Almost sinking into a well led us to our best adventure yet- our saviours invited us to their Yurt for a truly Kazakh experience.
Marat, the farmer who’d pulled our car out of a well, motioned for us to park next to the tractor outside the yurt. We introduced ourselves to the other two Kazakhs who worked on the farm. The first one with a golden grin was Misha. The older man with the happy face and toothless grin was Koudaci.
They ushered us inside for tea. The yurt was white on the outside, but inside the walls were lined with brightly coloured rugs. It was maybe four metres across, not huge but felt quite spacious. There were three mattresses on the floor by the walls and a low, round table in the middle. The yurt was warm inside and had a smokey wood fire smell. Marat, Misha and Koudaci live in the yurt when they are looking after their herds of sheep and cows.
We sat on the floor around the table and Marat set to work brewing the tea. Tea is made in a traditional urn and is drunk consistently throughout the day. The bottom chamber of the urn is filled with water and a small fire is built in the narrow chamber that runs down the middle. The fire heats the water in the bottom and a small teapot with a strong brew is kept hot on the top of the urn. Tea is drunk from small bowls rather than cups which are filled, half with the strong brew, and topped up with the boiling water from the bottom of the urn.
Marat offered bread to accompany our tea and placed a bowl of mystery meat before us. It didn’t look particularly appetising. The meat was on the bone, looked quite fatty and was coated in a white sauce we could only assume was some kind of mayonnaise. We asked what it was.
“It is delicacy” replied Marat, and then he tried to impersonate the animal we were about to consume. We weren’t completely sure but decided it must have been the ground squirrel we’d been seeing around. Oh well, when in Kazakhstan! We lined up a piece of bread as a chaser for what could be potentially horrible but must look like it is being enjoyed. We each took a piece of ‘delicacy’, popped it in our mouths and began chewing. Apart from the fatty bits it was actually not as horrible as we imagined. It tasted like a cold, gamey meat. A small amount was quite enough though. We washed it down with bread and tea and when offered more, politely insisted we were full.
It was quite late by this stage so we asked Marat if it would be alright if we put our tent up next to his yurt. He tried to insist we sleep in the yurt but as we’d already contaminated their well we certainly couldn’t deny them their beds as well.
We set up our ‘portable palace’ and used our hosts’ wood fire stove to cook up a mince, vegetable and rice dish for everyone. We soon established that they were not strict Muslims and the vodka came out! Marat produced six shot glasses and we toasted to the day’s adventures and new friends. We spent the evening chatting in Russian, English and sign language and as the vodka disappeared we found we could understand each other more and more! I told Marat of my wish to go horse riding in Kazakhstan. He said his friend had a horse and he would take us there in the morning. How exciting, our disaster of a day had turned into the best adventure yet!
The next morning Marat insisted,”You should stay another night, I will invite friends and we will slaughter a sheep for dinner.” How could we refuse such generous and friendly hospitality?
After a breakfast of tea, bread, and salami we jumped in the car and drove a couple of kilometres to the next farm, where we found Marat’s friend with his horse tending a mixed herd of sheep and cows. He hopped off his horse and handed me the reins. She was a beautiful bay coloured mare and, although she didn’t object, she wasn’t particularly excited by the whole thing and refused to go faster than a trot. It was great fun none the less and Chuck was able to have his first horse ride ever!
Once we’d all had a bit of a ride we headed to the local village to stock up on vodka for the evening. The tiny magazine (shop) in a local village is definitely the place to purchase your vodka. We bought two bottles of Kazakh branded vodka for about three dollars a bottle! We were beginning to love this country. We headed back to the yurt for a lunch of bread and sautéed wild mushrooms, a species we’d seen growing in the fields and can grow to the size of a car wheel! They were the best mushrooms I’ve ever tasted, even better accompanied by a little lunch time vodka.
In the afternoon our smily sheep herder arrived with his horse and he, Phil, Chuck and Koudaci went off in the Hilux to catch the sheep for our dinner. They found a herd of sheep in a field (I imagine they were owned by Marat or the herder) and they chased the sheep around until Koudaci was able to grab one.
They tied the sheep’s feet and put it in a hessian bag so it couldn’t move around in the boot of the car. Back near the yurt the herder removed it from the bag, and said a prayer before slitting its throat. We waited while it bled out- bright red blood gushing out onto the surrounding green grass. Once it was dead it was hung up by the hind feet and the herder proceeded to skin, gut and butcher the animal. The whole process was complete in just 20 minutes. It was done with such incredible skill, it was amazing to watch.
It was quite a large sheep and Chuck was completely overwhelmed when they handed him a massive bucket of meat and told him to cook it! He’d never had to deal with so many different parts of the animal and in such large quantities. Thankfully they took a lot of the meat to make a big stew and Chuck was left with the chore of making shashlyk (flame grilled meat on skewers) which involves cutting the meat into relatively small chunks.
The vodka came back out and we ate our first round of shashlyk at around 5pm. This was followed by a second round of shashlyk- already we were beginning to tire of meat. Next we drank broth from the meat stew that had been cooking for a couple of hours. It was delicious but again, very meaty.
Delicate sheep arse
Then Marat’s friends and Misha’s family turned up for a dinner party. There was another round of shashlyk, more bread, more vodka, and besbarmak, a traditional Kazakh meal of flat pasta, meat and vegetable broth made by Misha’s wife. The sheep that had been slaughtered was a particular breed that has a prominent bulbous backside. The arse is considered a delicacy. (I’m a little weary of things considered a delicacy, as it tends to imply that it is something odd and perhaps an acquired taste.) The arse of this sheep, which had been boiling in the broth, was sliced up over the besbarmak and we were told to dig in! Besbarmak is traditionally served on one giant plate in the centre of the table and everyone sits around and eats off the plate using only fingers. It was fun to feel like we were part of a traditional Kazakh family, and even eating sheep arse wasn’t too bad in small doses. It tasted nice, but the texture was a little hard to take being quite blubbery, but washed down with vodka, quite manageable!
A few bottles of vodka and far too much meat later and we said goodnight to all our new friends having thoroughly enjoyed our day in the Kazakh countryside. We were woken the next morning to Marat calling out “Phil, Chuck, Sammi! Hello!” We opened the door of the tent to find Marat dangling a dead critter through the door at us. “Sor!” He said. This was the mystery meat we had eaten the day of our rescue. It looked like a gofer but we later learned that it was a marmot. Luckily at the time we had no idea that central Asian marmots could be carriers of the bubonic plague. We just thought it was an interesting way to be woken.
Koudaci set about skinning it so they could eat it later. They wanted us to stay longer, it seemed Marat had grown quite attached to the stupid foreigners that fell in his well. Unfortunately Phil had a flight to England to catch the next day from Astana so we had to push on.
We had one last round of tea and shashlyk and said goodbye to some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve ever met. It was certainly the best way we could have imagined starting our Kazakhstan adventures. We weren’t allowed to leave without taking some meat with us (there was still almost half a sheep left). We tried not to look at the bags of meat we were given as we left feeling happy, stuffed, and craving a meal of only vegetables!