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.

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