The expectedly 'boring' birthday on a boat was spiced a little by the 80 km night ride with Steve from the desert port on the Kazakh side to the nearest city of Aktau. The border officialdom had reined differently on different travelers. We cyclists were first off the line, later to be overtaken by the Teutonic motorbike horde who had also shared the ferry, and then Benji and Beth in the 4x4.
We had met Arsen and Cyrium aboard the crossing, they were ardent members of the Kazakh office of Arsenal and Chelsea supporter clubs who had made the Baku crossing for the match. They had kindly offered to host us in Aktau, promising the unheard of delights of Kazakh Cognac and Chocolate in combo. But on arrival into Aktau, Arsen phoned to say his wider family had arrived without warning, thus there was no longer room. He had booked us, and Benji and Beth, into the 'Victory' hotel or Aktau's Ritz, a substantial birth-day present to say the least. The gift (host) kept on giving, when Arsen pulled up in a flash Porsche Cayenne with blacked windows, and drove us off for some pre-dinner Cognac and Choccy. We also met a handful of his friends who used their engineering degrees in a Californian manner to set us nicely up for dinner.
Asli phoned me on arrival questioning why I was at a nightclub when I told her I was off to dinner, we weren't any wiser on the ground either. The 'restaurant' was at the mid-point between private banqueting hall, karaoke club, and a whisky bar. Arsen told me in the elevator that politicians came here for privacy when 'discussing policy' with well-connected businessmen, a different world.
If the setting was flashy, the conversation was tribal. Arsen and his friends proved to be deep fonts of fascinating knowledge on Kazakh customs and nomadic legends. Indeed, national history and culture and languages classes are mandatory subjects through to 18 on the national curriculum, and have a large impact on the final grade. These courses seem dark and frank in nature compared to the jingoism of most national history syllabuses, and their a well-held and well-justified belief that their country has been much maligned: in 1947 the Soviet powers 'requisitioned' 90% of the country's livestock over a two-year period, these animals form the fulcrum of nomadic life, and so the tribes turned to savagery and even cannibalism as millions died. The economy and population were set back centuries. Moreover, the syllabus speaks of how Russia used Kazakhstan as a convict dump in the Australian mold, meaning that only 60% of the current population are of ethnic Kazakh tribes. In addition this historical legacy, the not insignificant modern damage of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat was wrecked on the country's image and tourism.
For all these factors and more, our new friends were sparkling ambassadors for their country and it's people, the Kazakh tourist board could not have found more knowledgeable, articulate and persuasive representatives anywhere in the world. Admittedly I spent much of the conversation in semi-interview mode - fingers frantically flickering across phone screen writing things down. It transpired at the end of the dinner that this was a school friendship group, and they were the exact same age as Rob and I: there is nothing like being willingly schooled by your own peers. Bathed in Cognac and fueled with the finest horse-meats, certainly a birthday to take note of.
Below some of the customs we discovered:
- A daughter-in-law of should bow to any of her husband's family almost regardless of age.
- A daughter-in-law should give nicknames to all of her new male relations, and at the marital tea ceremony should know exactly and remember precisely how each member of her family-in-law prefers their tea.
- The youngest son is always 'saddled' with looking after the parents in old age, they mus live together'.
- There is a specific individual name or single unrelated for almost every member of the family. E.G. no 'grandmother on father's side' but 'X', no 'wife's second sister' but 'y' instead. There can be over a hundred of these indivualised terms.
- An often used girl's name roughly translates as 'should-have-been-a-boy'
- Sons can be named after the age of the father at conception,'sixty' is thus the father boasting of his continued virility in old age.
- 'There are some regions in Kazakhstan where if there are 10 kazakhs present and one russian, the kazakhs will speak russian; others where if there are 10 russians present and one kazakh, the kazakh will speak kazakh.'
- Russia's surface area is about the same as Pluto's
- If British identity is regional, then Kazakh is firmly tribal. 'Where are you from' is irrelevant in a nomadic culture, and is replaced with 'Which tribe are you'.
- Almost a millennium ago, there was one tribe in Ghengis Khan's empire that betrayed him, the emperor turned back from Europa and murdered this tribe smashing their remnants all over the region. To this day, members of this tribe are discriminated against as untrustworty and this often affects their job and marital prospects.
- Every good wedding needs a decent brawl, it's a tradition.
- Kazakhstan has implemented a start-up policy where foreign investment can be given free land, tax exemptions, and free water/gas/electricity.
- 2019 has been labelled 'the year of the young Kazakh'.