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.

News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate / Trainee Sales Executive

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate/Trainee Sales Executive is re...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer - Peterborough - £18,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Cambridgeshire - £23,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Front-End Develo...

Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn