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Moyindau at Pik Lenin, Kyrgyzstan, (from left to right) Susanna Mendlow (cello), Ryan Ptasnik (drums), Alex Kreger (piano), Kevin Bene (sax)

Listen to our music!

August 26, 2011

Kazakhstan

Once again I apologize for not updating this very frequently.   I´m settled in Vienna now, taking intensive German class every morning, practicing every afternoon and trying to get back into a routine with playing my instrument.  It´s refreshing to have easy access to a piano now, but also frustrating because I have some catching up to do before I can practice as much as I´d like.  Tomorrow Ryan´s coming back to Vienna for a few days before flying home.  Then the trip will be officially complete.  Right now he´s in Italy hanging with a cymbal maker.  I´m looking forward to seeing him again.

I miss Central Asia but I´m usually too busy to notice.  Our last days we spent in Almaty with Kenny, our fantastic couchsurfing host, who hosted 7 people simultaneously with ease--James, the Germans and the four of us.  James is an American who had biked to Kazakhstan from Amsterdam.  He had been through record-setting snowstorms in Holland and had gotten hit by a car in Atyrau (western KZ) just days before we met him.  His nose was bandaged up, but he said it was to win sympathy points at the Tajik embassy.  He had traveled in the northern Caucasus in southern Russia, and in Nagorno-Karabakh, places where few travelers ever set foot, but where he encountered only very kind people.  He told us stories from his travels; some of them were hilarious and I think I laughed harder than I ever had the whole trip.

We arrived in Shymkent on the morning of Aug 4, Kevin, Susanna, Ryan and I, on a night bus from Bishkek.  Aina met us at the station and took us back to her home, where we met her family: her father, mother, older brother, his wife and two kids...and Abhishka, an Indian guy from MSU who was traveling around KZ at the same time as we were and who would turn up again and again, unannounced, in Astana and Almaty...always moving his two giant suitcases from one friend´s house to another´s.  That night we went to the summer camp for the children at the orphanages...I think there were 4 orphanages total, one of which was where Sabyrbek the poet was raised (more on him later).  It was so hot, so Aina´s mother gave us all hats, and Kevin´s hat made him look undoubtedly Arab, and so he decided to wear it at all the shows (see youtube video below).  I personally enjoyed wearing my hat, because having had long hair for so many years I didn´t wear hats (so with short hair it´s easier, I guess).  When we got to the camp, about 45 minutes outside of Shymkent alongside a peaceful river that runs through some small mountains, Kevin discovered that he´d lost his mouthpiece, probably in the Fergana Valley but really we don´t know where.  So we did one improv at the show where Kevin played without a mouthpiece, and he sounded amazing and the kids loved it.  And otherwise he sat in the audience with his Arab hat on, surrounded by Kazakh kids vying for his attention.  Susanna premiered my solo cello piece "Maddoh/Mado" based on Sufi religious music from Badakhshan...for the first time in its entirety, with an extensive vocal part in the last section.  The kids were chanting, "Susanna, Susanna, Susanna..."  She sounded beautiful on this pretty rough cello that they gave her (I thought the instrument fit the music well, though).  Then immediately after our performance they transitioned into a dance party, blasting the Russian pop music that we had somehow come to love through giant speakers, and all of these middle/high school Kazakh kids were trying to get us to dance with them.  I was exhausted, we got back in the car and drove, I was falling asleep but we stopped anyway at a chaikhana for shashlyk and kvas, and I fell asleep on the mats at the chaikhana as well.  Ahh, now I miss the chaikhanas...there was a song that we listened to in the van driving from Sary Tash to Osh with all the NGO volunteers called "Chaikhona", it was their favorite song and they all sang along and debated on which Central Asian country it was from, some suggested Tajikistan because it was pronounced "chaikhona" not "chaikhana" and that "o" is a Persian thing...  The song is about a (Tajik?) guy who´s living abroad, and he describes how much he misses the chaikhona and how great it is.  And we had just stopped at a chaikhana ourselves, gotten to know the NGO/development folks a bit better, and they were all really cool, nice people with insipiring stories.  And then when we arrived in Osh and were parked in the driveway of the NGO (same NGO, by the way, as the one with which Bactria Cultural Center in Dushanbe is affiliated), they blasted this song and had a little dance party, while meanwhile our driver was trying to charge extra and arguing with our fearless leader from LA who we called a fountain of knowledge because he knew so much about the region, the Aga Khan Foundation, Ismaili Islam, etc...

Our second day in Shymkent we played a concert at the Opera and Ballet Theater, a nice big hall with a nice big grand piano and a sound system...so they were even able to mic the piano which was great for me.  We spent much of the day at the venue, it was ridiculously hot outside.  Kevin and Ryan and I had a fun little session in a sweltering dressing room, where we played Turkish pop songs and sang the melodies (without words, we haven´t memorized the Turkish words) at the top of our lungs.  The concert was a wonderful experience.  It was great to play the songs with Aina again and it sank in that we were finally in Kazakhstan, completing the circle of the collaboration that had started almost two years ago in East Lansing.  Sabyrbek Nurmanuly, the poet whose words I set to music including "Moyindau" ("acknowledgement")--which was now a word I´d spoken and heard spoken a thousand times--came to the stage to address the audience and we met for the first time.  And I have to say that in real life he totally defied the image I had formed of him!  (We were laughing about that afterwards...)  Kevin found a mouthpiece, we were all given flowers in the end, and then we hurried to get everything packed up and get out of the venue...  Afterwards we were invited to Aina´s sister´s house for an amazing dinner and a swim in their pool...we left with new traditional Kazakh hats and baby camels, known for their beautiful eyes...  We were all so happy, it was a beautiful experience.

The next morning Susanna woke up sick.  We were supposed to leave that day but we didn´t.  Instead we sat around Aina´s house and did absolutely nothing.  Once again it was oppressively hot.  We ate besh barmak for dinner--that´s horsemeat with noodles and some vegetables that you´re supposed to eat with your hands (besh barmak means "five fingers").  Susanna was getting worse, so we called some doctors, who arrived and prescribed some diet for her to get better.  We were sitting outside, it had cooled now, watching Kazakh news on TV with it´s epic jingle that plays before all the commercial breaks.

Kevin and I left the next day on a 24-hr bus to Astana.  After having had so many opportunities to practice, I had by this point significantly improved my sleeping on buses skills, so I slept, and when I woke up we were in Balkash north of Almaty, a town that lies on a giant lake that´s half saltwater, half freshwater.  We ate ice cream for breakfast.  By 6pm or so we were in Astana.  The sun was setting and the weather was cool...I put on my red sweater that was given to me by the Kurdish family in Tuzluca 2 months earlier.  Meirgul, a classmate of mine from my Turkish class freshman year, met us at Congress Hall and took us to our apartment: for 7,000 tenge ($33) we rented a beautiful apartment with kitchen, balcony, living room, bathroom, bedroom, and NICE furniture.  The next night we downgraded to a slightly less luxurious place for 5,000 tenge, still a great deal...

The Kazakh girls had arranged everything for us.  Gaukhar, another MSU student who´d just graduated, was going to meet Ryan and Susanna at the train station the next morning (they opted for the more comfortable "kupe" on a night train from Shymkent).  So Kevin and I slept in and everyone met at our place the next morning, where we cooked breakfast and made some Chinese tea!  There had been some talk of having a show that day, but it didn´t turn out, so we met up with a large group of Gaukhar´s friends at night and went to a delicious Uyghur restaurant (which made me wish even more that I´d spent more time in Xinjiang).  Afterwards we went walking along the river, which divides the old and new city (the new city being built entirely within the past 10 years, since the capital of Kazakhstan was moved from Almaty to Astana).  Astana was cool, quiet, new, clean...a "northern" city and very different from anywhere else in Central Asia I´d been.  Yet it´s the capital of Kazakhstan, and I realized how much I like these big countries like Kazakhstan, China, Turkey, and the US...because you can travel for 24 hours without leaving the country and be some place with a totally different vibe but same (or similar) culture...language, food, habits...although these change a little bit too, but because people move around in their own country there´s a lot of mixing...and people in one part of the country will always refer to another part far away, like the family we met in Tuzluca talking about going to Istanbul, or in China the migrant workers coming from all over to the big cities like Beijing and doing construction work.

The next day was our performance at the National Library in Astana, in the heart of the new city, on the end of a long square, where if you look up the sky looks big like it does in Wyoming, and where you realize that you are in the middle of the giant steppe, and that were it not for Kazakhstan´s move towards the future, none of this would exist.  We arrived there around 5:30pm, and by that time the clouds that had hung over the city all day long were gone and the sky was blue and beautiful.  I went with Kevin and Susanna, Ryan was picking up a snare drum to play sitting cross-legged on the floor with his two hi-hats from Kadıköy, because the guy wanted too much money for the whole set.  And after looking all afternoon for a cello, we had finally resigned to play trio because we could not find one, until at the last moment one of the super friendly, helpful volunteers exclaimed that we had a cello, and it was the Public Affairs officers´ daughter´s practice instrument, for when she would come to visit, I think.  So it all worked out fantastically, and we had a little question and answer session beforehand and then played, and the audience was so curious and appreciative that it was really an honor.  Afterwards people told me that although we couldn´t really know "the Kazakh soul" or what it is to be Kazakh, we had grasped it with our music...we had penetrated that idea and found another expression for it, not an alternative or a better one, but just a personal interpretation from the other side of the world.

We also met Boris at the library.  Boris is a young man not much older than Ryan, born in Kiev, studied at Arizona State University, lived in New York for awhile, and then decided to visit his brother in Astana for three days.  Then he extended his ticket for a week, met his wife, and stayed; he´s been there a few years now I think.  Anyway Boris suggested that he could get us a gig the next night in Astana, if not at the Guns & Roses Pub/Grill, then at the Amerikansky bar.  We had planned to leave for Almaty the next day, but we said ok and stayed, because we didn´t have any gig planned for that first night in Almaty.  But the next day we went to talk to all the places and none of them could host us, because it was simply too late of notice and the Hawaiian theme party was going on that night.  So we drank tea in the Turkish restaurant and watched the Turkish music videos...they all knew us in that place by now.  And we arranged our bus tickets to Almaty for the next evening at 9pm.

The bus ride seemed quick from Astana to Almaty, only 19 hours.  By that time Ryan and I had already done 26 hours standing on a train in China, 24+ hours from Dushanbe-Khorog twice, and Kevin and I had done 24 hours from Shymkent.  And I was now relatively comfortable with sleeping in buses.  We got pulled over at a police checkpoint not far from Astana and the cop came all the way to the back of the bus where we were sitting and asked for our passports.  Ryan and I were fine, Susanna was sitting in the corner so the cop didn´t notice her, but Kevin had to go outside and negotiate to get his passport back, because he hadn´t registered (you´re supposed to register with the local authorities within 5 days of entering KZ, but for some reason the KZ embassy in Bishkek had automatically registered Ryan and I, otherwise we´d have been in the same boat).  In the end he had to pay a $20 bribe (and in the end, when Kevin and Susanna crossed the border leaving Kazakhstan, there were no problems, no fines).  

Almaty is nice, with the mountains just a 15 minute drive outside the city, where you can hike over the pass to Issyk-Kol in Kyrgyzstan (takes 4 days I think).  Aina picked us up at the bus station, we met our host Kenny at the Eiffel Tower, dropped our stuff off at his place, went back to meet Kazbek at the Eiffel Tower, and he took us to his family´s estate up in the hills on the outskirts of town.  His father, Tagir, was a patient of a friend of a friend of Susanna´s mother, or something like that, in Seattle.  So they prepared a delicious dinner for us, and we sat and talked for several hours, and then Tagir suggested we go together to the mountains the next morning.  So the next morning we went to the mountains, and by the time we came back we already had to start finding instruments, because we had a show that night at Ultra´s Cafe/Bar, a 3-story place with a rooftop garden that brews its own beer.  We needed a keyboard and a saxophone, because Kevin´s saxophone had mysteriously broken sometime in Shymkent or Astana, and he had lost his mouthpiece anyway.  We found a saxophone for $40, and a keyboard for free, but it was smallish with non-weighted keys.  So we had everything ready to go, and the time came for Moyindau´s last show (for awhile at least).

Everyone sounded great, Kevin nailed this arrangment of "Mashq-e Javanan", a Tajik song with a lot of repeated notes that´s pretty difficult.  We were able to loosen up on Moyindau and Senim, the songs that we performed with Aina, and she began to interact more with the band, improvising and making music together.  It was a memorable experience.  And afterwards a local pianist came up and played some standards with Ryan and Kevin and killed it...and you could see on their faces how good it felt...and after that there was a digeridoo/drums and jaw harp duo, and Susanna and Kevin sat in and improvised over their pulsating, trancelike groove.  And late in the evening, Abhishka walked in with his suitcase and "KAZAKHSTAN" t-shirt.

The day before Ryan and I left Almaty ourselves, we said goodbye to Kevin and Susanna at the bus station.  They took a marshrutka to Bishkek and flew home from there. The last few days in Almaty were almost as if from a dream...the summer of traveling was over, I was on the verge of moving to Vienna, leaving Central Asia, and we had such a wonderful, peaceful, happy atmosphere at Kenny´s place, where we´d sit in the sunny kitchen for hours and share stories with James.  And then Kalman arrived, the Hungarian with whom I hitchhiked around Turkey two summers ago, he was cutting across Eurasia towards Hong Kong to catch a flight from there to Indonesia where he´d gotten a scholarship to study Indonesian language for a year.  He overstayed his Kazakh visa because everyone wanted to wrestle him in every small town he got stuck in while hitchhiking...he cursed these people, but he managed to get a visa extension for $6 when they´d wanted $100.  And on our last night, we met my friend Nargiz also from my Turkish class, and she took us to one last dinner of shashlyk, drove us to the airport and saw us off, and by this time I had done that thing so many times, said goodbye to people so many times, and I knew so well that the next morning I would be in Vienna, but that at that time I was still in Almaty, and the night was warm because the days were quite hot.  Nargiz mentioned airport sadness, seeing friends off at the airport, and I thought about the song that Mehldau wrote called "Airport Sadness".  Our flight was delayed and we barely made our connection in Kiev.

And now I´m in Vienna, feeling a bit of longing for Central Asia after writing this long post, and also a bit of longing for the US and the people I left behind there.  But I´m working towards some things here, and I´m excited for the next adventures.  Thank you to everybody who reads this, my long run-on sentences...  Thank you for supporting our project and our desire to get to know our home (the world) a bit better.  I´ll post some pictures soon.  Wishing everyone all the best...

Moyindau in Astana:


Moyindau on the news in Shymkent:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylxBS-ZPxb0