Borat couldn't be further from the truth: The Central Asian Spring Festival blooms into life at UCL

1,300 students and guests in traditional garb attend a celebration of Eurasian culture

Yelden Sarybay emerges from a yurt, wearing a bandana, a heavy chain round his neck, over a gold-embroidered deep blue velvet wrap. He calmly watches as a plastic tent on the far side of UCL’s packed main quad is blown apart by London’s sharp March wind. Yelden has helped mastermind 2014’s Central Asian Spring Festival, organised by students in London from across Eurasia, hosting stalls from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Tatarstan [a republic in Russia], serving food and cultural education.

Originally from Kazakhstan and currently studying at SOAS, he has the U.S.-inflected tones of international education. “It’s fun and challenging, because we have six organising societies and its hard to co-ordinate and balance interests.” Yelden laughs. “Story of the region really, but celebrations like this unite us.”

You celebrate what you can at the moment. The Russia-Ukraine crisis has cast this former Soviet region into instability, and no-one here much wants to think about what Putin might do next. We are students, they say. It’s scary, but let the politicians deal with it. Better to enjoy the spring equinox festival of Navruz [other spellings also apply], Central Asia’s New Year party.

The celebration of Navruz can include pots of grass, sweet pastries, bowls of gold fish and boiled egg-smashing competitions, in various combinations. It was Andrey An’s idea to bring these traditions to the UK. Born in Uzbekistan, he moved to Kazakhstan at 15, and is now an investment banker. His parents are Korean. Andrey started the London Spring Festival when he was a UCL student. In 2008, it attracted about 300 people. This year there were 1,300. No longer an organiser, Andrey nonetheless likes to stay involved: “I kind of feel like it’s my little baby.”

Arailym Aukenova, President of City University’s Kazakh Society, is wearing white, symbolizing new beginnings. In a floaty dress, white fur and bare knees, the maths and finance student is a dazzling ice empress. “It’s like spring, we’re awakening,” she explains. “You feel it’s New Year. Nature is really awakening!” In the blizzard-beaten plains and mountain countries of Eurasia, you can imagine the elation. Last year the London festival got snowed on, and had to move into a hall. Happily, this time around, save a light mid-afternoon shower, sun prevails.

Arailym is passionate about sharing this celebration. “People can see how beautiful can be Kazakh girls,” she jokes, adding: “I want it to be in Trafalgar Square. I think British people should know more about this Nooruz.”

It’s true that Brits don’t know much about Central Asia, which suffers the cultural curse of Borat, a shortcut between the “-stan” suffix and a mankini. Asserting their true cultural identities, the students demonstrate traditional dances and music, a sort of classy Eurovision show featuring lots of fabulous ruffles and hats.

Ayan Sagynbek Kyzy is UCL’s sole Kyrgyzstani student. She performs on her komuz, an instrument on the spectrum between guitar, ukulele and box; her long, elegant fingers deft over the strings.

“For three years, I didn’t meet any Kyrgyzstani students,” says Ayan, which was “quite lonely”. She’d never been outside Kyrgyzstan before. “I didn’t even know you could use Oyster! I was using coins.” Last year she founded and became president of Kyrgyz Students in the UK, which has about 150 members and fund-raises for charities in Kyrgyzstan. Ayan is studying BSc economics: “I need to know how to help my country in the future.”

“I’m proud that I’m Tajiki,” says Hasan Nasimov, a business management student at Birkbeck: “We are like brothers to each other. I was grown like this, to help others.” Hasan is from the capital, Dushanbe. “It’s very beautiful, you can Google it and see.”

He adds: “Did you know we have the biggest flag in the world? It’s 163 metres. We beat the record of Guinness!”

I also didn’t know that Dushanbe has the biggest mosque in Central Asia, the biggest library, and the biggest tea house is under construction. “And we have the cleanest water in the world. People come here to buy it.” At first, Hasan found London “rainy.” “But the people are very kind, very polite.” He encouraged me to try Tajiki food. There was a dense queue for Uzbek plov, a meat and rice delicacy.

Yelden got the second-last cup of tea and stood back to watch the conga lines and Uzbek polka. “Kazakhstani students have a bad reputation in clubs,” he’d said earlier. “They like to party.” Now that this was apparent, he looked content. “It’s the spring equinox, yo. Bounce.”

Several hours later, a girl in a Chelsea-blue velvet Azerbaijani dress skips through Bloomsbury with no shoes on.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + + uncapped commission + benefits: SThree: Did you ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + benefits + uncapped commission: SThree: Did you kn...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence