Tag Archives: travel

The breathtaking Bugaboos… a welcome home to a ‘cathedral in the sky’

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I’m now in Canada, dear readers, and I apologise for my absence from these pages. Through my last blogs, you’ll know we left our Indian home of two years. We travelled through Greece, Scotland and England, then a two-month stay in The Netherlands, before finally, beautiful British Columbia greeted us. It was as if our dear mountain home sighed with relief, “Ah, you’ve finally returned.’ It had been nine months.

So, we’re home, perhaps to live (to be decided) but nonetheless, the transition of almost thirty years overseas and now having one address is ongoing. You can read more at Monday Morning Musings.

IMG_8897Call it a welcome home or an initiation back to Canada, recently I was enticed into an overnight hike. Really, it was into a wonderland of chiselled granite at 2230 meters, into a rapture of beauty. It was a profound privilege, yet, it had to be earned.

The world acclaimed Bugaboos are at our doorstep, a range within the great Purcell Mountains – the Rockies are just across the valley. We joined many others who journey from around the world to hike and take on some serious climbing. My hiking partners promised that I would manage the ascent, but as is often the case, I’m the weakest link… the little engine that ‘hopefully can’.

The hike’s end point was to a hut that has seemingly been dropped from the heavens onto a granite outcrop. Flanked by a glacier and granite spires piercing the clouds, the Conrad Kain hut will take us about four hours to reach. A little nervous, I comfort myself with my badge of honour; that eleven-day hike back in the day to the base camp of Annapurna in the Himalayas. There have been many hikes since, but gazing up to this ‘hut in the sky,’ it seems a little formidable.

It begins easily enough, a gentle meander through aged forest and feathery ferns, past dainty wildflowers and lush meadows. That pleasant amble gives no indication of what will soon be asked of us. To tread carefully along steep granite steps and narrow edges. To grip chains for safety and ladder up a boulder. To climb higher and higher, the small green dot of the Kain hut ever-looming in the distance to encourage our progress.

We break in much needed shade for lunch, a carpet of pine needles and knobbly tree roots our bench. We chat with other hikers and guides who encourage their charges up the mountain.

Our unofficial guide is friend and neighbour, John Parker. John exudes calm encouragement, yet there is a task at hand and there isn’t time for idle dallying. But then, this was John’s work and his passion, the commitment to his lifelong career shows as he leads a steady way. “You’re doing great,” “Take small steps on the steep ascents”, he encourages me. By the fourth hour of the hike, I need all the inspiration I can muster.

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My legs are seizing up. My back is aching. Thankfully, my breathing isn’t as bad as I feared, but I am now w i l l i n g each step, hoping for the end. And then, as if nature senses that it’s time, one of the most glorious views reveals itself. A meadow of wild flowers opens up, a crystal-clear melt-water torrent rushes from the glacier, and we cross a simple metal bridge to the final climb to the Conrad Kain hut. Without a doubt, it is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Anywhere.

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Perched on a granite prominence, the hut with its green arched roof contrasts with its backdrop of glaciers, vast fields of ice, rugged and cracked, harbouring crevasses of the deepest cobalt blue. The hut and the enveloping landscape beckons me as I trudge up the final metres. It seems to say, “You’ve made it, welcome!”

The four of us unburden ourselves of our packs, add our climbing poles to the collection already outside the hut, and hug each other. “Well done, Terry Anne. You’ve achieved this,” John congratulates me. Sonya and Bruce do as well, and I admit to feeling like a school girl who has gained some respect from her teacher. Later that evening, I’ll hear more about John’s students and his career, but first we take in the buzz of the hut.

We’ll join about thirty other people who will spend the night on mattresses lined edge to edge over two upper floors. Sleeping bags claim their spots. But it won’t be a quiet night, what with the snores of exhausted climbers or 2 am alarms set for pre-sunrise departures for distant climbs. Head lamps light the way, for many early trekkers, the hut a staging point for serious climbers. Ropes are wound, helmets wait at the ready, crampons packed, quick-draws checked and counted, ice picks hang nearby.

The communal dining room, with its million-dollar view, is a place for sharing climbing stories and discussing routes, for reading and games, and replenishing weary bodies with freeze dried food. Though wonderfully, Bruce and Sonya on cooking duty would out do themselves – our dinner and breakfast warmed in the hut’s vast kitchen was just what my weary body needed.

Happily, it’s happy-hour, Sonya and I retreat to the side of the hut, exhausted but gleeful. A tin of glacier-chilled wine is our reward… and of course, that view. Surely, Conrad Kain would approve of his eponymous mountain abode. They say that Kain brought glamour and imagination into the sport of mountaineering as few guides had before him.

For nearly thirty years, the Austrian born guide, saw peaks as the personification of  beauty, as living entities to climb – firstly in Europe, then New Zealand and Canada. With his short, stocky stature, the climber achieved more than sixty first ascents, including the Bugaboo Spire in 1916 which now presides over us and the lesser spires like a grand citadel.

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We exhilarate in this cathedral of nature, and while Bruce and John hike upwards to the Applebee camp for a closer view of the ‘citadel’, Sonya and I stay put, entranced by the view. I recall what I had read of Conrad Kain. He eventually settled nearby, largely earning his living as a trapper, a hunting guide and an outfitter. His passion for communing with nature was steadfast. Kain once wrote, “Life is so short, and I think one should make a good time of it if one can. The only thing I enjoy now is Nature, especially spring in the mountains, and letters from friends. Sometimes I think I have seen too much for a poor man.”

Apparently Kain’s principles kept him poorer than he might have been and despite his achievements he sought no fame. With a grateful look across a beautiful alpine scene, he was known to have remarked, “It occurred to me that after all I was a rich man, even if I had no money.”

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I feel that now. The sheer beauty of this view is truly priceless. And somehow, it’s all that much more special because of the effort invested in reaching it. As I watch climbers trek off to the campground, a rainbow of tents pitched on a natural rock plateau, and as others ready their gear, I understand this world a little more. I now appreciate why one of our sons and his girlfriend are passionate about hiking and climbing. I more easily see why, when my husband and another son came back from trekking in Nepal a number of months ago, Bruce remarked, “It’s the sheer uplift of the soul… being part of primal wilderness.”

A few hours later we linger over our well-earned dinner that we had packed up the mountain. I ask John more about his career, surely a celebration of the great outdoors, as he helped design the curriculum for Outdoor Education Ontario, in his particular school. It offered high school students the opportunity to grow, to learn self-reliance, to move out of their comfort zone through outdoor pursuits.

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John Parker

“It might have been rock climbing, hiking, wayfinding, canoeing, winter camping or Nordic skiing. They learned confidence and independence. But I had hoops they had to jump through to earn their place on these trips; they were real achievements.”

John relates the life-changing impact the program had on students, the passion he still feels as a retiree is clear. “Years later, I’ve had calls from former students wanting me to know that I inspired them to become teachers themselves. They’ve told me how the program turned their life around. You really bond when you’re in the wilderness, barriers drop and kids confide in you. And I made them journal their experiences for self-reflection.”

As we listen to John reflect, I can’t imagine there isn’t one of us that doesn’t wish our children had been part of an outdoor education program. Our sons were avid sportsmen and yes, we were often outdoors, but studies show there is something intrinsic and vital about the connection, the challenges, and the healing of nature.

It’s still light outside at 2200 meters and as much I’d love to stay awake to watch the moon rise over the whites of the glacier and the grand citadel, it’s difficult to keep my eyes open. It’s only 9 pm.

The door opens and in bursts a climber, “Ah you’re back,” someone at the table exclaims in a German accent.

“It was awesome, been out for 25 hours straight,” the climber says. He’s draped with ropes and his tired but satisfied smile speaks volumes.

I say goodnight to my own climbing buddies, but realize I have just one more question for John.

“Did your students call you Mr. Parker on these trips, in those outdoor classrooms?”

John answered me in his usual charming, warm tone. “No, I was usually J.P.”

“Ok, J.P, thanks for the day and leading the way… just amazing!”

I don’t yet know, that descending tomorrow will be even worse than the climb. That I’ll take a tumble and that once I’m down the mountain I’ll gaze back up at it in awe. Already missing its serene and hallowed place.

But for now, my aching legs climb the ladder to the loft and slip into the cocoon of my sleeping bag, joining the long rows of sated guests. But still no sight of the moon – only a glacier and a glorious granite spire to lull me to sleep. It takes about two minutes.

Like those students of J.P’s, I feel a sense of achievement and fulfilment. Even though I had stepped out of my comfort zone, through this hike I have re-discovered what it means to be… home.

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*Where The Clouds Can Go, by Conrad Kain, first published in 1935, is meant to be a very good read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A train passage to Enchanting Hampi…

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Night train to Hampi – day one

The Hampi Express pulls into Bangalore just before 10 p.m. Hauling a staggering number
of carriages, it almost snakes its way back out of the station as hundreds of people rush at it. Those with general tickets jostle to find a seat; the 365 km journey to Hampi is a long way if you must stand.

We have the luxury of being booked in a four person sleeper. Two sturdy ceiling fans, frayed burgundy curtains and packages of linens await us…Southern Indian Railways bordering their edges. Two long seats below will transform into beds, while above, two bunks are perfectly serviceable for those who don’t toss and turn.

Lulled to sleep by the gentle locomotion, I am awakened through the night by the absence of movement at various stations. At one, I pull back the curtain as the unwelcome light from a platform threads into our compartment. On a station bench a tall gangly figure is wrapped in a shawl, arms on knees, his eyes pierce mine. I modestly retreat behind my drape, but as we roll along through the night I imagine all the people. All of the lives in the small villages that line the track…some seventy percent of India lives rurally.

I peer outside just before sunrise, steel factories loom against the awakening sky. This land is rich in iron ore and I see shadows of families scavenging scattered pieces, tumbled from passing trains and scooped into wicker baskets.

Hampi unwrapped – day two

The cry of a chai wallah from outside our compartment awakes us– an informal announcement that we’ve arrived at Hospete station. We disembark at 7:20 am, two of us rested, one of us groggy. Our senses are immediately heightened as we alight. Carriages disgorge flocks of passengers. Porters proffer their services twirling cloths into mini turbans on crowns of heads, a ready perch for a bag or two. Wallahs announce and drivers implore, tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk?

We have a driver waiting and he is soon maneuvering through traffic along with stray dogs, cows and bulls, wild pigs and piglets…all navigating the lively streets.

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After a quick refresh and breakfast at our hotel, we’re back on the road and the lush countryside welcomes us. We pass bullock cart after bullock cart laden with feed, crops and the fruits of the land. I understand why this site was chosen as the heart of an empire. The Tungabhadra river runs through the valley bringing sustenance to sugar cane and banana plantations, rice paddies and coconut groves. It is fertile and beautiful.

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A few kilometres down the road we come upon Hampi, a richness of deep-red soil framed by massive monolithic boulders. Shades of bronzes and rust, pale pinks and greys offered a natural defence (and building material) for the once mighty Vijayanagara Empire. After waiting for a shepherd and his goats to pass, we enter through the narrow Talavaraghatta Gate. One passes into an enchanting land…

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Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hampi has attracted settlers, travellers, traders and pilgrims since the mid 1300’s. With ruins that rival those of Rome and Pompeii, accounts from early foreign travellers capture scenes from the past…

DSCF1078“Travelling about three-hundred miles from Goa, we arrived at the great city of Vijayanagara…sixty miles in circumference…ninety thousand men bear arms. Their king is more powerful than all the other kings in India. He takes to himself twelve thousand wives, of whom four thousand follow him on foot wherever he may go. A like number are handsomely equipped and ride on horseback.” Nicole Conti, an Italian traveller, 1420

The lore of Hampi is not only infused with tales of an extravagant and powerful empire, but with the presence of gods, goddesses and heroes – a connection to the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys. We learn this through Basava, our guide throughout the day from Explore Hampi.

“Everyone calls me Hampi Basava,” he tells us. The son of a farmer, Basava grew up hearing tales of the great empire from his grandmother, inspiring him to share the richness of his hometown. As did encounters with archeologists who excavated the site, “I learned much from them, but still learning.”

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The Vijayanagara empire reached the zenith of its power under Krishnadevaraya from 1509 to 1529. Over time the city of Vijayanagara Pattana, became simply ‘Hampi’ and hosted the Pan Supari Bazaar with its daily market and almost one-thousand meters of stalls.

We walk the broad boulevards now quiet and forlorn, but I can still feel and hear the pulse of the people. The clatter of hooves mixing with the slow squeak of a rusty oxen cart. The calling of traders from colonnaded street-long bazaars. Colours gleaming against the scorching sun – gold and jewels glinting. Exotic spices, vermillion, turmeric and sandalwood piling in peaked domes. Sensuous silks and imported Chinese blue and white, hiding in the shade of the columned stalls. A chiseled relief of a fish announcing a nearby water-well. A sign suggesting the courtesan’s bazaar…always held on a Tuesday.

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In 1520 Domingo Paes, a Portuguese horse-trader, wrote…”In this city, you will find belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it was and the many precious stones there…the streets and markets are full of laden oxen.”

