Posts Tagged Lake Issyk-Kul

Day 33 – another half-ready kobuz nestled like a hibernating wild animal

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“It looked like a tree trunk”

For some time now we have been traveling from one Central Asian city to the next, in search of sometimes elusive musicians. It comes as something of a shock to find myself in dramatic mountain scenery within an hour of leaving Almaty. Seemingly vertical surfaces of rock carry the eye upward, to the hazy skyline.

We are camped by a stream in a beautiful valley, this feels like the first opportunity I’ve had to reflect on our journey. Thirty days on the road is a long time in some ways, but it has been a whirlwind tour. I would have been happy to spend weeks visiting any one of the musicians we’ve encountered. I have the impression of being allowed a brief glimpse into a fascinating and absorbing world.

Thinking about Raushan’s kobuz playing yesterday, its directness and simplicity, I felt the urge to improvise a piece about being here in the mountains. I have with me a simple three-holed flute from Africa, which seems the perfect instrument. It’s not every day you get to play in a concert hall like this. The wind carries the sound away very quickly and I feel small in such a vast location. It seems appropriate though – being here gives a sense of perspective on life.

33childs.gifWe had been told that the ‘village of the masters’ was one hour from Almaty. When Nomadmobile 4 set off we were unreliably informed that the village was over a 3000 metre pass. Looking forward to a spectacular ride through the Alatau mountains the Musical Nomad cavalcade started up. After what seemed like twenty minutes we turn off the main road across a small stream and up a steep rocky slope. Two large yellow apartment blocks and a small row of houses nestle in an avenue of electricity pylons. “This is the masters village” the driver informed us. My image of wooden shacks on a wooded hillside was immediately shattered. As soon as we switched off the engine several men began to display carpets and silver ware in the road outside the larger of the two apartments. The crafts are good quality and I bought a rug. Gradually a crowd of village children gathered and we become the centre of attention on a dull Saturday afternoon. They were confused by our presence – this place obviously doesn’t get many visitors.

33toleg.gifA man resembling Shayhk Kushkarov of Day 20 suddenly appeared and amongst his Kazak I recognise the word kobuz. I say Raushan’s name and immediately we have connected. The housing block is home to a community of craftspeople. Tolegen Sarsenbaev, the kobuz maker invites us in to his simple abode. He has a very friendly face, bearded with deep passionate eyes. I immediately sensed his creativity and devotion to his craft. This was a man used to working in harmony with nature. Three large rooms operate as workshop, bedroom , living room, artist studio and kitchen. A tree-trunk in his studio serves as a stand for his musical instruments which he says charges them with energy . He seems to understand why we have come and begins laying out half made kobuz’s all over the living room floor. They look wonderful. Variations on a theme for sure but in their raw state they have an embryonic perfection, living things almost ready. Another partially ready piece which caught my attention was a kobuz case. This looked like a tree trunk and inside another half ready kobuz nestled like a hibernating wild animal.

33toleg2.gifTolegen told me that most of his kobuz’s are designed on the theme of wild animals. He had a bird, a camel and a owl. The profile of the instruments were indeed animal-like. Tolegen described the shape of the soundboard, which on most instruments resembles a heart with a trench underneath. He said this helped the sound to flow from the bottom of the instrument into the centre enabling it to project forwards. He seemed enthusiastic to talk about the technical aspects of his work. I asked him about Raushan’s instrument, particlarly the fingerboard and the lifted nut. He said this was an experiment many years ago and Raushan had requested it particularly for her ‘cuticle’ technique we mentioned yesterday. He was keen to talk about the uses of his instruments and mentioned how the kobuz is a favourite of Shaman for inducing trance like states. He didn’t have a finished instrument to play to us so I showed him my kyl-kyiak which produced some amusement. He refused to play it saying it was ‘imitation kobuz’ So much for Kazak-Kyrgyz relations.

