On the steppes of Kazakhstan, there is little Internet signal, no stable access to electricity, and few people. If you spend more than a day here, it seems civilization exists in another dimension. The world here consists of mountains, the endless sky, and absolute silence.
To visit Kazakh shepherds in the winter season, I first have to reach Qonaev, a small city in southeastern Kazakhstan, before beginning a long and arduous drive across the steppe. It's best to travel in the morning when the ground is still frozen and the car less likely to get bogged down in mud.
It is impossible to navigate these remote locations without a guide, so I was delighted to meet Talgat Abdimov, the director of a farm, in Qonaev.
Abdimov was born and raised here, so he is an old hand when it comes to traversing these roads -- in any weather. He is especially used to the excited dogs that run barking toward the moving car, sometimes darting precariously close as they nip at the tires.
As we drove, Abdimov discussed the difficulties of working in agriculture.
"No one wants to become a shepherd, except for those who were raised in this," he said. "The best shepherds are those who have been raised in cattle farming in China and Mongolia. They have a completely different attitude toward animals. And they love and understand their work."
Serik And Kulyash
Abdimov makes a quick stop at a granary to load animal feed grain, where we meet Serik, a tractor driver, who is doing the loading. The granary is on a former collective farm. Serik and his wife, Kulyash, set up a veterinary pharmacy in one of the few houses still standing.
Next to the granary rises a rusted grain current, which looks like either a Star Wars robot or a modern art installation. The electricity stopped working when the Soviet Union collapsed. Now pigeons nest there.
Serik and Kulyash lived here when the state farm was operating, and after many years away, they returned. Kulyash, the daughter of a shepherd who spent her childhood and youth on these lands, fondly remembers how shepherds lived during Soviet times.
"The salaries were good, and the electricity was free. Children studied at boarding schools in Almaty, where they could continue with their studies," she recalled. "Now it's also good. There is no one. Quiet, calm. Only my husband and I. Well, one of the workers sometimes comes."
Kulyash doesn't mind the isolation or the life. "You get used to it. My husband and I earn a living here, and our children live in the city. When we retire, we'll probably leave. I'll be 59 soon, and I'll retire in two years. Though my husband is five years younger than me; he still has to plow and plow."
On their small farm, they have several cows, a shaggy donkey, a cat, and a puppy who often gets underfoot.
Kulyash describes an idyllic life of clean air and natural foods, while new solar panels built close to their home allow them to communicate with their kids and watch online videos.
Zhamlika And Maryam
We arrive at the remote winter quarters where Zhamlika, 36, lives with his wife, Maryam, and their small son. Zhamlika was born in China but moved back to the land of his ancestors.
While he tends to the sheep in the mountains, Maryam does the housework and looks after their son. Their other son lives with his grandfather in Taldyqorghan, where he attends school.
She's a cheerful but busy woman who doesn't have time to talk to us while she pours the grain into the feeders.
When the sky darkens, Zhamlika descends from the mountains on his horse. As the sheep crowd around the feeders, Maryam opens the gates of the shed and waits for her husband to start herding the animals inside.
After the 630 heads of sheep are accounted for, the gates are securely closed for the night. The shepherd, with a weather-beaten face from years of working in these harsh lands, finally has time to talk.
"I have been working here for seven years. We also raised cattle in China, so when I came to Kazakhstan, little changed for me. But it's still not easy because there are no days off and you can't go anywhere." He added, "How can you leave sheep unattended?"
Zhamlika's salary is 200,000 Kazakh tenges (roughly $436) per month, which he says is competitive for a shepherd. As they live on the steppe, there is not much to spend money on, which allows them to save. Their cattle also provide them with milk before they are fattened up and sold in the fall.
Zhamlika and Maryam's winter hut consists of two small rooms, a kitchen, and a bedroom. In the kitchen, a gas stove sits on a table next to a gas cylinder. The only electrical appliances in the house are a mobile phone and two light bulbs that run on battery power. The bedroom contains a bed and a small wardrobe covered with a curtain.
"We live in this house during the winter months, from December to February. In March, we drive the sheep to the spring pasture, where we have a big house, with electricity and the Internet," Maryam said.
With the onset of spring, shepherds begin the most difficult part of the year: the lambing of ewes, which usually falls at the end of March. Shepherds at this time rarely sleep as they take care of the ewes giving birth, isolating them from the other sheep and carefully monitoring the lambs. Most ewes give birth overnight.
"No matter how good a shepherd is, he cannot manage alone," Abdimov explained. For every 150 ewes, a shepherd will employ an additional helper during the nearly six-week period when the lambs are born.
The next important stage is the sheep shearing, which usually takes place in late April or early May. For this, help is again required. A team of 10 people can shear up to 1,000 animals per day. Immediately after the shearing, the sheep are bathed in disinfectants and blood is taken for analysis. Vaccinations are also administered at this time.
Zhamlika's flock consists of Edilbaev sheep, which tend to be large, fat-tailed, and meaty. These sheep are popular among farmers due to their ability to gain weight quickly. They are also adapted to the severe winter frosts and summer droughts, can travel over long distances, and can thrive despite poor feeding conditions.
Abdimov, my guide, says the pandemic changed the Kazakh shepherd's market for their animals' wool and skins.
"Before, we also bred fine-fleeced breeds," he said. "China mainly bought wool and skins, but during the pandemic the borders were closed and our buyers managed to find more economical options using artificial materials. Now they don't need our fur."
But for Zhamlika, everyday life remains largely unchanged. He wakes at six in the morning, checks if the sheep are in order, heats the stove, harnesses the horse, has breakfast, and drives the animals out to the pasture. Twelve hours later, he drives them back to be counted and herded into into the shed.
Before I say goodbye, I ask Zhamlika whether he is tired of such a life.
"This is my life. I've never had any other," he said, smiling as he returns to his flock to herd it toward the familiar path up the mountains.