Sheep soup… nutricious and not delicious

At the party!
At the party!

WRITTEN BY ERIC TWACHTMAN

Breakfast at 8:00 or so – which is rather informal, consisting of cake and pastry served with coffee or chai (their word for tea). The tea is served in a special manner, however. The tea itself is brewed very strong in a pot. When your tea is poured, the server puts in a little strong tea, then some hot water and then milk. This was the pattern every time we were offered chai.

We got ourselves together at around 10 or so, and went for a walk to meet our ride. We took the same path as last night, with the addition of a stop at a small shop. I got a dragon fruit juice box (OK). We followed the river for several blocks to our rendezvous with Altyn’s friend who would give us a ride.

As we walked, Altyn pointed out many of the apartment buildings along the way. The buildings all have informal names: Aigul’s is the “Ant hill”. We walked by “Titanic” and “The Iceberg” and “The Mountain”. None of these names is written anywhere. Everyone just knows the names and refers to them that way.

Altyn’s friend picked us up by Titanic in her SUV and took us to the bazaar on the outskirts of town. It is one huge flea market filled with Chinese and Russian goods. We stayed and shopped for an hour or so; calling Altyn to come bargain for us whenever we wanted something. This in hopes that she would get us the ‘non-tourist’ price for things.

Then back to Aigul’s so that Altyn could get ready for the first ceremony that afternoon. This was the occasion when Amondyk would come to Aigul and present her with earrings and cash as a bride price, thus ceremonially switching Altyn from one family to another – sort of a tribal holdover.

The festivities got under way at about 3:00. About 30 people from both families gathered in Aigul’s apartment. Low tables (2 feet high) had been arranged in a large ‘U’ with carpets strewn on the floor. We sat on the floor.

Altyn was not present for most of the feast. She was off in a room with her friends. Adlet would normally not have been there, either, except for his duties of translating for us.

The tables were laden with all the foods that we had already become accustomed to: salads, horsemeat medallions, dried fruits and almonds. Soon after we sat down people started noshing away. As we ate, someone came around with a bottle of Vodka and filled our shot glasses. (I filled mine with water). Beck filled hers with wine. I thought that during the toast, I would be able to avoid drinking the vodka.

What a simple, naïve thought. I had failed to notice the 20 bottles of vodka lined up on the serving table. They weren’t there for decoration.

The ceremony consisted of a mistress of ceremonies (an older woman, who seemed to be a friend of the family) who seemed to guide the flow of events. The events were mainly speeches made by each one present. Each speech would range from 4 to 10 minutes. After many of the speeches, the MC would comment, sometimes at length. Then there would be a pause for eating and drinking. And drinking. Each speech necessitated one or more toasts, which in turn meant many refillings of the shot glass by zealous shot glass fillers.

This was interspersed with some traditional songs and stories. One of the friends of the family was a poet of some renown, who was also the designer of the national flag. He would burst into song, or playing the traditional Kazakh lute – the dombra, at various times during the 2 ½ hour ceremony. As can be imagined, this amount of serious drinking meant that to keep my glass full of water required some no small amount of attention. This was only complicated by the fact that the man sitting next to me – Zholgoz – seemed to take it as his mission to have me actually drink. He could spot a glass filled with water in a heartbeat and in several instances directed the vodka fillers to fill my glass – my protestations notwithstanding. He actually seemed to take it as a bit of a challenge to catch me sneaking water into my glass. Only Granny could get away with waving off the drink fillers – owing to her exalted status of grandmother hood and age.

At about 5:30 or so, we had a bit of a break to stretch our legs. We were glad for that, as sitting on the floor was getting to be a bit wearing for us westerners. During this time, Adlet’s family gave a gift to Altyn’s. All of the women present were involved in a traditional bonding moment, which involved wrapping in cloth and (of course) more drinking.

Then it was back onto the floor for more eating. This was the presentation of the beshbarmak – the sheep and horse pot roast over noodles. Every one was given a huge portion. This was easy, since the amount made was easily 3 times what we could have reasonably eaten. At the same time, the sheep’s head was brought forth and presented to Zholgoz to carve and distribute. I got an eye and some cheek meat.

Soon after this, the tray of horsemeat and horse fat medallions was brought forth. Everyone has to eat some (tradition). Along with the dishes, more speeches were also presented. The 5 of us were invited to speak, which we all did.

I was instructed that after making my speech, I was expected to make a toast, and drain my shot glass. I did so – knowing that I had been able to get water into my glass (Zholgoz was getting a bit tipsy and so not as attentive to the Vodka content of my glass.) Alas, Wes had not taken such a precaution and when he drained his glass in one gulp, it was real alcohol.

The night continued with more speechifying and sheep soup – topped with plenty of fat. Finally, Altyn was brought in and presented with the earrings – along with an envelope of cash for Aigul. Pictures were taken, and everyone ogled the beauty of the bride. Then she went to get her nails done. Altyn’s whole involvement was about 20 minutes.

Then Altyn’s family gave gifts to Adlet’s. The last speech was by Samshat – she spoke for a good 15 minutes straight – I think. I might have dozed off a bit.

Finally at about 10:30 I went to the bedroom and dozed for the rest of the night. Wes did, as well. At some point, I woke up early in the AM and went to bed properly.

All in all, it was a good 6 hours of drinking and talking and eating and drinking. All this constituted Altyn’s engagement and the coming together of the couple’s families. The stage was now set for wedding number one tomorrow.

Dinner
Dinner

Click here for all of our pictures.

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