Thursday, January 29, 2015

Жаңы Жыл! (Or Celebrating New Year's in a Kyrgyz Village)

New Year's salads shaped like sheep! Happy 2015!

Happy New Year all! We are happy to celebrate our first New Year in Kyrgyzstan!

And while many of you were out partying or perhaps watching "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Years Eve hosted by Ryan Seacrest," the ATKs spent a few days in Mr. ATK's former stomping grounds, Kochkor, with his Kyrgyz family.

Panoramic of the mountains and fields outside Kochkor

New Year's was quite the cultural experience for me, that's for sure. First of all, New Year's Eve/Day is a BFD here. I can't stress that enough. Our cruddy little Christmas? It's nothing. New Year's is where it's at in Central Asia. From what I understand this is largely due to Soviet influence.  Since the Soviets were not exactly pro-religion, secular holidays were, and continue to be, the biggest holidays. There is a Kyrgyz holiday called "Nowruz" which is celebrated on the spring equinox and traditionally signified the start of the new year. It's still a very big holiday. (And a quick search on Wikipedia informs me this is a Persian holiday that celebrates the start of the Persian calendar and is celebrated in areas that were under Iranian cultural influence. The more you know, I guess.) But Victory Day? The day the Allies beat the Nazis? That's a really big one. (I just asked Mr. ATK for his unofficial rankings of Kyrgyz holidays from biggest to smallest deal. He says its: 1. New Years; 2. Nowruz; 3. End of Ramadan; 4. Victory Day; 5. Women's Day; 6. Independence Day/First Day of School.)

Anyways, there are big variety shows on TV that put Dick Clark's Rockin' New Years Eve to shame--both in Russian and Kyrgyz. These programs are on for, like, 10 hours. It could be because Russia is massive and it's probably 8 a.m. in Moscow when the clock strikes midnight in Vladivostok. Or it could be they just like singing songs about the new year. Or both. They aren't mutually exclusive. One of the things that cracked me up was that as we would be watching these people sing and most of the time I wouldn't understand it (especially when it was in Kyrgyz), but then I'd realize, "Hey I know this tune! That's 'I Will Survive'." But instead of it being the real "I Will Survive," it was a version that kept saying "Happy New Year" (one of the few phrases I can actually pick out in both Russian and Kyrgyz.)

There is also this gem, which I heard several times and is awesome.

So clearly, this is the Russian "version" of Wham's delightful, yet sad "Last Christmas" in which the singer reminisces about how the previous Christmas he had given a special someone his heart and then the very next day, this person gave it away. But, the singer is optimistic that if he gives his heart to someone special this year, it will save him from further tears.  Well, this Russian version scraps that narrative entirely and basically just talks about how awesome New Year's is and how you get to see old friends. (Granted, this is all from what I can understand. My Russian is officially "limited.") 

But I digress....

Back to Kochkor.

The New Year's celebration was an interesting one. Largely food based. We arrived around 3 pm and the family was cooking, but had also already laid out quite the spread. (I wish I had taken a picture!) At around 3:30-3:45 we sat down for our first course. There were many salads, fruits, vegetables, sweet breads, and, of course, tea. After this, the food kept coming about every 90 minutes, until midnight rolls around and then you all toast.* Needless to say, food was plentiful and pretty much every hour and a half more food came out, including fish and turkey, and we ate some more. This is all supposed to culminate in eating besh barmak, (which means "five fingers" in Kyrgyz), a traditional dish made of horse meat (if you are lucky! They only slaughter a horse for special occasions, or honored guests) and noodles. I tried my best to power through all the food, in order to save myself for this "big show" at midnight. I admit, I was struggling. First of all, I'm not big on staying up to midnight, even on New Year's, because I am a 60 year old trapped in a 35 year old body, so I was getting sleepy as the night wore on and all the food didn't help. I tried eating less and less to save some room, but that's kind of hard. Also, Mr. ATK was struggling a bit, too, though I'm sure he would deny it.

