Kyrgyzstan greets you with a very Soviet face. At first glance you might get the impression that little remains of Kyrgyz culture from the 150 years of Russian occupation, but a closer look will reveal that the fundaments of pre Russian nomadic society are alive and kicking.
The fluid nature of tribal society has been ideally suited to adapt to the ebb and flow of humanity surging into the region over the last two millennia. The people we know today as the Kyrgyz are actually a mix of the original groups that migrated from the banks of the Siberian Yenisei River, over-laid with Mongols and a host of smaller tribes whom they absorbed over the centuries. Early travellers to the region commented on the Kyrgyz camps, numbering 50 or more yurts. These were ails (villages) and comprised one man (the chief), his married sons and unmarried daughters. Sons were given a yurt on marriage (normally provided as part of the girl's dowry), except for the youngest who stayed to look after his parents and eventually inherit their yurt. Wealthier chiefs might temporarily take in orphans, hired workers and destitute men who would live as part of the family, receiving animals, food and clothing as payment.
A group of ails was headed by a bi, (or manap), an elder who made decisions about the general welfare of the group with the help of a committee of advisers (aksakals) from the ails. The bi was not elected but was the most senior man by birth in a group of ails. In reality, however, a leader's influence depended on the respect he inspired amongst his people so the inherited position had also to be earned. Respect for elders was imbued into children from birth. The bi had the job of resolving disputes and difficulties; if the people had no confidence in his wisdom they would take their troubles to another elder. A bi had not only to be wise but also wealthy enough to fulfil his duties of hospitality and assistance.
The Kyrgyz have always been intolerant of authoritative leadership (to their cost in Soviet times) and if a bi became too autocratic, the ail could move away to join another group of tribes-one of the advantages of being nomadic. Soviet literature seized on the social hierarchy of the Kyrgyz nomads, deriding the bi for their cruel exploitation of the Kyrgyz masses, but 19th-century reports corroborate the Russian Turkic scholar W. Barthold's statement that 'the Kara Kirghiz [Kyrgyz] had neither princes nor nobles; the elders... were not chosen by any kind of election, but owed their position entirely to their personal influence'.
By the end of the 19th century, the Kyrgyz still celebrated their unity as a people every year when a khan was elected amid great festivities and horseback games. This appointment was symbolic only, as real power lay with the clan leaders.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine an idyllic nomadic life; yurts were damp and smoky, herders were constantly involved in sheep raids and inter-tribal battles. The punishment common on the pastures was to tie the guilty party face-upwards on tin ground and watch him be trampled by a flock of sheep.
The shaggy sturdy horses of the Kyrgyz had none of the fire of the Turkmen's elegant steeds. Nonetheless, they formed the backbone of the economy, providing transport meat, and koumys (fermented mare's milk), to the extent that something of a cult grew up around horses in Kyrgyz culture. The size of a man's herd of horses was an indication of his status far beyond the herd's actual economic value. In spring, the birth of the first foal meant the first batch of koumys, cause for celebration and feasting. Other livestock included goats, two-humped Bactrian camels, yaks, typical Asian fatty-tailed sheep and the inevitable scraggy dog whose descendants are still today serving the dual purpose of protection and herding. Cattle only began to appear with the Russians. Grazing patterns were efficient and made the most of available fodder: in spring, horses would be released onto pasture first to break up the ice and snow with their hard hooves; they would be followed by camels and finally the sheep who nibbled grass down to the roots. On the steppes a thaw followed by a very heavy freeze would sometimes cause a dzhut-covering the land with unbreakable ice, which prevented grazing and killed off many animals.
Some tribal groups had winter quarters made of stone or clay, where they grew wheat and barley. As spring dispelled the snows, some of the men would stay to tend the crops while the families dispersed into the mountains. The group did not rove arbitrarily but each within a territory tacitly acknowledged to be for their personal use. They stored only limited fodder so it was crucial that animals fattened up sufficiently by autumn to make it through the rigours of a harsh winter. Animals unlikely to survive were killed for food in the autumn. Whole herds were occasionally wiped out during harsh winters.
Like today, the traditional diet consisted of meat and dairy products. Koumys, fermented mare's milk, was considered a treat; families who could not afford this added water to curds made of boiled sheep's milk. Winter stores of food included little hard balls of cheese (kurt), still found today, smoke-dried meat, sausages made with horses' intestines and the preserved tail fat of sheep. They ate few vegetables.
The Kyrgyz welcomed any occasion for a celebration, which usually involved feasting, improvising witty songs, story-telling and horseback games. Marriage had an important social aspect, establishing social and financial ties between families. An arrangement was usually made between parents early, when the boy was aged 12-15 and the girl pre-pubescent. An early marriage ensured the girl's virginity, secured a bride price (kalym) for the young woman's parents and reduced the likelihood of young people falling in love and eloping. The bride price was (and still is) high, and generally paid in livestock. Poorer men would have to save up for years before being able to marry, or would earn their bride by working for her father.
The bride price was seen not as payment for chattel but as part of a contract, strengthening the marriage and indicating the groom's family's intention to care for the woman and her children. The young woman's dowry to her new family normally included a yurt, household equipment and jewellery, which could only be inherited by her children (polygamy was common).
Kyrgyz women undoubtedly occupied a lowly position but they had more freedom than the settled women of Central Asia. In games and celebrations, young men and women associated freely. A woman could divorce her husband and, on his death, had the right to remain single or marry outside the family, rather than be forced into a marriage with his brother. In her husband's absence and after his death, she was the boss.
Many of the old traditions persisted as they had always done. The horsemen still hunted saiga, a kind of gazelle, with specially trained eagles. These were first introduced to the head of a freshly-lcilled sheep which was stuck upon a post, its eye-sockets stuffed with red meat so that the bird would learn to go for the eyes first of all. They still played the game, common throughout Central Asia under various names and said to have originated in Mongol training for cavalry warfare, in which the decapitated body of a sheep or goat is struggled for by a score or more of competing riders, who gallop and jostle until a winner manages to deposit the carcass in some appointed place, which may be miles across rough terrain. As primitive as anything was a habit of some shepherds in response to human vanity. Many of the flocks in Kirghizia consisted of the Karakul breed, whose lambs have that tightly-curled fleece Westerners think of as astrakhan. The younger the lamb the tighter the curl, and I had heard that not only were some lambs killed when only two or three days old, but that the bellies of some ewes were slit open a week before they were due to give birth, so as to get at the even more desirable pelt that lay inside.
"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse