Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years in Kazakhstan

Comrades,

Wow. What an eventful 24 hours.

I woke up Monday morning, December 31st, and headed out for the day to walk around the city, take some pictures and soak up the New Years energy. I did not realize how big of a deal New Years is here in Kazakhstan due to the influence of Soviet culture and the country's demography.

While religion was officially abolished in the Soviet Union, most people continued to practice their faith underground, informally. Thus, New Years became the main, secular holiday celebrated by people of all faiths in all fifteen republics. New Years Eve was Christmas, Hanukkah and New Years all in one. Today in Kazakhstan, while people of all faiths live here, the majority of the population adheres to Islam. Most Christians are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which follows a different calendar than the Roman Catholic Church. Subsequently, Christmas falls after New Years.

Santa Claus (Ded Moroz) and his niece Snegorochka were popular cultural symbols that are still visible today. People rush to the supermarket to purchase bottles of Soviet Champagne, oranges, and cakes. Chinese firecrackers, more bottles of champagne and toys line the streets -- people go all out. The streets are flooded with vendors selling goods and the grocery stores are packed.


Holiday preparations outside a supermarket in Almaty.

Kazakhs shopping for New Years gifts in Arbat.

Vendors selling cakes, gifts and Soviet Champagne in Arbat.

I walked for a while and found myself near the apartment of my host family from the summer of 2011. A month ago, I told my host sister that I would be in the country, but I couldn't find her number or that of my old host mother and was unable to set up a date. After standing outside the apartment for a good ten minutes debating whether I should show up unannounced, I decided to go for it. I walked into a grocery store on the corner, purchased a kilogram of oranges and knocked on the door. It was around noon and it turns out everyone was still sleeping, as they were up late from the night before cooking and preparing presents for the new years.

When I arrived, and knocked on the door, my youngest host sister (now 10 years old) asked who is it and I said "Dena". She then opened the door and remarked "Dena arrived!" I was relieved that they knew I was in town. Gulshetai, my old host mother and one of the funniest people I know, came out half asleep in her night gown, rubbing her eyes. Ah, the memories from that summer came rushing back of mornings with Gulshetai.

I then sat down and chatted with her for a bit, and then with Moldir, who is my age, while she prepared tea. Gulshetai, Moldir and the rest of the gang (ages 12, 10 and the youngest boy, age 8), sat down for traditional Kazakh chai. The spread included oatmeal, fruit, cheese, meat, bread and candies. Gulshetai served chai in the traditional Kazakh way. She laid out the cups and saucers, and had three teapots: one with hot water, a second with a concentrated tea, and a third with milk. She first poured milk in all of the cups, then the tea, and then hot water, filling each cup only half way, as this is a sign of Kazakh hospitality that dates back centuries to when Kazakhs practiced a nomadic-hunting form of food-producing economy. A full cup of tea would imply that the gust is not welcomed, while a half-full cup is a way for the host to suggest that the guest is welcomed to stay and chat.

We dined for an hour and then the younger ones left and Moldir,  Gulshetai and I caught up on life, our studies, work and family. I was just beginning Russian when I lived with them, and it was so, so rewarding to have a real, coherent conversation with them. I was so happy to show Gulshetai how much my Russian has improved. Similarly, I was so happy to hear that her brother who had been sick was better, and she is doing well as a Russian-Kazakh translator. It was also rewarding to catch up with Moldir and hear about her plans finishing university and preparing to apply to graduate school. At the end of our tea, they gave me a bottle of wine that had been gifted to them (but none of them drink), and a Kazakh/Russian/English day planner. This was by far, my favorite part of this trip and really did feel like going home.


My Kazakh host family (minus Moldir, who took the photo).

After tea, I walked around and made my way home. Dasha cooked the meat I purchased at the Green Bazaar with potatoes (very Kazakh) and we went to our friend Zarina's apartment for new years. We spent the evening eating and drinking and watching the classic Soviet film that plays every New Years eve, "The Irony of Fate." Just as "The Ten Commandments" is always on TV around Passover and Easter in the states, this film was on every TV channel and everyone loves it. It is a romantic comedy produced in 1976 about New Years eve. Once the film ended, we watched the equivalent Russian version of "Dick Clark's New Years Eve" on the station, Russia 1. My friends told me that most Kazakhs watch this Russian station, and then later at night turn to the Kazakh station -- it probably differs per household. At 12, President Nazarbayev makes a speech (so does Putin in Russia). This is a Kazakh tradition. The only year that the President did not give a televised speech was Near Years eve 1991/1992, immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Instead, a Russian comedian gave an address that was broadcast throughout the former Republics.

Kazakhs watching President Nazarbayev's New Years speech to the nation at 12.

After 12, we headed to "Chikotka," a night club I have visited several times before that reminds me of a big fraternity house. The club was filled with young people who spent the earlier part of the evening with their families. After 12, apparently, the club scene lit up and lasted throughout the night into the morning. In fact, as I am writing this post on  4 pm on January 1, I still hear music and revelry from the apartment upstairs. I must admit that I lasted until 4 AM, and then came home and collapsed on the bed in exhaustion.  Kazakhstanis have amazing stamina.

Young Kazakhs breaking it down on New Years Eve in Almaty.

So all in all, New Years in Kazakhstan was an experience nothing short of culturally enlightening and exhausting (in a good way). I am about to go outside and witness the aftermath of last night's celebrations and have coffee with a friend. Tomorrow morning, I am going to Astana and will be there through Friday.

I wish you all a happy and a healthy 2013!






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