The Kyrgyz

Text & photography by Yuri Boyanin

Iron & Wine – Walking Far from Home
Kiss Each Other Clean (2011)

The Tajik Pamir mountains are one of the most fascinating, remote and isolated areas of Asia. The region of Badakhshan—split between Afghanistan and Tajikistan—is inhabited by Tajiks, Pamiris and Kyrgyz. Of all, the Kyrgyz inhabit the most marginal and high-altitude lands, unsuitable to all but pastoralist economy.

I decided to travel here in winter. The Pamir in winter are cold and miserable to the unaccustomed traveller, ever harsh for the Kyrgyz nomadic pastoralists.

The Kyrgyz pastoralists are scattered throughout Central Asia: they inhabit modern-day Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and China. All Kyrgyz claim common ancestry and identity, but ever since borders kept them isolated from their brethren, each group has developed in a unique way. They dress differently, wear different hats, use different scripts for writing (Arabic, Latin or Cyrillic-Russian); their history is different depending on who, if any, colonised them. Liberalisation in China and political and economic collapse in the Soviet Union, however, has meant the Kyrgyz no longer take part in an alien cultural and ideological project; they are free to establish their own identity. The challenge is where to look for it.

the Kyrgyz travel

Colonial and imperial closed borders in the early 20th century denied these Kyrgyz access to traditional low-altitude abodes and trade centres; they forcefully adapted to a harsh altitude where horses and chicken, for instance, cannot reproduce.

Soviet collectivisation and forcible expropriation of all livestock in the 1930s brought another tragedy to the Kyrgyz people. Stalin’s rule caused years of hunger and famine, violence and deportations.

A third tragedy came with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The entire system of welfare, education, food supplies and healthcare collapsed overnight. There was no money or work; there was no food. Famine was avoided only by international donors and the support people lent to each other.

the Kyrgyz travel

Yet life regenerates once more; one can feel hope in the air. Families have freedom to make choices, the size of individual herds increases steadily.

The number of tourists also increases. Most come during summer, but a few brave souls—like me—do come in winter to fight the extreme cold. Arriving in winter one can meet the Kyrgyz in their winter dwellings, at about 3500-4000m altitude. In summer, all scatter further up the mountain where only goat paths lead.

Mountainous Kyrgyz are hospitable and friendly. At this extreme altitude people can survive only by helping one another. Hospitality is in fact deeply ingrained into nomadic Asian culture: from the endless steppes and plains of Mongolia, to the remote valleys of the Hindu Kush, Pamir, Alai and Tian Shan mountains of Central Asia. Being stranded without shelter or fuel can mean starvation or even death. Wealthy people support the poor; a system that the Marxist Soviet Union and China described as feudal stratification and exploitation, but in fact it keeps society, culture and traditions intact.

the Kyrgyz travel

I, a stranger, felt welcomed at every door. The Kyrgyz invited me to stay, drink tea or just chat with them. In places without phone or Internet connection, this is how news about the world spreads.

Read more in N˚5: Arrival.