"Untamed Humans" on the Roof of the World
January 21, 2013 5:39 PM   Subscribe

"Moving is what nomads do. For the Kyrgyz of Afghanistan, it’s from two to four times a year, depending on the weather and the availability of grass for the animals. They call their homeland Bam-e Dunya, which means “roof of the world.” This might sound poetic and beautiful—it is undeniably beautiful—but it’s also an environment at the very cusp of human survivability. Their land consists of two long, glacier-carved valleys, called pamirs, stashed deep within the great mountains of Central Asia. Much of it is above 14,000 feet. The wind is furious; crops are impossible to grow. The temperature can drop below freezing 340 days a year. Many Kyrgyz have never seen a tree." Welcome to life at the upper altitudes of the Wakhan Corridor, above the tree line and on the roof of the world.

Some 1100 Kyrgyz nomads (related to the Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan) live in this forbidding landscape (photo gallery), nominally governed by Afghanistan but in reality very little governed at all (NYT 2010). The Wakhan Corridor, the funny little strip of land jutting off the northeast corner of Afghanistan, is among the most rugged inhabited territory in the world and once formed a part of the Silk Road (Marco Polo probably passed this way). These nomads ranged over a wider area until the "Great Game" and its great empires began closing borders and limiting movement; by 1950 the Kyrgyz nomads had become full-time residents of the harsh high altitudes of the Wakhan Corridor.

For more photos, maps, information, and even links to academic articles, check out this Guide to Trekking in Pamir. "Documents, Books & Links" has some great PDFs to check out.

Previously on MetaFilter: More of the same photographer's work in the area.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (28 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
"A Kyrgyz joke goes that if you put three people in a yurt and come back an hour later, you’ll find five khans."

Ain't that the blessed truth.
posted by tripping daisy at 6:32 PM on January 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

It was all good til I got to the part about playing polo with the headless carcass of a deceased lamb.
posted by michellenoel at 6:56 PM on January 21, 2013

I wonder how many people, if any, voluntarily leave the tribes and how that number compares against, say, fundamentalist Mormons/Menonites/Amish/&c.
posted by porpoise at 7:19 PM on January 21, 2013

Fabulous post, Eyebrows, thanks so much.

Gotta love how people are fundamentally the same everywhere, even when their lifestyle is so radically different from what we know. Right down to the same curmudgeonly sarcasm ...
The new khan’s biggest supporter, though, is Er Ali Bai. Some critics complain that an aksakal—a “white beard”—should have been picked. “Yes,” Er Ali Bai replies. “There are people with long beards. Goats also have long beards. Should we have selected a goat?”
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:01 PM on January 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

"a boy playfully throws a cat in the air"

Sorry, what?

Is this what happens when children don't have enough access to video games?
posted by lollusc at 8:33 PM on January 21, 2013

Really interesting article, thanks for posting it. The child mortality is just staggering. So tragic.
posted by arcticwoman at 8:37 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is this the world depicted in the 1971 film, The Horsemen?
posted by fredludd at 8:56 PM on January 21, 2013

A boy playfully throws a cat in the air

It says "The Kyrgyz’s survival depends on their animals—sheep, goats, yaks, horses, and camels—but they are not sentimental about them." I suppose their survival doesn't depend on cats.

It reminds me of when I was in Thailand once, and saw a little boy do a five step run-up to kick a cat sitting on the sidewalk. Just a reminder that not all societies think of animals in the same way..
posted by Metro Gnome at 9:34 PM on January 21, 2013

Isn't it kind of racist to refer to them as "untamed humans" - explicitly using language designed for use with animals, and thus associating these people with animals themselves?
posted by titus n. owl at 9:56 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

To clarify: I'm not calling anyone here racist, or actually calling any person racist at all; the terminology just seemed suspect to me, without any assumption of ill intent
posted by titus n. owl at 9:59 PM on January 21, 2013

