An Unexpected Marriage


Location of Taraz


The border crossing from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan was both harder and simpler than I expected.


Simpler because all the border guards proved very friendly and ready to help – harder because the electricity went down just as I was trying to pass through the Kyrgyz exit checks and I had to wait for at least an hour before it came back on and they could scan my visa into their computer and allow me to leave. 


During this time, I sat in the resident major’s control hut chatting to him and a couple of fellow guards and even lending the major a listen on my ipod to pass away the time.  (He didn’t seem very impressed with my music selection and was not scared to tell me as much.)


When I finally got through to the Kazakh entry check, again I was held up by a plain clothes border control official – a young fellow with sandy brown hair and a serious expression, despite the lightness of the conversation.  He seemed to want a run through my entire life story, insisting on my filling in any gaps in chronology that appeared to emerge in the telling of what I’ve done with my 34 years.  In fact this was an excellent exercise in Russian and I was quite enjoying having to talk with him. 


Eventually he seemed satisfied with his afternoon distraction and allowed me on to the next stage, through the baggage control check, where my belongings were scanned by a fat man, whose shortness of breath made me fear the excitement roused by his inspection of every single item in my possession might accelerate an unfortunate and untimely demise. 


Once he too was satisfied that he’d checked over each and every piece of kit in all my bags, he sent me on my way with a cheery word and a little bag of the foul-tasting mai tokoch sour milk balls that are every Kyrgyz and Kazakh’s delight. 


I was amused to note that the Kyrgyz guards were happy to lament with me that I was now leaving the true heart of Central Asian hospitality, while the Kazakhs celebrated my good fortune that finally I had arrived amongst some friendly people now that I’d come to Kazakhstan. 


Either way, they seemed like a good bunch to me.



First photo in Kazakhstan - approaching Taraz


The afternoon was moving on but it wasn’t too long before I was rolling along into the outskirts of the town of Taraz – a middling-sized city in the south-east of Kazakhstan that is comprised of abundantly green trees, scatterings of parkland all over the town, typical Russified shop frontages, residential buildings and monumental public spaces, and the prettiest girls since the Pacific. 


This last came as a bit of a shock.   After my bunfight for a visa at the Kazakh consulate in Urumqi, I wouldn’t have put Kazakhs down as a “handsome” bunch, but I now think that was possibly a hasty conclusion. 


Under the direction of a very obliging whiskery old gentlemen and a trio of giggling (and one startlingly pretty) student(s), I found the hotel I was looking for.  Since it was still a beautiful evening, I rushed through checking in so I could get out and wander the streets and get a sense of the place, because I intended to move on quite early the following day. 


I strolled from the hotel through one of the many parks towards a café recommended in my book and couldn’t help but noticing more than a handful of “lovers” in the park.  Maybe it was the novelty of seeing this probably for the first time on my journey, but this was the spirit that I was immediately picking up from this town.  Perhaps you know what I mean – more than any other city I’ve passed through as an observer, in Taraz there was a feeling of romance in the air!


After my solitary meal in the little German café that I’d found out, which was again filled with willowy-limbed young women, all with long black hair that fell down their backs, squired by the Kazakh menfolk who seemed always ready with an easy and affable laugh, I made my way back to the hotel, half-wishing I had a beautiful girl of my own on my arm to accompany under the trees and talk about everything and nothing as the dusk fell around us.


But instead I turned my mind to the next day’s ride and went to the hotel’s second floor to try to use their wi-fi internet before I turned in for bed.  Just as I was finishing up, seated on a sofa by the lift, a couple appeared from their room with a push-chair and bright-eyed little girl trotting along beside them. 


The man was physically small in every respect yet he came up quite boldly and introduced himself and opened a conversation with me.  We chatted for a couple of minutes and I thought he would then move on with his family, but instead he invited me for a drink, and even to join them for a meal (despite my having already eaten).  When I hesitated, he pushed me again and (half-annoyed at myself) I ended up agreeing. 


It turned out this was one of the best things I could have done. 


We went off together – the four of us – to a little outdoor restaurant just over the road from the hotel and enjoyed a few glasses of a local Kazakh brew, some shashlyk (the enormous and extremely tasty kebab skewers eaten all over this part of the world), and some friendly conversation about each of us and our lives. 


