This article was published in Open Central Asia magazine, Summer 2009.
Saffia Farr travelled deep into the remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan to discover exactly what life is like for its nomadic shepherds.
Aida had the high flat cheekbones typical of her race. She was thirty-five years old and had spent her life as a cowboy in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Her face was testament to this; her skin burnished by the elements, her eyes narrowed against the sun. She lived the traditional rural Kyrgyz existence, travelling each year with her parents and then her husband into the jailoo, high summer pastures, to herd horses, sheep and cows. In Kyrgyzstan the horse is revered for its strength and movement, the freedom it gives nomads to roam vast distances through their land. Folklore tells of children born into the saddle and Aida’s almost were; her first son arriving two months premature after another long day at work.
Aida took me to her parents’ jailoo in Chong Kemin valley, northern Kyrgyzstan. They were guarding former President Akayev’s brother’s sheep in pastures tucked under snow caps. Kyrgyz shepherds are semi nomadic. They winter in villages on the valley floor and ride up into the jailoos in late May or June. Traditionally they take their homes with them, round felt tents called yurts constructed with concertina wooden frames. Sadly for my romantic notions of nomadic life, it appeared that yurts were losing popularity to stone hovels and shacks of corrugated asbestos. Pastures were being rented rather than occupied according to family custom and lessees were told they could build structures as long as they removed them at the lease end. As a result, hillsides were marred by skeletons of bricks and rusting railway carriages rather than dotted with unobtrusive yurts.
By the time we arrived with Aida’s parents it was late and dark and we were distressed to discover that they already had visitors – their esteemed boss and his friends who were on a traditional health retreat: drinking mare’s milk every two hours; breathing fresh mountain air and abstaining from vodka. Kyrgyz hospitality is legendary so rather than being sent back down the mountain, Aida guided us across the river to a friend’s yurt. Here Meles and Nazgul looked after Akayev’s yaks with their young children, Daniel and Elina and adolescent nephews, Kerimbek and Marat.
Despite the whole family being asleep we were generously invited in. We knelt around a low table in the shadows of an oil lamp while the children breathed evenly and obliviously around us. It was warm and cosy, the stove on which the kettle was boiling taking the chill from the damp night air. The family’s few possessions hung from the wooden frame; clothes, toothbrushes and two shotguns. Kitchen equipment was stored in a separate asbestos shack. A trunk called a sunduk, traditional furniture of nomads, was piled fortuitously with spare eiderdowns.
Nazgul sat with the kettle and served tea. There was no need to ask for more. She watched carefully and if you had not sipped recently, reached out for your bowl which she half filled, polite tradition so that the tea did not cool before you drank it. Meles pressed food on us; round, unleavened loaves of lepioshka, bowls of rancid butter, thick cream and plates of cold mutton, the cut of which was difficult to determine in the lamplight. We toasted our safe arrival with koumys, mare’s milk fermented in a barrel and drunk in quantities by Kyrgyz. It tasted of stale cheese and fizzed like champagne. Fearing unwanted trips to an unknown toilet, I sipped hesitantly.
Once our hosts were satisfied we’d eaten enough the spare eiderdowns were rolled out as our beds. To save awkwardness Meles moved to our tent, as did the eldest nephew whose brown eyes had been widening above his covers at the sound of such a western contraption. It amazed me that Nazgul and Meles thought nothing of serving tea then shifting their beds to make room for four unexpected foreigners. In our paranoid society we’d call the police if strangers arrived demanding accommodation. Nomads think only of the harsh conditions of the mountains and welcome everyone in.
I lay snugly and gratefully in my sleeping bag, enjoying the warmth of the stove and sounds of nomadic life: barking dogs; shots fired across the valley to deter wolves and the whimpers of children as they turned in their sleep. The air smelt comfortingly of milk and wood smoke and the curve of the red rafters made me feel safely cocooned. I looked up to the round tunduk above me, the apex of the yurt criss-crossed by parallel lines, symbol of Kyrgyzstan on the national flag. With the koumys barrel pressing against my feet I drifted off to sleep, seduced by the romance of it all.
For Nazgul there was little romance. I heard her rise at 5.30am and watched as she tied her headscarf, stoked the fire and left to milk the mares. Through the door my first tantalising glimpse of snow capped mountain tempted me out into the dawn. An orange glow delineated jagged ridges at the top of the valley and across the roaring river sheep bleated as they spread over the hillside, watched by a solitary herdsman.
I walked to a stream and looked back at the yurt where Nazgul and Meles eked out an existence from the land. It was surrounded by mud and muck, horses penned behind and baby yaks tethered in front. There were no vegetables, no fruits – Elina sucked insistently at the oranges we brought until they’d gone – no deviation from the diet of bread, rice and meat; no variety of scenery, work or company and no escape from the proximity of the violent elements. Up here with them at 2500 metres I could appreciate how the vast soaring dimensions of uninterrupted grass, so beautiful to me because of its remoteness, could become oppressively lonely. It was easy for me to enjoy washing in icy melt water because soon I would be going down to hot showers and the cacophony of distractions which make us so stressed and exhausted.
Our hosts worked hard to keep the home alive. Nazgul and Aida boiled tea and rice for breakfast, Meles chopped wood and mended a fence. Marat and Kerimbek, taken into adulthood early by responsibility, rode up through a cleft in the hillside to check the yaks. Every two hours Nazgul subserviently milked a mare, kneeling at the rounded belly while Meles held the head, jets of white liquid drumming into her pail. Akayev and his friends sat expectantly on a long, low bench, holding out their mugs for the warm milk. Each downed their share, telling us it would cleanse their digestive systems, warning us not to try too much for the effects were immediate and we had a long journey home.
We left after breakfast, knowing each minute we stayed imposed further chores on the family. Aida’s son, who’d escaped the clutches of his grandmother across the valley, begged to be allowed to return to the village. He was cold, bothered by sores on his cheeks and tired of sleeping with eight others in a draughty yurt.
“Do you think this life will continue?” I asked Aida. “Will your son follow the path of you and your parents?”
“While there are herds they will need to be taken to the summer pasture,” she replied, “and while there are no other jobs the young people have no choice but to take that work.” As we drove away the yurts became small white dots in a crease of the valley, dwarfed by the magnitude of the mountains they clung to. I wondered, as we turned a corner and they were lost to view; if I return next year, will they be there?