The last of the Kazakh herders of Xinjiang

Nomadic pastoralism, the primary form of existence in much of Central Asia for the past 5,000 years and one of the most ecological and sustainable ways of living in the world, is now in serious decline. In the ‘Stans’ that were conquered and occupied by the Russians, nomadism was looked down upon and discouraged. In Kazakhstan, for example, more than a million nomads starved to death in the 1920s and 1930s – part of a deliberate policy by their Soviet masters to break the cultural and economic traditions that had sustained them for generations.

Today, transhumance still exists in Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and parts of the Altai and southern Siberia. In the isolated republic of Tuva, for example, there has even been a small increase in the number of herding families living in remote areas. In Mongolia there are still plenty of nomads, but they are decreasing, in part due to climate change, but also because fewer and fewer young people want to spend their lives looking after livestock in the harsh conditions of the steppes. In one Mongolian nomadic family I know personally, seven of the eight children have chosen to move to the city or abroad, leaving the eldest son to carry on breeding horses, for which his family is famous.

Accounts of this form of nomadic lifestyle are few and far between. Most nomadic societies relied more on oral traditions of storytelling, songs and poetry to communicate their history and culture. The Manas Epic, for example, created and passed along the generations by the Kyrgyz people, is one of the greatest works of literature in the world, in some versions running to more than half-a-million lines. It recounts great events that took place more than a thousand years ago and is recited, to this day, by manasji, people who learn a version and then recite it at communal gatherings such as weddings and other celebrations.

Otherwise, it is to outsiders we must turn to find out more about nomadism. Ethnographers, travellers and others, as far back as Herodotus, have helped to fill in the details, describing the lives of nomads, their preoccupations and the beauty of the places through which they travel across the seasons. Thus it was remarkable to come across Li Juan’s fascinating book, Winter Pasture: One woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders*. Although only published in English translation this year, it describes the author’s stay with a small family of herders from the north of Xinjiang, China’s western-most province, in 2010.

The book is remarkable for many reasons. First, it is written by a young Chinese (Han) woman, who was brought up in the Altay prefecture of Xinjiang, where her family ran a small convenience store that sold cheap goods to the ethnic Kazakhs that lived nearby. One Kazakh family who owed money to the shop were prevailed upon to take Li Juan with them as they migrated south for the winter – about 100 miles – to escape the worst of the winter winds. Her aim was to write about what she saw, as part of her efforts to establish herself as a writer. She spoke little Kazakh and knew nothing of nomadic culture, so one can only imagine the shock when she realised that she would be spending the winter living in what she describes as a ‘burrow’ made of blocks of dried sheep crap and wedged between two sand dunes. The 500 or so sheep lived in a similar underground burrow, although the horses, cattle and camels were denied such luxury.

Throughout the book Li Juan gradually reveals the family characters with whom she was living – Cuma, the gruff, but rather tender father figure, ‘Sister-in-law’, his wife and a varying number of children, who were mostly at boarding school in town, but every now and again came out to the burrow to help with herding and to see their parents. Other families were living in similar conditions in the surrounding desert, protecting their animals and taking them to graze each day. Water was scarce, the only source being from collected snow, which was then melted on the fire, which in turn used the ubiquitous sheep crap for fuel. In fact, one entire chapter of the book is solely about the various uses of sheep crap.

Li Juan in the winter pastures

Having spent time with nomads in Mongolia and elsewhere, I can vouch for the accuracy of Li Juan’s narrative. In particular, she describes how the family charged up a car battery for three days by using an old solar panel. This allowed them to watch TV for a couple of hours. The next night, the failing battery only allows an hour or so and by the third night, the picture flickers for less than an hour. Then the battery has to be charged up again for another three days. I well remember a similar procedure when living with nomads in the Altai region of Mongolia, just a short distance away, across the international border.

Of course, it is impossible to read this book without thinking of the present-day plight of the Uighurs, the ethnic group for whom Xinjiang has been home for thousands of years and who are now facing appalling collective punishment from the Chinese in response to a number of Islamist terror attacks in 2013 and 2014, after this book was written. The Uighurs are not nomads but have faced imprisonment on a mass scale in what are known as ‘re-education camps’, whilst their culture and language are under serious threat.

Li Juan was told by her hosts that the annual migration was about to come to an end after China introduced a new policy to the region, tuimu huancao, apparently aimed at preventing over-grazing of the fragile steppelands – although perhaps nomads know more about this kind of thing that Chinese bureaucrats. The Chinese have built fences across the steppe, beyond which nomads and their flocks and herds are unable to travel. The nomads seem resigned to accepting their fate, possibly without comprehending the full implications. Which is sad. These Kazakhs – there are about 1.25 million in Xinjiang, about 6% of the region’s population – are the only ones left who still use Arabic script for writing. They also retain cultural traditions that have been destroyed in Kazakhstan itself. Intricate embroidery remains a prominent activity for both men and women during the long winter nights.

Of course, only a minority of Chinese Kazakhs are still nomads, but they have kept their traditions alive until very recently. The evidence in Li Juan’s book is that the children of nomads are now taught in Mandarin in the boarding schools which they attend, a classic policy for breaking ethnic identity – and one followed by the Russians in Siberia, the Americans with the native American tribes and extensively within the British Empire. They flourish their Mandarin textbooks and show off their proficiency to Li Juan, oblivious to the cultural obliteration that is being foisted on them.

I deeply enjoyed reading this book, despite the fact that it describes the dying days of an important culture. Li Juan is not a cultural imperialist. Nor does she disparage or mock the people who looked after her and shared their lives with her. But these days I don’t think the Chinese would encourage further books like this. Today, China demands the repatriation of ethnic Kazakhs who have fled across the border into Kazakhstan and puts pressure on the central government in Nur-Sultan not to allow anyone to campaign on their behalf. In doing so, they are bringing an end to a way of life that has protected the steppes for thousands of years. Whatever replaces it will not.

Li Juan, Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders, Astra House, New York, 2021, $28.00. ISBN: 978-1-6626-0055-5.

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