Silence for a change. A report about the Silent Journey in Kyrgyzstan 20–26 August 2017.
By Olga Mink.
The overwhelming nature of Kyrgyzstan is still imprinted on the back of my eyelids. I deliberately try to hold on to this wonderful afterglow yielding images of endless horizons, snow-capped mountain peaks, herds of sheep and wild horses wandering through barren landscapes inhabited by friendly people living in yurts. I am in nomad land. A place where both abundance and shortage don’t seem to exist. Where the native people, carrying an age-old history, are surrounded by high-altitude beauty and where the landscape hasn’t changed for thousands of years.
As part of this year’s Age of Wonderland, people share their personal life experiences resulting in 100 Days of Learning; a movement built out of 100 individual events around the globe that encourages individuals to share knowledge involving local communities. As a contribution to 100 Days of Learning, Symbat Satybaldieva initiated The Silent Journey, a 6-day trip revolving around nomadic ways of living in her home country, Kyrgyzstan. Symbat was a fellow of Age of Wonderland in 2015, in that year dedicated to sustainable food. For this edition, she invited people to Kyrgystan to get acquainted with the tradition of their nomadic culture.
The title ‘Silent’ should not be taken literally, but rather be interpreted in a more deep and holistic way. To connect with the nomadic lifestyle, we should open our hearts and learn from their culture and traditions. To become more balanced with nature. Is this something we lost along the way?
The Silent Journey starts in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek. Symbat created an ambitious program to introduce us with nomadic practice and traditions. She gathered a group of local experts with relevant skills and knowledge to bring across the nomadic culture. The first day brings us into the high mountains of Chon-Kemin, to experience the nomadic lifestyle of shepherds. The six-hour ride leads us over a bumpy, windy and dusty road. While the group is getting acquainted with each other, Symbat introduces us to our translator Burbul, a beautiful Asian woman with the eyes of a little girl. Chynara, is our expert on Kyrgyz nomadic culture. She is a charismatic Russian-speaking woman, dressed in beautiful colours to complement her grounded personality. An injured foot from a recent car accident could’t keep her from joining this journey. Chynara tells us how she was hesitant towards nomadic traditional culture at a younger age. She started appreciating and learning the traditions only when she was years older. During the Silent Journey, she shares her wealth of knowledge and guides us through the main topics of traditional nomadic culture.
While we hit the road, Chynara introduces us the basics of religions, how each of them influenced each other, emphasising a different angle to life, love, the self, and the other. Judaism, Islam, Christianity are religions that evolved around these basic principles. They became more dogmatic in time. Tengri, the traditional religion practiced by the nomadic Kyrgyz culture and means ‘Blue Sky’, is all about the intricate connection with nature. Coming from The Netherlands where nature is almost non-existent, it’s hard for me to grasp this concept. But after spending my first days in the Kyrgyz mountains and meeting nomadic people, it’s starting to become more vivid and real to me. When there is nothing else to relate to but your surroundings — in this case the sand, the grass, the sky, the sun, the birds, the wind and the mountains — I slowly start to get acquainted with the idea. The lack of bathroom facilities increases this instant connection as well.
Tengrism is a Central Asian religion and considered one of the oldest religions. It revolves around the sun deity and focuses on balance with nature. It incorporates characteristics of shamanism, animism, both polytheism and monotheism, and ancestor worship. Their existence is sustained by the eternal Blue Sky (Tengri), the fertile Mother Earth (Eje) and the holy spirit of the sky. Tengri spirits can manifest anywhere; they reside in the heavens, the underworld, or as spirits of the land. Our guide Chynara grabs a pen and paper. She starts drawing a symbol, in which the upper and the lower worlds each are divided in 7 different layers. The upper and lower layers are divided by a human figure, keeping both worlds in balance. This idea is strongly depicted in the beautiful patterns and symbols that can be found everywhere in the yurts. The female and male are represented in contrasting shapes, usually displayed in the colours green and red. The female is depicted with two arms curved upward, directly in touch with the universe — and the male with the arms bent down, towards the earthly energy.
Western culture is predominantly governed by a dualistic world view. What can we learn from cultures with a holistic worldview in which life and death, masculine and feminine, light and dark, and humans and the natural world are related in interdependent systems?
