I’m not that much of a partyer.
Don’t get me wrong, I have my moments. But normally I’m pretty low-key, preferring an intimate dinner party to a raucous evening out on the town. But on a trip to Mongolia, I gleefully indulged in one of those aforementioned “moments.” And when I say indulged, I mean award-winning indulging. The kind that makes you giggle with disbelief and delight for years to come.
It was on a rainy July afternoon, near the end of a 14-day photographic adventure through the Altai Mountains led by 2013 Travel Photographer of the Year, Timothy Allen. Ozat and his wife Gulnaz, Kazakh friends he’d arranged for us to meet and photograph over a four-day period, were celebrating two family milestones: their son’s first grade graduation and their daughter’s impending entrance into university the following year, and we were invited.
What started off as relatively tame tribute, morphed into an impromptu eight-hour dance party I’ll never forget. I kid you not, eight hours. [Check out the video at the bottom of the page]
[In the video: Platters full of boiled sheep are served to guests at the party. A sheep’s skull sits in the center. Here, our driver slices pieces of skin and meat off the head. See dance video below]
Hang out with Kazakhs and you’ll never go hungry
Ozat’s family ger had been removed of furniture and replaced with colorful checkered mats that lined the floor and were topped with various plates and bowls filled with appetizers of fried bread, fresh churned butter, various hard cheeses, tea with milk store-bought sweets purchased in nearest town, Ulgii, a six-hour drive away. (The majority of Kazakh food is homemade and consists mainly of meat and dairy products which requires the women to spend hours milking everyday.)
As is customary, Ozat’s father Tobai—a distinguished fellow with an odd mustache that was essentially two white tips resembling tiny fox tales hanging on either side of his top lip—was the eldest of the family and therefore the patriarch, welcomed everyone with a thoughtful toast. Through our interpreter, he spoke about how honored he was to have all of us there, his delight in celebrating his grandchildren’s good fortune, and wished everyone in the room a mild winter and lots of horses, followed by a shot of Russian vodka.
In response, many of the guests, including our entire merry band, took turns saying a little something in honor of the occasion, followed by (yep) more shots. Our glasses were barely drained before they were being filled again. Seeing oblivion in my future, I did my best to sip when no one was looking. It didn’t take long before the room was hammered.
The Kazakhs, however, are no fools when it comes to drinking. As soon as the toasts were completed, large platters of boiled sheep appeared, each plated with its own sheep’s skull dead center.
A few of the guests armed with knives picked up pieces of the fatty presentation and cut bite sized chunks for the rest of us to eat with our hands. It was all there, intestines, kidneys, you name it. While it took me a few minutes to wrap my head around the meal, the Kazakhs dove in and it didn’t take long before everything was consumed. We were still tipsy when the food was being taken away, but with the sheep in our stomachs it did its part to ward off a morning after of painful regret.
FYI.. Kazakhs LOVE to dance…
Food removed, most of the guests departed leaving Ozat and his family, his brother Shohan (a famed eagle hunter), his family, and our group of westerners and the Kazakh staff. I thought we’d head back to our camp nearby but that’s when the car battery arrived with a smart phone attached tethered to a portable speaker and music swelled within the ger.
Ozat’s wife, Gulnaz, who up to that point had been hard at work serving all the guests, broke into one of the most brilliant and genuinely happy smiles I’ve ever seen. She motioned to Michelle, a french photographer in our group to join her, and the game was on.
Ok, I thought, we’ll dance a little, laugh a little, work off some of the meal and then we’ll be on our way. But more bottles of vodka, and new to the equation, liters of beer, flooded the ger and there was no going back.
We danced for hours with odd little breaks that ranged from people climbing the support poll of the ger in a wild display of Kazakh du Soleil, to a game of who knows what, that we made up using an empty plastic beer bottle as the centerpiece of a game of hot potato that soon turned into a rugby-type competition of will and skill.
At one point the bottle flew through the air and as Shohan, Ozat’s brother, caught it, but I, as if possessed by a line backer, wrestled him to the ground and snatched it from his hands. Victorious, the crowd cheered as if I’d won the Super Bowl. I seriously have no idea what got into me. I could barely breathe I was laughing so hard.
But nothing kept the dancing at bay for long. Kazakhs love to dance and long days working with horses and livestock made for nearly super-human stamina. As soon as I would sit down, someone would pull on my arm saying “Dance, Susan, Dance!”
Late in the afternoon, rain threatened to end our escapades. Ozat’s family furniture was circling the outside of their ger and had to be moved back in or risked being drenched. I thought for sure we were done but then Tim suggested we move the party to our camp where an empty ger we were using as a photo studio was ready and waiting.
So we did.
Row Row Row Your Boat
We danced some more (not surprisingly) and late in the evening (around 11pm) new guests arrived and the celebration shifted into low gear. We all sat along the curved wall of the ger and listened to a gifted local man with a guitar serenade us with original compositions he made up on the spot .
Afterwards, the Kazakhs sang songs for us and when they were finished turned and asked our little group of international travelers to sing something for them. Being that we were all from different countries, there was no common song we all knew that we could think of to perform. We were panic-stricken.
It would have been a cultural slight to decline a performance but we were stumped. Then out of the blue, someone (I don’t remember who) suggested Row Row Row Your Boat. It was the only thing we all knew. We felt like utter idiots but with 20 Kazakhs waiting patiently for us to get our shit together we swallowed our pride and opted to sing the children’s song. We agreed that if we could do it in the round, perhaps it would sound better.
We stood facing our audience, laughing so hard from nerves that we must have looked insane. Finally we were able to contain our embarrassment and started singing but, OF COURSE, we completely messed up the round which kicked off another laughing jag. After a mind-numbing number of repetitions, we finally gave our Kazakh friends a break by shutting up. Gracious souls personified, they clapped enthusiastically, though I did catch a few what was that? expressions.
Then, for some inexplicable reason, we thought we all knew the words to New York , New York (which we didn’t) so half way through the song we started kicking, arm in arm, like the Rockettes, to divert attention from our poor memories and hide our shame.
Simple. Pure. Joy.
What strikes me about that day, and what I remember as clearly as if it just happened, was how the whole gathering, from start to finish, was the epitome of pure joy found within genuine human connection.
Most of us couldn’t speak the other’s language so we weren’t mired in awkward small talk. No internet meant no one was glued to their devices. There were no back stories, dramas or complications, we were just people enjoying each others company.
The singing had stopped and it seemed as if everyone was calling it a night. Then the familiar music we’d been dancing to all day began to blast. Squeals of Kazakh delight filled the night air and I could see that another round was about to begin. Exhausted and ready for bed (it was now about midnight), I slipped into the dark without saying goodbye and bolted for my tent.
Just as I unzipped the front flap I heard the thud of running footsteps. It was Ozat, and in a flash he grabbed my hand and started pulling me back towards the thumping beat in the distance.
“Dance, Susan, Dance!”
And we were off….
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(FYI: You can listen to my USA Today Facebook Live interview with Jefferson Graham about travel and photography. If you’d like to see it, click HERE.)