33tolpnt.gifWe also talked about Tolegen’s passionate interest in Shamanistic rituals and his recent meeting with a Shaman, Temish, in Kyrgyzstan at Lake Issyk-Kul. He met Temish when he stayed in the house of Ama, an ‘old and wise babushka’ who is teaching Temish all about the ancient traditions of zikr and Shamanic dances. Tolegen is now making a kobuz for Temish this is the instrument that Shamans used to play in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan during zikr’s. I was surprised to hear of Shaman rituals which include zikr. Zikr is an Arabic word used to describe a specific Sufi practice. Perhaps this supports Shaykh Kushkarov’s assertion that the two traditions are connected in Central Asia.

33camp.gifTolegen is keen to join a zikr next month for which he will hike across the river Yur-Kemin and the Kungey Alatau mountain range (over 4000m high) into Kyrgyzstan and then hitch a lift along Lake Issyk-Kul. I’m interested to know which of the instruments I’ve seen in his workshop is intended for Temish – I’m told he chose one shaped like a bird in flight – a metaphor for the animal spirit.

As we make camp a competition soon emerges for best attempt at rigging a tent. Paul’s team wins hands down, predictably with help from the girl guides. I take advantage of the ‘cold and cold’ running water and avail myself of that handy bush. Gary is in seventh heaven as he plays his Krygyz Komuz and rigs his satellite next to his tent. His feet grounded in the stream, at last a long way from a power point.


As the evening shadows shape new contours into the eternal hills, this is definitely a place to make music. I’m sure tomorrow will bring us closer to the nomad spirit of these Kazak people. We will camp near some mountain villages and via our new interpreter Moldira attempt a dialogue with their remote inhabitants. The musical nomad has truly landed….. ‘When you sleep outside your thoughts are as high as the stars’.

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Day 29 – Home Cooking on the Road to Issyk-Kul

29road.gifMy journey covers over 3500 miles mostly by road. Today I set out for Lake Issyk-Kul, a resort area famous for its mineral rich water. I am told the road is bad. Nomadmobile 2 has left us and I anxiously wait to see how much further we can descend into highway hell. With trepidation I look-out from our apartment and behold an apparition. A brand new Chevrolet Winnebago mobile home – it even has a fridge! The only problem is our ton of satellite equipment – this is precariously balanced in a plywood bulkhead over my head. One bump too many and I’m an ex-Nomad.

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On the way to Balykchy to meet our musician Saparbek Kasmambetov we stopped off for a visit at Barchagul’s house (the mother-in-law of Gulnaz our interpreter). I always enjoy visiting local houses as it gives the truest insight into the way of life. Barchagul invited us in for chai, which turned out to be chai, bread, chips, jam, yogurt, bread etc. We should have guessed by now.

Barchagul is a special lady. Besides being a doctor she lives in a typical rural house and keeps sheep, chickens, rabbits as well as growing fruit and veg. 29jaws.gifThe gardens are full of produce and conserves and pickles were being made in readiness for the winter. No doubt the family work very hard but it is an enviable life. All the food is fresh, the bread homemade and the milk straight from the cow. Barchagul played us her jaws harp (Krygyz call these temir ooz komuz). The jaws harp was kept in a beautiful wooden box handmade by her husband. As we left their house laden with apples and pickles, Barchagul presented the instrument to Kathrin, saying ‘it’s a women’s instrument’. Once again the hospitality overwhelms us.

I am soon engulfed in beautiful precipitous mountains, blue and snow capped. To the left a desert town

29jbeach.gifTashblak – ‘the land of stones’, to my right a motorway services with a difference. Joe’s Yurt Cafe is a surreal mix – fizzy American cola and traditional chai both served in a bozui (Krygyz Yurt literally meaning ‘white house’). The waitresses are dressed for a Manhattan disco and outside a stuffed Ibex succumbs to the moths.

I’m due to meet the musician Saparbek but on arrival in Balykchy, I receive the sad news that he unexpectedly had to go to hospital in Biskek. His son tells me it is not too serious and I will see him in Biskek tomorrow – all part of life’s rich tapestry.

Instead I sample Lake Iyssk-Kul – it’s wonderfully relaxing swimming surrounded by Alpine-like peaks. When I emerge I experience a bout of the shivers – apparently this is normal – a lady from one of the bozui gives me some free chai and a blanket and I soon recover.


Tomorrow back to Biskek in the imperial Nomadmobile and the wonderful music of Kasmabetov.

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