep’s head is displayed and served first to the honoured guest. It is then carved bit by bit; a piece of ear given to children, to be careful, to listen well. A smidgen of tongue to become more expressive. The eyes are delicacies, to seek wisdom. The brain, the best bit of all.

The dastarkhan still heeds the ancient ritual of showing respect to guests, to the elderly and relations. Ideally this is accompanied by shots of vodka, with plentiful toasting, usually every five minutes or so. The most senior starts it off and it goes from there. I have experienced this custom often… a toast, a shot (I forego the vodka), a toast, a shot… the third toast always salutes the ladies. I shall miss this tradition, as it poignantly imbues festivities with meaning and respect. Between the vodka, ample food, speeches and dancing if possible, a Kazakh celebration is not to be missed. But more of the ever present meat…


Bit by bit…

Besbarmak is boiled meat served in large hunks. Shashlik is marinated meat on a stick, often eaten at roadside cafes. Ulpershek is a dish made from the heart, aorta, and fat of a horse. Prepared in a kettle, it’s often shared between sisters-in-law as a sign of unity. Kazy is a sausage eaten in the spring when a cow has a new calf, sometimes served with rice. Mypalau is a dish made from sheep’s brain. Put the brain in a wooden bowl, add marrow, pieces of meat, salted fat in broth and garlic. On and on, go the meat recipes.


‘Fresh Meat’

Kazakh culture dictates that bread is never wasted. Furthermore, Kazakh hospitality demands that one must not leave a house without ‘at least having eaten a crumb.’


The ‘Naan’ baker

One doesn’t actually see much bread at these markets, but we peek into a naan bakery. The scent of fresh baking from the tandoor enticing us to enter. The baker poses proudly while I openly covet his old, weighty scale.

In our market visits, I had been intrigued by white, stone-like pieces that are displayed amongst spices, pulses and grains. Imprinted with knuckle-marks, they have a haunting story to tell.

In the desolate and remote Kazakh hinterland, once stood the gulag, the network of Soviet era concentration camps. The harsh weather and the impossible distances made escape futile. One such gulag, Alzhir, was solely for women and children. Their only ‘crime’; being, a wife, mother, or child of a man convicted of ‘betrayal of the motherland.’

Local villagers, risking their own lives, secretly tried to ease the prisoners’ hunger by throwing ‘stones’ at them. The guards delighted in this… ‘even your own kind throw stones at you!’ But the ‘rocks’ were actually hand formed, dessicated pieces of cheese curd, kurt. To this day, they are reminders of the repugnant man-made hells and of thousands of lost, innocent lives.


Kurt on display

When I see kurt in the markets, I’m reminded of my Dutch grandmother’s own wartime experiences. She would tell us sternly, yet lovingly, that ‘alles moet op’ – you must eat everything on your plate.


Knitted socks…from women prisoners

On a chilly day a few months ago, it wasn’t food that I bought at the market, but something to warm me. Two things in fact, both reminding of my stoic grandmother. First, a cozy pair of knitted socks, crafted by women prisoners out of dog hair. I remember my grandmother often knitting or crocheting. Through her life she also embodied resourcefulness; drawing from her frugal upbringing, from raising children during the Second World War, to the harsh realities of being new immigrants in Canada.

Across the alley, a welcoming lady nods to her wares; she has crocheted slippers. They are just as my grandmother had made for me. I remember choosing the colour of Phentex I wanted; they are long since frayed and worn.


‘My grandmother’s slippers’


I take my time deciding on a pair, thinking of Margje, knowing she’d be amused at finding ‘her slippers’ in such a faraway place. And the story of the kurt would have resonated with her, having suffered through her own ‘hunger winters.’ I think of her, and of all the ladies whose own trials are etched on their faces. I can’t hear all of their stories, but I can look into their eyes with sincerity and a smile, I can make contact. There is no language barrier to that.


