At seven years of age Mazarkul plays Uno like an old pro at a high-stakes poker game. He flings his cards onto the pile with a gambler's disregard for rules, his face breaking into a sheepish grin when caught trying to pass a six off as a nine. Sary, kyzyl, jashyl, kok – all the Kyrgyz words we need. Yellow, red, green, blue. Our international Uno tournament includes representatives from Kyrgyzstan, France, Slovenia and the U.S., but our groans of despair and hoots of victory require no translation.
We are sitting on hand-stitched felt carpets around a low table in the family’s yurt. Outside the air is still sharp with the memory of winter, but in here there is laughter and endless cups of black tea, the sour-sweet tang of home-made raspberry jam on fresh bread and the comforting stench of warm wet sheepskin and of dung patties burning in the oven. There is always something bubbling away on the small black stove in the corner where Mazarkul’s mother, a ruddy-cheeked woman with a wide smile full of golden teeth, is busy stirring, chopping, slicing and kneading.
Very few Kyrgyz people still live a nomadic life year-round, but living in a yurt remains at the core of their identity. Even the flag of Kyrgyzstan honours the yurt, depicting in its symbol the criss-crossing wooden laths that form the centre of its roof, a symbol of home and family. In the summer months, when school’s out and the snow melts on the mountain passes, Mazarkul’s family still comes to the highland pastures of Son Kul lake in central Kyrgyzstan where they have been spending the grazing season for generations, setting up camp and letting their horses roam free in the surrounding hills.
Erkenai, Mazarkul’s older sister, has little patience for the tourists that come to stay with her family and at first her answers are curt: Yes, she learned English in school. No, she doesn’t need help putting away the bedding. In the course of our Uno tournament she slowly warms to us. She will stay here until September, when she has to return to school, while her parents might stay as late as October, depending on the weather. Erkenai wishes she could postpone returning to the city and doesn’t hide her opinion of the Kyrgyz tourists that sometimes come to stay with her family. “They come here from the big cities and stay in a yurt for the first time in their lives! They have forgotten how to be Kyrgyz!”
With no electricity or phone signal the rhythm of the days on the banks of Son Kul is dictated by the animals and the sun, the daily routine a well-coordinated performance of self-sufficiency set against the backdrop of a starkly beautiful land. Men ride their horses with a nonchalance that comes from a lifetime of horse-rearing and Mazarkul trots around on his donkey, surveying his kingdom.
It’s early in the summer and the waist-high snow has only recently thawed on the passes that lead to the lake. Only three families have set up camp so far, but new neighbours are arriving every day, herding their animals and with yurts rolled up into tidy bundles of cloth, animal skin and wood.
In the vast open spaces distances expand and contract at random, the mountains moving further away with each step, the galloping horses a mesmerising sight but an unreliable point of reference. Eventually the cold crisp wind heralding dusk ushers me back into the kitchen yurt, where steaming cups of tea are already waiting for us. Mazarkul ties up his donkey at the entrance and joins us, warming his hands by the fire before shuffling a deck of colourful cards - Sary, kyzyl, jashyl, kok.
As the daughter of globe-trotting journalists I filled my first passport with stamps from five continents before losing the last of my baby teeth, and at eighteen I emptied my piggy bank and went to explore the world on my own. Since then I spent about three years travelling – the first solo trip to Asia at eighteen was followed by an overland trip from Iran to Indonesia a few years later, plus a couple of shorter trips fuelled by my SCUBA diving addiction – and the rest working towards my degrees in anthropology and global studies, which gave me a great “grown-up” excuse to move first to Berlin, and later to Buenos Aires and New Delhi. These days home is somewhere between Vienna and my mum’s kitchen in Ljubljana.