‘Everyone has a book in them’, someone once said – I hope I have two or three! But ‘in them’ is not ‘out of them’,in public and it is the publication that gives birth to your ideas and exposes your soul. This may be why many people do not let the book loose or release the story into the wild!
So I am writing a book (or three!) about my experiences and adventures in Kazakhstan. Excerpts from the book make up most of this article and indeed this in itself is a way of releasing some of the book and hope it comes home with critical developments so I can improve the experience to my readers.
I walk across the square, taking short steps, head down against the cold stinging breeze. The grey mottled granite brick paving, smeared white outlined with fresh powder snow as the wind moves and snakes the dust across my path. It is just February and despite minus 12 – is surprisingly warm for the time of year! The tears ooze from my eyes drawn by the cold rather than emotion, they pool blocking vision and then unable to hold their mass slip down across my red cold pinpricked cheeks freezing in salty icicles before they can fall to the ground.
This is Astana the capital of Kazakhstan and for six months is the land of frozen tears!
I am heading for an unplanned lunch, arranged lessons cancelled at the last minute and a brief respite in a hectic world of work and travel between workplaces. The chance to take stock of life, a chance to plan or at least wish and a chance to reflect but hopefully not in a melancholy way!
I am in the centre of this new city. Baiterek a national icon, towers above me but I keep my head down. The sun breaks through the winter scudding sky and throws a long shadow of my wrapped huddled form across the ground. I imagine the light reflecting and bouncing of the monuments golden dome and the glass clad buildings around but after six years here it is the destination that beckons, the spectacle of the glistening metropolis can wait for warmer days and when I have more luxury time to spend. I keep my head down.
Why am I here? – is a question I am often asked and have now a set answer telling the story of my discovery of Kazakhstan but the more I tell my standard text the less I believe that it is what people want to here. ‘How did you come to be here?’ is the real question I am answering and that is easy – Why am I here is much deeper and harder to get to the bottom of. These chapters will help to explain a small part of that answer. Some would say the shallow part of the story – but part of the story it is and it needs to be told in order to understand the wider picture.
My story of Kazakhstan and Astana in particular is one of people – trying to understand the cultural differences and being able to ‘fit in’ is important to my development. Language barriers are huge for me but I can cope by developing an understanding of Russian, an ability to mime almost anything and to have empathy with the person speaking.
I am sitting in a small underground bar in Samal in the old part of the city. It is one of my locals with white silver leatherette benches, fake stained glass and a black reflective ceiling. A flat screen TV in the corner shows Russian pop videos and a blue glass evil eye hangs above the bar. The curtained booths are empty but the back ‘VIP’ room is full. A cacophony of cackling indicates drunken women and men’s voices their ‘hosts’. Every now and then one or more leave for a cigarette in the entrance – it is too cold to venture outside, or to use the cracked tiled toilet. The pop music continues – videos with scantily clad young girls in European settings – each one telling a story of love , loss or more likely lust.
The giggling girls are hidden from view but the young dark haired Azaerbajani waitress is regularly summoned with a door bell ring – each table has a ‘buzzer , I used to live in this block and borrowed one once to see if it would work from my apartment but 13 floors proved too much. I am not sure how I would have ordered anyway. I am musing this and a Kazakh man enters with coat unbuttoned and hat flaps down. He stands at the corner surveying the scene , older, less refined than others – he is looking for someone, and it has to be a ‘she’. He stands looking into the back room and sees who he is looking for – she is one of the cackling girls – the noise stop ! time stops – my mind races , what will happen, what has happened ? What is the relationship?
Soon the mood is lightened – a laugh comes through clear and the man is invited in the cackling begins again and the vodka is taken through by the waitress. Can I wait to see what happens? Finding love in the land of frozen tears takes many forms and the continuing laughter fill my ears as I press my buzzer for the bill and wind my way home through the snow and bitter cold biting wind. Thankfully only one block and the wind is at my back.
I am not here actively seeking love but it is the people in time and place that interests me, intrigues me and helps to keep me here in this fascinating and multi layered city. It is not just an enigmatic country but also an alien city and a shape shifting people.
It is a warm, modern apartment, new fixtures and fitting on the outside. A child’s buggy sits outside looking a little unkempt and hurriedly left. Still some toys in the tray underneath the seat and a worn cloth blanket sits crumpled on the seat.
I press the buzzer and almost immediately it is opened – she stands there a slight smile creases the corner of her mouth. A colourful flowery dress makes her look older and the three children clinging to her legs with beaming inquisitive smiles makes the scene of struggling motherhood complete. I am welcomed in and the goods I was asked to bring are taken and immediately dished out. I take my time removing layers of coats, scarf and gloves and struggling with too tight boots.
