On the way to Astana, Kazakhstan…

Posted by on Jun 16, 2017 in Kazakhstan, My Blog | One Comment

Europe gets bigger and bigger the further east you fly. Landmarks get harder to pinpoint and the forest to field ratio seems one minute to favor forest, then not, as huge tracts of fertile fields unfold for miles and miles. So far so flat.. Perhaps understandable how Napoleon and Hitler were lured East with false confidence, or how the west should fear a westward swarm of tanks and troops one day.

Central Europe is vast …. can someone tell me when it becomes so big we have to call it Asia? Kazakhstan, from what I read, prefers to refer to its self as Eurasia.

Minsk Airport – Soviet style modernity with futuristic architecture worthy of Thunder Birds. Only two planes on the ground today, bar a fleet of old Russian high tailed heavy lift jets, parked on the grass. Inside the terminal is stark sterility at its best. Narrow grey marble corridors take you through check points manned by puppet blond attendants with lipstick and straight faces. A stoic world imagined 100 years ago – the perfect new world of internationalism or the “last communist dictatorship” -is still alive and may be not so well, who knows (?) in the heart of Central Europe.

I was sad that my friend, and fellow sculptor, Maxim Piatrul, couldn’t drop into the transit lounge to say hello. He is well connected, being a state artist, but even he couldn’t get in to share an hour with me to catch up. He did try though.

On my way to Astana – On an old Belavia 737 to Astana, flying into the night above a sheet of clouds with the sun setting behind us – Mañana Astana.

Awake, landed, accepted by the immigration authorities and greeted by my Kazakh friend and hostess Zarina. It’s 3 in morning. I am one of the first people through the doors of the new Astana arrival terminal. It only opened the day before. Adrenaline alert, and happy to finally be here. From my dot of an island in the middle of the Caribbean to the centre of the biggest continent on the planet! Another one of my magical contrasting trans global manoeuvres. Feeling blessed and filled with amazement, appreciation (my trip is being paid for by the Kazakhstan government) and anticipation, all in one.

Surprisingly, within three minutes of getting in our ride, we pull over at a new golden domed mosque. The driver is fasting for Ramadan and needs to pray before going home. It was a powerful and beautiful feeling to share some meditative peace listening to the Iman read the prayers with 30 or so fellow humans (all men except Zarina), kneeling on the carpeted floor of the extremely ornate geometric patterned hall. The biggest chandelier I have ever seen filled the dome whilst a pre-programmed light cycle illuminated it with colors. A wonderful way to arrive after a long journey.

Dawn glowed low across the steppe horizon – levelled for me by the surrounding roof tops of this modern but Soviet era looking apartment compound. We stay on the top floor(14th) and don’t look over much other than the rest of the surrounding similar looking buildings.

The working day began soon after I had fallen asleep, and woken up. A healthy breakfast of fruit I had brought from Tortola and Kazakh dates and honey, powered me up for an all-important site visit and meeting with the Nomad Festival team to discuss my ‘fire-cube’, ‘Nomad Journey’.

The spot on the Boulevard on which the fire-sculpture will be burning is thankfully only a 10 minute walk from the flat. It won’t be on a central axis to the main ley line, but offset slightly to allow for the choreographed ceremonial lighting of it, also more space for the crowd.


I have given all possible warnings about the reality of sparks and smoke etc. There is next to nothing that is likely to catch fire around here – lots of stone, steel and glass…maybe a car. But still I suggested we make a tray of water for the cube to sit in – both to catch the ash, reflect the fire and reassure the crowd. I have also insisted that a fire safety team be on site. They wanted me to light it but I have declined and suggested the Nomad actors of the performance do it…. Could have dodged a legal bullet there if anything does go wrong -ha ha! Two days later, however, and news has just in come in from the head of the festival committee that she has persuaded the Mayor or “Akim” of Astana, Aset Isekeshev -himself, to light the fire cube. Well that’s a relief then – [hey, I say – Knock yourself out big man! Thanks -pressure off.]

My day collapsed into a jet lagged slumber back at the flat, after a delicious beetroot borsch. Food is a topic essential to cover during this trip; I plan to dip in an out of it, but it will be from the perspective of my recent drift to plant based food.

Luckily my hostess is of like mind, so we can manage on a smoothy, salad, quinoa, bean, veggie ,fruit and nut duo, extremely well. One might think it debilitating in a country of devout meat eaters such as Kazakhstan, famed for its consumption of – yes you guessed it, horse meat. Well, horse meat, I learn from my hostess, is generally only eaten on special occasions these days. In ancient Nomadic times it was also not an everyday meat, more a slaughter for festivity and celebration, eaten with the greatest of spiritual respect to their ultimate animal.

My biggest new food discovery in the past few days, has been horse milk! Wow if that goes mainstream, look out dairy industry! Skeptical at first, I admit, once tasted – I am a believer. It is seriously healthy, rich but not heavy and apparently excellent for your intestines and strong energy booster – not surprising really, if you think of the energy levels of horse versus cow – which would you rather?

It is normally taken after fermentation, which preserves it for longer – known as Kymyz as opposed to the fresh stuff you get out on the steppe called Saumal. I haven’t had that yet, but I was privileged to have been able to buy some freshly fermented milk that had just come in from the Steppe and was being sold by a gang of cool teenagers outside a mosque…this was obviously fermented over fire, the smokey flavor and light creamy richness was incredible.

Apparently, it is a field of serious taste connoisseurship. My hostess’ great grandfather was a “Bai”(rich, respected community leader) nomad, famed in his heyday for a herd of 40,000 horses, as well completing the Haj on horseback from the Alti mountains in Eastern Kazahstan. Sadly, he was executed in the 1930’s during Stalin’s purges. My hostess grew up eating horse meat and was raised on their milk; now a vegetarian, but still horse cultured enough to know what she is talking about.

1 Comment

  1. Madis
    June 20, 2017

    The downtown looks absolutely futuristic! Great to see photos of you! It is fun to compare the mental image of workshop and people in Tortola with the photo of workshop and people in Kasakhstan 😉 Any mosquitoes in Kasakhstan ? 😉