We approach the Vitthala Temple and I am instantly mesmerized. The massive enclosure has lofty gopuras (pyramidal temples) to three sides, grandiose protection to Vishnu’s mode of conveyance, the opulent stone chariot. “The wheels were once capable of turning,” Basava assures us. The king, concerned with the long treks the pilgrims endured to the sacred temples, entreated the weary pilgrims…Take the energy of the wheels.

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The nearby mandapas, intricately columned gathering places, are exquisite. Relief carvings depict dancers, drummers, voluptuous courtesans and warriors, royal elephants and sartorial hints of foreign visitors…a fez from Morocco, a cloak from Europe, a turban from the Middle East.

Basava taps on musical stone pillars sending harmonious notes through the open air pavilions. The granite architecture has beguiling lotus motifs with traces of colours that once decorated and hints of Chinese, Indo-Islamic and European influence. We see shrines, sculptured gateways and monuments to a legion of gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha, a god favoured for good luck.

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Nearby at the Royal Enclosure, the queens private bath, the royal stage, the king’s underground shrine and even a stepped water-tank speak of grandeur. The king had admired it else elsewhere and imported it piece by piece, step by step. Numbered and reassembled in its odd- numbered formatting. These are the numbers Indians favour – 1 for a preferred God, 3 for the past, present and future, 5 for the elements, 7 for the days, 9 for the planets.

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By late afternoon the much anticipated monsoon-rain threatens on the horizon. Clouds roll over orchards and palms, and the granite-bouldered sky. It’s been a stifling hot day, the wind picks up and the clouds shower upon us. We don’t mind. It is cooling and refreshing. “Raindrops like lotus buds,” Basava says lyrically. “The farmers will be blessed. Come, we can’t miss the elephant stables.”
The number varies as to how many elephants the kings kept, accounts speak of anywhere from four to nine-hundred. Twelve or so royal elephants resided in the lavish stables. Domingo Paes elaborated…“The elephants are covered with velvet and gold with fringes, and rich cloths of many colours, with bells so that the earth resounds. On their heads are painted faces of giants and beasts. On the back of each one of them are three or four men, armed with shields and javelins.”

imagesWe dash across the rain-soaked grass to the stables with its lofty doomed roofs, surely too beautiful to only house elephants. But these beasts were an integral part of daily and royal life, fitting of an empire that ends…abruptly.

 

IMG_5164I almost don’t want to hear the fate of this once great city. In 1565 the empire’s armies
suffered a catastrophic defeat by an alliance of Muslim sultanates. The great city was captured, plundered, holy Hindu sites destroyed and more than 100,000 Hindus massacred. As with many great empires, its life cut abruptly short…its heart and soul ripped away.

On a mountain side at the end of the day, we stop for a cooling drink of coconut water. The river gently flows below us and I hear a haunting voice, repeating like an ancient mantra. Lost in her own thoughts, a tiny aged woman crouches under the shade of a boulder. The plaintive strains of her lyrics punctuate the day. Quietly I sit, and listen.

 

 

 

A coracle across the river – day three

With the option of a small ferry or a coracle, we chose the latter. The round cane-bound vessels have plied this river since before the days of the empire and though precarious to board, we float peacefully down the Tungabhadra River. Only the warnings of crocodiles concern us…the monkeys play in the temples, the sloth bears and leopards stay on land. Patches of leafy greens contrast the boulders that seem set to topple into the shallow waters. Temples are chiseled from the granite, integrated seamlessly into the chunky contours of the land.

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We walk a kilometre or so along a winding road, through a hamlet and past emerald fields. We pass local teens playing cricket, heaps of sugar cane piled on stout wagons and the shell of an old coracle now tidily protecting firewood.DSCF0802

We reach Anegondi the 3rd century capital of the Vijayanagara empire. Yet even before then, legend speaks of the monkey kingdom here as noted in Ramayana. Local story-tellers refer to Anegondi as mother earth, one of the cradles of dynasties.

After walking through its ancient gate, we are almost immediately upon the town square, a ceremonial ‘temple car’ parked off to one corner. Unlike the stone chariot in Hampi, the elaborately carved wooden ‘car’ can be pulled through the streets on festival days. Rickshaws, town-folk, holy-cows and cyclists manouver a smooth, black-stoned sculpture…perhaps it is the town round-about.

 

Close by, the Gagan Mahal begs to be restored and I picture how stunning the palace must have once been with its lattice work detailed arches and breezy terraces. While I’m peeking inside, Bruce is surrounded by village children. They flip through our guide book and hoist themselves up on the stone wall. I line them up for a photograph and on a whim decide to buy them a drink. Our ‘child’ is back at the hotel recovering from sun-stroke so we’re happy to improvise. It’s Father’s Day after all.

We march the troops across the street and besiege the small shop. The shopkeeper is surprised, perhaps he knows that news travels fast in this sleepy town. Before we know it, yet more youngsters gather and holler out their drink of choice. “Now enough,” the shopkeeper firmly cuts us off as other customers await their turn, not entirely amused by our generosity.

We wander further, the same children pass on their bikes and shout a ‘hello, namaste, thank-you.’ We stroll onwards through the streets.
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Rice shifts and slides from bamboo baskets.

 

 

 

 

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Bangles are offered from a turbaned peddler.

 

 

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Slathers of mandarin-orange paint brighten a simple village home.

 

 

I am happy here, surrounded by shades of pinks, baby-blues and soft greens. It reminds me of those romantic, carefree days of travelling in India from our past…no agenda, no expectations, just the hope of serendipity.

We travel the ferry back across the river, taking the bus instead of a tuk-tuk to the hotel and unbeknownst to us, the next day we’ll hire a car instead of returning home by train. Southern Indian Railways inexplicably cancels our return tickets. We can stand, we can wait five days until sleepers can be booked, or we can see the countryside by car. There isn’t much choice, perhaps it is what I hoped for after all. And my lingering image?

As we leave Hampi behind, a group of nine or so people journey along-side the road. One waves a bright red trianglular flag, each person wears a matching scarf – no bags, no luggage. They are pilgrims.

“Going to the Hampi temple,” our drivers enlightens us, “finding sleep in temples along the way.”

“How far have they walked?” I ask.

“Maybe days are there, or weeks from village.”

For many this will always be a spiritual and magical place.

 

 

 

Every market tells a story…

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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, at least three. 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.

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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 are 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 finding her way back home.

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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; I chide myself for not having kept up my Russian lessons.

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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. 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, genetecists have recently confirmed.