The apartment is not small but one bedroom, studio kitchen dining room and it looks lived in – by a family of four. There are two sofas covered in stretch covers stained by childrens hands and dropped food. A dining table with plastic wipeable cloth already with remnants of food and drink ring stains. I sit without being asked as the family lives are not interrupted by my alien presence. The children chatter in English and Kazakh and she sits there looking tired. It is 11pm and the three small bundles of energy are nowhere and no way ready for sleep. The sushi- for that is what I was asked to provide – is ravenously consumed, the juice absorbed and the wine I brought for the two of us is opened and slowly sipped. We try to talk, to discuss but interruptions of small voices demanding, needing, wanting get in the way so we just talk. I am curious but she still seems to learn more about me than I do of her. Her black deep pool eyes have a sparkle and a warmth that draws you in. Her hair is short, a bob that frames her face but tonight it is a little unkempt and unwashed. Her skin looks tired and a slight freckling of blemishes show the true self that I have not seen before. She is intelligent and soft and I have flashbacks to a previous enchantress.
I ask about her and how she copes. She tells me freely about her ‘husband’ – their life , ‘their ambitions’ and then she stops – looks sadder for a fleeting second and then qualifies what she was saying into ‘her ambitions’. I smile and she smiles back.
After a while she takes the children of to bed – I can see a large double bed through the half open door and she places them top and tail, nesting them in the duvet. She sits and nurtures the youngest one smoothly talking to her, gently caressing all of them with her words.
When she feels they are settled she returns closing the door. She sits opposite me and I look into those bottomless eyes. She raises an eyebrow and asks me what I am thinking- but she knows and smiles again.
I am thinking what she knows I am thinking but also questioning why I am there? I want to kiss her but the crumb strewn cloth on the endless table comes between and then a mewling cry from the next room breaks my spell and she hurries away brushing her dress flat as she walks across the room. I follow her with my eyes for the five or six steps – she is not tall and was once slender a small bulge in front hints at child rearing within the last twelve months. She moves with grace and serenity, alluring and in control. She is a proud woman who wants the best, has ambition and talent but finds herself on the outside of an inner negative voice. A self belief that is tainted with self doubt and a need for someone to invest in her financially and emotionally. Is this what she sees me as or maybe one of them?
As the night and early morning wear on the children become more fractious and every time she leaves me for them I question myself. I go to the window and look out at the park and the Pyramid. The thin blown snow cascades down the western side and is whipped from the ground to dance in from of the upward pointing spotlights. In the distance the building work continues and the tower blocks displays of LED choreography distract me from my situation for a while. It is quiet – hushed and snow muffled, blanket inside and out. She is gone longer now – has she fallen asleep? I will give her ten minutes and as the clock moves towards three in the morning I will leave quietly a text message will be my goodbye.
Ten minutes comes and goes, I will give her five more, hopefully that she will come and sit next to me on the seat I have deliberately rearranged with my socked feet. We will hold hands , I will stroke her cheek and we will kiss. My emotional support giving her hope but my arrogant thoughts are not communicated so I decide to leave. I clean the table and stack cups and plates quietly by the sink deciding not to wash them for fear of the noise breaking whatever spell she is weaving over the children.
I move the short distance to the entrance and begin the ritual of putting on my boots, jacket, scarf, coat and hat – I have mastered the boots and the jacket and have my scarf in my hand when she surprises me – ‘you are leaving?’, ‘I thought you had fallen asleep’, ‘no just making sure they were fully settled’
My life is changed, unusual and exciting, very different from the world I left behind. I did not plan to change my life but maybe no one does? The place I now call home is unusual and sometimes indescribable which, when you are writing a book, can cause problems. How do you describe the hopes and aspirations of a young country? How do you describe your own hopes and aspirations?
Having lived here (a privileged life yes!) for seven years – or ‘six winters’ as time is measured in Astana I have also seen the truer side. The beggars on the street, the people going through bins for remnants of someone else’s life, the people collecting water from standpipes in minus forty degrees but even in this the people are true and generous – giving everything even though they have nothing in some cases.
I walk home late the temperature has plummeted to 2 degrees, this may not seem much but the day before we were at plus 36 – Autumn if that is not too grand a name for it is here. I did not expect to be wearing my thicker coat before the end of September!
As I weave between the old soviet blocks and cut through a gaudy modern childrens playground I see a figure lying on a bench sleeping, as I get closer I can see he he is shabbily dressed and the waft of unwashed alchohol and toil surround him. I have seen him before with a can of strong beer in his hand, scarred bruised face and wild unkept hair. He breathes heavily huddling and curling to keep warm. Shall I wake him ? I cannot leave him but I am sure he will have no English and not understand anyway. I pause and then head home. I have recently moved apartments again and have far too much stuff so I retrieve a thick woolen blanket and go back down into the street. I cover him as he stirs, scarred that I am about to hurt him. His rough calloused hands with black nails and grime laden lines grip the soft woolen cloth and he smiles a broken tooth grin before drifting off to sleep again. I leave him and head home and notice people in a car watching me, their faces illuminated by the yellow interior light, they smile and nod. I nod back and tears fill my eyes as I get home grateful for my privilege. As they roll down my cheeks I know it will not be long before they are solid again and the land of frozen tears returns.
WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM OCA#27 DECEMBER 2017 by Gareth Stamp