New friends from Uzbekistan, after tea and dumplings



A mishmash of goods


A rainbow of plastic



A lovely Kazakh bride and her ‘prince of the hearth’…

J.A.M. Design (5)-3

The lovely bride, Rysgul at her ‘first’ wedding

I first met Rysgul at our hotel where she works in sales. It was a fleeting moment and our paths didn’t cross again until a recent cocktail evening. I was immediately struck by her warmth and we chatted easily.  When I asked what her name meant, Rysgul replied, “It means ‘kind flower.” Her name suits her perfectly; she has a modest grace and classic Kazakh beauty, embodied in dark enchanting eyes and long, glossy black hair.

“I’m a newlywed,’ she happily announced early into our conversation. After congratulating her, I steeled myself to ask the question, curiosity getting the better of me. “Did you marry a ‘prince of the hearth?’ “I did,” Rysgul beamed, “so yes, I now live with my husband and his parents.’ I was referring to the Kazakh tradition of the youngest son taking the role of ‘prince of the hearth.’ It is his duty to live with and care for his parents.  When one marries ‘the prince’ custom dictates that the bride moves to his childhood home. This new extended family isn’t for a month or a year; it’s a life long commitment. Rysgul explained that she was raised to respect this tradition and is proud, as is her family, that she’s now in this role. When I ventured that this would be considered unusual in many Western cultures, she did not waver or appear to desire it any other way.

Rysgul is a modern woman, yet committed to traditions that bind this area of Kazakhstan together, more so than other parts of the country. “I’d love to hear more about your culture,” I said, ‘and of course your wedding. I’m also curious about your striking wedding jackets and the unique hats you wear.’ Having noticed countless weddings at the hotel, the premier venue in the city, the questions were already forming in my mind.

“Yes the kamzol and saukele, we could do an interview if you’d like?” Rsygul responded graciously. What followed the next day was a delightful two-hour conversation and an outing to the award winning showroom, Nur Shah. It was an unexpected insight into the journey of a modern day bride, one that is still very much layered with tradition.

 Where did you meet your husband Rysgul, how long were you engaged?  

We met in a nightclub though neither of us were particularly in the mood to be there. We dated for about four years, but once you get engaged here it all happens quickly. In Kazakh tradition, a group from the boy’s family visits his girlfriend’s parents, they sip tea and eventually ask for her hand in marriage. A female relative of the hopeful groom adorns the girl with golden earrings. This means the girl is now taken, engaged. My fiancé offered a diamond ring as well. A day was agreed upon and it was official. Typically, an engagement is only 2 to 3 months.

Is anything given to the groom’s family?

Yes, depending on the status of the family, some money is given. It’s like a dowry to compensate for what the groom’s side has spent on new furniture, houseware, bedding items and carpets. There was once the tradition of giving 47 head of cattle for a bride.  This has transformed into presenting a korzhun, a traditional bag with 47 various gifts inside. The bags are decorated with coins, rings and bead necklaces. They are passed down within the family. There are two wedding ceremonies, the first is for me as a send off, which was here at the hotel. All of my friends were here and my husband’s siblings.

Is that when you wear the beautiful kamzol and the saukele?

Yes, the traditional part of the wedding is when I wore the national dress or kamzol. I felt like a princess. The silver jewellery is also important, kind of good luck charms. That’s also when my braids were displayed.


The traditional image with braids displayed

Tell me about that, the knee-length hair that many young Kazakh women have.

It is the custom, if possible, to grow our hair to this length at least until we get married. It’s considered very feminine and beautiful. Yet when we do reveal it, we should off-set it with big bows or even bells, so as to not appear vain.

Will you cut your hair now that you’re married? 

I might, maybe, but my husband doesn’t want me to, it’s well… (Rysgul chuckled coyly as her words tailed off)

I’m sure it looks stunning, to say the least. Is it shown at home?

Only to my husband. When I get home, my outer image changes. I go into my room and change into a caftan type dress, a white kimishek* covers my hair and we always cover our feet. It’s then time to cook the evening meal which I do gladly. My mother in-law will get started if I’m delayed.

So your ‘first wedding’ is traditional. Is it after this you begin life in your new home?

Yes, there was a ceremony after the wedding party, we entered the home to singing and dancing. It’s the custom that my new sisters in-law put a kimishek on my head as I kneel down. A fabric threshold hangs behind us which is white, but a woven red fabric is then draped over that, symbolizing the new marriage. This ‘artifact’ hangs in the home until I become pregnant. That evening there was also a dombra player who offered marital advice through music and prose.

