ALMATY -- Thousands of Kazakh families, young couples, and even an eagle fill the Old Square on the first day of Norouz.
It is the ancient festival
of the beginning of spring celebrated throughout Central Asia and Iran, where Norouz was born.
Appropriately it is a sunny spring day in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, and the crowd is in a festive mood. The eagle, linked to his keeper by a cord and sitting on his wrist, obediently flaps its wings for pictures and tries a beaky smile.
The mayor of Almaty, escorted by uniformed guards, makes his way through the throng and enters a specially raised yurt, the traditional home of nomadic tribes.
Frustrated festival goers, not knowing who is inside, begin knocking, then pushing on the door. A woman from inside sticks her head out and hisses them something akin to "Go away! The mayor is inside."
A woman offers the traditional Norouz soup, made of naturally grown ingredients.
Nearby, people are tasting the traditional Norouz soup that is made from wheat, corn, rice, beans, and other earth-grown ingredients. The recipe calls for either seven or nine ingredients, no more and no less.
Those are considered sacred numbers in Kazakh mythology. The soup has a milky fermented taste, and floating in it are some of the seven -- or maybe nine -- ingredients.
Next up on the culinary menu: thick camel's milk, reputed to be good for your health and tasting a bit like goat's milk.
The Norouz spectacle is about to begin. Two huge hot-air balloons frame the square, and in the middle is a gargantuan stage where colorfully costumed dancers and singers take their places.
An elaborate fire dance begins with dancers in gold lame giving homage to fire, a central theme of Norouz. Legend has it that fire will burn away the old so the rebirth of spring can begin. The dancers leap across the stage, punctuated by whooshes of fire. Luckily they remain unscathed.
Suddenly there are small explosions of glittering streams of tinsel that fill the square, bearing the influence of New Year's celebrations in the West.
Finally, a series of songs by prominent Kazakh singers and musicians.
Michael Jackson lookalikes take the stage.
There are musical numbers representing Tajik, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Iranian music, featuring dancers in native costume.
There is even a modern number with dancers dressed as Michael Jackson: representing perhaps his own eccentric world? Is there a rebirth implied here? No one was saying.
Continuing the festival of spring, Kazakhs will visit friends and relatives, wishing them a happy New Year.
As Kyrgyzstan celebrates Norouz, Kyrgyz women explain how to make sumalak, the traditional dish associated with the spring holiday. Play