Most of my life as a PhD student is spent behind my desk reading, theorising and analysing. It’s fantastic but can lead to me feeling rather detached from the ‘real world’! Along with a general curiosity in people and an interest in visual anthropology, that’s why during my holidays I love travelling to ‘exotic’ places and photographing people living very different lifestyles from my own.
For my Summer holiday, I travelled around Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. It’s a stunningly beautiful, very mountainous country with a peculiar mix of Russian, nomadic and other cultures. The highlight of the holiday was a week spent at Lake Song-Kul. Absolutely vast, 3000m up, 75km from any sizeable town, and accessible only during the Summer months, it certainly feels rather like you’re at the ends of the earth.
As well as being breathtakingly beautiful, it’s also, however, home to a fascinating and vibrant nomadic culture. Actually, technically the people here are ‘semi-nomads’: they follow similar routes every year, rather than wandering anywhere. They live in three places every year: the village during the Winter, the hills during the Spring, and Lake Song-Kul during the Summer until October. They travel between these locations, often hundreds of kilometres apart, with hundreds of cattle, sheep, goats and horses in tow, sleeping out in the open.
Around the perimeter of the lake were scattered a hundred or so yurts, often several hundred meters apart. Driven by my curiosity, I travelled between the yurts with an interpreter, attempting to introduce myself to the nomads. Whilst some were too shy or too busy to chat, many were very welcoming. Unfortunately, by the end of the day, I found this had a slight downside: it’s customary to offer ‘kumis’ (horses’ milk) to visitors, and while pleasant at first, when you visit several families in a day, it does rather take its toll on your digestive system!
Fortunately, the positives of the whole experience overwhelmingly outweighed the negatives. It was fantastic to experience, albeit briefly, their way of life. The nomads’ existence is undoubtedly harsh, and their poverty is extreme. Nonetheless, theirs is also a joyful life centred on a vibrant family life.
An aside: whilst on the lake, I bumped into a gentleman who, with his wife, was doing a whistle-stop tour of Kyrgyzstan. Although we had not met before, by complete coincidence, it turned out that he was a lecturer in SBM. It was definitely one of those occasions where the cliche ‘it’s a small world’ was very apt.
Now back at my desk in depressingly Autumnal London, I am definitely experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Fortunately, I can throw myself into my fieldwork in order to distract myself from them.
Photography by Charlie Howarth.