He had strict instructions from the groom: ‘Stay away from the bridesmaid.’ Here’s what happened next

Ariff Hassan arrived at the wedding under strict instructions: “Stay away from the bridesmaid.”

It was August 2018. Ariff had traveled from his home in Singapore to Kazakhstan to attend the wedding of an old friend.

This friend, like Ariff, had grown up in Malaysia. They’d been close back in the day, but lost touch when Ariff moved to the UK in early adulthood. When Ariff relocated to Singapore, the two friends reconnected, and then the wedding invite followed.

Ariff was touched and honored to make the guest list. Plus, his friend’s soon-to-be wife was from Kazakhstan – the couple had met in Kuala Lumpur – and the celebrations were set to take place in Kazakhstan’s largest city: Almaty.

A keen traveler, Ariff never turned down the opportunity to explore somewhere new. Right away, he RSVPed “yes.”

“I’d been to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan before, and I thought, ‘I’ve not been to Kazakhstan. When else am I going to go?” Ariff tells CNN Travel today.

Ariff’s friend was delighted that Ariff could make his celebrations. But before the big day, the friend took Ariff aside and gave him a firm warning. “The bridesmaid” was his fiancée’s cousin. Ariff’s friend wanted to avoid a potentially messy family situation, especially as he figured Ariff wasn’t after anything serious.

“Listen,” said Ariff’s friend. “I know you don’t want to get married. And I don’t want to have any problems later, with my extended family. So just give her a wide berth, OK?”

Ariff laughed, but he agreed. Anyway, he wasn’t going to the wedding to meet women – he just wanted to cheer on his friend on his big day, and experience a new country and culture.

In the week leading up to the wedding, the bride and groom planned daily activities for their wedding guests – many of whom, like Ariff, were in Kazakhstan for the first time.

Ariff liked Almaty right away. He recalls thinking the city seemed like “a great mix of old Soviet architecture and modern shiny buildings, quiet alleys and parks, and busy bars and restaurants.”

“It is surrounded by beautiful mountains,” he adds. “We had the chance to stay in a chalet up there for a few days, where the views were absolutely breathtaking.”

Then, the night before the wedding, Ariff attended a dinner hosted by the bride’s side of the family.

And that’s when he saw Liliya Dauletaliyeva for the first time.

“I remember Lili walked in,” says Ariff. She stood out to him right away.

“She was wearing a check shirt. All the other girls were wearing evening dresses.”

Over dinner, Liliya was friendly, chatty and at the center of most of the conversations. To Ariff, she projected self-confidence.

“She was doing the translating, between Russian and English, for everybody’s benefit,” Ariff recalls.

But when Liliya approached Ariff and tried to make conversation, Ariff made only noncommittal, vague and decidedly awkward responses.

He really wanted to talk to Liliya, find out more about her. But Ariff’s friend’s warning was ringing round his head.

Because Liliya was – of course, inevitably – the bridesmaid Ariff had been warned to stay away from.

Ariff was warned to
Ariff was warned to "stay away" from Liliya. But the two couldn't ignore their chemistry. - Ariff Hassan and Liliya Dauletaliyeva

Back in 2018, Liliya Dauletaliyeva, born and raised in Almaty, was in her early 20s and living in the Kazakh capital of Astana. She’d recently finished up her bachelor’s degree and enrolled in a master’s program. Liliya was firmly focused on her studies and “not planning to get married” any time soon.

When she wasn’t working late in the library, Liliya was planning future travels. She loved exploring the world, and prioritized adventures whenever she could. She’d just got back from a trip to Iceland, and was looking forward to her cousin’s wedding partly because she’d get to meet a bunch of people from across the world.

At the pre-wedding dinner, Liliya noticed her cousin’s fiancé only had a couple of friends who’d flown in for the celebrations. One of the guys seemed outgoing and talkative. The other – Ariff – seemed more reserved. Liliya wondered if he was shy, or perhaps nervous.

