Saturday, March 30, 2013

Rites of Spring

Spring has certainly done whatever is the equivalent of springing in Russian/Kazakh here in Astana.  After the rivers of water flowing down the streets we're starting to see signs of real life here, especially in the form of actual people-shaped people, rather than amorphous blobs of winter coat.  This past weekend marked the official beginning of spring, and with it the beginning of the New Year in Kazakh culture.  This, naturally, means that all the cultural objects that were put in the attic for winter have been brought back out for the enjoyment and edification of the populace.

Tulips, culturally relevant, I suppose, for the fact that the Netherlands is one of the few countries in the Western world not currently trying to exploit Kazakhstan for some reason, decorate every building and street-corner.  And horses, so important to the historic and culinary identity of Kazakhstan—sensitively explained to us by the American and British news media—are also everywhere.  Life-size statues of them proudly prance at all the prominent intersections, mocking drivers with their apparent speed in the face of the ridiculous traffic jams that constantly ensue when motorists become convinced that if two lanes of traffic are good, three must be better, even is only room for two lanes (a remnant of the Soviet era, I suppose, when Russia proved that anything is possible if you're willing to let enough people starve to accomplish it [a noble principle, indeed]).

Yurts abound, especially on the aptly-named Green Avenue, which connects the president's palace—erm, residence—on one end with KhanShatyr, the great tent-shaped center of shopping and all things circular, and features numerous fountains, gardens, and needlessly placed steps throughout its length.  These yurts show how life used to be on the steppe (perhaps even where we're sitting right now [though not, I gather, in the winter—those nomads really knew what they were doing with the whole nomadic lifestyle thing]) and there are also lots of (horse-oriented) statues that illustrate the fun games the Kazakh nomads used to play for spring (naturally, on horseback).  Walking among all this festivity really made me appreciate how public funds can really beautify a city without relying on private investment.  Just goes to show you can do anything when you've been doing it for twenty years without asking anyone otherwise, I suppose.

It's great to see all this culture coming back out of storage, but I can't help but think of it in terms of those dioramas of Native American longhouses we used to make back in grade school.  For a couple months a year we learned all about the people that used to make their homes where our desks were now sitting, and were all very fascinated by it and so very sad that all that was left of those once-thriving cultures were casinos, cheap cigarettes, and tax-free gasoline.  And then we moved on to the Titanic and found something new to be fascinated by and sad about.  But the tribal displays, festivals, and cultural celebrations live on, and a few times a year (maybe more out west, where the reservations were more defined [and more resonant of genocide and cultural collectivization] than back east) you can go see the longhouses (or tipis), and colorful dress, and interesting religious practices, of the cultures that would probably still exist if they hadn't been forcibly replaced by something far more staid and, well, American.  And because you're a good open-minded American you'd be very interested and fascinated, however guiltily (part of being a good, open-minded American), at least until the next Starbucks came round the corner on your way back to civilization.

Personally, I haven't gone to see the yurts yet.  They're just a little too educational for me.  There aren't any little shops to visit (love a little shop), no way to carry home a souvenir of your cultural experience. That's where these Kazakh people are still making up ground, I suppose.  But when you don't have the responsibility of governing the land your people once called home, like these Kazakhs are now saddled with, now the Soviets have given up (didn't have that good old American fortitude to keep up with the forcible occupation gig for the long haul), I suppose you have more time for creating kitsch and clutter, more time for remembering without the day-to-day trials of actually living a culture.

And, not to be upstaged by horses and yurts, even the Bayterek's dolled up for the occasion.  Every night for a week you can drop by and see a great light show (it's on loop, it can go all night), with music to boot!  Just don't spend all your time looking up if you decide to walk around: the ground's a warren of cables sending power to all the light tower installations (tourists be wary!).

Bayterek, with laser-light entourage.

Great shot of the color change, except for the unfortunately-placed streetlights.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Change is Good

What a difference a week makes. And what would those innocents, those pilgrims of almost 150 years ago think, if someone told them they could escape their long trek, take a vacation from the vacation, as it were, for just a week, and come back with a new perspective on it all? Would they believe, someday, that a day's travel would take them to the other side of the world and bring them back? How this world has changed since those innocent souls undertook their light-hearted journey. What a difference there is in the twain.

But I digress.

A recent week's trip to London has thrown off my writing schedule (already somewhat dodgy) a bit. But as I said, it does provide some perspective for this year-long pilgrimage I've embarked upon. (Pilgrimage to what, you ask? Perhaps by the end I'll figure that out too). In the Great United Kingdom of Britain, etc., etc., (everything is quite great and grand there), the pound sterling is still the currency of the realm. No Euro for the Brits, no, they're far too independent for something so pedestrian. But it's not really much of a change, from Kazakhstan to the UK, at least in terms of currency. Coin is where it's at, in both places. The notes are big and colorful, and the coins are many and varied. It's enough to drive a staid American mad, trying to navigate either. The one country, so old and rarified, the other so new and proud of its independence, and both run on a currency that no one but a born and bred native could navigate.

How they treat their coin, though—therein lies the difference.  In the venerable old kingdom, you can pay with practically any note you like, and you'll get coin enough to kill any number of tourists from the top of the Empire State Building.  I had so much coin by my last day there that I was paying for whole meals all with little seven-sided metal disks with the queen's head on them.

What a difference a day makes though.  And a week, for that matter.  In a day I went from winter to an irascible spring that blew in just a little too temperamental for my taste.  A week gone by and a day's trip returned me to a city transformed.  Instead of Astana, fantasy winterscape of the steppe, we now have Astana, Little Venice of the biggest landlocked country in the world.  I have expected to see gondolas poling down Sauron Avenue, and little footbridges sprouting between Soviet-style block apartments.  Astana is an altered city.  In a day, in a week, in a month.  Everyday it's changing, and no one, it seems, can keep up with it.  Especially not the municipal drainage system.

A simple walk to the grocery store, on the day I got back to Astana, involved fording an impromptu creek where a street used to be, navigating a marsh of ice, slush, mud, and standing water, and a lovely walk past a parking-lot-cum-lake (lovely late afternoon reflection off the surface, though I wouldn't drink the water).  It certainly does wonders for the boredom engendered by five months of snow and ice and bone-shaking cold.  But what didn't change, lamentably, was the change.  Change-hoarding, I've come to understand, is not an easily changed habit.  In Astana, I hoarded change at all opportunities for fear of the cashiers who refused to take a large note and give change, but always demanded the change.  Some even went so far as to peer into customer's coin purses to make sure they were telling the truth about not having correct change.

Yes, in London, even a little change is too much.  Tradition rules, even when it doesn't.  In a pub, waiting for chips, we watched the Queen sign a proclamation advocating for equal rights for all.  I wondered what a figurehead could do, but, well, if this is what it takes to keep things moving forward, then by all means let's stick with the past.  But in Astana, there's never enough change.  The landscape is altered in a season.  People come, buildings appear, one season is, literally, washed away by the next.  Nearly all the people I work with, no matter of what nationality, are not natives to this city.  Every day I wake up wondering how much change is required.

Then I went to London, and, prepared for the inevitable demands for exact change, instead was given change for every note proffered, without a struggle of any kind.  One cashier even seemed surprised that I would ask if she could break a twenty.  So I found myself carrying around a purse full of enough metal to kill a man at a single swing.  It's no wonder I was tired after all the walking we did.  When my husband would leave change on the counter because he didn't want to carry it around, I hurriedly scooped it up lest we need it later to placate some barista or shop-worker.  And just when I got used to not having to dig about for the proper coins, I returned to Astana, where I was immediately greeted at my first foray for food by a demand for the change on my groceries.

Yes, change is good.