Above the clouds

Chris McNab | 1 February 2019

Now I get it. For the last five years, the good people of Astana have been telling me: ‘You must go to see the mountains in Almaty.’ Well today, it finally happened, and the experience was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

It took a car journey and four ski-lift rides to hoist ourselves up to our lofty destination. I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe something like the mountains of my home country Wales, but with just a little extra elevation. Instead, the landscape was every bit equal to the Alps in both scale and majesty. Under a warm sun of spotlight intensity, we found ourselves 4km above the world.  Almaty was just a hint on the lower horizon, far beneath us, while around us snow-covered crags imposed themselves against a sky so deep blue it hinted at space beyond. The air was of crystal purity, the temperature well below zero. Around us, skiers and snowboarders took off with a hiss down the precipitous slopes, but nothing disturbed a vertiginous sense of sheer, timeless peace.

There were other treats besides. I happen to be one of the world’s most fanatical dog lovers, so the two super-friendly huskies I met at the summit just perfected the experience. (Photographic evidence is included here.) To say that I, and the rest of the group, struggled to eventually reconnect with our schedule and descend back down is an understatement. For those reading this who have never thought about Kazakhstan for their annual holiday, I urge you to reconsider, and stick a pin in Almaty.

Once back at the hotel (via yet another stunning meal in a local restaurant), I had the fortune to continue with interviewing more of the anthology’s great poets. This afternoon we spent a good hour in the company of Aqberen Yelgezek. His work is a distinct sensory and emotional journey. There are many dark corridors in the work, reflections upon the isolation and darkness in the human condition. Yet there are equal moments when a lifeline is seen and grasped, usually thrown by nature or, in the extract here, the lilting notes of the kobyz:

In the blink of an eye majestic music

brings back to life so many past ages.

The wispy grass ripples like an endless ocean.

till all at once you are brought down

to earth again by the mysterious power. Having now both heard the kobyz, and now seen Kazakh nature at its most impressive, these words are serenely convincing.

About the author

Dr Chris McNab is an author, editor and publishing consultant, who has a long-standing relationship with both Cambridge University Press and with Kazakhstan. Chris is working as the editor of the poetry anthology for this project.

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