It sounds lovely, and the second wedding?


A bride in the hotel lobby

That was the next day, Western style, when I wore a white gown that I designed. That wedding was in my hometown. I’m not from Aktau, but my husband is from this area – from the Adai clan. They’re more traditional, from the Mangistau area and very respected. We try to marry from neighbouring clans, but you must prove that your family lines are separated by seven generations.  (I remember reading that it has always been shameful not to know your family lineage that far back. It dates back to the days of Genghis Khan when they were recited in verse.)

Is there a ceremony at the mosque? Did you have a honeymoon? Was it difficult, adjusting to joining his family home?

The blessing at the mosque can be done beforehand. No, we don’t typically have a honeymoon and for me it was quite natural to make the change. Every morning I greet my in-laws with a type of curtsy and a cupped hand gesture, as tradition calls for. (I had noticed this Sufi symbol of a blessing depicted in an ancient mosque and often see references to it.)  But I’m able to be independent and still work, however some brides that are younger may be required to stay in the home. The foundation of our culture is respect for elders, this is ingrained in our tradition.

Your family must miss you Rysgul?

Yes, but I see them often and soon it is the three month mark. They will come to my new home for the final ceremony and bring my dishes and household goods that I’ve collected. Also, my in-laws will give a present to my mother, an acknowledgement that their daughter is now with a new family.

Is there one special present or does if vary?

Well, it depends on social status but in our case, it will be a fur coat.

Gosh how lovely. Is that the reason so many women here wear fur coats?  I’ve never seen so many gorgeous furs.

Yes, it’s one reason and by that time in life, having a fur conveys a certain status.

Very interesting. Tell me, is there any chance that having gold teeth was once a status symbol?

(I allude to the many men and women here in their 50’s or older that have golden teeth. They’re often conscious that this is no longer ‘in fashion’ and hide their smiles.) Yes, exactly, that’s what it was. People melted down their jewellery to have it converted to gold teeth.

Do you plan to have children?

But of course and as you know, we are fortunate as the grandparents help raise their grandchildren. We don’t have to worry about child care.

One last question. How does your society react when a Kazakh woman marries a foreigner?


Kazakh tradition in every stitch

My parents would have been heartbroken, probably wouldn’t have allowed it in some way, but I do know a few friends who have. They love their husbands and lead a different life. But to a certain extent, they’ve walked away from our proud culture; I could never have done that.



The lovely Nurbibi indulges me

Late the next afternoon, as promised, Rysgul is waiting, ready for our rendezvous. She directs the hotel driver to Nur Shah, the acclaimed showroom. As we make our way in the rush hour traffic, I’m told that we’re going to the preferred place to buy kamzols for a ‘first wedding’ or for celebrations. The showroom began as a small home business, but the exquisite designs have now become status symbols.


A short kamzol in black

When we arrive at the nondescript building, its drabness surprises me. It offers no hint of the sumptuous atmosphere inside. “It’s our custom when you enter a place for the first time, that one should make a wish.” Rysgul tells me as she holds the door for me to step inside. A massive chandelier hangs in the centre of the room, illuminating a large Persian carpet on the marbled floor. My eye is immediately drawn to the array of exquisite kamzols and elegant dresses. They’re resplendent with glittering stones, jewels and intricate design work that intertwine symbols of swans necks, flowers, even the horns of mouflon sheep.

Here, a woman’s beauty is compared to the graceful curves of a swan and as they mate for life, their likeness is the inspiration for the ever present motif. Stitching on garments and hats also echoes the past, but Nur Shah has expertly incorporated an intriguing modern flair. I can well imagine the excitement a bride to-be must feel as she enters this feast of wedding indulgences.


With my gracious hosts

Nurbibi, the lovely assistant, kindly allows me to try on a number of Kamzols. They feel elegant and sensual. I sense the tradition the garment embodies. As much as I admire the saukeles, the pointed hats perch on the upper shelves suggesting they are too valuable to try on, they remain firmly out of reach. The bejewelled ones are breathtaking and if you’re fortunate enough to have been married in one, you will proudly display it in your home. Typically, fabric saukeles either have a fur-like plumage or the more expensive ones feature owl feathers.


