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Behind the hill covered in dry grass, a panoramic view of the snow-clad Altai Mountains unfolds. Down below, there lies an abandoned stable, a heap of forage, and a quaint wooden square house, as rustic as can be. The wind blows relentlessly, and the cold bites my bones. I haven’t quite acclimated to the subzero temperatures, and my autumn attire is no longer sufficient. Without delay, I step out of Karbai’s UAZ. Karbai is my driver, a big and jovial Kazakh with a beret perched on his head. He keeps repeating « one, two… » or « it’s ok? » to ensure that everything is going smoothly, just like that first day when he returned from the supermarket with two beer cans, his smile stretching from ear to ear. Little did we know that those cans would later provide comfort when one of the UAZ’s tires had the brilliant idea to mate with a nail, a few hours after the car already broke in the middle of nowhere.

I step inside through a wooden door covered with a worn piece of woolen carpet. It creaks. I feel enveloped by a wave of warmth. The interior is dimly lit, illuminated by a broken window covered with plastic—oh gosh, I adore those lights! On the floor, there’s a goatskin with fur against the dusty ground, upon which a pile of entrails and another of meat are laid out. It’s a common sight in these Kazakh shepherd’s homes, but it never fails to stir my stomach. I can’t help but imagine that tiny animal frolicking on the steppe with its friends just a few hours ago, and suddenly, the cute little creature has become meat. Tchokeu, the mistress of the house, with rosy cheeks from the cold and green eyes, welcomes me with a warm smile that seems somewhat incongruent with her current activity: she’s busy scrubbing the head and paws of the lifeless creature with a steel sponge in a basin filled with black water. The two children are more reserved. Here, they exude an impressive shyness. Despite my years of experience in trying to be amusing and make them laugh, I feel like I’m making silly faces and sounds in front of an impenetrable wall. Seated in a corner near the stove, at a respectful distance, the young ones observe me with bright, almost unblinking eyes. They scrutinize me for a long time, thoroughly. It takes a good hour before the slightest trace of amusement starts to emerge on their plump faces, especially after the younger one seeks solace in his mother’s arms, shedding a few tears.

Preparing dinner takes up the entire day. The aroma of boiling guts pervades the room and will remain for the whole day. I wonder how I can gracefully avoid it. Should I feign a sudden stomachache? Explain that I simply can’t ingest it? I carefully consider my options. I’m more than willing to adapt from my nearly vegetarian diet to a meaty one, given the meat-centric culture of this place. However, there are limits, and guts is where I draw the line. I just can’t bring myself to eat it. As night approaches, we switch on the light. In all the houses in this region, the same three-branched LED light prevails, casting a harsh, unforgiving illumination powered by a car battery charged by an old solar panel. Family and friends enter the house. With each entrance, a cold draft sweeps. Among the Kazakhs, it’s tradition to serve copious amounts of salted milk tea to the extent that I’ve never seen any of them drinking water. On the table, an abundance of customary treats awaits: qurt (pronounced « korrrt » with rolled Rs), an exceptionally hard cheese that could almost break your teeth; irimshik, another cheese with a softer texture resembling a soft biscuit, although, according to Karbai, it has a reputation to make you fart; butter; thick cream; bauirsak, small pastries varying in crunchiness based on their freshness; sugar cubes for dipping into the tea and letting them dissolve on the tongue, candies, cookies, and more. These appetizers serve as both breakfast and snacks, nibbled on throughout the day, not just by family but also by numerous passersby, as the Kazakhs are known for their sociable nature. Here, you enter others’ homes as if they were your own, taking a seat on a bench or stool, and then waiting for the lady of the house to serve you the first bowl of tea before diving into the assortment of food on the table. Once the bowl is emptied, whether it’s the first or the tenth, it’s never left vacant for more than a few seconds. Such impoliteness would not be tolerated by the hosts or anyone at the table, who would promptly refill it or signal the lady of the house to do so. I quickly learn the word « toydem, » meaning « I’m full, » which I say while placing my hand on my belly. It has the merit of eliciting laughter and sparing me from a overfeeding explosion.

