I’m not that much for big, crazy parties.
Don’t get me wrong, I have my moments. But normally I’m pretty low-key, preferring an intimate dinner to a raucous evening out on the town. But on a trip to Asia, I gleefully indulged in one of those aforementioned “moments” with a group of Kazakh Mongolians. And when I say indulged, I mean award-winning indulging.
It was a gloomy 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. Tim’s friends, Ozat and his wife Gulnaz, Kazakh nomads he’d arranged for us to meet and photograph, were celebrating two family milestones: their son’s first grade graduation and their daughter’s impending entrance into university, 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]
A Kazakh will never let you go hungry
All the furniture had been removed from Ozat’s family ger, replaced with colorful checkered mats and dishes filled with fried bread, freshly churned butter, a variety of hard cheeses, tea with milk, and store-bought sweets purchased in Ulgii, the nearest town six hours away. (The majority of Kazakh food is homemade and consists mainly of meat and dairy products. The women spend hours milking everyday to keep up with the demand)
As is customary, the patriarch, Ozat’s father Tobai, a distinguished fellow with a mustache resembled tiny fox tales on either side of his top lip, welcomed everyone with a toast.
Translated by our interpreter, he toasted our small group and spoke of his happiness that we were there to celebrate his grandchildren’s good fortune. He finished by wishing everyone a mild winter and lots of horses, then tossed back a shot of strong, Russian vodka.
As was customary, almost everyone, including our entire merry band, took turns saying a little something in honor of the occasion, followed by more shots. Our glasses were barely drained before being filled again. Seeing oblivion in my future I pretended to drink every other toast. It didn’t take long before we were all hammered.
As soon as the toasts were completed, large platters carrying boiled sheep appeared. Each with its own sheep’s skull plated dead center. A few of the guests armed with knives cut bite sized chunks for the rest of us to eat with our hands.
It took me a few minutes to wrap my head around the meal. Everything was there: intestines, kidneys, brains, you name it. The Kazakhs dove in and it wasn’t long before everything was gone. When the food was taken away we were still tipsy, but with greasy sheep in our stomachs we’d done our part to ward off a morning-after of painful regret.
Kazakhs LOVE to dance…
At t his point, most of the guests left leaving Ozat’s and his brother Shohan’s family (Shohan is a famed eagle hunter. You can see some portraits of him here), and us. I thought we’d head back to our camp but then the music began to play, rising from a sound system consisting of a smart phone connected to speaker powered by a car battery.
Ozat’s wife Gulnaz, who’d been working hard 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 dance with 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 the Kazakhs brought out more vodka and added bottles and bottles of beer. There was no going back.
We danced for hours with odd little digressions that ranged from people climbing the support poll of the ger in a wild display of Kazakh du Soleil, to a made up game of hot potato using an empty plastic bottle that soon turned into a rugby-style competition of will and skill.
At one point the bottle flew through the air and as Shohan caught it I channeled my inner line backer and tackled him to the ground, snatching it from his hands. 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 sat down someone would pull on my arm and say “Dance, Susan, Dance!”
Late in the afternoon we changed venues. The sky threatened rain, and fearing the family furniture that had been moved outside to make room for the celebration might get soaked, we stopped to move everything inside. For a moment I thought it was all over, but as luck would have it there was an empty ger in our camp nearby, and within minutes we relocated and the party raged on.
Row Row Row Your Boat
We danced late into the evening. New guests arrived and the party mercifully shifted into low gear. We sat along the curved wall of the ger listening to a gifted local man play his guitar, serenading us with original compositions he made up on the spot.
Afterwards the Kazakhs entertained us with songs, and when they finished turned and asked us to sing something for them. Since everyone in our group were from different countries, we couldn’t think of single song to perform that we all knew. We were panic-stricken. It would have been a cultural slight to decline a performance.
Someone suggested Row Row Row Your Boat. It was stupid song to sing on such an occasion but we all knew the words. We thought it would sound better in a round, but with all we’d had to drink there was no way that was going to work out.
We faced our audience shoulder to shoulder and laughed like idiots. Nerves. The Kazakhs waited patiently for us to get our shit together. We messed up the round as soon as we started singing(surprise, surprise), which kicked off another laughing jag. It wasn’t pretty. After what seemed like an eternity and a mind-numbing number of repetitions we stopped. The room clapped enthusiastically, bless their hearts, though I recall more than a few mystified expressions.
Then for some inexplicable reason we all thought we knew the words to New York, New York (which we didn’t). In the hopes of making it more entertaining (and to mask our shame), half way through the song we started kicking arm in arm like the Rockettes. We should have stopped at Row Row Row Your Boat.
Simple. Pure. Joy.
What strikes me about that day was how the gathering from start to finish was the epitome of pure joy found in human connection. Most of us couldn’t speak each other’s language, yet it made no difference. There were no back stories, dramas or complications. We were just people enjoying each other’s company.
The singing stopped and it seemed as if everyone was calling it a night when, once again, the music began to blast. Squeals of Kazakh delight filled the night air and I could see that another round was about to begin. I slipped into the dark exhausted and ready for bed, bolting for my tent without saying goodbye.
Just as I unzipped the front flap I heard the sound of muffled footsteps. It was Ozat. He grabbed my hand and started pulling me back towards the thumping beat.
“Dance, Susan, Dance!”
And we were off….
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