The man was called Askar (a heroic sounding name as many Kazakh names seemed to be) and his wife Zarina.  Both were in the mid-twenties and they had this little girl, Tamina who is one, and a second child on the way.  They were charming and very sincere in their desire to be hospitable to me and make sure that I would enjoy my time in Kazakhstan.  They lived in Astana, the capital in the north of the country, and were in Taraz for the wedding of an old friend of Askar’s called Kuart. 


Askar, Kuart and Zarina

Askar, Kuart and Zarina - my new Kazakh friends


As we sat there Kuart called them up, and before too long he had joined our little party and we sat for quite long hours into the night talking and drinking together.  He was as friendly as Askar and Zarina and it didn’t take him long to extend an invitation to me to his wedding the following day.


Delighted at this opportunity, I said of course I would love to come.  I was told that as an Englishman I would have to be ready to sing a good English song, and also since many people would be making speeches, I should be ready to make a speech too.  The right side of a few glasses of beer I said of course I’d be delighted to do this.  (If he had asked whether I would be prepared to stand on my head, I’m sure I would have said yes.   Which would have actually not been so far from the truth.)


So we all went to bed in a jolly mood, and the following day I got up and went out with Askar and Zarina (and Tamina who was very cute) to find a shirt for the occasion.


This was to be done in that fine throw-back to Soviet times – the TSUM, or Tsentralny UniverMag – a Soviet shopping centre.  These are bleak looking department stores, with gloriously crude and unpolished décor and the most disinterested collection of shop assistants every gathered under one roof.  So a typical ex-Soviet shopping experience then. 


Askar and Zarina had somehow managed to leave their suitcase behind on the train, so they both needed a shirt and dress respectively too.  I found one that seemed appropriate quite quickly, and was slightly perturbed when it seemed Askar wanted to buy exactly the same shirt, only about five sizes smaller.  With visions of arriving at the wedding looking like Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee – or perhaps Me and Mini-Me may be more accurate – I did my best to steer him towards another choice.  About three-quarters of an hour and one matrimonial fall-out later (over his final choice of shirt which Zarina didn’t like), we left to get ready for the celebrations.


Meanwhile, I was trying to think of a song.  While all the songs that come most naturally to me are ridiculous – for example, I don’t think it is ever appropriate to sing the Eton Boating Song at a wedding, or indeed the Philosopher’s Drinking Song or “I like Chinese” (adapted to “I like Kazakhs” for the occasion) – I felt I should probably sing something that there was some vague chance they would recognise.   So I settled on “Hey Jude” – easy to sing and remember and easy to adapt.  “Hey Kuart” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but I was willing to give it a go.


So off we went to join the celebration though I had no real idea what form or order the proceedings would take.  It turned out that first on the agenda was the customary tour of places of local interest for pictures, and in this case, various Muslim blessings along the way.  All this was to be done in a pimped-up white stretched Humvee. 


The wedding Humvee

Our transport for the day


Bundled into the Humvee along with Askar et famille I suddenly found myself at very close quarters with Kuart’s bride, Elvira (“hello, hello congratulations etc. etc.”) and his “brothers and sisters” of whom there were about 15 from every age spanning from 10 to about 23.  Slightly amazed at the apparent prodigious fecundity of Kuart’s parents, I tried to take it all in my stride.  Names were introduced and then repeated, and then repeated a third time, after which I was too ashamed at my inability to remember all their names that I stopped asking.  I still have no idea what most of them were called., this is where I get a little shake on names.  Some of Kuart's cousins

Three of Kuart's cousins in the back of the Humvee


But it soon became clear to me that the concept of who gets called brother and sister in Kazakhstan is different from my own understanding.  In fact these were all first cousins, and Kuart had only one brother (or maybe two, I couldn’t say for certain).  But they all seemed delighted to have me along, as I was delighted to be with them.  It really didn’t take me long to feel entirely as if this was exactly where I should have been.


Between my Russian and some broken English we all managed to communicate fine, and as we went from place to place, taking endless photos, and drinking warm “champagne” during the motorised interludes I started to get a hold on who was who and what they were like. 