“I know a lot of people, their first impression of Kazakhstan, it might be a bit of a cultural shock,” Liliya tells CNN Travel. “So I thought that he must be feeling a bit weird – or maybe even awkward because he just reconnected with his friend that he hadn’t seen for ages.”

Liliya tried to talk to Ariff to make him feel “more comfortable.” But she approached him, his eyes widened and he seemed even more awkward than before.

“I didn’t talk back,” says Ariff. “I had instructions to follow.”

The wedding the next day was “an almost 12-hour affair,” as Ariff recalls.

“A Kazah wedding is very different from a Southeast Asian wedding,” he says. “A lot of drinks and a lot of dancing.”

It was a great day, and when the celebrations wrapped up at around 1 a.m., the party continued at a nearby hotel.

“There was a huge karaoke venue at that hotel,” says Liliya. “And so all the young people – the bridesmaids and the friends and family, we all went there.”

That’s how, in the early hours of the morning, Ariff and Liliya found themselves sitting side by side in the karaoke bar.

“And that’s when we started talking, “ says Liliya. “After all this singing and drinking and dancing. We just sat down and talked.”

After “eight or nine hours of drinking” Ariff was no longer preoccupied about his friend’s warning.

“The instructions went out the window,” he says.

Ariff and Liliya got chatting at the wedding after party. Here they are pictured later on in Cappadocia, Turkey. - Ariff Hassan and Liliya Dauletaliyeva
Ariff and Liliya got chatting at the wedding after party. Here they are pictured later on in Cappadocia, Turkey. - Ariff Hassan and Liliya Dauletaliyeva

At first, Liliya and Ariff talked about Kazakhstan. Liliya asked Ariff what he thought of her home country, commenting that Ariff seemed to be one of very few friends of the groom who’d traveled for the wedding.

“Why did you decide to come?” she asked him. “I know many people are like, ‘Oh Kazakhstan, what is this place? Why would we go there?’”

“I like adventures,” said Ariff. “I love traveling and exploring new countries.”

Ariff mentioned the wedding invite had come through when he was planning a trip to Iceland. He’d abandoned those plans, and prioritized Kazakhstan instead.

“I told him that I just came back from Iceland a couple of months before,” recalls Liliya. “We realized that we both love traveling. And then just started talking about all these adventures and travel plans, where we want to go…”

Liliya and Ariff spent the rest of the evening deep in conversation, but parted ways without exchanging contact details. Still, Ariff was hopeful they might see each other again – following the Kazak wedding, Ariff’s friend and Liliya’s cousin had a second wedding celebration planned in Malaysia in a few weeks time. Ariff figured Liliya, as a bridesmaid, would likely be there, although he didn’t know for sure.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about her,” he said. “I tried to figure out how to contact her without obviously asking my friend or his wife for help – because, you know, the instructions were to stay away from the cousin.”

In the end, Ariff tracked Liliya down on Facebook and dropped her a friend request and a message:

“Hey, I hear you’re coming to Malaysia this weekend for the second leg of the wedding,” he wrote. “If you’d like to hang out or something, here’s my number.”

“And then we did hang out,” says Ariff.

It was a fun few days – Ariff showed Liliya his favorite places in Kuala Lumpur and recalls that they “were quite excited to see each other.”

Still, it wasn’t obvious where their connection would go from there.

“I’m not a fan of long distance,” says Liliya. “I kept thinking, ‘Maybe we can be friends.’”

Before she left Malaysia, Liliya – on a whim – invited Ariff to come and visit Kazakhstan again, in a month’s time, for her 24th birthday party.

“I obviously sat on the decision for about a week and a half, because I thought, ‘I’ve just been there,’” recalls Ariff.

He remembers turning the idea over in his mind. Ariff really liked Liliya and wanted to see her again. But traveling across the world on a bit of a whim seemed “crazy.”

“I was kind of hesitating to go, because I thought, ‘This is insanity,’” says Ariff.

Ariff mentioned the dilemma to an older family friend whose opinion he trusted. Ariff’s confidant told him that, some 40 years ago he’d “missed an opportunity with a girl” and still regretted it to that day.

