Arrival in the land of Tengri

Chris McNab | 10 January 2019

After an uncomplicated journey, we arrived in Astana today. The reception in-country was physically bracing (-17°C and falling) – it is deep winter here – but, as always, socially warm. We were welcomed by capable representatives of the National Bureau of Translation; their smiles and genuine helpfulness, so typical of the people here, reminded me why it is always a pleasure to return to Kazakhstan.

Never able to sleep on planes, I spent the much of the night-hours inbound flight under the overhead spotlight, reading back through the country’s history and culture. This practice always turns up new gems of knowledge.

Isolated facts that jumped out, in no particular order: the burial mound (kurgan) of theGolden Man, discovered 1969, contained no fewer than 4,000 gold pieces; one of the earliest Kazakh religions was Tengriism, named after the sky diety Tengri – also the name of Air Astana’s in-flight magazine, I noted; tea cups, apparently, are often only half-filled, because such is an invitation to keep speaking, whereas if the cup is filled it is a sign to wrap things up (Kazakh readers – please correct me if my source is wrong); the Soviets conducted 456 nuclear bomb tests at the Semipalatinsk Test Site between 1949 and 1989, in the earth-shaking process even creating an entire lake, Lake Chagan, nicknamed almost affectionately as the Atomic Lake.

Taking the broader view, what struck me again was the scale and almost tidal regularity of human movement within Kazakhstan’s centuries and lands. Those who have passed through or settled in Kazakhstan range from European Germans to ethnic Koreans, and pretty much every Eurasian people in between.

Such a cultural mix, could feasibly produce a country with a patchwork, fragmented identity. Yet later in the day, while visiting the absorbing National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, it became apparent that something else happened. This vast collection of art and artefacts demonstrated the progressive emergence of a national identity, the country’s peoples brought in step by unifying cultural drumbeats – family, friends, nature, loyalty, music, tradition and, of course, literature.

For today, I also started my parallel journey into the poetry materials I would be editing for the Modern Kazakh Culture in a Global World project. Already, the same enfolding sense of place, of home in the roundest, most celestial, sense of the word, is apparent in the language and themes. Tomorrow I start to meet the authors of this work. Will they agree with my perception of what gives Kazakhstan its identity? Importantly, how do they tread the line that Kazakhstan itself is walking, that between tradition and modernism, appreciating both but surrendering completely to neither? Fascinating thoughts to fall asleep on . . .

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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