Friday, August 25, 2006

The most beautiful pasture

August 14, 2006

I spent most of today in transit, but I made it to Son-Kul just in time to see a beautiful sunset.

It took me until lunch time before I was able to find a ride out of Tash Rabat with three French tourists. In the meantime, the large groups left and the site suddenly became quiet, remote, and beautiful. I sat outside of my yurt and listened to the sound of the birds, the splash of the taxi drivers and Nazar washing their cars, and the hum of the separator as Elizabet turned a handle and made cream.

I laid on a shyrdak and chatted idly with Elizabet and Burul, who was sewing a new shyrdak. They told me about the wolves, which descend on Tash Rabat in packs in the winter, killing 10 sheep for each one they eat. The shephards are trapped in the area by the snow, so they have to eat or discard what has been killed. A few years ago, a man from their village was killed by a wolf while setting traps for them.

When a car that looked like the police drove by and into the valley, I asked what the police could possibly be doing there. They told me it was the ecological department. At first I was impressed, thinking they were coming to monitor the nature. Then they told me that groundhog skins were valuable, selling for $4.10 each. Each of them had been given a plan of gathering 100 skins for their boss and this would affect their pay. So the ecological department was most probably out hunting the groundhogs I'd seen the day before.

Elizabet told me the legend of the groundhogs. The Kyrgyz say they were wives of a God. They didn't please the God and so he made them into groundhogs. Their squels are their constant cries.

They told me that one of the valleys Nazar and I had walked to on the way to the lake was called Sheid valley, which means: Where innocent people died. In 1916, an anti-Russian uprising took place when Russia tried to draft non-Slavs into the army to fight against Germeny. Such riots took place throughout Central Asia. During the Urkun (Exodus), at least 100,000 people are believed to have been killed during the following Russian repression or have died while trying to reach China over the mountains.

Elizabet told me that the Kyrgyz trying to escape to China in 1916 were shot there by the Russians and all buried together. They said there is a Kara-Kyrgyzski autonomous region in China, where those who escaped lived. In their region, they can see a daily Kyrgyz-Chinese news broadcast. These exiles live in Urumchi and speak Kyrgyz with an accent.

They served tea to an old, toothless woman who came with her two sons and her new 20-year-old daughter-in-law. The old woman had lived her year-round as a shephard and 1977 and hadn't been back since. She had wanted to show the place to her new daughter-in-law.

Elizabet told me that in their region, 20% of marriages result from stealing the bride, 50% are set up by the parents, and 30% choose their own spouse. She said the parents of the husband give at least $250, a horse and sheep, while the parents of the wife give items for the home, which costs between $750 and $1000.

"In Soviet times, most people dated and chose their own spouse," she said. "But since then, we've been reverting to old traditions." I asked what she thought about that.

"I think that's bad," she said. "I think people should be able to choose their own spouse."

I joined the French tourists for the trip back to Naryn, driving past white and brown striated ridges to mountains shaded in segments - brown, red, orange, white. One of the tourists, Natalie, sells oil platforms. She was most recently in Azherbaijan and is soon moving to Angola.

In Naryn, I met Kanat, the owner of a white Lada, who agreed to take me on the three-hour trip to Son-Kul. We traveled along the deeply rutted roads where the full Chinese truck travels. Kanat had to drive on the opposite side of the road to keep out of them. And like Talai, he complained about the Chinese. "I hate them," he said. "I know there are good people in every nation, but not in China. They ruin our roads and are dirty." I was starting to feel as though I was in Mongolia, where during my visit several years ago, anti-Chinese sentiment also ran high.

He told me about his life. Born in the village of Tyuz, he spent his summers on Son-Kul, where his father was a shephard, and his winters in the village. He joined the Soviet army and was sent to Afghanistan. There, he was a prisoner of theTaliban for 15 days.

"They would have killed me except that I was a Muslim and was circumcised," he said. "They tried to talk me into staying, but I didn't. A man who is now a well-known terrorist from Namangan was held with me. They convinced him to stay."

He was injured in the war, ending up with only a thumb and one mangled finger on his right hand. A letter was sent to his girlfriend in Tashkent to tell her he was injured, but it accidentally said he had died. So when he returned, not only did he need to relearn how to draw, using his left hand, but he found his girlfriend had married someone else.

He studied art for two years in Leningrad, then became an art teacher at the local Kochkor school. He showed me a photo of six men who had been members of his collective in the late 90s. All have since left, due to the low salaries. While his love remains art, he quit his teaching job and began to drive a taxi. In his free time, he makes traditional Kyrgyz horse whips, and carves furniture out of wood.

Lake Son Kul is a good two hours off that rough, indented road. It lies over a mountain range, at the end of many twists and turns, far beyond the last tiny, depressed village. On the way, I saw dairy-centric yurts - bottles of koumiss out front for sale, bags hanging off of posts in the process of making suzme, women milking horses. We moved through bare, rolling green hills, then into ridges multicolored from the local minerals - aluminum, marble, granite.

Following my troubles finding transportation, I pitied the people on the side of the road, and convinced Kanat to pick up the hitchhikers. First we took a man who smelled like sheep. When we dropped him off in the last village, we got another shephard in his place. This one was drunk.

"His wife just gave birth," Kanat told me. "So he celebrated."

Only after our passenger passed out did Kanat tell me that the baby had died.

Despite the expense and the additional effort, I appreciated the opportunity to travel alone. Going in a group often makes for a sterilized atmosphere. I wouldn't have the opportunity to meet a shephard who drowned his grief at his infant's death in alcohol.

As we continued on, barley fields grew a shimmering green among the flowing brown hills, as smooth as waves. The land became a pastel painting of green, blue, white and sand.

Our passenger woke up. As we went over the mountain pass, he and Kanat sang together to a cassette. The car smelled of alcohol, cigarettes and dust.

Crossing over the pass, I saw blue in the distance. We drove past a large herd of yaks, descended into a valley and across a flat, treeless plain, past yurt, koumiss and cattle, towards the blue. We'd arrived at Son-Kul. At 3,016 meters, it’s the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, wedged into a valley amidst the Tien Shan mountains.

Kanat took me to his relative's yurt, who is a member of the Community Based Tourism organization. Located just off the water, I could watch the lake shimmer under the setting sun. We dined on fried fish from the lake and used kerosene lamps in the evening. The natural planetarium was my favorite aspect of Son-Kul. The stars glimmered and shot across the inky, vast sky. At night, I slept on a pile of mats atop of shyrdaks sewn by Aichurek's mother. I fell asleep to the sound of wind over water combined with the noises of cows, horses, sheep, dogs and camel outside.

1 comment:

Headstraight75 said...

Great blog, very detailed I hope you continue to enjoy your travels.