In the mountains of Kirghizstan, you can easily assume that you are alone. But squint your eyes a little, and afar you might distinguish the water-repellent white canvas of a yurt; traditional handcrafted houses in which the nomadic families of this region live. Occasionally, we would stop at one of them to rest our sore butts, eat a bite and let the horses catch their breath. After all, they were doing the real heavy lifting! In these moments, we got a glimpse of Kirghiz day-to-day routine.
We were served the day’s specials that constitute their daily menu every time. Amongst these, black tea and kaymak —a type of a cream— seemed like traces of a thread woven by History from the far end of Central Asia up till the Mediterranean shores. Women shoulder household tasks, with the help of their children, and would only eat after we, the guests and the men, had finished. Everything was homemade, on the spot.
At night, we had the great privilege of being hosted by the families. We would share their table, laugh together sometimes, and sleep next to one another. The yurt is a single do-it-all space: it serves as a kitchen, living room, nursery, collective dormitory and so on. It is continuously made and unmade as the Kirghiz move places, following nature’s and seasons’ whims.
We were shy at first. It was difficult to read the features of the Kirghiz. I could never tell if they were in any way bothered or felt ill-at-ease. After a while, and thanks to their benevolence, we were able to trade my few words of Turkish for their Kirghiz, and the conversation would become easier as we showed interest for them, their family and lifestyle.
I was particularly moved by two of the families. The first one, a couple in their early 20s, his father and younger brother, their baby. Both were very tall and strong, with discrete features and pink cheekbones. It was the first time they hosted foreigners in their house, and I could tell they felt a little awkward when we arrived. We lead such different lives, yet he small age gap between us made it easier to break the ice. I was very impressed by them, their choice to live here and raise a family in such tough conditions. They explained how many kids their age had chosen to settle in the city and how they decided not to. Such strength of character and assertiveness was very humbling.
They took on responsibilities that would fall to much older people where I’m from.
The second family I met spending our last night and day in the mountains on the shores of Son Kul, “the last lake”. We stayed in the yurt of an old woman. Her husband had passed away, and she was left with several children to tend to. Even though she never told me, I could feel how traditional social order in this family had been disrupted. It was obvious she was now the head of the family.
She had her boys carry out the daily chores of the household; from sweeping and heating the yurt to collecting the milk from the cattle and transforming it into diverse products. She sat with us during every meal, sometimes joined by her oldest one, while the youngest boy served us all. He only joined after we finished our plates, and she would wait for him to finish hers. Life in this yurt was different from the other families we had been in contact with.
In the morning, after breakfast, we explored the surroundings. When we came back, the woman was nowhere to be found. A while later, Ralph spotted her popping out of a yurt in the distance; she was with another woman and they were walking towards a second yurt while chatting. I imagined it being their daily routine.
Photography and words. Céline Meunier
Map. Ángela Palacios