The dreaded mealtime has arrived. I’m invited to wash my hands using a jug of water poured by a young guy to cleanse our black-covered fingers. Guests of all ages gather around the table. The centerpiece is the traditional Kazakh dish called beshbarmak, which means “five fingers” and indeed requires all them fingers to be enjoyed without creating a mess. After a brief Arabic prayer and a ceremonial passing of our hands in front of our faces, the feast begins. Two men take charge of the guts, skillfully slicing them with large knives, helping themselves in the process, while the hungry guests reach for the pieces tossed into the dish. They alternate between liver, intestines, <insert_your_favourite_gut>, and pieces of sticky dough, which forms the foundation of the meal. If the piece you pick doesn’t quite suit your taste, you can either leave it in place or throw it towards your neighbour to pick a better one—no fuss is made. Everything has been cooked with the guts, but I’m lucky. Amid the lovecraftian-shaped morsels, there’s also some fine fesh meat. I take a refined approach and keep an eye on the small meat chunks scattered among the guts, taking the time to chew each bite to make it last longer: when you’re not eating or reaching for food, there’s always someone gently encouraging you to « enjoy yourself. »

Then comes the moment to tackle the goat’s head. The skilled butcher hands me a piece, beaming with pride to honor me. Such a smile means I have no choice. To my surprise, it tastes OK, although the texture doesn’t encourage me to relive the experience. Quickly, the head turns into a skull. Knives are plunged into it to extract the juicy eyes and the brain, a kind of sticky paste. My uncomfortable look is enough to convey that I’m not tempted, but they still offer me a piece, laughing about it—oh, those tourists, so delicate… The meal only lasts a few intense minutes. The scattered bones around the dish form a circle. I feel like I’ve witnessed a pack of wolves feasting on their prey. Now satiated, the wild Kazakhs turn back into nice and gentle humans. We open the first bottle of vodka, then the next. Tomorrow is the big day of the autumn migration, and it’s worth celebrating. There are only two « shooters » in the house, so we pair up as drinking buddies, and the bottles empty within minutes. I love their surprise and laughter each time I down my—double?—shooter, while they seem to approach it more cautiously—haha! Who’s the delicate tourist now? To wash away the taste, a sip of milk tea or a sugar cube do the trick. After a few drinks, we understand each other much better, even though we’re still limited to the same handful of words. The alcohol is just starting to take effect when the evening comes to an end, and everyone gets up to return home. What? Already? I feel sad. This is such a peculiar way of partying… We bring out the thin mattresses, set them up on the floor, add a few blankets, and then burrow in for a cold and short night.

Being the guest holds a certain privilege. In the morning, when it’s -1000°C, I’m excused from lighting the fire. I get roused by a noise… or perhaps is it the light? I cast a glance around. The beds are still filled with people in the throes of slumber. I can go back to sleep. I wake up for a second time around 5:30. I’m gently told it’s not my hour yet. Great! 6:00, my alarm rings. This time, it’s for real. The breakfast table is laid out with steaming hot tea, and the family is loading the back of their enormous Soviet truck—surely a veteran of countless migrations—with all their possessions. I offer a hand, then join Nauka, 25 years old, and Koghul, 18 years old, with the herd. This time, I’m wearing my friend Oko’s—whom I met a decade ago among the Tsaatans— winter del, a Mongolian wool tunic. I’d rather be too warm than too cold. The night brought snowfall. The golden steppe is now dusted with a delicate white layer, creating beautiful shades of colour as the sun rises. In the distance, the peaks are covered in enough snow to last until next summer. Winter is now flirting with the autumn pastures, signaling the start of the migration, and we’re not alone on the road. Nauka and Koghul take turns between the horse and the motorcycle to gather and guide the livestock, unabashedly making all sorts of noises and honking like mad. I, on the other hand, mostly walk. Walking lends a deliberate pace to this transhumance. The sound of the cows’ hooves on the firm ground, the goat kids’ bleating as they search for their mothers, the gentle melodies of the cold wind brushing through the valleys, the horses’ farts… All these subtle details can only be savored by taking your time and distancing yourself from the engines. Yet after several hours, it’s not unpleasant to catch a ride on a motorcycle to the nearest house for a steaming cup of tea and a snack. Following a little tense moment where we prevented our herd from mingling with another and played traffic police to get them across a bridge, we cross paths with the family’s fully-loaded truck, overflowing with forage. We have forgotten a sheep, which had been tethered to the top of the pile. They lower it down for us before we part ways once more.