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‘Azerbaijani pomegranates’ and Almaty apples

Many of the ‘greens’ arrive from across the Caspian, grown by the Azeris, the Georgians. The vegetables are plentiful but one day I’m refused service. I’m too choosy about the tomatoes I am selecting. The vendor shoos me away with a scowl, a holler and a flick of her hand. I’m offended until I ponder, Does her family have memories of the ‘hunger winters?‘ Those that starved; the fate of half of the Kazakh population in the winters of 1931-33…Stalin’s forced collectivization. I regret being picky about which tomatoes I was piling into my bag. Perhaps everyone should take some over-ripe and some firm, just thankful that there is food.

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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. 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. And 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…

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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.

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‘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.’

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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.

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Kurt on display

When I see kurt in the markets, I am 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.

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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…from 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.

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‘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.

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New friends from Uzbekistan, after tea and dumplings

 

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A mishmash of goods

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A rainbow of plastic

 

 

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

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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 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; 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 2-3 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.

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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?

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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 and 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 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?

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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 that 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.

 

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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 in which 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.

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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.

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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.   Much as I admire the saukeles, the pointed hats perch on the upper shelves, suggesting they are too valuable to try on.  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.

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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 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.

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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.

Eleven hours in Istanbul…delight and dolmas

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I’m on a long meander back to Kazakhstan…Calgary, Toronto, Istanbul, Almaty and finally two calendar days later, Aktau.

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The Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque

And so I found myself spending time in Istanbul, an ancient city I hadn’t yet explored but one which had always intrigued me.  How could this great Byzantine city, long known as Constantinople, not be fascinating? Constantine the Great moved his empire here from Rome in 330 A.D.; the city was then already 1000 years old. Now it’s just good old Istanbul, meaning ‘to the city’, but I admit to a certain delightful bewilderment knowing I’m in the once…Constantinople. It’s positioned along the Bosphorus river and has long conjured romantic images; of Sultans and their harems, of steamy Turkish hamams, of exotic spices and dazzling architecture.

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A street side lantern shop

Despite those temptations, as the plane touched down this morning after an over-night flight, it crossed my mind to just languish at the airport for the day.  Along with being travel-weary it was rainy and cold, yet this great city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia beckoned; its marvels and mysteries calling to me as it has to travellers for the past 2000 years.

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An old city fountain

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Bread and delicious dolmas

As the tram* rattled its way to Sultanahmet, the old city, I was delighted when the famed Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia came into view, their minarets majestically piercing the brooding Turkish sky.  I wouldn’t explore those iconic sights today, I’d leave them for our return here in seven weeks during a proper stay. For now, I found myself relishing vivid street scenes; a rainbow of colour from hand woven carpets, vibrant displays of teas and spices, glass lanterns, to endless mounds of baklava and Turkish Delight. Needing a respite from both airline food and the rain, I ducked into what looked to be a typical Turkish restaurant. Tiled walls, flat bread blistering on an open oven, carpets hanging splendidly and best of all, dolmas; delicious, delicate morsels wrapped in grape leaves.  It all greeted me, as did the welcoming owner, ushering me to a seat with a view to the ‘bread maker’.  How did you even consider staying at the airport? You wouldn’t be eating some of your favourite food right now, nor would you have anything to write about, what were you thinking? 

“Madam must finish with Turkish tea”, the affable waiter informed me after I was more than sated.  He positioned a delicate cup in front of me before I had a chance to reply.

“No charge, it’s from him,” he said, motioning with a tip of his head towards the friendly chef standing between his grill and a counter lavishly displayed with food.

Sağ olun,” I countered with a smile and nod, pleased I had remembered the more informal thank you, as when someone has gone out of their way to do something for you.  Besides, it’s far easier to pronounce than teşekkür ederim, that more proper thank you.

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One of the many entrances to the Grand Bazaar

I soon found myself in that one place any traveler must experience if you want to breathe the history of this city.  Simply, one must disappear into the Grand Bazaar. The building of the Kapali Carsi began in the winter of 1455, after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet.  European travellers as far back as the 1600’s brought home news of the bazaar’s unrivalled abundance of goods and exotic atmosphere. Tales that often became the subject of romantic literature.  Originally 67 roads wove the bazaar together, each bearing the name of the type of goods found there.  The maze, where time seems to stand still, once housed squares, mosques, fountains and 18 gates that were locked in the evenings. However, this seemed superfluous as theft was unheard of, though an incident in 1591 rattled Instanbul to the core when a substantial quantity of gold disappeared in the bazaar.  This prompted a closure for two weeks until the culprit, a young seller of musk, was found.  Not, however, before a number of tortures had been carried out.  Ironically the Sultan spared the theif from torture, but not execution. Other tales abound from those days as the social dictates didn’t allow women to frequent the bazaar, but perhaps a few disguised themselves and made their way in?  Apparently one of the Sultans did just this, but as an excuse to eat his favourite pudding.

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Dazzling tiled roofs that inspire and intrigue

Nowadays, the Grand Bazaar houses more than 3,000 shops in its 62 lanes, employing some 26,000 people.  Each dolap or stall is replete with a sense of history as it sells beautiful ceramics, carpets and cushions, resplendent fabrics, intricately wrought metal, delicate stained-glass lanterns, and of course tea.

I note the mix of nationalities and languages, musing that Sultan Mehmet would surely be pleased as he had urged the return of those who had fled the city during the siege of the Ottomans, wishing to resettle Muslims, Jews and Christians as one.  All part of creating a cohesive, cosmopolitan society and the Grand Bazaar is enduring proof of this.  Pausing to take a photo of a grouping of tea cups, I was reminded I had seen çaycı or ‘tea runners’ out on the street, moving deftly through the crowds delivering the piping hot cups of sustenance to shop keepers, a scene unchanged through the centuries.

Admiring the glass lanterns surrounding the tray, I was approached by the shopkeeper, his gentle tone was a welcome change from the persistent urging that I’d experienced throughout the day.  “Where are you from,” is how it always starts, a prelude to the inevitable question as to whether you wish to buy a carpet.

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Of glistening lanterns

Falling into an easy conversation, he introduced himself as Recep as I admired the lanterns and candle holders in the cozy dolap. Eyeing a small holder off in the corner, I envisioned it on my desk, its mosaic of deep turquoise glass encased in white instantly captivating me.  Yet, despite the brilliance of the glowing lanterns, I ruefully admitted I couldn’t I couldn’t carry anything that large.

“Please stay, we’ll have tea,” Recep said kindly. I was taken aback yet delighted as I know tea is an intregal aspect of Turkish culture and hospitality.  After a quick phone call across the lane on a central phone, tea arrived two minutes later.  Delivered on a small tray with a triangular handle, the çaycı nodded politely as he handed me the tiny cup and saucer, the same I had admired throughout the day in countless shop windows.

