It wasn’t all that long ago that commercial agriculture became widespread and led us humans from a nomadic way of life where we would follow the next best available food source and watering hole to a more “settled” life where we grow or bring the food to us, saving us the hassle of getting eaten by a lion or bear. Both lifestyles have their advantages and disadvantages, but when the “grass is greener” effect starts to settle on the mind, one can’t be blamed for craving a more nomadic life where decisions seem to have more of a real world application to them and living is enough to satisfy the soul. Thankfully nomadic cultures still exist and continue to show us what humans, at their core, truly are.
Some of these nomadic groups can be found amongst the rolling plains of Kyrgyzstan. Now for many of you, the next question may be Kyrgyz-where? And don’t worry you’re not alone. The Stan region, for one reason or another, has been largely left out of westerners minds – which is great if you’re looking for a place that hasn’t seen the damaging impacts of insta-tourism (if you’re reading this, please don’t turn it into that), but not so great as the people there don’t receive the recognition they deserve on the world stage.
Nonetheless, I decided to educate myself and go on an adventure through Kyrgyzstan, focusing on the wild and trying my best to reduce my time in big cities. The first adventure on the agenda was to go on a small tour for five days and stay with a nomadic family on their farm. Now for those of you who know me well, you’ll know I’m not big fan of organised tours -nothing repels me more than large groups huddling onto buses, pulling into a landmark, taking thirty or so selfies in front of said landmark and rolling back out – I just don’t see the point, but this, I was assured would be vastly different, and I was not disappointed one bit. Thanks to my Swiss friend Patrick, we were booked onto a tour with his friends incredible company Andash Travels. The second we met Nadine – one of the owners of Andash – I knew we were in adventurous hands. The five of us, Patrick, Nadine and I plus another two of Patrick’s friends, Corinne & Amadeo, set out from the capital of Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek - in a share taxi to a small village named Kochkor. Here we would leave behind any luggage we didn’t need on the camp for the week and get another taxi toward a spot amongst the Jailoo (summer pastures) near Lake Song Kul, where we would find our guide Chingles waiting for us with our horses to trek over the mountains.
To say I have never had more faith in an animal before would be a vast understatement. My noble steed Dorak led me for four hours through rural Kyrgyzstan, trotting along beautiful green pastures, climbing snow-capped mountains, and most importantly, keeping his balance while carefully navigating the treacherous rocky-sloped edges of sky-high cliffs. We bonded, but only to the extent where he knew he had a job to do, and I knew I needed to trust him with doing it right – other than that I think he hated the extra weight.
Arriving into our Jailoo couldn’t have been more magical, set in the middle of rolling hills and soaring peaks, lied three distinctively Kyrgyz yurts, real ones, made from timber and felt, and adorned with hand-woven bands and decoration. One would be our home for the next four nights, one was the kitchen/dining room/family bedroom, and the last one was a dining room for special occasions – such as our arrival which was celebrated with a lamb freshly slaughtered and accompanied with potatoes, and treats offered for Ramadan.
Over the coming days we learnt the basics of how to run a nomad camp, what life was like on a daily basis, and who was responsible for what roles. Generally a day would start early, mostly due to the sound of nature knocking at your door, whether it be roosters calling in a new day, cows rubbing their sides up against the yurt for relief, or a stampede of horses charging back into the camp for the day ahead.
Horses play an essential role in the life of a nomad. From a young age children are exposed to horses, learning to ride in a saddle before walking, and forming close relationships with their companions. Horses offer assistance in moving heavy loads, a form of transport, companionship, and something uniquely Central Asian – horse milk, also known in Kyrgyzstan as Kymyz. Kymyz is a staple, a substance of life consumed as regularly as water that is believed to help children grow strong and keep adults healthy. You’ll notice though that many children consume it reluctantly for its taste is something to be desired. Think of ordinary cows milk, watered down slightly and then fermented until it forms a citric/acidic and fizzy complexity to it. Drinking it first thing in the morning was certainly a way to begin the day, the yeast bubbles tingling across your tongue as they slowly danced down your throat – it was enough to knock the sleep out of anyone’s eyes. Oddly enough though, kymyz has this allure to it. You start to consume it so frequently (three to four times a day) that I personally developed a taste for it and looked forward to the next serving. But this effect isn’t the same for everyone.
So how does one even harvest kymyz? Well, let me assure you, it doesn’t come out of the horse fizzy and ready to drink! First you have to find a way to keep the mare still – the best way to do this is to have a friend or family member hold one front leg together, or use rope to keep the leg held up. Find yourself a bucket, and if you’re lucky enough a stool, and get to work milking the teets – you’re going to want strong fingers and hands for that part. Practise is key here – if you’re a beginner like me or my companions, you may fill a bucket in about an hour or so. If you’re a pro like our host Jazgül, you’ll fill a bucket within ten minutes, without working up a sweat!
Once you have your fresh horse milk, you’re going to need the right equipment to ferment it. This comes in the form of a wooden cask that needs to be smoke dried prior (which adds a delicious smoky taste to the drink), and a branch that has been carved back and formed into a large stirring fork. Pour milk into cask (you’re gonna need a load of milk for this), place it somewhere safe (like inside a yurt), and begin the aeration process. You want to use that oversized wooden fork to pound air into the milk, feeding the yeast that will grow and begin fermentation. The milk will sit here, constantly being mixed throughout the day, unrefrigerated and ready to serve at any time. Of course, the longer the milk sits without fresh additions, and the more it gets mixed, the fizzier and more bitter it will taste which is where personal (or family) preference comes in.
Once you have your daily start of kymyz and breakfast, it is time to tidy up, clean the dining room and kitchen, put away your bed into neat piles at the back of the yurt, open the roof of the yurt to let in fresh air and light, and collect water from the river to freshen up by the makeshift vanity in the field.
The rest of the day is fairly dependant on weather. On rainy days we found ourselves spending most of our time in the kitchen yurt helping Jazgül prepare food – a task traditionally left to the women and girls of the household, which caught us looks of surprise and laughter from our hosts when us guys decided to do the chores. When relaxing we would play card games from different parts of the world, and of course, we would nap. On the sunny days, we took full advantage of the outdoors, helping building new holes for drop-toilets (I personally advise against doing this when you have heat stroke from the prior day and are currently not drinking water due to Ramadan), churning cream, designing new straps for horses, or simply hiking one of the many surrounding peaks!
In essence, summer life amongst the jailoo doesn’t come without its hardships. You have to withstand bitter-cold winds that beat down on your already dry skin, test your limits physically when working with the livestock, be resourceful with the absence of technology, running water and electricity, and keep company with those around you for the larger part of the day, but it is somewhat of a simple life. One where you get to reconnect with the land, treat the animals around you with the respect they deserve, and use an inner creativity that seems to lay dormant when surrounded by a modern world. I understand with time comes change, but I truly hope cultures and practises like these never die out.