FROM SAINT-LIGUORI TO NUR-SULTAN

After meeting eight young Kazakhs at the International Olympiads of Linguistics, I decided to fly from Canada to see my friends again and at the same time, discover the land of the Kazakhs…

My name is Nathan Samson, I am now 18 years old and I study Linguistics at the University of Ottawa. Last year, I competed in the International Olympiads of Linguistics (IOL). During the contest, which took place in Czech Republic, I became acquainted with the various Kazakh teams and quickly became friends with the members of the teams. At that time, I only had a little knowledge of Russian and absolutely no knowledge of the Kazakh language. I had a vague idea about Kazakh culture and history coming from my interest towards Turkish and Persian history, but I was far from having much of an idea of how Kazakhstan was today and what it meant to be Kazakh.


During my trip in the Czech Republic, I had been so interested and fascinated by the stories I heard about Kazakhstan that I had no choice but to visit this mysterious country and, with this end in view, I started preparing. I spent the last year studying Russian and Kazakh (though more Russian to be honest), I managed to earn enough money to afford my flight ticket and I stayed in touch with my friends. It was not an easy road that I followed until the day I sat on the plane, waiting to arrive at Nur-Sultan airport. A few times, I had thought it would never be possible to visit. Most of my friends and family probably never believed that I would really travel to Kazakhstan.
But I did it. At the age of 17 years old, I travelled alone, across Kazakhstan.

I arrived at the Nursultan Nazerbaev Airport of Nur-Sultan City at 4:55 AM on May 13th 2019. When I was finally able to exit the airport and find my friend, I already felt that this trip was going to be extraordinary. My first day in Kazakhstan was great: I had spent the last year thinking about this trip, about the country, the language, the culture and about the time when I would meet my friends again.

I thought about the different projects I could do during my trip: I was interested in making a documentary at first but finally opted for a book about my journey, so I started writing very quickly after my arrival.

The title of this article refers to the town where I come from: Saint-Liguori, a very small town in the francophone province of Québec, Canada. Big cities were always a bit scary for me, since I grew up surrounded by fields, so it was one of the things that scared me the most about my trip, to stay in a city like Nur-Sultan. That is the reason why I was happy to discover the Right Bank of Nur-Sultan, especially the Baiqonour district, where the way of living was closer to our provincial way of living, but at the same time, very Kazakh.

Before my trip, most of the people I had told about my plans were afraid for me. They thought it was a dangerous idea to travel alone across Kazakhstan being a minor and without a travel agency or any external organisation, but during my journey, I constantly proved to them that Kazakhstan is a place where, with good research and some knowledge of the culture and language, anyone can travel. One of the things that interested me during my preparation for the trip were the trains in Kazakhstan. I had read so many extraordinary stories about these long trips by train across the country, but I never expected what would happen in these trains…
I lived so many incredible adventures during my stay in Kazakhstan, but some of the most interesting moments happened in the trains that I took. I used to a carry a guitar with me when I would go to another city and I often ended up playing music during the night for the other passengers. It was something I really didn’t expect, because no one would think of playing guitar and singing in a train in Canada, but there, often other passengers would ask me to play. There was even one time, when we travelled from Nur-Sultan to Borovoe, when the whole wagon (we bought seats for that trip) listened to my music and sang with me the Russian songs I could play (some classics like Katiousha and some Viktor Tsoy music). They appreciated it so much that when I left the train, they all stood up to applaud me as I was leaving, shaking my hand and congratulating me in various languages.

Another big part of my journey that should be mentioned is my introduction into the muslim tradition. Travelling in Kazakhstan during the month of ramadan, I had no choice but to respect the people who welcomed me and to honour their faith by also holding the fast. They never asked me to do it, they told me several times that they wouldn’t be offended if I didn’t hold the fast, being a non-muslim traveller, but I felt that it would be disrespectful, after all what they were doing for me, to do such a thing. My goal was also to try to understand the Kazakh people and their reality. I couldn’t make another choice than doing as they were doing. Living as a muslim for a month helped me understand more about many things. First, a lot of my friends in Canada are muslim and I never had a chance to see their religion from that point of view. Also, I have been surprised to see how welcoming, helpful and respectful Kazakhs were during my entire trip. We would do well to remember that even if countries like Kazakhstan are not as touristically developed as France or Greece, for instance, it doesn’t mean that they are closed to foreigners. I would even say that the fact that it is not such a touristic place may make it a better place to explore if you are a bit of an adventurer. For those reasons I have plans to return next year.

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