After six hours we arrive in Chon-Kemin. A camp based at an altitude of 2500 meters. I can almost touch the snowy mountain peaks. The wind makes me dizzy. Inside our yurt, a warm welcome with tea and home-made marmalade and bread awaits us. The sugar candies on the table symbolises the (sweet) intentions of our host: Nurturing a positive relationship with their guests. The meals are simple and delicious. Every meal is concluded with a few words of appreciation and a small ritual with our hands. The group prepares for a cold night. I snuggle into a sleeping bag with an extra blanket.
Most people in the group have their personal reasons for joining the Silent Journey. During these four years of organising Age of Wonderland, I met many inspiring people from all over the world, including Symbat. I decided to experience the nomadic spirit, because of their intrinsic connection with nature. Our western culture has become so remote from this way of thinking and living. Why is it so hard for us to change our lifestyle and our frame of mind, even though we are fully aware of the devastating impact it has on the planet? Why can’t we think of our resources as nothing else but a commodity? Nomadic culture shows us a different perspective on the world: a perspective that can help us navigating towards a more grateful attitude. There is a lot to learn from the knowledge of these ancestors.
During the second day of our journey we get to experience the nomadic kitchen. We are invited to make home-made Kurut (drained sour milk rolled into little balls), taste the fresh sweet of Kumis (horse milk) and we are invited to grind wheat between two stones, used for delicious treats with honey. Also the ritual killing of the sheep takes place. Nomadic people kill only what they need. All the meat, the bones, intestines, skin is eaten, or used for other purposes. After breakfast, Chynara welcomes us for her lecture about Yurts. Yurts have been a distinctive feature of life in Central Asia for thousands of years. A Yurt is a round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. Traditionally the entrance opening in the yurt is pointed towards the east. The roof (crown) is open and allows a direct connection to the universe. The symbols inside the yurts aren’t just for decoration purposes. They are sacred ornaments and represent the five elements (fire, water, earth, metal, and wood). Nomadic concepts show a well laid out infrastructure for bettering the communication between each other, especially family. Men are highly respected in nomadic culture. It is believed they should be protected, being less strong than women. And also in the very mundane, their daily routines are interwoven with meaning and good fortune. For example, wiping away their worries while doing the dishes, or separating the clothes of their spouses during laundry, are rituals believed to bring good fortune.
The third day brings us to our next destination, Bokonbaevo, located at Yssyk-Kol Lake, meaning warm lake. The lake is called the eye of the earth because of its shape and its healing powers, so the story goes. ‘Don’t forget to make a wish, it will come true. And be sure to thank the lake’, Chynara warns us. Standing at the edge of the lake, I feel the strong and cold wind on my face. In the distance, the clouds obstruct the view of the mountain peaks on the other side of the lake. Almost at the end of our Silent Journey, we get another ‘nomadic’ treat. Traditional live folk music at our Yurt camp. Unfortunately, my physical condition requires me to skip the concert. In the yurt I try to sleep. The next day, I am feeling better. The warmth embraces me. I make a wish. And express my gratitude to the lake.
On the way back to Bishkek, we stop for a last swim. The temperature of the water is perfect. I realise that experience is the only way to learn, to truly understand something. By opening all your senses, we broaden our mind. It reminds me of the book I just finished reading. Searching for Paradise by Dutch writer Arita Baaijens. She depicts the impact of the landscape on her mood very concise. The way she struggles to connect with the spirited nature is an interesting read. It helped me to open my senses in a different way. To connect with the mountains, the river, the sky, the sand, the birds. I feel grateful for this experience, for having this opportunity to take part in the Silent Journey.
Back in Bishkek, Symbat takes us to a fancy local restaurant. Suddenly, she pulls me over. Do I want to experience a Toi, she asks? Something I was eager to experience, after her Sumptuous feast dinner party in Eindhoven. A project she organised in 2015 for Age of Wonderland, to critique this local tradition of abundance which bankrupts many Kyrgyz families. Symbat changed her mind though. She sees it in a much more positive light nowadays. It functions as an alternative economic system, she explains. The atmosphere at the Toi wedding party is exuberant. We kindly thank them for their hospitality to enjoy our final dinner before taking our flight back home.