The city was covered in snow as we drove in past giant new buildings. We drove past the bike stadium that looked like a giant helmet, and other turquoise-wrapped glass stadiums. We checked into the palatial Rixos Hotel and settled into lavishness. After a long day, I headed down to the spa and bumped into a few of the Dellas in the Turkish hamam. I explained how the marble bathhouse worked and we all lounged on heated marble slabs and splashed around in the marble basins. After the hamam, we alternated between the Finnish spa and a eucalyptus-tinged steamroom that was like swimming in a cough drop.
The following day was a rest day, and we lounged about the spa and hotel. I had my bloooody mari fiasco to start the day, and decided I needed some fresh air as well as a very necessary camera battery charger. It was about –10C outside, so I threw on the gloves and earmuffs, and trudged out in the cold over to the nearby mall. The cold nipped and bit, and froze the snot a bit in my nose, but was actually not so bad. I found the TechnoDum (TechnoHouse) and swam my way through linguistic confusion to get a new camera battery but no charger.
After a nap, I went to visit the giant golden glass egg tower. The tower has something to do with a Kazakh legend about a golden egg and a dragon. The tower gave a wonderful panoramic view of the city, I had fun snapping pics and taking in the view.
That night, we all went out ice skating. If God wanted me on ice, he would have made me a zamboni. But I did fine and didn’t break anything. The Dellas were much better skaters than me, but it was all in good fun. After the ice skating, we hopped a gypsy cab with a bullet hole in the window over to a restaurant called Fusion. It had American food, Kazakh food and Sushi, with tons of pics of American celebs decorating the wall and terrible covers piped through the sound system. I decided to try the horse sausages, which surprisingly good. It tasted a bit like Moroccan mergez, and was spiced nicely. I had heard that horse could be dry, but this was flavorful.
On Friday, we had a concert over at the Astana Hotel, which had a new performance center. The Dellas were performing that night with a traditional Kazakh music group named Kok Tukilier. They bonded immediately over the collaboration pieces and different instruments. It was fun to watch these musicians with no real common language communicate so quickly.
Later, when the band was doing a final sound check before the show, the sound was acting up and giving huge feedback blasts. As the show started, it appeared that one of the speakers had blown. After a first song with poor song, the Dellas called out to the audience that they would need to go unplugged. Thankfully, the room hall was shaped to be like a yert, and was amenable to an acoustic show. They invited the audience to come a little closer and rolled with it.
As people were moving down, a cameraman with a video camera took a step backwards and backed into a stair set coming down from the stage. He started tumbling backwards on the stairs and his camera on tripod with him over his head. I was in striking distance, so I did a dive-cradle under his camera and caught it before it hit the ground. He was appreciative, to say the least.
And the Della Mae Unplugged concert was terrific. It gave a whole different feel to their show, with a bit more intimacy that the acoustic show offered. The preparations earlier with the Kazakh musicians all became a little unhinged since the sound system was turned off, but the two ensembles rolled with it too, and it all worked out very well.
Being the wonderful cultural diplomatesses that they are, prior to leaving on tour the Dellas had requested if they could play at orphanages while on tour. Posts were pleased to accommodate, and on Saturday morning we headed over to an orphanage in Astana. It was one of the more poignant programs I have ever seen. The kids were adorable, ranging in age from 8 to 16. They were so appreciative to have Della Mae come play for them. And the most heart-warming moment was when the Dellas taught the kids to sing “This little light of mine.” The kids sang along perfectly, it was hard not to get a little misty.
After the show, the Dellas played with the kids, letting them strum their instruments and just have some affection. The kids showed the Dellas their dorm rooms and their art areas.
We then drove to the Khan Shatyr Mall, a giant wrapped turquoise glass mall that resembles a giant tent. The mall is famous for its beach on the top floor. Yes, it has a real beach with real sand (with a wave pool, I think) that you can visit for $40. Its funny, in deserts of Dubai, you can play in the snow and go skiing in the mall; in the frozen steppes of Astana, you can put your feet in the sand.
The Dellas were performing at the mall. Cultural Diplomacy, Teen Beat-style. Actually, this was apparently quite common at the Kazakh shopping mall. We had some time to kill, so we all wandered around the mall. After about 30 minutes in the mall, I had enough, and decided that I would rather masochistically see how long I could stand in the sub zero temperatures without a coat than spend another minute stuck in a shopping mall.
Later that evening, the Dellas performed in the middle of the mall. There were some continued sound problems, but the Dellas got through it. There were probably about 350 or so people who congregated on various floors to watch the show. Meanwhile, kids started coming onto the floor to dance. One boy in particular was a star. He looked to be about six or so, and would slowly and rhythmically move his arms and legs before diving onto the floor to literally hump the floor. It took every ounce of fiber for the Dellas not to start cracking up. We later found out that the kid’s father was the manager of the entire mall. I guess if your dad runs the show, you can hump the mall.
The Dellas finished their show and were joined by the Kazakh band from the night prior. The mall erupted when they did the traditional Kazakh song “Illigay” and scores of people were singing along. After their show, the folk group performed as well. After the show and the requisite rock star mob of pictures, we went out with the musicians for dinner at a local Kazakh restaurant. We had plates of local fare including plov (pilaf), langman (long, thick noodles with meat and peppers in a red broth) and other delicious dishes. There were a table next to us of Russian-Kazakhs guys, who were next to us getting hammered. The restaurant doubled as a club, and at some point Gangnam-style came on and we joined them dancing on the dance floor. I think they were convinced that an angel had sent them a bevy of American girls to dance with, they were so happy. It was a hysterical affair. Oh, Gangnam-style and your global ubiquity.
We treated the Kazakh musicians to dinner, which they greatly appreciated, and the Russians tried to keep the girls to stick around, even going so far as playing Gangnam-style again.
The following day we flew back to Almaty for an afternoon off. Our flight kept got delayed a bit, which bit into our free evening in Almaty. We met my friend Adam, who had arranged for the girls to meet a traditional dombro luthier. We hopped gypsy cabs, which was an experience in its own fashion. A gypsy cab, if I haven’t previously explained, is just a regular car that picks you up for a ride, and you give a lil money for the ride. It’s basically hitchhiking for a small fee. We had to take two cabs, so I went with 2 girls, while Adam took another girl. Adam had given the driver directions, but at some point he asked in Russian whether to go left or right. 50/50 chance, luckily I chose correctly.
We went with Adam into the music university, into the luthier shop of a master and his apprentices. Covered in saw dust, and filled with dombros in various stages of completion, the place was amazing. The white-haired old master welcomed us into his studio with charm. .
Adam and he chatted for a while, and Adam translated for us about the instruments and his craft. Adam brought out the dombro that he had bought years prior from the old master, and handed back to him his craftwork. The old master played a number of tunes for us, his wizened fingers flying up and down the neck and across the two strings. He played for us songs of the steppes, one in particular about two ponies running. I closed my eyes and could hear the playful ponies frolicking across the terrain.
Then Adam brought out his beautiful rawap, a long-necked stringed instrument with a snakes skin-covered base that he got when he lived in Kashgar in Western China. Kashgar is home to the Turkic Uigher community that is fighting for its independence (East Turkestan) from China. Adam played us a tune to show us the musical difference between the steppes and the desert-oasis area of Kashgar. While one rhythmically ran across the plains, the other slowly basked in the oasis.
While the girls played on the beautiful instruments, I watched the apprentices whittle, sand and shape the wood that would become the beautiful dombros.
After a fascinating cultural evening, we took a nice walk through the snow and grabbed some Thai food, which was a welcome curry and tofu change from everything else we had been dining on.