A night in the world’s end of a Kazakhstan canyon, entertained by vodka, stars, and the gruesome beheading of a lamb.
About a year ago I had just moved to Kazakhstan (the land of the great steppe, or of Borat, as you’re more likely to know it for) so I was still unaware of the country’s beauties. As I landed I was welcomed by some 30° Celsius and a blue sunny sky, but I was soon warned of the drastic temperatures that were going to hit the country within a couple of months from then. That’s when I decided to visit the Charyn Canyon, one of the country’s gems, while the weather was still pleasant. I went by myself on a weekend trip and rented a bamboo hut by the river, with no toilet and no electricity. Also, I spoke literally no Russian at the time, and no need to mention the absence of signal to use translators online. At night, I decided to try my luck and seek some food at the only place where I had earlier seen signs of civilisation (basically, a few tables, a light, and booze). A small group of very kind men, including the managers of the place, excitedly told me they would provide me with food and, most importantly, with vodka. Now, the vodka came straight away. The food was a little trickier.
I’m a vegetarian, and the typical response to this statement in a big city like Almaty, where I lived, would be “Don’t worry, we also have chicken and fish for you!” Let alone in a tiny village literally in the world’s bottom. I suddenly heard what I thought was a baby crying. It got louder and louder and not very human-like, so I realised it was actually an animal going through some excruciating pain. I politely started questioning the men next to me about who was killing what, and when they finally understood I’m a vegetarian (“Me no eat animal!” was the sentence that saved me) they literally panicked, telling me there was no animal and they weren’t killing anything. When I saw a guy partly hiding behind the kitchen, about 10 metres away, violently moving his arms in the obvious process of killing what sounded like a lamb (I had improved my hearing skills in the space of a few minutes), two of the men next to me instantly ran off to tell the lamb-killer not to show me the dead animal because there was a vegetarian person (“A what?”, the lamb-killer must have thought), despite me reassuring them I was OK and I’m not faint-hearted. What happened next was priceless, although disturbing for a veg: the lamb-killer came round to the kitchen’s open area holding the poor lamb’s bloody head, while those other two guys were clumsily trying to hide it from me. Literally, walking backwards facing the lamb-killer trying to cover the head with their body!
I found it hilarious how they thought I would be uncomfortable seeing the lamb’s freshly cut bleeding head but I’d be OK seeing it served a few moments later. I didn’t mind, choices are choices, and I certainly wasn’t going to make my point using sign language. But their cruelty towards the animal was quickly followed by their kindness in trying to ‘protect’ me, and this contrast got me overwhelmed by unexplainably weird and confused feelings.
They obviously proceeded with cooking the lamb it and serving it at a big dinner (with industrial amounts of vodka) where a few more people joined, including an English-speaking Russian girl who could finally translate the deep, Kazakh politics-related conversation. I was physically very remote from the ‘normal’ world but I was surrounded by the most hospitable people, and the sky was incredibly full of stars as I had never seen it before. Moral of the story: despite the lamb-killing awkwardness of a few moments before, I enjoyed one of the most memorable nights of my life in one of the most breathtaking places I had no clue it even existed.