The Kyrgyz Sheep
Kyrgyzstan and sheep go together like valleys and mountains. The large fatty-rumped sheep seen grazing everywhere have played a crucial role in Kyrgyz society for centuries. Not only do they provide mutton, fat and milk, but their wool supplies the felt used to make yurts and shyrdaks. The kalpak, the white felt shepherd's hat worn by Kyrgyz men, could date back well over 2,000 years; the Greek writer Herodotus describes how the nomadic Saka living in the Tien Shan mountains wore 'stiff pointed hats made of close-woven felt'.
Managing flocks of sheep is a fine skill, as the 1930s Soviet writer Victor Vitkovich observed. He wrote:
It is a real art to make a flock of sheep ford a stream ... The senior shepherd, after sounding the depth of the water and choosing the ford, rides into the frothing stream on a horse, dragging a leader goat after him with a rope. Following the goat, the sheep throw themselves into the water in a bunch. The idea is to have them cross the stream in a broad column with 15 to 20 abreast, otherwise the swift-running waters will sweep them off their feet.
The shepherds have a golden rule: before the sun grows bright in the morning graze the sheep eastward, then gradually turn them to the south and, finally, back; in the daytime, have the sheep facing their shadow so that the noonday sun does not beat in their eyes. But ... in hot weather lead the sheep in the direction of the wind in the morning so that on its way back to the camp during the intense noonday heat, the flock moves against the wind.
Sheep were the principal wealth of the nomads. A year-old ram was the standard value for clothes, harness and the kalym (bride price). Clan chiefs owned thousands of sheep, the poor man typically had one or two, while the labourer worked for the right to milk two or three of his master's sheep. Sheep were also used as punishment, with flocks being driven over a man lying face up.
Today sheep are still sometimes used as a measure of value (a driving licence is said to cost so many sheep). The Kyrgyz name for path, koi jol, means 'road of sheep', while many legends and sayings are associated with them: If you shout loud enough, even a stubborn sheep will allow itself to be tied' and 'Cheap mutton has little fat'.