As we chat, Recep tells me about the business he’s built from the ground up and I comment that it must be difficult with so much competition, considering the endless shops in the maze surrounding me.

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Of tulip shaped tea cups

“No,” he assures me, “there’s enough for everyone if business is done well.”  I believe at this point I ‘toast’ him with my delicate tulip shaped tea cup, so ubiquitous in Turkish life that it is often used as a measurement in recipes. And of the tea, apparently Turkey leads the world in per capita consumption of tea, it’s strong and delicious.  Here it’s never served with milk and in the Eastern part of the country it’s common to place a sugar cube under the tongue before sipping the tea from the glass.  I’ve ‘declined’ the three cubes on my tiny saucer, but thankful I didn’t refuse the kind gesture of being offered tea in the Grand Bazaar.

“Recep, I think I’d like that tiny holder in the corner,” I said standing up from the small stool, realizing it was time to make my way back to the airport. “What is the price please?”

“There’s no price for you, my gift.” Sağ olun was again my heartfelt response.  After a warm hand shake, I parted from my new friend and navigated my way out into the brisk air.  I hear “Where are you from miss?” yet again and this time decide to just go with it.  Turns out he’s selling those aforementioned treats…surely I should buy some.  Who comes to Turkey and doesn’t buy Turkish Delight after all?

By this time it’s rush hour and I join the commuters on the tram, at once appreciating their kindness. Some enquire if I need help, did I know the way? Others notice the city map in my hand and smile.

Beneath the exotic facades and arguably daunting perceptions that recent events have wrought here, a familiar fabric of life prevails.  People making their way home looked relieved to reach the end of their working day, yet gladly offered their seats to the elderly. Sweethearts whispered in each other’s ears, parents pecked their children on the cheek as they held them closely in the squash of people.

I loved the Turkish people; I felt welcomed, I felt at home.

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Recep and much appreciated Turkish hospitality

This evening as my plane lifted off over the Bosphorus, onwards to Kazakhstan, I felt imbued with the mystery of what was still to be explored. I eagerly dug out the two books I had acquired that day, already preparing for my visit in seven weeks. One of them is a gem, recommended by the bookseller.  “You won’t be able to put it down,” he warned me, and I can’t.*

I so look forward to returning and we shall try to drop in to see Recep, that is if I can find that stall again out of the 3000 or so!  Actually, its Takkeciler No. 7 Kapali Carsi -Beyazit…just in case you find yourself there and want a Turkish lantern (I know I still do) and maybe a spot of tea.  Tell him Terry Anne sent you!

 

* Take the Metro from the airport to Zeytinburnu, switch here to the blue tram line and continue to Sultanahmet.  Trip approximately one hour

 

*’Portrait of a Turkish Family’ by Irfan Orga

 

52 Countries and a year that is new…with abundance

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Serenity and reflection while snowshoeing

It seems there’s been an underlying theme this holiday at our home in the mountains; good food and fine wine are a given. But snowshoeing and more snowshoeing, has allowed me unexpected serenity. The snow on the ski hill has been somewhat lacking and so we’ve been strapping on the ‘shoes’ and happily meandering through the nearby golf course and Kimberley Nature Park. The neighbourhood gals and I have also been out and when we’re not chatting, my prevailing thought is of the year that has passed. As I soak in the vistas and admire the snow laden pines, I reflect and give thanks that my dream of writing a blog came to pass.

A New Year’s message from Word Press included a summary of the first year of notes on a boarding pass and those 20,000 plus written words only have meaning if someone reads them.  And thankfully you have. In fact, I know that you readers are from 52 different countries, thus far.  Imagine how inspiring this is for me, to envision that somewhere in Russia, Estonia or Botswana for example, my blog was discovered and read…literally, it means the world to me.

I know who some of my readers are of course, but many others I do not.  I don’t see who you are when you view a post, but I can see the country that you’re reading from. If you’re curious how a reader ‘finds’ my blog, one way is from the ‘tags’ that I note on each post which materialize in internet searches. I myself recently researched something online and one of my articles popped up, somewhat surreal I can assure you!

The unexpected joy of writing a blog is the communication it opens up with people.  It seems I traveled ‘around’ the world this past year with stops in the U.K., Denmark, Sweden, France, The Netherlands, U.S., Turkey, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong.  So perhaps, dear reader, I met you in one of those countries.

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Snow laden pines in Kimberley

There was the lovely German lady on the train to London and unfortunately we didn’t begin chatting until just before the train approached Paddington Station. There was an immediate connection and I was able to give her my card before we reluctantly bid farewell, “You can have a look at my blog if you’re ever bored,” I said with a parting smile as we each disappeared our own way from the busy platform.

I recall the charming Londoner I met while on the Dickens tour , there were many questions I wanted to ask him. Unfortunately, time doesn’t always permit this and yet I was pleased to have met him, if only briefly. Not long after, he graciously sent a note to notes on a boarding pass. 

There also was the beguiling young person in the cafe in Malaysia who was interested in my travels, as was the couple in Thailand while we chatted over a beer as we sheltered from the midday downpour. There have been so many chance encounters and happily for me, people are receptive and curious.

“How are you able to travel so frequently?

“Do you plan what you write about or is it an inspiration that comes to you?”

“Don’t you get tired of living out of a suitcase for much of the year?”  (yes to that one!)

And pleasingly there are people here at home who are supportive and follow notes on a boarding pass.  One such lovely lady is a vibrant eighty-two year old whose birthday I had the good fortune of celebrating just as I arrived back to Canada this holiday season.  I was in transition as a few days earlier I had traded my sandals and sun dresses for winter boots and sweaters. Donna Lee took my hand in hers and said warmly, “Thank you Terry Anne for the opportunity to travel with you through your blog. I read every one of them, those interesting insights to places that most of us will never experience.” It warmed my heart and I think we both might have had a tear in our eye.

It means so much to hear sentiments such as these, as I have from many of you whether it’s in person or through a written message. And when I do, I know writing is worthwhile…and it also gives back to me. That was predicted by a dear friend of mine as I procrastinated and swithered a few  years ago.

I was on a Skype call to Pamela, she in France, myself in Norway.

“Where’s your blog, you’ve thought about it for a year now,” She admonished me with a stern but encouraging voice.  Pamela is a life coach and was justifiably focused on my procrastination.

“I know, but I can’t decide on a name for it, I’ve got so many ideas…Bloom Where You’re Transplanted, A Collection Called Life, A Passion for Life, Planes Trains and Notebooks,” I lamented.

“Just pick one and get on with it, this is called paralysis by analysis.  It’s time to do it, it will bring you such fulfilment and abundance…”

It was that word abundance, it stuck with me and Pamela was right. This blog, nine months young, has brought me such joy and abundance. Along with the research, travel and writing, it’s also the connection with people that has been more gratifying than I could have imagined; the satisfaction of making an impression, imparting or learning something new, inspiring someone wherever they may be.