THRB and one of the cousins.....

With one of the many cousins


This little matrimonial tour doubled up as an opportunity to see the most touristic side of Taraz (without too much effort on my part), the most famous site of which is the mausoleum of Aisha-Bibi.  The tale of Aisha-Bibi, set in the 11th century, is a kind of Kazakh rendition of Romeo and Juliet (so they say) according to which Aisha-Bibi, the daughter of a famed scholar named Khakim-Ata, fell in love with Karakhan, the lord of Taraz, but her father forbade them to marry.  She runs away, accompanied by her trusty maidservant Babazhi Katun.  On the road to Taraz, Aisha-Bibi fell sick (or was bitten by a snake) and Babazhi Katun rushes onward to alert Karakhan.  He hurries to Aisha-Bibi and the two are married just before she gasps her last, after which the heart-broken Karakhan then built a beautiful mausoleum for her, where it now stands.  (When Babazhi Katun died, she too got a spot for a smaller mausoleum just next to her old mistress.)


Red roses

A latter-day Aisha-Bibi?


So this is a place of local reknown and an old Muslim holy man sits by Aisha-Bibi’s tomb and hands out a blessing or two on the happy couple, whilst the guests slip him a few Tenge (the Kazakh currency) to keep the place in good nick (and earn themselves some good fortune of course).


Hands out in prayer as the couple emerge from another mausoleum - at Aisha Bibi

The smallest cousin receiving a blessing at Aisha-Bibi


One of the stops was for the actual legal marriage ceremony.  Unlike the sort of ceremonies I’m familiar with in the West (whether in a church or elsewhere), this part of the day was very understated (almost cursory).  I was surprised, and felt honoured, that Kuart asked me to be one of the witnesses to his actual marriage.  They were only six of us in there (including the bride and groom) with the Muslim iman who led them through the five minute ceremony.  A few “Allah-il-allah”s later (which I was exempt from saying, being a self-confessed infidel) and it was all done: they were man and wife.


More of them - with THRB in the background

Spot the odd man out in this wedding party


So it was time to go off for the main part of the day – the wedding feast – to be held in a large and airy banqueting hall in another part of the town.


While this took quite a while to get going since the “Humvee” party arrived a long time before most of the guests, by the time the ceremonial parts got going, there were well over 200 people present, almost entirely relatives of both burgeoning families, but no doubt with a good number of friends there too.  Everyone from the frailest looking babushky (albeit who looked like women of iron will) down to the scampering little pachamuchky, who were chasing about between everyone’s legs, had been invited, and assumed a solemn air as the master of ceremonies commenced proceedings.


Babushkas and Tyotyas

Several of the more senior guests


The main ceremonial event was some kind of exercise in the provision of a dowry – or at least an invitation and opportunity for the guests to bless and honour the couple by giving them money, which was to be laid on a chair that was set up in the middle of the walkway running the length of the banqueting hall. 


The bride, flanked by two matrons of honour and a brother (or cousin) also in tow, stands facing the crowd, as a singer comes forward to sing, I presume, a traditional tune that lasts about a minute, the lyrics of which are in Kazakh, but I gathered from Zarina that their meaning was to invite the guests to come forward and make their offerings and be generous in doing so (naturally!).  This process was repeated perhaps 8 or more times, each time the words being slightly different, in order to appeal more directly to each group of friends and relatives whom were being addressed.  So for example, the senior members of the groom’s family come forward first; then those of the bride’s family; then senior aunts and uncles of both; then the younger family members; and on it goes until what must have been the “miscellaneous” category, into which I fitted nicely and which came last. 


...with her entourage...

The bride and her entourage for receiving gifts from the guests


After each group gives something, the bride bows graciously, and then after it’s over, she and the groom walk the length of the hall to take up their places on top table, with only the best man and maid of honour for company. 


Meanwhile the rest of the guests get stuck into a meal for which the only word fit to describe it is “feast”.  I’ve never seen so much food for one occasion. 