Elegance and tradition

The saukele fascinates me. I’ve read that tribes called “tigrahauda” (wearing pointed hats) once occupied vast territories of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan. In the 1970’s, Kazakh archeologists found an undisturbed burial place of a Saka chief from the 5th century BC. His clothes were covered with golden plates and he wore a tall ‘golden headdress.’ Similarly, something akin to the present day Kazakh saukele is depicted on two ancient golden belt buckles. Both men and women wore this tall, pointed headgear.

Almost two and a half thousand years separate these treasures, yet the Kazakh saukele is still an important element of a wedding ceremony. I ask Nurbibi how long a bride normally takes to choose an ensemble. Rysgul translates to me that it can take as long as a year, but usually a month. “Yes indeed, how would you ever decide!” I say.

“Will you please give my sincere thanks to Nurbibi for allowing me this opportunity, it’s been such a pleasure.” When this is translated, Nurbibi returns the sentiment, a warm smile on her enchanting face. The subtle elegance of these ladies is in perfect harmony with the luxurious items that adorn the showroom… evocative in their modest, yet beguiling beauty.


An old depiction of a Kazakh marriage.

As we bid farewell and step back outside into dusk, Rysgul asks me if I had made a wish when we entered. “Yes I certainly did,” I assure her with a smile. And indeed I had. I wished this lovely new bride every happiness there is, with perhaps a newborn ‘prince of the hearth’ and a little ‘princess’ as well.


* The kimishek is the traditional white scarf that a married woman wears in the home and elderly women in public. They are often embellished with decoration. Once banned when Kazakhstan was under Soviet rule, the Kazakhs have embraced them again since regaining independence in 1991.

Shades of blue, pesky green… and counting Ladas



IMG_3525It was one of those days yesterday, which admittedly, one can have anywhere. Although I returned to Kazakhstan only last week, the initial excitement of seeing hubby and friends had given way to a dismal Wednesday. I’ve somewhat recovered my equilibrium today; back from a ladies lunch and a market, but yesterday… oh how I longed to get back on that plane.

Trust me there have been countries over the years that yielded more than their fair share of, well in Qatar we all used to call them, Doha Days, and not in a good way. So I suppose yesterday was my first, Aktau Day.

I drift back to other countries we’ve lived in. A ‘few moons’ ago in Japan I loved teaching English, though it was definitely a bad day when rats from the upper flat visited us and scurried across the tatami mats and futons. In Holland, gloomy days were easily spun away with a good bike ride through the cobbled streets. Scotland? Too many to mention and that was before the travails of two kids coming down with the chicken pox at the same time. Oman? Bad days didn’t exist except perhaps when the water was too choppy to take the boat out… oh heavenly Oman! And the U.S? The first six months in Houston I was desperate to go back to Oman. Norway? Let’s just say my ‘romance’ with the Vikings and my work cheered me immensely and rescued me from blue days and lashing horizontal rain.

But back to Kazakhstan. There’s a honeymoon phase when you first move to a country andIMG_4199 I revelled in that last fall, but of course, it often doesn’t last. Thankfully at least, my daily routine is calm and harmonious. The ebullient staff greet me warmly at breakfast, placing my Americano on my table while I do a first sweep of the buffet. Miroslav, the chef calls out to ask if I’d like an omelette…”pazahal’sta, just a malinky,” I reply using my favourite Russian word meaning small.  The odd day, there might be the distraction of an unfamiliar guest to chat with. Today it was a lovely, and understandably jet-lagged American lady here to attend a wedding this weekend. I tip my hat to her as it’s an awful long way to come for a celebration. I have a feeling she hid her surprise when I told her I actually lived here.  It does catch a few people off guard, including myself occasionally.

Most days by this time, the ‘business’ crowd has left for work leaving us stragglers, including the striking Air Astana flight attendants who frequent the hotel. They glide past us in perfectly manicured ‘other worldliness’; thank goodness I usually dress for breakfast and with makeup! Yesterday, my eye followed them wistfully… maybe I could jump on a flight back to Istanbul with you. Predictably, the rhythmic efficiency of the staff preparing for lunch is a reminder to make use of my time, to not squander it. Look at the luxury you have, living in a hotel, no chores, no responsibilities…

And it’s interesting, even intriguing with a revolving door of different people and fascinating conversations. Going down for a cocktail or two and buzzing back up to the top floor is darn cool. The staff feel like family, I was welcomed back with hugs and genuine warmth.

But there I was yesterday, feeling restless, feeling confined. The suite had been cleaned while I had breakfasted. My quick stint at the gym was lacklustre. A short walk to the grocers garnered IMG_3839some much needed vitamin D and my two phrases of Russian elicited a few carrots and wilted coriander. Back along the rutted sidewalk to the hotel, outing complete. Not one photo snapped, not one interesting exchange, not even a glance out to the sea. As the elevator doors closed on me, I slipped back into the doldrums.

Trying to be productive, I washed our seven dishes from lunch… yes B. comes home for lunch every day, usually just when I’m caught up in my work and would rather not be disturbed.

“See you this evening,” I’m forever calling out to him as he leaves in the morning. He looks at me like I’ve lost my memory once again. I switch from being away from him for more than a month at a time, to having him home for lunch everyday, please tell me that elicits just a little sympathy ladies…

Continuing with my predictable days, I know that the very efficient Amangul will deliver our laundry at 4:30 and trust me, I longed to have this respite from housework and chores once again. Yet there is something fulfilling about a gleaming floor and dust free blinds when they’re the fruits of your own labour. No, the laundry I will never miss. And yes I admit that crawling into pristine sheets every evening is, well… sublime.

DSC04600Snap back to that restless afternoon, time is crawling by. I’m procrastinating, I have a writer’s bio to complete for some newly published work and I’m designing a writer’s workshop that I should start on. Instead, I stare absent-mindedly out the window. Oh how I wish I could open it. The view of the Caspian from our suite is usually what inspires me.  Today it’s almost monochromatic; the sea and sky melding into one dun, formless canvas.

Seemingly in a hypnotic trance, I fixate on the busy IMG_4240intersection from our upper window, watching the cars scurry below. I start counting Ladas, those ubiquitous toy-like cars left over the Soviet days. Hmm, seems there’s about one every twenty cars… yes, seems they’re all still white. This is rather ridiculous, get on with something, I chide myself.

Then something registers against the drab skyline. I suddenly get these ‘Soviet style’ buildings across the street and down the streets… those with no names.  I understand their garish colours and the slathers of paint on the low, crumbling concrete walls. Some relief, some colour DSC04672against this drab February setting.

I recall pondering this when we were out in the warmth of the October sun, the fact that so much of the city is hued in blue and green.

Do they have a warehouse full of that pesky green shade left over from Soviet times that will be used until eternity. The blue I like!

IMG_4265Blue, along with that sickly shade of hospital green dominate the colour scheme; at the markets, on signs, on flower pots and buildings. On buses, benches and especially doors. I sense it isn’t by chance and read that in this part of the world, blue is a colour steeped in tradition and of religious significance. To the Turkic people, as with Kazakhs, it symbolizes cultural and ethnic unity. It also represents the endless sky, as well as precious water (not to mention the colour of the Kazakh flag.) Yes, this light blue colour is meant to signify health, healing and as a bonus it wards off evil spirits.  Perhaps why it graces so many doors?


So, I finally rally and go to my photos that are resplendent with these two shades. There is no end to the photos I took when I first arrived, it must have been that beguiling honeymoon phase. Looking at them now has cheered me, revived me… at least I’m no longer counting Ladas!


There is a shade on the colour wheel for this sickly green – #94b21c – I learn and concede the supposed healing properties of the light blue; a lovely antidote for all it seems.

No things aren’t that bad, after all tomorrow is Friday which means there’s the weekly soiree to look forward to. The ‘gang’ will be down at the bar for evening drinks and then dinner. Last week’s tales spanned from the preponderance of luxurious fur coats,IMG_3872 to the endless bottles of vodka stacked in supermarket aisles and unbelievably, to bride stealing in nearby Kyrgyzstan – yes sadly an issue.

And it appears there will be a chat about a trip being planned to Azerbaijan. It’s supposed to be a must see… I know, who would have thought it. I’ll keep you posted!





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