Crossing Kyrgyzstan: a woman's journey on foot through land, culture and history

In less than a fortnight, I will be returning to an ancient land of seminomadic cultures whose people are sparsely spread across high alpine meadows and sleepy villages, unchanged by time.  I arrived in that land a year ago and began my walk across the country, which spans some one thousand kilometres. It was a journey that took my breath away but also a journey of gruelling challenges across endless mountainous terrain and harsh conditions in high alpine systems and across arid steppe.

In only the second week, my tent was destroyed and my food drop was missed. My journey was delayed and my body slowly disintegrated. After walking halfway across the country, some five hundred kilometres in, I decided to put this project on hold, return home, and better prepare myself physically, mentally, and financially.  

I am now ready to return and travel through the rest of the country to record their stories and images.

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This country is Kyrgyzstan, the smallest of ‘the stans’, double landlocked in the heart of Central Asia. It is a land deeply rich with ancient history, and it was a crossroad for ancient cultures as early as 40,000 years ago. Early human ancestors reached what is today Kyrgyzstan before some decided to head for Europe, while others continued into Siberia.  Nomadic cultures moved through the land and the flow of commerce on the Silk Road brought Turks, Kyrgyz, Sogdians and other ancient travellers together.

Walking past a yurt, someone will inevitably come out with offerings of mare’s milk. Walking along country roads, each car stops to offer a lift. The nomadic people understand the precarious nature of life in the harsh climes in which they survive, and reaching out to a passer-by is deep within their hearts.  

Kyrgyz cultures, past and present, have related to life through the worldviews of Zoroastrainism, Buddhism, Nestorianism, and Islam.  They endured communism under the USSR, and now, they are a democracy yet subsist in their seminomadic ways. Bride kidnapping is still widely practiced, while families across the steppes and mountains cannot survive without strong women.

Between endless mountain chains that define the country are thousands of tributaries and gushing rivers which feed pine, spruce and fir, and nourish lush valleys of barberries and buckthorn.  As morning smoke rise from felt-covered yurts, playful marmots dart from burrow to burrow. Plodding longhaired yaks idly graze on lush grasslands and teams of horses gallop across rolling hills.

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When I walk, I feel the ground undulate beneath me.  Scree loosen underfoot while a distant wind whistles. I see eagles soar across tall skies while trickling streams beside me drip and burble. This connection to nature is one of the reasons why I keep walking into further and wilder lands. Nature is our true home and when we walk, we come into total connection with her. We intimately experience her time, place and space with the bodies that are given to us by her.

Walking and diving into adventure, in this sense, is the human journey. It is our journey. It was the ability to stand upright and stride forward that took our earliest ancestors out of the savannahs of east Africa some 60,000 years ago. Women and children braved unknown lands with their male counterparts. They left home to escape drought. They walked further from home to find food. They withstood inhospitable weather and terrain during one of the worst times of the last Ice Age to seek better opportunities. Their boldness in risk-taking and their belief that things will be okay is an ageless quality of the human spirit.

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Walking, then, defines our history; the history of human migrations, of the human mind, and of the human spirit, toughened by tens of thousands of years of obstacles and challenges. To wander further and further away from home is our nature. Whether for food, shelter, or inner transformation, we’ve always left home and adapted to change with a sense of adventure. 

Believing in our inner strength and ancestral traditions, walking across Kyrgyzstan is my journey into a better understanding of who we are and the world in which we live. It is a journey to better understand our interconnectedness and our family tree that branched out into some six thousand languages and into tens of thousands of cultures. It is a journey to understand that behind the fascinating differences defining the Kyrgyz culture are human qualities of love, hope and despair we all share across cultures.  

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Photographers: Brian Swift & Youjia Song

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