I sat with Askar and Zarina and a couple of others, but actually a few places were empty on our table.  This meant there was even more food for each of us.  Being starving hungry (as usual) this suited me fine and as the wedding singer belted out a few more folk hits of the Kazakh Steppe, everyone set to eating “wi’ a will”. 


The dining hall

The dining hall


There was nothing to drink except soft drinks and vodka, but this didn’t seem to make the occasion any more or less merry than any other wedding I’ve been to.  My personal mistake was under-estimating quite how much food was involved.  Being so ravenously hungry I had eaten way more than my fair share of the dishes initially on the table, so when these were cleared and two huge plates of the main dish arrived I found I barely had room for any of it.  This was the culinary highlight of the evening – roasted horse flesh – a particular favourite of the Kazakhs – arriving on a pretty fulsome bed of thick noodles.  This was my first taste of horse meat, and of course it was very tasty (and perhaps unsurprisingly reminiscent of the donkey-meat all the way back in Dunhuang).  But my personal view is that even this prized dish doesn’t hold a candle to a really fresh and juicy beef or lamb shashlyk


"Are you sure we need one of these each?"

The only alcohol available...naturally


As our bellies were filled, there was an on-going thoroughfare of speech-making continuing from the centre of the hall.  The master of ceremonies would call out a collection of names inviting them to come up, some music would strike up, and the people would converge from their different corners of the room, dancing all the way, down the walkway to a spot by the master of ceremonies.  There would then follow (I won’t say interminable) at least lengthy speeches directed at the bride and groom, who would have to be standing to show they were listening to each speech.  Being mostly in Kazakh I couldn’t follow, but when a group was finished, up struck the music again and this time anyone who wanted could jump up and have a little dance for a few minutes. 


So our table was regularly getting up to dance through the meal, as were most of the people young and old, and like at any wedding the dancing was uninhibited and great fun. 


As with the money-giving, the speeches went in order of superiority, occasionally interrupted by a traditional dance act by some professional dancers dressed in various traditional folk garb, and sometimes by other entertainment. 


At one point after a group of speech-makers were clearing from the dancing area, I was collared by the master of ceremonies and rounded up with about 7 others for one such entertainment “interlude”.  Was this the moment for my song I wondered?   But no, in fact they had a better idea.


We were each, in turn, to be given a microphone and told to mime to some kind of Kazakh pop tracks, and strut our stuff up and down the walkway – or do whatever we wanted – to entertain the gathering.  This potentially humiliating experience was actually surprisingly painless, mainly because of the infectious enthusiasm of each participant, and the thrashing applause that greeted each person almost before they’d even started.   Anyway, there is video evidence of exactly what I did, which I will try to share with you somehow – however embarrassing it looks in the harsh light of day!!


Making a wish...

The bride and groom making a wish after cutting the cake


As you might imagine, the later the evening got, the more it resembled any other wedding.  The dancing took over and ran well into the early hours.  The menfolk got more serious about their vodka-drinking – and made correspondingly less and less sense.  The women started yawning and tugging at their husbands’ arms and scooping up their roving children. 


Eventually I was called on to make a speech (which I’d completely forgotten to prepare) along with Askar and other friends.  Since no one would volunteer to be a translator for me, I had to do the job myself, producing a simple and only slightly faltering few words – first in English, and then repeating in Russian (to give myself time to think!) - which seemed to go down fine. 


By the very end of the evening both Zarina and I were trying to persuade Askar that it was time to go back to the hotel, and meanwhile Kuart and I were swearing life-long friendship.  For my part, very sincerely.


Truly, I felt remarkably at home and welcomed amongst these strangers of a different land and tongue, and I couldn’t be happier that I was lucky enough to join in on this very special occasion with them. 


Throughout the day the subject of Borat and the “vile aspersions” he has cast on their nation came up.  The Kazakhs are surprisingly sensitive about his depiction of the Kazakh people, even though I said no one in the West takes it seriously. 


But, just in case, in response to his unfair characterisation, I thought a comment from one of Kuart’s cousins (whose name I never grasped) was beautifully simple.  With his arm around my shoulder, he said:


“We are Kazakhs.  We like to laugh, and we like to drink vodka.  What is wrong with that?”


Absolutely nothing.  

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