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The vista we ‘shoe’ to…the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia

My resolution last year did come true and this year my hope is to secure more articles for publication and then there’s that ‘darn book’ to spend more time on. That is my wish and I hope that whatever resolution you have committed to becomes a reality for you this year.  As I know, sometimes it can take longer than expected and often it can seem like an insurmountable challenge, just as this blog once seemed to me. But as I can attest, when you stretch and challenge yourself just that little, you can bloom in unexpected ways.

I’ll be returning to Kazkhstan at the end of the month, however it will be a short ‘stint’ as it seems we’ll be off to live in a different country in the spring. Yes, dear reader, perhaps more adventures in store, more intrigues to write about. Ah, by the way, how did I finally decide on that seemingly difficult task of naming my blog?

There I was in Amsterdam last February, out for dinner, chatting and absent mindedly making notes on a piece of paper all the while. As I arrived at Schiphol Airport the next morning for my flight, I dug out my e ticket boarding pass. Surely it can’t be this piece of paper marked with notes? It was indeed and I remember thinking once and for all, that’s it…notes on a boarding pass. Pamela was pleased and I had finally stopped procrastinating!

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Abundance

I’m ever so relieved I did. But for now, I wish you a new year full with dreams realized and much abundance in whatever you hope it to be. Happy New Year, wherever you may be in one of those 52 countries…and I truly do thank you.  Terry Anne

 

P.S.  And of those other two questions?

I’m able to travel so frequently partly due to my husband’s work locations and a commitment I made to myself as an ’empty nester’  to seek out new experiences and inspirations.

Of inspiration?  Everything I’ve mentioned inspires me and most blogs formulate in my mind for a week or two. Perhaps others for months such as the post previous to this one. The sheer joy of it all; even I don’t know where the next one will take me!

And those countries…just in case you’re curious

Canada
United States
United Kingdom
Norway
Kazakhstan
Netherlands
France
Thailand
United Arab Emiretes
Malaysia
Russian Federation
Italy
Australia
Germany
Japan
Singapore
Denmark
Spain
Indonesia
Qatar
Sweden
Switzerland
India
Philippines
Finland
Bahamas
Jordan
Botswana
Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Mexico
New Zealand
Korea, Republic of
Hong Kong
Panama
Portugal
Turkey
Kenya
Brazil
Israel
Hungary
Colombia
Sri Lanka
Belgium
Slovenia
Isle of Man
Cambodia
Oman
Brunei Darussalam
Estonia
Ghana
Jamaica
and last but not least, Romania

Lipstick palms on Phuket…of botany and the verve of Jack

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A place of serenity for the writer’s retreat

“Do you think someone plants all those ferns in the palm trees?” I ask Jo as we paddle idly in the pool.  Another day of writing was complete and we were now cooling off after a massage in the nearby ‘massage studio’…How will I ever leave this serenity?

“No, they’re epiphytes, plants that live on others. They root by themselves and just grow,” says Jo.

“See how some of the trees have ferns and those ‘spiky’ plants. And they’re orderly, as if it was landscaped,” I muse as I gaze out to the pool-side palm trees, each massive trunk in a cosy ecosystem with its ‘house-guests’.

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Into the massage studio

“We have a theory in our family,” Jo continues, “trees are like people; some are more fun than others, maybe that’s where the party is, more booze, better snacks?”

“Hah, that’s good!” I said, quite taken by the notion of trees as a party venue.

Jo and I have often chatted about nature, but never more than at this writer’s retreat in Phuket.  The garden cascades in all directions from the central pool, a who’s who (or rather, a what’s what) of a botanical garden.  The coconut palms reign supreme, tall and imposing over the stockier white washed date palms, bamboo somewhere in between. Frangipani trees dot the lawns and verges, their fragrant flowers a fond reminder of my once middle eastern gardens. Those years when the kids played in gardens of jasmine, orchids and rainbows of bouganvilla. When they climbed houses built in exotic trees that we didn’t know the names of…when we drank sundowners with the melodic call to prayer as a backdrop.  Gardens have always been important to us; they’ve helped root us to a country, provided solace in foreign lands.

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Lipstick palms

This garden seems to reach out to us writers that are happily ‘entrenched’ here for a week.  It’s animated yet calming, even the water nymphs call out.  One day, a lovely water-lily suddenly appears in its glazed pot, a little blaze of silken petals. As one might announce a birth, I summon the group that morning…”the lily has bloomed, do stop to appreciate it everyone!”

“I love that grouping of palms just there, beside my villa.” I declare in the general direction of Jo as we luxuriate late that afternoon on teak recliners.

“Skinny stalks of subtle lime” I alliterate, “burnt orange and lush lemon.” I continue, getting carried away with the literary thing.

“Those are luscious lipstick palms,” Jo happily jumps in, seemingly bursting with botanical knowledge.

“Well they would be, wouldn’t they!” I sigh at the resplendent scene before me, as if to breathe it in for posterity.  “Ah, I think those are the palms that when Europeans first set eyes on them, they were named the red sealing-wax palm.”  I picture the slow drip of hot wax, the delicate stamp of a signet ring.

The Royal Embassy Resort is owned by Phil, a New Zealand transplant, and his lovely Thai wife, Ari.  It’s a secluded, intimate setting and we’ve been treated like royalty. Even by day six, I can’t stop admiring the effortless bounty of nature that surrounds us.  It’s also mirrored in the cuisine; delicious offerings served on banana leaves, intricately carved fruit and magenta orchids adorning tall, frosty drinks.

Normally I’m engrossed with the architecture of a country and though I’ve traveled through Thailand before, I am endlessly captivated by the effortless melding of nature into everyday life here.  Could it be the stark contrast to Kazakhstan where I now live for some of the year? From the sparseness of the vast steppe to the overwhelming abundance…yet I remind myself that each country has its own beauty and uniqueness. 

The view from our ‘writing room’ has transfixed me throughout the week.  Yellow, snow-white and tangerine butterflies dance around fluttering palms.  Delicate frangipani flowers cling to trees, pink hibiscus blossoms drift in the breeze, birds linger and browse the floral wares: inspiration at every glance.

As if writing and meeting new people weren’t enough to occupy the week, we were encouraged to limber our bodies and minds with an early yoga session on the lawn each day. I had affirmed to our yoga instructors, Anne and Melanie ( Anne was the wonderful facilitator of the retreat) that I wasn’t a fan. Much to their delight, I quickly ‘purged those negative thoughts‘. It was difficult not to; with the night dew still clinging to the grass, we focused on ‘a drosti’ and executed the ‘warrior pose’ while glancing at tall bamboo, a favourite palm or gazing out to the misty hills beyond.

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The waterlily has bloomed

Beyond the tranquility of our garden retreat, the neighbourhood slowly came to life. Tuk-tuks puttered in the lanes beyond our view, pans clashed on outdoor stoves, roosters cock-a-doodled, a broom swished across the corner store porch, and stray dogs barked in raucous anticipation of the new morning.  Now this was the way to greet the day…I was happily convinced.

On day five, a new friend Barb from Halifax announced that she’d received a visitor as she opened the door to her villa that morning.

“Jack came to say good morning, he was right there to greet me,” she said as she laid happily in ‘child’s pose’ at the end of the yoga session. I admitted to being envious. We all treasured the rare encounters with Jack and, though he hadn’t actually enrolled in the retreat, we considered him as one of us, nonetheless.

The following day as I opened my door to greet the thick, humid morning, there he was. I was honoured to have been chosen for some personal attention.  White hair soft as feathers, black ears erect not droopy…he allowed me to caress his silken curves until it was time for yoga.   Yes, Jack is a rabbit that we all came to adore.

“Gosh, it must be sad for him to be alone here,” I wonder aloud to Phil one day after an impromptu tour of his admirable collection of Thai antiques.

“Well, Jack’s the only one left; all of his erstwhile mates have been savaged by the neighbourhood strays.”

“That’s terrible, how has he managed to survive?” I ask, reminded of the similar fate that met Pebbles and Bambam, our sons’ childhood rabbits (yes back in that seemingly serene garden.)

“Oh he hides, he’s wily, that Jack rabbit!” Phil says in his lyrical Kiwi strains.

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The beloved Jack

There was evidence enough that the beloved creature played an important role at the Royal Embassy. On returning from an outing one evening, sun dipping below the horizon, we came upon Phil and Ari sitting by the poolside. Jasmine, their silken dog lazed on Ari’s lap and in the chair between, completing the family vignette, sat Jack in perfect contentment. I shall never forget that scene, there he sat…a rabbit called Jack on a chair for cocktail hour at peace with his family, it was absolutely heartwarming.

On the final evening at the Royal Embassy Resort, only Barb and I had stayed on.  The other writers had flown back to their homes in the U.S., KL or Dubai; the rest had returned to their homes in Phuket, the island they had come to love.  Barb and I made our way to what had become our favourite restaurant, ‘Bua’, perched on stilts overlooking the gentle waves of Kamala beach. Bua, the omnipresent lotus, sacred symbol of this fertile land, rising up from muddy waters to attain perfection. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the week that had just been, yes, it had pretty much been perfect.

“Well, my dear, cheers to a wonderful week, we were meant to be here indeed!”  We chunked our coconuts together, setting the Pina Colada aswirl. It didn’t matter who had voiced the sentiment, we would part the next morning knowing we’d made a friend for life.

Early the next morning we took one final walk together, turning left from our resort

Hibiscus and Saturday morning laundry

Hibiscus and Saturday morning laundry

instead of the usual right, taking us into a ‘normal’ neighbourhood which was just beginning to stir that Saturday morning. Boys cycled down palm lined streets, past lovely homes both grand and simple, some with kitchens and dining rooms exposed to the elements.  A mother and grandmother tended to the laundry, graciously pausing to pluck a luscious pink hibiscus for each for us from their garden.   As if in prayer, we met our hands to our heart, as they do here…to convey a genuine thank you.  I will dearly miss that heartfelt gesture and the gentle Thai people who smile so freely…who welcome you to their land with open hearts.

A gift of hibiscus

A gift of hibiscus

 

We passed yet more varieties of palms that Jo, my botanist hadn’t yet identified for me (actually my mentor at summertimepublishing). They were interspersed with a few spindly rubber trees. Introduced for commerce, rubber trees arrived in Phuket at the start of the century, plantations once covering forty percent of the island.

“I hadn’t realized that rubber trees are tapped like maple trees to harvest the white goo that oozes out.” I slapped the trunk with my palm. “I really hadn’t grasped how it’s transformed into rubber, I got the full picture when I read about it this week”, I confessed to Barb.

 

Barb, in front of yet another variety of palm

Barb with yet another variety of palm

“Thank goodness it wasn’t just me, I hadn’t realized that either until I was here,” she conceded comfortingly. Later as I snapped a photo of Barb in front of yet another variety of palm, I vowed to improve my botany knowledge for the next trip!

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The view at The Indigo Pearl

It was time to depart and I left the quiet, unique resort to spend my last two nights at the Indigo Pearl with only a small inkling of what awaited. I had booked the starred resort online, splurging a little at my husband’s encouragement, but I had not imagined the sheer luxury or the captivating history.  This resort, rather unexpectedly pays homage to the tin mining industry that had once been so important to the Phuket economy.  The lobby and restaurants were opened to the verdant grounds and scattered amidst this stunning backdrop stood fascinating remnants from bygone mining days.  Old tin presses become art, tin florets hang on walls and sit on taps, untold flirtations integrating design and history.

Tin becomes art!

Tin becomes art

My suite overlooked the pool; fronds of massive, milky palms flapping like wallah-less punkahs over my patio, I was now truly in another world. And then I noticed the bathtub; perched on the patio and posed towards the verdant vista, candle already burning with exotic oils filling the air. Truly, how can I leave this paradise!

 

The beauty of a treetop spa

The beauty of a treetop spa

 

After a back and neck massage in the treehouse style spa on the second day (where even the chilled towels are proffered with magenta orchids atop), I venture outside the gates…it’s time to head to the beach. And as wonderful as it had felt to be ensconced within the walls of the pampering five star hotel, I was happily back into the heady chaos of Phuket street life.   Vendors jostle for business, aromas of barbecues waft through the air as the Andaman sea crashes its waves onto the pristine shore.

I find the perfect spot on the white sand and settle myself. But something isn’t quite right; I conjour sweet memories of my boys building sandcastles and frolicking in the sea waves. Images of a family holiday on Phuket tug at my serenity, urging to be let in. Wonderful memories, now lingering and bittersweet in my solitude. No fellow writers to share my thoughts with, no friends beside me with whom to relate these golden images.  This experience has run its course I confess to myself, though seemingly not before I cheer myself by having my second massage of the day…yes the second!

A bathtub with a view

A bathtub with a view.

Come on this is ridiculous, you should be finishing those writing assignments, completing that gift list, even sending your hard working husband a postcard!

