Christmas with the Kazakhs; New Year's with the Dutch

One shot

The top-shelf Russian vodka burns my throat as the sound of a substantial Russian man behind me barking the lyrics to “Sign” by Ace of Base burns my ears.

Two women dance idly in the corner of the room while a man not older than 25 attempts to woo them with his amazingly arrhythmic dance moves.

Two shots

At the table I am accompanied by approximately twelve Lufthansa crew members laughing riotously and screaming to each other in high-pitched German.

I cling to my Kazakh acquaintance to my left as the only other person not shouting unintelligible phrases at an overly-audible level into my ear.

Three shots

A few of the crew members crawl out of their seats to take the place of the substantial Russian man at the microphone to sing Pink’s classic, “Let’s Get This Party Started”.

The initial signs of dancing begin to take shape on the dance floor.

Four shots

I am pulled rather violently from my seat to take center stage and lead the eager crew members in a rendition of “New York, New York” which is only appropriate - I am repeatedly reminded - because I am the only American in the room.

Five shots

The dancing really gets underway with Russians, Kazakhs and Germans alike being pulled onto the dance floor in a cacophony of movement and a flurry of sound (yes, those adjectives are correctly placed).

Six shots

The night progresses oscillating between Russian pop songs and English classics spanning the decades.
Zenkov Cathedral (made entirely of wood)

Language is of no issue at this point as everyone in the room dances to each song regardless of its linguistic origin, taking only the occasional break for another shot.

. . . And that’s how I spent Christmas in Almaty . . .

Kazakhstan is a place of contradictions, perhaps by design: It sits squarely in the Central Asia region, yet Almaty is more European than Asian; it is a country founded on the Kazakh identity, yet is one of the most multi-ethnic countries I have ever visited with Kazakhs, Russians, Koreans, Jews, Uighurs, Kurds, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and a host of other ethnicities coloring the landscape; Almaty proper is dense and polluted but just a short bus ride away lie some of the most beautifully unspoiled mountains I’ve ever seen.

Almaty and larger Kazakhstan also does not contain some of the more historic architecture or sights of its European or Central Asian counterparts; nomadic until Russian occupation, the Kazakh people did not construct large cities like the Tajiks of Samarkand and Bukhara. Interestingly, religion is much more diverse than other parts of Central Asia with the population splitting its allegiances between Russian Orthodox, Islam, atheism and a smattering of other faiths.

Perfect day for a hike
I was fortunate to get a peek at this unique country through the eyes of its most visited city. It left me wanting to explore more.
After spending Christmas with the Kazakhs (and a large number of Germans), I awoke early on the 29th to journey to Amsterdam for New Year’s. It was with great anticipation that I returned to the city for the first time since I left in 2004 and to meet some dear friends with whom I had spent a year studying there.

(Some of) the Amsterdam crew reunites

BOOM sputter sputter

The sound and accompanying sonic force nearly knock me from my bike as I race through the streets of Amsterdam following Karl as well as possible through the haze of firework smoke.

BANG BOOM fizzle fizzle blinding light

It seems that every resident of Amsterdam feels that it is perfectly safe and ordinary to light fireworks in the middle of the street as myself and a few hundred other bikers weave through seemingly life threatening explosions and showers of sparks.

BAM BAM sputter fizzle

The impossibly tall Dutch man and his family stare at me as I halt my bike waiting for the shower of sparks to stop.

Happy New Year from Amsterdam!
I can’t tell if they stare at me because they see no reason for me to stop or if it’s because I’m wearing silver tights, gold sequin hotpants and a sleeveless shirt that reads “Moon Gymnastics” . . . I’m leaning toward the former.

BOOM BOOM sparkle sputter BOOM fizzle fizzle

“Hot outfit,” a group of impossibly tall Dutch girls shout as another explosion lights the sky behind them, “I want some of that!”

Not tonight girls, not tonight.

While Karl and I never did find our friends to attend the “Space Oddity” party we had dressed so appropriately for, we did manage to find a few other watering holes to ring in the New Year. Riding my bike amidst showers of sparks along the canals of Amsterdam wearing utter ridiculousness, however, was celebration enough as I remembered why I love the city so deeply.

. . . And that's how I spent New Year's in Amsterdam . . .


Mary Spice said...

Sounds like it was such fun, almost as much fun as 7/4 on MVY! Probably a much needed break from your work. Happy New Year Clay! The Spicer

Lauren Gaw said...


I am a first-year SID student. Priya from Career Services suggested I contact you to learn about your experiences working with Mercy Corps, since I am interested in women’s empowerment, girl’s education and agricultural development. I am very interested to hear about your work in Tajikistan and from the looks of your blog it seems like you are having a good time there.

I would appreciate the chance to talk with you about your practicum.

Lauren Gaw

Pete said...

No. You cannot regale us with stories of gold sequin hotpants and then not include any pictures of them. Please post photos or I am quitting this blog.