“He was like, ‘Don’t be me. Go and live your life,’” Ariff recalls.

So Ariff put aside his hesitations and embarked on the 19-hour journey to visit Liliya.

“I took three planes,” he recalls. “Singapore to Bangkok, Bangkok to Almaty, Almaty to Astana.”

“I remember I went to pick him up from the airport,” Liliya says. “I was so nervous. I called my friends and I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. Why did I even agree to that? What did I sign up for? This guy, I only saw him for like, four or five days.’”

Liliya wondered what she and Ariff were going to talk about, what were they going to do together, would it be awkward?

But as soon as they were together again, Liliya and Ariff’s respective worries melted away.

“We literally spent every single day together. He stayed for 10 days. And every minute that I was not in school, we tried to spend together,” says Liliya. “It was so much fun.”

Liliya also felt heartened that Ariff had followed through – she’d invited him, he’d said he’d come, and then he did.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘That’s the person that keeps his word, that you can rely on.’ I started thinking, ‘I wouldn’t mind starting a relationship with a person like this.’”

After Ariff's 10 days in Kazakhstan, he and Liliya were certain about their future. - Ariff Hassan and Liliya Dauletaliyeva
After Ariff's 10 days in Kazakhstan, he and Liliya were certain about their future. - Ariff Hassan and Liliya Dauletaliyeva

By the end of the 10 days, both Liliya and Ariff were certain about their future.

“That first trip, we decided we were going to get married,” says Ariff.

It wasn’t really a formal conversation, says Liliya: “We were just having dinner and talking.”

Neither of them had been looking for love, let alone marriage. But after meeting each other, Ariff and Liliya were sure they wanted to be together, and to commit to a life side by side.

They knew the whole thing was “pretty nuts,” as Ariff puts it today. But they were confident in their feelings and in each other.

A month later, in October, Liliya went with Ariff to visit his parents in Malaysia. That Christmas, Ariff’s mother invited Liliya on a family trip to the UK. Ariff’s parents liked Liliya right away – and, certain marriage was on the cards, Ariff’s mother suggested she and Liliya go shopping for wedding dresses while they were in London.

Lilya and Ariff wanted to avoid extended periods of long distance, so around this time Liliya decided to quit her master’s degree and move to Singapore to be with Ariff.

“Obviously my family didn’t approve,” says Liliya. “But I thought, ‘You know what, I can get my master’s in Malaysia or Singapore, and that’s probably an even better option. It’s not a big deal.’”

In general Liliya and Ariff’s friends and loved ones were supportive, but a little concerned about the speed at which the romance was moving.

“It was really fast,” admits Liliya. “Some of my friends, they’re still shocked. They’re like, ‘He hadn’t even proposed and his mom took you to pick a wedding dress.’”

Liliya and Ariff shrugged off the concerns, and in December 2018, Liliya moved to Singapore. A couple of months later, Ariff formally proposed, on Valentine’s Day 2019.

The couple liked the idea of a “a very small, intimate wedding,” says Liliya. “Just friends and family members, somewhere fun.”

“Maybe somewhere in the Mediterranean, a bit of a party with friends,” says Ariff.

This dream wasn’t to be.

“Parents had different ideas,” says Ariff, laughing.

Ariff and Liliya ended up with several wedding celebrations – a small ceremony to sign the legal papers in April 2019, followed by a 300-person wedding in Malaysia in the summer “with a lot of food and alcohol” and another big party in Kazakhstan.

Amid all the planning – and parental negotiations – Ariff and Liliya took a break and went on a pre-wedding honeymoon.

“It was great to go on a honeymoon before. We picked places where it was very hard to reach us,” says Ariff.

The couple returned from their vacation refreshed and ready to enjoy the August 2019 celebrations.

Ariff and Liliya got married in 2019, enjoying multiple wedding celebrations including a big party in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where this photo was taken. -  Ariff Hassan and Liliya Dauletaliyeva
Ariff and Liliya got married in 2019, enjoying multiple wedding celebrations including a big party in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where this photo was taken. - Ariff Hassan and Liliya Dauletaliyeva

Liliya and Ariff Kazakhstan wedding celebration incorporated a number of Kazakh traditions.