But no, recalling that I had strolled past a thatched roof structure, housing twenty or so rudimentary low, wooden tables, I am drawn back by the promise of one last Thai massage. It’s full with foreigners in varying degrees of un-dress, it just doesn’t matter here!

”Only 300 Baht (under 10 bucks) OK?”  And I yield to the matronly Thai lady who catches my eye, her hand enticingly swishing her bottle of oil, a welcoming smile on her expectant face.

“I’m in!” and if not on a new spiritual plane, at least I’m soon cheered!

Someone recently mentioned a study that showed most people’s first deep sigh comes seven minutes into the massage; mine was at two, at the most!  Relaxing and more ‘real’ than the resort experience, I succumb.   Kids run about as momas and grandmothers alike knead and cajole the ‘stress’ out of us spoiled tourists. They keep a watchful eye on their brood during the hour long session, chatting in Thai to their colleagues beside them, nattering at the kids as they play simple games with leaves and sticks.  Vendors bells ting ting, as it approaches dinner time, the local mosque’s call to prayer echoes in the air. I’m returning here with hubby and those grown sons of ours, even if it’s just for this experience alone!

View to the Andaman Sea from the massage hut

View to the Andaman Sea from the massage hut

The massage is glorious. The sound of the waves just a few meters away is natural mood music, the view of simple fishing boats bobbing and coconuts swaying on a nearby palm tree further encapsulate my trip. But it’s time to go home. I smile, barely managing to pick myself up off the woven Thai mat, slowly slipping on my flip flops. Dodging the daily afternoon rain, I opt to have a quick Singha beer at the cafe across the street and chat to a couple from Germany.  They’ve just arrived on the island and of course I suggest the Royal Embassy Resort to them.

“They even have a pet rabbit named Jack,” I tell the friendly couple.  “He likes to be petted,” I say fondly, already missing the little guy.

Coconuts hidden under massive fronds

Coconuts hidden under massive fronds

 

It’s time to go back through that gate that takes me to the opulence of the Indigo Pearl.  I don’t really want to leave this scene where people chat freely, where everyday culture is revealed and I’m absorbed into the pleasantly chaotic scenes.  So I stroll wistfully through the gates returning the smile from the security guard, with one last glance at the tranquil sea.  It’s my last night here and I might just have to have one more soak in that glorious tub… 

A writer’s retreat in ‘Siam’…a market wander

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An entrance of brooms and hanging baby chairs

In the humid labyrinth of aisles, back corners and shelves, I yearned for that special piece to present itself. To call to me, to beckon escape from this musty, neighbourhood market. We were on a writing assignment…to find something elusive or inspiring to write about in this potpurri of, well…everything.

I passed the welcoming display; a hodgepodge of wispy brooms, sponges and spades, of dust pans in yellow, pink and blue. I noted tickley feather dusters, hoses, and hanging baby seats…wicker tightly bound. They perch precariously on many family ‘vehicles’, the ubiquitous scooter.

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A ‘bike vendor’ with the market’s entrance beyond

There were knives, rakes, tape measures and plastic prayer alters. Rainbows of stacked carpets, bento boxes, scales…and pots and woks and saucepans. Of vases, washtubs, fans both new and defunct…and rows and rows of glasses waiting for champagne and beer, dejected and dusty. Past plungers, packs of straws and Chinese waving cats for prosperity…for luck.

Still, nothing spotted that spoke of a keepsake from this writer’s retreat, from a nation once known as Siam. A country of lush bamboo, tall palms, temples and tuk-tuks. I wished for a momento…the fragrant garlands and orchids don’t last.

The humidity climbed, fellow writers melted as we shared my small woven fan when we converged somewhere between the plastic stools and ironing boards…Could they not plug one of these fans in…we despaired as we eyed the myriad of oscillating cooling devices.  Is the time almost up, can we escape soon?

No there was more. In the corners lurked hulla hoops, parasols and porcelain of fake delft blue.  The tool section stacked with clunky hammers, chisels, trowels and wrenches. They competed with dull saws, plugs and keys…and long, dark, rusty nails. My father would love poking around these crammed shelves, examining pipe widths and plyers; a handyman’s trove of treasures.

My mother would peruse the rice steamers, the Thai cushions and then announce she’d buy a cooking utensil. Something to ladle with, to stir with… to playfully chase those naughty grandchildren with.

Mercifully our time had elapsed and I manoeuvred through the tight aisles out to the welcoming sunshine, defeat admitted as I dabbed my drenched brow and neck.

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Steamy pouches of spicy sauces

And then I spotted it, dangling from under a vendor’s umbrella. He was parked there, just on the left, selling delicacies of fish, skewered meat and sauces in tiny, steaming pouches. Offering rice in banana leaf parcels, a toothpick to close.

The object was forlorn and worn. Small and intricate, stitchings of green and orange. It wanted to join my collection of gleaned treasures from far away lands and adventures, from gifts received.

Only fifty baht was taken with a genuine smile, with a Kob Kun Kaaaa. I tucked it quietly away and made my way back to the writing group, a sly grin embracing my face.  I’d found it. My small, delicate rice vessel speaks of days gone past, of workmanship under thatched roofs…of Thailand.

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My friend and mentor, Ms. Jo at lunch

Each day is unique at a writer’s retreat and on this day, after the market and writing session, we left the resort for a working lunch in a restaurant on the sea. It was a gloomy afternoon, ideal for sharing our ‘market writings’ as we dined on grilled shrimp, spicy calamari and icy Chang beer. Unique interpretations of our assignment; some mysterious, many funny, a few suspended reality and suddenly we were transported through a secret portal to an alien ‘space’. Yet another was deep with metaphors, sad and brooding, like the stormy weather that was closing in on us. Words enchanted and rolled around us…just like the melancholy waves rolling towards us.

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The brooding sea on a Phuket beach

Beguiling and inspiring, just as the day we were having.

Waiting for the dombra…with musical musings

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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 it 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 his 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 great 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 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 would suggest that the ‘music must match the menu’.  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, no matter what!”

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 in 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.  A wee nudge from a fellow musician, the leg went back down and the mercifully the music played on.

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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 pack it in 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.

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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 lovely 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.

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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 could now consider my trip complete, happier and a few pounds heavier I can assure you!

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 me. 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.

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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.

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The lovely Compere, hostess of the evening

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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

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Embracing silence in The Ustyurt

 

They say that in the Ustyurt area of Kazakhstan, you will be cured of your vanity and 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.

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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.

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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…of homes.

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

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“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.

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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 of 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.

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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 are 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 white linen cloth given, 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.

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The Necropolis of Shopan-ata

Outside that tiny carved door where I depart, 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.

 

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The underground mosque at Shopan-ata

 

 

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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.

 

                                   

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Sculptures in the silence