National Geographic : 2013 Feb
102 national geographic • February 2013 Kyrgyz herders adore their cell phones, which they acquire by trading and keep charged with solar-powered car batter- ies. Though useless for communication—cellular service doesn’t reach the isolated plateau—the gadgets are used to play music and take photos. one dance is little more than a gentle waving of a handkerchief. With a single exception—a young boy who filled a notebook with marvelous penciled portraits—I met no one who seemed interested in fine art or drawing. A wedding I attended was shockingly joyless, with the excep- tion of a game of buzkashi, a fast and violent sport played on horseback with the headless carcass of a goat as the ball. Kyrgyz manners could be considered gruff. It’s acceptable to walk away in the middle of a conversation. More than once, without asking, a man would thrust his hand into my pocket to see what I kept in there. Or snatch my glasses off my nose to inspect them. The Kyrgyz eat meat by slicing off hunks and stashing the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, the Kunlun—a spot so tangled with mountains it’s known as the Pamir Knot. The Wakhan corridor is also the birthplace of rivers flowing both east and west, including the Amu Darya, or “mother river,” one of the main waterways of Central Asia. We reach the banks of the Aksu River. This time of year, with snowmelt accelerating, it’s deep and rapid. The khan’s loaded yaks plunge in. Two of them lose their footing and begin drifting downstream, carried by the current, noses held above water, eyes wild, the stacks of supplies on their backs getting soaked. The khan’s brother-in-law, Darya Bai, charges into the water on his horse. Gripping the reins in one hand, leaning sideways in his saddle, he grabs a yak’s neck and tries to haul it across. For a moment it seems that the yaks, the supplies, and the brother-in-law might all be swept downriver. But they’re carried into an oxbow where the water flattens, and the yaks, followed by Darya Bai, soon emerge on the far bank, dripping and shaking. Then the khan crosses on his horse with his five-year-old daughter, Rabia, her hands clamped around his waist, feet raised to avoid getting wet. His two-year-old, Arizo, rides behind his wife, while his other children, six-year-old Kumush Ai (Silver Moon) and three-year-old Jolshek, share a horse with their uncle. They reach a grassy area at the mouth of a narrow, glacier-packed side canyon. Goats stare from atop a pointy boulder. The wind—the brutal, unrelenting bad-e Wakhan—picks up. Snowflakes hurtle sideways, stinging faces. Loads are dumped from the yaks into a large pile. The khan’s wife and children huddle while the men begin building the yurt, listening to Kyrgyz music on a cell phone—a chanty tune featuring a three-stringed lute called a komuz. Constructing a yurt is a jigsaw puzzle feat requiring several hours. When finished, a yurt from the outside seems unimpressive, a sort of lumpy boiled po- tato, the whole thing covered in dirty white felt that the Kyrgyz make themselves. The Kyrgyz are not the most gregarious people. They don’t laugh much. They own no books, no playing cards, no board games. Their the Kyrgyz are not poor. their basic currency is sheep. A cell phone costs one sheep. A bride is 100.