“We had ‘qyz uzatu,’ a Kazakh traditional ceremony where the bride is sent off from her parental home to the groom’s family, marked by a farewell party attended by close relatives and friends,” says Liliya.

“The event includes ceremonial rites, blessings from elders, presenting gifts to the groom’s family, and the singing of traditional Kazakh songs. Parents give their blessings and advice to the bride.”

The Malaysian celebration also included “recitations of prayers and blessings, a traditional meal, and an exchange of gifts,” says Liliya.

All of the celebrations were “a blast,” says Ariff. There was lots of laughter, and moving moments too. The family friend who encouraged Ariff to take a risk and visit Liliya was one of the witnesses when the couple signed the papers. Meanwhile, friends from across the world came to celebrate with the couple – including, of course, Ariff’s childhood friend and Liliya’s cousin, who’d unwittingly kicked off Ariff and Liliya’s love story the year before.

“I don’t have any siblings, but I grew up with my cousin,” says Liliya. “We are very close. So obviously she came to both our weddings, and we’re still super close.”

Ariff’s friend had forgiven him for breaking his promise to “stay away from the bridesmaid.” But he still worried, right up until the wedding, that it wouldn’t work out.

“I think my friend was very stressed until we got married, until we legally signed the papers because he was like, ‘Please don’t mess it up,’” says Ariff.

“Now we’re all part of one big family,” says Liliya.

Ariff and Liliya love traveling together. Here they are in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. - Ariff Hassan and Liliya Dauletaliyeva
Ariff and Liliya love traveling together. Here they are in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. - Ariff Hassan and Liliya Dauletaliyeva

Post-wedding, Liliya and Ariff settled into an easy rhythm in their relationship.

The couple “don’t have many cultural differences,” says Liliya, even though they grew up in different countries.

“We quickly learned that Kazakh and Malay cultures are very similar, both emphasizing the importance of family, traditions, and community,” she says.

Still, they like learning new things about each other’s “history, people, food…” says Liliya. They enjoy sharing these learning moments with one another.

After a few years in Singapore, in 2021 Liliya and Ariff moved to Malaysia. And another big shift occurred last year, when Liliya decided to recommence the master’s course she quit back in 2018.

“Even after years of working, this idea of me leaving something incomplete kept bothering me, so I decided to apply again,” she says.

Liliya was excited to return to academia, but felt the associated upheaval would only be “worth it” if she was attending one of the best universities in the world.

That’s how she ended up accepting a place at the University of Oxford, in the UK. Liliya is loving the experience studying there. The only downside is she and Ariff are now contending with the long distance they actively avoided at the start of their relationship.

That is slightly “ironic,” admits Ariff. But he’s really proud of Liliya and excited for her next career steps. He visits Oxford every month, and is able to work remotely from the UK for significant chunks of time. In between, the couple video chat regularly.

“I think it’s actually much easier to have a long distance relationship when you’ve already been in this relationship for quite some time,” says Liliya.

The fact Liliya and Ariff both love traveling also makes journeying back and forth a little easier.

“We want to keep exploring the world and experience living in as many countries as possible,” says Liliya, adding they “can’t imagine their lives without the thrill of new adventures.”

“We like to take risks, both of us, daily,” says Ariff, pointing out that mindset’s woven into their love story. When they first met, they both jumped into the unknown, flying across the world to visit one another, and then deciding to be together, despite the obstacles.

Today, Liliya and Ariff find it surreal to think Liliya barely knew Ariff when she moved across the world to be with him. After five years together, they’re just as certain that they made the right choice.

And while they know each other much better, they’re still learning new things about each other. Liliya thinks that’s a big part of what it means to be in love with someone.

“It’s just a great feeling when you feel like you just met this person, because you feel like you keep rediscovering, keep learning something new every day,” she says. “It never gets boring.”

“Thinking about how all these puzzle pieces, how they all came together – I just started believing in destiny. What else can it be?”

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