The most interesting thing I learned in this post: there is a type of Islam called "Ismailism" led by Aga Khan, a billionaire society figure in Geneva and Paris:
Forbes describes the Aga Khan as one of the world's ten richest royals with an estimated net worth of $800 million USD (2010). Additionally he is unique among the richest royals as he does not preside over a geographic territory. He owns hundreds of racehorses, valuable stud farms, an exclusive yacht club on Sardinia, a private island in the Bahamas, two Bombardier jets, a 12-seat helicopter, a £100 million high speed yacht named after his prize racehorse, and several estates around the world, including an estate called Aiglemont in the town of Gouvieux, France – just north of Paris.
"Part of the Aga Khan's personal wealth [used by him and his family], which his advisers say exceeds $1 billion [USD], comes from a dizzyingly complex system of tithes that some of the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims pay him each year [one of which is called dasond, which is at least 12.5% of each Nizari Ismaili's gross annual income] – an amount that he will not disclose but which may reach hundreds of millions of dollars annually."
Somehow it makes me feel kinship with the Wakhan people, knowing that, for all our differences, we share fabulously wealthy and morally bankrupt religious leaders.
posted by letitrain at 10:07 PM on January 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Isn't it kind of racist to refer to them as "untamed humans" - explicitly using language designed for use with animals, and thus associating these people with animals themselves?

It's a way they seem comfortable describing themselves (broadly speaking):

"Throughout their history, the Kyrgyz have always rejected the idea of being controlled by a government or serving as vassals to a king. 'We are untamed humans,' one Kyrgyz man proudly informed me."

I'd take that in exactly the political context the author provided. The Kyrgyz sound remarkably similar to the Hmong (speaking broadly again, of course) in that neither people seem content to yield their personal agency to anybody. From here I'd say it's a point of pride claimed by few others.
posted by Chutzler at 10:29 PM on January 21, 2013

titus, "Untamed humans" is a quote from the first article by a Kyrgyz nomad to describe his cohorts and their deliberate choice to live in such an inhospitable climate partly to avoid governments and government interference:
"Throughout their history, the Kyrgyz have always rejected the idea of being controlled by a government or serving as vassals to a king. “We are untamed humans,” one Kyrgyz man proudly informed me. ... Never a large tribe, the Afghan Kyrgyz roamed Central Asia for centuries—they were infamous for raiding Silk Road caravans—and by the 1700s had begun using the valleys where they now live as summertime grazing grounds. They’d leave to warmer areas when winter descended, avoiding the long, cruel season they must now endure. But then came the great empires, and their Great Game, followed by the spread of communism. By 1950 all the borders were shut and, says Ted Callahan, the Kyrgyz “by default became Afghan citizens,” trapped year-round in the Wakhan corridor. In 1978 a military coup upended Kabul, and there was the looming threat of a Soviet invasion. ... Nearly all the Kyrgyz, some 1,300 people, elected to follow the khan at the time—Rahman Kul—and escape across the Hindu Kush into Pakistan. Disease killed a hundred during their first summer as refugees. ... many Kyrgyz were disillusioned with [the khan's] leadership. They missed their life on the roof of the world. Soon there was a split. Abdul Rashid Khan, the current khan’s father, led about 300 Kyrgyz back into Afghanistan.... The Soviet troops, when they arrived, treated the Kyrgyz kindly, and over the past three decades, the population has grown to the current level of more than a thousand, even with the high death rate. Those who remained in Pakistan with Rahman Kul eventually resettled in eastern Turkey, where they now live in a village of cookie-cutter row houses, with electricity and cable TV and paved roads and cars. They were assigned Turkish last names. They like their video games, their flush toilets. They have been tamed."
I thought it was a poetic turn of phrase, and nicely summed up this idea of living in so remote and hostile an area in order to experience this radical freedom from outside governance and maintain the lifestyle they choose with the leaders they select. Which I assume is also why the author used it in his article in the section on the Kyrgyz refusal to be governed ... but it also highlights the fact that, while not "tamed," they have been gradually caged in by geopolitics and definitions of borders and citizenship. And also the tension where the freedom they cherish to live untamed is threatened by the road that the current khan wants that will bring them medical care and education ... but also tourists and cars and things that will erode their way of life and make it easier for Kabul to rule and tax them.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:34 PM on January 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thanks and apologies; i should have finished RTFA-ing before I commented.
posted by titus n. owl at 10:58 PM on January 21, 2013

Just a reminder that not all societies think of animals in the same way.

Not sure if you're referring specifically to cats or kicking or throwing or to public behavior toward animals, but doing things to animals that probably hurt and that they probably would prefer that you not do to them is pretty much accepted practice in most cultures.

Though this is the first I've heard of anyone slicing off hunks of their meat and stashing it in their pockets.
posted by univac at 11:09 PM on January 21, 2013

Yeah, my bafflement about the cat was not that the boy was (possibly) hurting him, but more like, "That's what passes for entertainment? How is that fun?"
posted by lollusc at 11:20 PM on January 21, 2013

They're not slicing off hunks of meat from living animals univac.
posted by panaceanot at 12:42 AM on January 22, 2013

Totally love this picture, and the explanation to go with:

Kyrgyz herders adore their cell phones, which they acquire by trading and keep charged with solar-powered car batteries. Though useless for communication—cellular service doesn’t reach the isolated plateau—the gadgets are used to play music and take photos.

But the picture itself .. dude on the right is taking a picture of nat geo photographer, dude on the left is taking a picture of dude on the right, and in the middle we have a guy taking a picture of ... his goat.
posted by mannequito at 12:49 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I find it - interesting(?) - that many cultures have women do the "hard labor." I think of the documentary I saw on girls in Africa that have trouble giving birth because of their stunted growth from the carrying, etc they are expected to do. (as a result they are incontinent, and then shunned...nice)

I can't help but think men in these cultures are lazy. Why not share the burdens of carrying water, etc? I know it isn't that exactly, but hard to come to any other conclusion (just being honest).

Still, how does this come to be?? Humans are such a complicated, confusing species!!
posted by evening at 5:28 AM on January 22, 2013

Ah, the familiar rage when you get to the section where it's revealed that half the population is effectively subhuman and outside the scope of the author's view.

There is one thing more expressive than a Kyrgyz yurt. And that is a Kyrgyz woman. Men dress like they’re perpetually on their way to a funeral. Women are Kyrgyz works of art.
The women perform endless chores—milking the yaks twice a day along with sewing and cooking and cleaning and babysitting. They rarely speak when men are around. I tried, as politely as possible, for half an hour to get one woman to explain why she was wearing three watches. Finally, she answered. “It’s nice,” she said. I did not exchange a word with the khan’s wife, though I lived in their camp for a week.

The majority of women I met had never been more than a few miles from where they were born—their biggest journey was traveling to their husbands’ camps after marriage. “We are not that sort of stupid people who let women go anywhere they want,” explained the khan. All Kyrgyz marriages are arranged, usually when a woman is in her teens. Both the khan and his wife were 15 when they wed.

One of the few women who chatted with me was a free-spirited widow named Bas Bibi. She guessed she was 70 years old. She’d had five sons and two daughters. They all died. “Men never milk animals,” she said. “Or wash clothes. Or cook meals. If women were not here, nobody could live a single day!”

Untamed? Maybe half of them.
posted by amber_dale at 6:06 AM on January 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Isn't it kind of racist to refer to them as "untamed humans" - explicitly using language designed for use with animals, and thus associating these people with animals themselves?

If someone is going to be offended, isn't the implication that us, the readers, are "tamed" more offensive?
posted by spaltavian at 6:19 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Love this picture, though realistically know that if there, I wouldn't be saying "Oh, that's beautiful"; rather "OMFG cold cold cold."
posted by Wordshore at 6:59 AM on January 22, 2013

OK, I guess I shouldn't have complained too much about this morning's single digit temperatures...
posted by trillian at 7:40 AM on January 22, 2013

I wouldn't be saying "Oh, that's beautiful"; rather "OMFG cold cold cold."

And that's a summer photo.
posted by elizardbits at 9:34 AM on January 22, 2013

Nice article; thanks for posting it. The one cavil I have is that you'd think from reading it that the entire population of Wakhan was Kyrgyz (and thus Turkic), whereas the majority of the population of that remote region is Wakhi, an Iranian people who speak the (very intersting) Wakhi language (I first learned about Wakhan as a grad student in Indo-European historical linguistics).
posted by languagehat at 10:52 AM on January 22, 2013

Thanks for linking my previous FPP.
Matthiu Paley is an outstanding photographer. Could he have a tag please?
Here is the home page for the Aga Khan Development Network.
posted by adamvasco at 11:13 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

They live on one side of the valley in summer, and the other in winter. They're certainly tamed by seasons, weather and geography.
posted by panaceanot at 1:36 PM on January 22, 2013

I saw a family of these people once in Bishkek. They were waiting in my bank, with a UN representative that was trying to explain to them about their account. The old man stood out as being the most Kyrgyz of Kyrgyz I have ever seen - the ak kalpak, the boots with pants tucked in, big white beard, leathery skin from a life out in the elements. I imagine it was their first time in a bank, and probably not completely clear on the concept.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:40 PM on January 29, 2013

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