Nevruz (Nowruz, Novruz) is a Turkic/Persian holiday celebrating the equinox, or the first day of the ‘new year’. It was a big deal in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and Tajiks celebrated it (albeit a bit mutely under the government clocks) and everyone thought it was Kazakh. In Turkey it was long regarded as a subversive Kurdish holiday until,in 1995, the government
‘discovered’ that it was in fact an ancient Turkic tradition, and adopted it for the rest of the country. The UN believes that it’s a “spring festival of Persian origin” that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. I don’t think anyone in Kyrgyzstan has heard of its Iranian roots.
Here the Turkish university erected two felt yurts on the school grounds and invited everyone – staff, faculty, students and everyone else – for a free traditional dish of pilaf, meat and bread accompanied by ayran. There were a few traditional dances, and lots of students milling around in great fur hats and ‘traditional’ costumes are re-imagined by the soviets (apparently contemporary ‘traditional cultural costumes’ of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh are quite different from what people actually wore to festivals a hundred years back, a post on that later).The Turkish government-funded university was definitely keen to emphasize the ‘Turkic’ links of the holiday – a somewhat odd stance given its contested status within Turkey. We came too late for the entertainment, and were fourth in ‘line’ (lines don’t happen in Kyrgyzstan, surges do) when the food ran out.
So we sped downtown with another university employee to find some lunch and an outdoor terrace, as the weather was warm and lovely. The streets were clogged, and we realized only too later that of course there would be thousands of citydwellers converging on the main square for holiday celebrations. After lunch we wandered across the park and square to see what was going on.
Basically, it looked a lot like every other festival. A few traditional yurts had been erected near Chuy, a few dozen girls were wandering around still in dance costumes, and most people were just meandering around as if at a county fair – popping balloons, renting tandem bikes and rollerskates, snapping selfies in front of the soviet statues, risking their stomaches on a pair of bungee swings, gathering around an impromptu Russian rap and street dance trio, buying flossy bags of pink cotton candy. The only thing I saw to markthe day as different was the sticky sesame (or maybe pumpkin seed?) paste for sale in small plastic cups. It looked like liquid halva, and half the crowd was strolling and eating it with vacant, non-commitent looks covering their faces. No jumping over bonfires or anything else to indicate the spirit of the holiday.
We wandered as far as the history museum and decided to duck in, none of us ever having actually visited the museum before (in our defense, it does have whimsical hours…and days of operation). We were told that foreigner tickets were 150 som – a bargain compared to museum entrances in the US, but several times the local price, and reflective of one habit I’m not fond of in Kyrgyzstan: that of seeing foreigners, foreign universities (Manas), and foreign companies (Centerra Gold) as open pocket books, a habit perhaps cultivated out of years of receiving foreign aid, a belief that foreigners can always pay more to sustain the local economy or line a few pockets (even when thousands of Kyrgyz nationals are driving around in luxury cars). Partially because of this, Kyrgyzstan is not the cheapest country you will ever travel to. Anyway – the museum was standard soviet, selectively documenting the history of (and creating a coherent identity for) the Kyrgyz people through carpets and saddle bits from pre-history to today under retro-space age lights and one of the strangest murals I’ve ever seen – dismembered baby dolls and flagged demons, something that looked like a Kyrgyz-character rendition of The Last Supper, a bunch of cheered Russian workers gathered around a raised soviet sickle, flaming Nazi swastikas, a bull with a harness of skulls and much more hidden in the high dusty shadows.
So…Nevruz. Happy Spring Newyears everyone!