Kyrgyzstan /

Living and working on the land with yurt-dwelling nomads

In the summer months between June and August, Song Kol Lake is buzzing with seminomadic, yurt-dwelling shepherds and their livestock.

A Kyrgyz woman milks a horse as a storm approaches at Song Kol, a high alpine lake in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The woman kneels on one knee, with a pail propped on the other, and tugs at the horse until the bucket is full. She then pours the milk into a larger pail and starts it all over again. It’s quite a labour-intensive process; I watched this woman milk around 30 horses before I got too cold and went back to my yurt. This is the beginning of the production line of Kyrgyzstan’s national drink, Kumis. The slightly alcoholic fermented horse milk is a staple in nomadic Kyrgyz culture.

Kumis is packed with vitamins and minerals and is said to clean out the body, help people with recurring stomach problems and boost energy. Unlike cows milk, it has a slight fizz and sour tang due to the fermentation process and gas creation. Despite its critics amongst Kyrgyzstan’s backpacker community, I enjoyed it. And with a very small percentage of alcohol, it only requires a few dozen gallons to get tipsy and take the edge off the cold evenings.

A man burns bad wool in Song Kol, Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz use sheep’s wool to make everything from coats, rugs, and slippers, to the felt from which the yurts are constructed. There will be no compromising on quality.

In Kyrgyzstan, the Wild Horse v Domesticated Horse rivalry is a heated one. Domesticated horses eat well and live in comfort, but sacrifice their freedom. The wild horses are free, but lack security and are limited to a diet of grass. Wild horses, being wild, often try to perform a heist when a domesticated horse is eating its gourmet dinner. Having none of that, the domesticated horse will challenge the wild horse to a back-to-front-duel (i.e. kick fight), with the winner taking the spoils.

To the victor go the spoils. A domesticated Kyrgyz horse enjoys a gourmet dinner after being challenged to a duel by a wild horse from the mountains.

Kyrgyzstan is horses, horses, horses. But first, dogs. The Kyrgyz dogs that I met were very friendly and welcoming, taking their role as hosts at yurt camps very seriously. If their company was requested by a visitor (I.e. me), they would always approach and allow a period of time for introductions (belly rub, brief conversation about how good they are, ‘you’re a good dog, aren’t you etc etc). They were also very generous. I told this dog she was placed very well for a photo because the sun was bouncing off her luscious coat. She said ‘I’m not surprised, my coat is beautiful. Sure, take a shot’. She then paused to allow me to get the shot. ‘Got it yet?’. ‘Wait, just one more’. ‘C’mon, a new horse has arrived and I wanna go harass it’. ‘Ok… got the shot, thanks’. ‘No problems’. She then sprinted off to harass a horse, favourite pastime of the Kyrgyz dog.

The Kyrgyz make use of every part of their domesticated animals, from the wool right through to the head/face and intestines. It’s an approach I can embrace; if an animal is going to sacrifice its life for us, the least we can do is avoid waste. After slaughter, the innards are removed, washed, rinsed and braided, before being cut into manageable parts. Then, we boil. All of the sheep parts are thrown in the kazan to boil for hours. When ready, every organ is slowly brought out, piece by piece, in dripping water. I sat in the yurt during this process, sipping Kyrgyzstan’s national drink, Kumis, while complementing the nomads on their cooking skills, ‘Yep, very good. That’s exactly how I would’ve done it. You’re getting the hang of it now’.

Running with horses, Part 1: Whenever I was on the road in Kyrgyzstan, I was always on the lookout for 3 things: Shepherds, horses and mountains. Preferably all three, mingling, in one frame. I lost count the amount of times I asked my driver (Jusu), ‘We stop here? Just 5 minutes’, before running off like a dog chasing a ball that’d been thrown 500 metres into the distance. However, like the bad dog I am, one time I didn’t come back. We were at the top of a mountain and I’d spotted not one, but two shepherds riding horseback. Then there was the livestock… hundreds and hundreds of them. Not to mention the imposing mountain backdrop, which just happened to have the sun lighting its peak at dusk. The stage was set.

Part 2: I left the car and ran towards the shepherds and their livestock for what was to be a simple 5-minute shoot. ‘Just to get a little taste’, I thought. All I need is a few shots. However, like a true addict, the more I shot, the more I wanted to shoot. ‘Just one more, just one more’, until all of a sudden I was half way down the mountain. Shit, where’s Jusu (my guide)? I now faced an important decision: Do I abort the shoot, turn back and search for Jusu and the safety of his car, missing this once in a lifetime opportunity? Or do I just go for it and find/explain to Jusu later. Suffice to say, I went for it. I ended up running for an hour, 4km down a mountain, alongside horses, cows and goats (occasionally photographing it all). The further down the mountain I ran, the further Jusu drifted.

Part 3: While most of my time was spent shooting, at times I had to pull my weight and herd the livestock, ensuring no animals straggled too far outside the pack. If they did, I’d run to the perimeter of the pack and usher them back in. The shepherds on horseback appreciated this. The dogs worked extremely hard and perhaps had the most important role. Rather than being threatened by me, they accepted me. At first they did a bit of a double take, as if they were wondering, ‘Who the hell is this guy, and why is he running with us like he’s an animal? Never seen this before!’. Then it was a case of, ‘Sure, join in. You hold the back, I’ll run over to this straggler on your left’. There was no time for us to discuss what I was doing, we had to keep moving.

There was the dust. The uneven surface. Running over rocks, down slopes, into blistering winds. Moments where I was completely out of breath. Then there was the fluctuating temperatures: I’d go from freezing cold to boiling hot and back to freezing. I had to just block all the noise and focus. Otherwise not only would I fail to capture this incredible event, I’d also risk breaking my leg or being trampled by horses.

By the time we’d made it to basecamp, the sun was on its way out and all but a few stragglers had been ushered back to their homes for the night.