Young Kazakhs appear to have a mixed view of this tradition. They take pleasure in participating in the migrations that occur between two and four times a year. However, the idea of becoming a shepherd is out of the question for them. For instance, Nauka studied business in Ulan-Bator and now runs his own business, selling coal to the villagers for heating. Koghul, on the other hand, is still a student and aspires to become an architect. It seems that only the young who currently lack access to education will continue in the footsteps of their ancestors. As night falls, Nauka takes me on his motorcycle. Initially, I think it’s for another tea break, but this time he drops me off at the family’s house where we will spend the night. I appreciate the gesture, even though I feel a bit frustrated to once again be privileged into warm indoors while they’re out in the cold herding the animals. Before departing, he fills an old soda bottle with milk tea for Koghul, who will gulp it down in a matter of minutes. Kazakhs seem to have oversized stomachs and bladders; I can’t think of any other explanation for their capacity to consume such colossal quantities of tea. When I ask Nauka how many bowls he has in the morning, he replies, « Oh, maybe ten? »

The following day unfolds in the same manner. Walking, honking, shouting, and tossing rocks to gather a herd that spreads out at the rhythm of valley openings. And… drinking tea, of course. This time, we stop at a Mongolian yurt. Mongols of the Tuva ethnicity coexist with the majority of Kazakhs in these valleys. A man is busy treating his sheep for ticks. As always, he asks me if I’m married and if I have children. Here, families with four or more children are the norm. People find it hard to understand that us Westerners might not want or have children, and they look saddened when they learn of it. So, when I explain, he explicitly conveys with his hands and hips’ moves that I should fuck more, for which we share a hearty laugh. The snow begins to fall again. We overlook a river with a panoramic view of the flat valley stretching all around. Some leaning conifers suggest that the wind that’s been battering us for several days is no exception. The sight of Nauka and Koghul working hard to keep the herd together takes on an epic quality. It feels like a wintry Western with sheep instead of cows—and, well, a motorcycle that stands out a bit.

The sky remains gray, and the ground, which had been stripped of snow, is once again covered in white. The mist-shrouded mountains take on an appearance reminiscent of Asian calligraphy. The herd forms chaotic lines, resembling a slow, brownish flow spreading across the freshly blanketed valley, with sporadic bleats serving as a background soundtrack. It’s the end of the day, and we’re tired, so we let loose. Shouting and making all sorts of noises to motivate the herd, which is also starting to lag, warms us up and provides some amusement. « The winter home is on the other side of the pass, » Nauka informs me. It’s not very close, especially with the herd. But like the previous day, as night falls, he brings me towards the house. By the time I become aware of it, it’s already too late to turn back. He stops his motorcycle. It’s dark, and the slope is too steep for both of us to ride together. He indicates that he’ll lead the way, and I should follow on foot. I ascend, and I start to sweat in my winter del. Upon reaching the top of the pass, Bukhai, the family’s father, awaits me with his motorcycle. He speeds downhill on the snow, bathed in the yellow glow of the headlight, all the way to the winter house. I grip the seat, imagining the motorcycle skidding at any moment. I really don’t like those two-wheelers! We haven’t seen each other for just two days, but I feel immense joy in reuniting with the family in this remote house in the middle of nowhere, and the joy is mutual. When it’s time to part ways, in addition to the broad smiles, they fill my pockets with qurt.

It’s now time to return to the town. I climb onto the motorcycle with Nauka and Koghul. Being close to each other helps us fight the cold. On a motorcycle, warmth dissipates as you pick up speed, and it’s all downhill from here. The full moon bathes the snowy ground and the surrounding mountains in its soft light. I feel like I’m floating in a dreamlike landscape, and a profound sense of contentment fills me to the point where I forget about the cold. I came here in search of adventure, excitement, and, even though it was just for a few days, I’ve lived through one of my best travel experiences ever. Rakhmet! — Thank you!


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