There’s something about nomadic life that’s always intrigued me. I think it’s the fact that nomads could get along just fine even if civilization collapsed. There’s something that demands respect from being able to live off the land, moving with the flow of the seasons and having the skills to be able to provide your own food. This is why the nomads of Kyrgyzstan are so cool to me, and by extension, their culture.
Kyrgyzstan has a deep-rooted nomadic heritage that went along untouched until collectivization in the mid-1900s. Nomads lived in yurts and herded livestock in the mountains; cities were never in the picture. If you aren’t familiar with yurts, imagine the tip of a crayon that’s been used and then the part just above the paper label is cut off, and that’s the basic shape of a yurt. A yurt has circular latticework that rises from the ground, then you attach curved poles to the ends of the latticework. All the poles curve inward, but don’t meet at a point. There’s a circular piece of wood that levitates above the middle of the latticework that all the poles connect to. Everything is tied together for stability and covered with felt to help keep out the rain and cold.
However, things changed when the Soviet Union introduced itself to Kyrgyzstan’s history. Collectivization brought on by the Soviets translated into villages and cities popping up in Kyrgyzstan where a lot of people ended up settling down. Not all nomads planted roots though, so after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, nomadic life began to make resurgence. While not everyone has returned to a nomadic way of life, there are still many nomads living in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan today.
Nomads in Kyrgyzstan breed, herd, eat, and ride horses. Since so much of their lives involve them, they’re extremely superb horsemen. If you travel in the mountains at all, you’ll no doubt see nomads and shepherd boys atop horses, using them for everyday transportation. One thing that nomads like to indulge in is horse games in their spare time to show off their skill. There are several different games/competitions they engage in. One of them involves a rider approaching a set of flags or coins at full gallop, bending over from atop the horse, and picking up as many as they can while the horse is still at full speed. The rider that collects the most is the winner.
Probably the most well-known game is Ulak-Tartysh, which expats living in Kyrgyzstan have nicknamed “dead goat polo.” Two groups of riders on horseback, each with goals at opposite ends of a field, fight over who can carry a dead, headless goat successfully to the goal and chuck it in. Of course, if one team has the goat, the other team is trying desperately to get it from them so they can race over to the other goal to score. The winners of the game walk away with the goat and enjoy a tasty meal as a reward for their labor.
Because so much of the nomadic life revolves around animals, much of Kyrgyz cuisine centers around meat. Some traditional meals include monti, dumplings filled with meat, onions, and fat, and besh barmack, noodles and shaved meat. While various other meals are served, these are the most traditionally Kyrgyz.
Nomads in Kyrgyzstan are also experts at producing felt handcrafts. One of my favorite items that they make is called a shirdak. It’s basically a long, colorful, rectangular rug covered in Kyrgyz designs that’s used like flooring in yurts. They’re extremely sturdy and take quite a while to make. I highly recommend picking one up if you’re traveling through Kyrgyzstan.
Being a nomad in Kyrgyzstan means life includes lots of hard word, traditions, and hospitality. If you’re interested in learning more about the life and culture of Kyrgyz nomads, many nomadic families have recently started opening up their homes to travelers. You can either stay with a family for a few nights, or you can even take “classes” with them to actually participate in their life and learn the various skills necessary to being a nomad in Kyrgyzstan’s mountains. Not only does it help out the local economy, but it’ll give you the chance to hang out with really interesting people from a fascinating culture. So if you’re in Kyrgyzstan, take advantage of the opportunity to learn about nomadic life and experience it for yourself!
Photo by kallisto08, photo by Stan Crawl, photo from source: www.mountpix.livejournal.com