National Geographic : 2013 Feb
104 national geographic • February 2013 was a free-spirited widow named Bas Bibi. She guessed she was 70 years old. She’d had five sons and two daughters. They all died. “Men never milk animals,” she said. “Or wash clothes. Or cook meals. If women were not here, nobody could live a single day!” t hroughout their history, the Kyrgyz have always rejected the idea of being controlled by a government or serving as vassals to a king. “We are untamed humans,” one Kyr- gyz man proudly informed me. Their ori- gins are murky. The Kyrgyz are first mentioned in a Chinese document from the second century A.D. and are thought to have come from the Altay Mountains of what is now Siberia and Mongolia. size of pizzas. Meat is reserved for special gath- erings. The closest to a vegetable is a tiny wild onion, no bigger than a pea. There is one thing more expressive than a Kyrgyz yurt. And that is a Kyrgyz woman. Men dress like they’re perpetually on their way to a funeral. Women are Kyrgyz works of art. Atop their heads are tall, cylindrical caps draped with giant head scarves—red for unmarried women, white for married—that flow behind them like superheroes’ capes. They wear long, bright-red dresses, usually with red vests over them. Attached to this vest is an amazing mosaic of bling. Plastic shirt but- tons are sewn around the collar by the dozens. There are sun-shaped brass brooches and leather pouches containing verses from the Koran. I spot- ted coins, keys, seashells, perfume bottles, and eagle claws. One woman had seven nail clippers pinned to her chest. Every movement by a Kyrgyz woman produces a jangling, wind-chimey tone. Their hair is styled in two or more long braids affixed with silver ornaments. They wear mul- tiple necklaces and at least one ring on every finger except the middle ones, even the thumbs. Bracelets galore. Dangly earrings. One watch is rarely enough—two or three are better. I count- ed as many as six. The women perform endless chores—milk- ing the yaks twice a day along with sewing and cooking and cleaning and babysitting. They rarely speak when men are around. I tried, as politely as possible, for half an hour to get one woman to explain why she was wearing three watches. Finally, she answered. “It’s nice,” she said. I did not exchange a word with the khan’s wife, though I lived in their camp for a week. The majority of women I met had never been more than a few miles from where they were born—their biggest journey was traveling to their husbands’ camps after marriage. “We are not that sort of stupid people who let women go anywhere they want,” explained the khan. All Kyrgyz marriages are arranged, usually when a woman is in her teens. Both the khan and his wife were 15 when they wed. One of the few women who chatted with me Abdul Metalib and his wife, Halcha Khan, started smoking opium after losing a son; each of their 11 children died before age six. Many Kyrgyz say they use the drug as an escape from pain, since they have no doctors or medicine. As many as 50 percent of the nomads may be addicts. the khan knows about the outside world. he realizes that the rest of the planet, day by day, is leaving his people behind.