The Kyrgyz of Jalang

This is part of a series describing our route through Tajikistan–please refer to my posts of 6.18, 6.20, 6.23, 6.24 and 6.25.


To get a sense of how remote Jalang is, if you have not read the posts leading up to this one, it is at least 16 hours from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, along a very rough 4×4 road. From Khorog to Murgab, the capital of the Murgab District of the Eastern Pamirs, it is another eight hours or so along a mediocrely maintained paved road. From Murgab to Jalang takes another five or six hours, much of it on an unpaved track that leads off straight into total wilderness and some of the most desolate scenery in the world.

The largest ethnic minority in Tajikistan is the Uzbeks (some 15% of the total population), who live in the west and north of the country, but almost equally visible, despite their much smaller numbers, are the Kyrgyz, who dominate the population of the Murgab District (roughly 13,000 out of 16,000 total population of that district). The Kyrgyz are semi-nomadic, living in settled villages in the fall, winter and spring but moving to their yurt encampments in the high valleys in the summer, where their livestock graze on the relatively meager grasses that grow in the high plateau.

Jalang itself had, we would guess, about six families. Surprisingly, one woman spoke quite respectable English (her father was a mountaineering guide in Kyrgyzstan), and told us that outside of the summer they live in the village of Karakul, which lies on the Pamir Highway between Murgab and the Kyrgyz border. She grew up in Kyrgyzstan and found yurt life in the Pamirs difficult, with no lowland pleasures such as fruit, no electricity outside of a solar powered battery and strained hygiene: “Life is hard here.”

But to us the picture was an idyllic one. As we arrived in the afternoon, the animals were just returning home, along with the young men and boys who were herding them, the sheep going to their pen and the yaks chained up for the night (the calves a good twenty feet from their mothers so that they wouldn’t drink all the milk). In the late afternoon light we saw balls of cheese drying on the rack and women weaving traditional kilims–we were told that it was to be a present for a daughter who was about to be married.

The yurts themselves were grand and comfortable, with a dung-fueled stove in the middle and plenty of cushions, bedding and quilts for a comfortable rest. A stream flowed nearby, and presented plenty of water for tea, food and washing. Thankfully, and possibly only because these yurts were prepared to accept tourists, a couple pit toilets had been built a hundred yards away.

As an afternoon snack they gave us a huge plate of fried, home-made noodles, delicious but also supergreasy in the way that almost all Central Asian food is. For dinner it was soup. As usual, every teatime and meal were served with huge pieces of bread torn by hand. Everyone, including especially the young son, liked looking at our pictures of New York, though they liked even more looking through the pictures in our Tajikistan guidebook.

We awoke to the sight of the ladies milking yaks, baby yaks standing by looking sad and hungry, and all of the menfolk shearing sheep. Breakfast was the usual rice porridge, eaten with ample butter and sugar. Derek made his 3-in-1 coffee. The father of the house guided us on a short hike to see some petroglyphs nearby–a solar symbol, a man with a bow, and an elk.

Payment was handled with more grace and class than it had been anywhere else–just as Derek started to fumble for money, the father left the yurt leaving Derek and his eldest daughter behind. She accepted the money and put it away without counting, thanking Derek.

From Jalang we were off to see some ancient geoglyphs and then, after a night at Karakul (Lake), the Kyrgyz border.

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