Mr. ATK and his brother Aziz, "slit the throat" of a salad shaped like a sheep. Gotta be halal after all!
I guess Mr. ATK's brothers noticed how we were struggling with the food, so they decided not to serve the besh barmak that night. I felt really bad that they altered their tradition. I tried to say, "Oh, that's not necessary. Eat your food. We'll be fine. We can eat some." But they were like, "No, horse meat is heavy and you won't sleep well." So we had the besh barmak the next day. 

New Year's selfie taken as the clock struck midnight

In between courses, Mr. ATK and I went out to explore town. He was keen to both show me around his old stomping grounds and see how the town had changed in the five years since he left. The biggest news seemed to be (in no particular order): 1. The road between Bishkek and Kochkor has been redone and is much improved (Mr. ATK marveled about this on the way there and would try to explain how awful it had been. "See this guard rail? This guard rail wasn't there before. It was just a drop off the cliff.") 2. The stoplight in town now works. 3. The family got indoor plumbing. (I'm pretty sure I was the only one who used the indoor toilet, however. Even Mr. ATK used the outhouse. I don't know if he just missed squatting outside in the cold or what.)  4. There is an ATM!


It was pretty interesting to see the village. It's a large town (bigger than my Peace Corps site, for sure. It has a traffic light, for pete's sake!) Like Bishkek, it had quite a few monuments in honor of Kochkorkians (not sure what the adjective for these folks would be) who died in war, notably World War II and Afghanistan. It also has a Lenin statue, which is always interesting and it has a couple of schools who have the most insane playgrounds. I imagine these are very Soviet style playgrounds. They are a series of bars, mainly. I wondered if children just do pull ups during recess.

I think the things on the right are like pull up treadmills

On New Year's Day, the family took us out to see some sites outside of town. They couldn't believe that Mr. ATK had never seen the salt mines, so we loaded up the car and headed out to the mines. First, however, we stopped at the place where the water starts on fire. Now when they first mentioned this, I was thinking of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland which famously started on fire. That is, I figured the water started on fire because of pollution or some sort of mining issue (like how the water near some fracking areas supposedly starts on fire). Now I suppose this water could have been polluted, but it came out of the ground flammable. And the spring wasn't near a mine or anything that I could see, so it was very odd. The brothers bought some matches and sure enough, just started lighting the water on fire. A couple interesting things to note: 1.) This lighting water on fire thing is apparently a popular past time around Kochkor, because while we were there another car load of people showed up and also started lighting the water on fire; and 2.) People seemed to think this flammable water was some sort of health tonic. Apa brought a two liter bottle and filled it up. So did the people in the other car. They took the water home in order to drink it!

Fire water!

Now I'm not a chemist or a scientist or anything, but I just feel water that starts on fire cannot be good for you. That's just me.

After the fire water, we headed over to the salt mine. The salt mine is closed for the winter so we just drove right up and looked around. It was pretty cold in Kochkor, and the mine is a bit higher up in the mountains, so, you know, I took a look around and was quickly ready to take my frozen toes back to the heated car. The entrance to mine was padlocked (for obvious reasons, as the mine was closed and there was no staff present.) This led the brothers to discussing where they could find the guard so he could open up the mine. Another car of people (who we did not know) then showed up to also check out the mine. I guess it's a popular hang out spot. Anyways, these folks also wanted to go find the guard to open the mine up so we could all go inside. My crazy American brain was like, "First, why would a guard open up the mine for a bunch of strangers? Second, what kind of crazy liability would this guy open himself up to by letting a bunch of randos into a dark salt mine?" Then I realized that 1.) They would probably try and bribe the guard (if, in fact, we could find the mythical guard, who was not anywhere near the mine); 2.) There is probably no liability in this country.

Mine stuff
In the end we were unable to find a guard (we even drove to a little village, or maybe it was a sanitarium) at the bottom of the hill, but alas! no one was there.

All in all, it was a very interesting, if not chilly trip. Next time I will bring cuddle duds.

And I leave you all with the following picture of the town New Year's tree. Happy Жаңы  Жыл!

*I'm going to dedicate a blog post just to Kyrgyz food, so I'm not going to go to far into descriptions of all the food.

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