Nowruz, Astana-style

A guest-blog from Alice Harrison who lives in Astana, Kazakhstan:

Norman Foster's Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Astana (Photo: flickr/M. Ibrayev)
Norman Foster’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Astana (Photo: flickr/M. Ibrayev)

It is little more than a week since I saw the ice village and sculptures erected here in Astana for New Year, knocked down – a clear signal that spring is on the way. For some time large-scale tulip decorations and lights have been appearing out of the snow drifts around Astana in preparation for Nowruz, and they are beginning to look a little less incongruous, as the skies are finally blue and the temperature during the day above zero.

Nowruz is celebrated here as a symbol of spring renewal and the triumph of love, unity and friendship; all ideas which have a special resonance in a country where the festival was banned under Soviet rule until independence in 1991, and where there are one hundred and twenty national groups amongst the population. The area in front of the Norman Foster pyramid, otherwise known as the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, is now occupied by a large stage and multiple yurts, in preparation for today’s celebrations, which, if last year’s are anything to go by, will involve numerous dancers in traditional and flower costumes, on acres of fake grass. Tonight will also see a spectacular laser show in the area around the Baiterek tower.  Kazakh friends tell me this is a time to gather with your family and there has been an exodus from Astana as people take advantage of the 4-day weekend to head home, where their mothers are already preparing their special variation on the traditional thick soup, Nowruz koje.  This involves 7 main ingredients, water, salt, fat, flour, grains (rice, wheat, barley etc.) milk, and with Kazakhs, as they frequently tell me, being the world’s second biggest consumers of meat (after wolves), a considerable quantity of lamb,  beef or horse.  These ingredients symbolise happiness, wisdom, health, wealth, growth, divine protection and luck.

Traditionally Nowruz is also a period of spring cleaning, evident around Astana after a winter which has seen an unusual amount of snow, causing problems for the normally very efficient snow clearing teams.  Today the detritus of a winter is emerging from the snow drifts, and the army of Akimat employees, has switched to cleaning up rubbish.  Water is a big problem however, with large puddles forming as drains struggle to cope with the thaw, and sudden cave-ins in the roads, where they have not.  The river is speckled with fishermen and the air full of the sound of their drills as they grab the opportunity for a last afternoon out on the ice before it becomes too thin to hold them any longer.  Thoughts are turning to allotments, and peppers, tomatoes and the like are being sown in preparation for planting out at the end of May, once frost danger is past. Our apple trees, although buried in snow to about 5 foot up the trunk, have suddenly produced buds.  All extremely welcome sights given that the first snowfall was on the 8th of November last year, and the ground has been white ever since.