“In the old calendar”, Suiunbek tells me, “the one that goes by the moons, today is тopoл, the day of the changes”. We smile ruefully at each other, tucking scarves and blankets closer in and nursing cups of hot, sweet tea. The last day in September, marked by a glowing full moon hanging low in the sky, which we were sitting and watching through clouds of our breath in the night, had bought with it the end of summer. After five months of soaring heat and no rain, suddenly today the heavens opened and the temperature plummeted. Frost crystals formed on the trees overnight, and once again the mountains were blanketed with snow. With the clear, crisp air, gloves and hats were once more dug out from the bottom of cupboards where they had all but been forgotten over the past months.
Suiunbek had been telling me the folklore tales from his childhood, stories of the King of Snakes with his palace of gold, of creatures in the lakes and beasts in the forests, and with the coming of winter with it’s dark nights and cold days, the tales, he said, reflected the changing starkness of the landscape.
The harvest season, when many of the young and strong went to the jailoos to gather the grasses for drying into hay to keep the livestock going through the deep winters, took Suiunbek also up into the mountains, armed with a scythe. Here, he would spend the days cutting through vast swathes of swaying grass, bundling in up and tying it off with string, stacked into to high mounds awaiting the transport trucks that would take it off around the country, and the local farmers who would buy what they could, and laden down their donkeys with fodder. One year, his family’s harvest was happenning late, several members had been recovering from illness over the late summer, and happened to coincide with тopoл. Although normally the shephers, hunters, and harvesters would take refuge from the night under hastily made shelters of branches made into lean-tos, because it was late in the season, and late in the evening by the time the day’s work had finished, Suiunbek and his cousins and uncles couldn’t find anywhere suitable. With dusk, rain poured from the sky onto the four men huddled over a dying fire, rubbing their hands together and warming their backs on the flames. Unable to find cover and unable to sleep, Suiunbek’s old uncle started to tell them a story. The story that Suiunbek repeated to me under the full moon in the first hours of October.
Two hunters had been charged with looking after the villager’s livestock and bales of hay. It was quiet, it was dark, and with the coming of winter in the mountains, it was cold. As the men sat sleepily on the backs of their horses, scanning the жайлоо, the jailoos, for wolves sheathed in shadows, coats pulled tightly across their bodies and woollen hats nestled down low over their ears and cheeks, one motioned across the valley, to an pinprick glow and thin column of smoke curling into the stars. The early weeks of winter were no time for campers in the increasingly inhospitable, and anyway, this was a remote spot, known only to those whose ancestors had inhabited it for generations. They shrugged themselves into consciousness and decided to go and see. Pushing their horses through autumn leaves and midnight frost, they crossed the jailoo and started up the valley on the other side. As they neared, and the pinprick grew, they became aware, even on their moving horses, of an eerie whistling wind and rustling undergrowth. Slowly to a walk, the horses edged closer to each other, drawing comfort from each other and blowing nervously into the air. The men glanced around apprehensively, feeling the tension emanating from their mounts, but these were the proud nomads so their shouldered their fears and turned to track that scaled the mountain side, bringing them ever closer to the fire. As they slowly climbed, having to urge the horses, and steel themselves, through every step, the air grew colder still, and it seemed that all noise was falling away, rolling back past them and down the mountain. They rounded a last corner, keeping an eye on the orange crackling glow just visible through the trees, and found themselves in a clearing. Darkness reigned uninterrupted. All traces of the fire, and whoever had been around it, had seemingly disappeared instantly. There was no burnt wood, no ash, and yet a faint smell of woodstoke lurked in the air. Unnerved, the two riders looked at each other, at the clearing, and out into the darkness. As they tried to calm their staccato heartbeats, and laid reassuring hands on their side-stepping horse who were fighting to be allowed to listen to instict and flee, the men turned back to the jailoo. And stopped short. Across the valley was a pinprick glow and a curl of smoke. Bewildered and frightened in equal measure, there was little to do but head back to where there was a banked fire and a samovar with the promise of warming, calming tea. And now, the orange glow. Apprehensively making their way down the path, down the valley, and across the jailoo, once more the horses slowed and fought for their head as they neared the edge of the forest of connifers and pines on the other side. Both men kept their eyes fixed on the glow, wanting to know what was happening. They made their way around the haybales, wanting to stay brave, wanting to show the courage for which the fierce, proud nomads were known. And then, before they could break into the first line of trees, once again with no warning and with no trace, the fire disappeared. With widened, incredulous eyes, as the truth crashed around them, they looked at each other and mouthed the same word, “албарыс”.
Into English, Suiunbek translated this as closely as he could. These people, although barely people he said, were the reclusive mystics, the hermit magic men, who used to dwell in the mountain that was the home of his family, and dealt in the dark and dangerous occult. With the coming of the Soviets, rumour had it that they had fled to only the deepest recesses of the highest mountains, banished by a lack of belief, to places where the sunlight wouldn’t reach them, let alone the soldiers of the USSR. And here, Suiunbek explained, they had waited, bided their time, until a moment when they could return to their mountains, to their homes, and to their crafts. Despite their great power, and great menace, and despite the peril that faces anyone who crosses their paths, the Kyrgyz people and the mystics had existed almost in harmony. Their presence in the high mountains kept the hunters and shephers alert, kept the disobedient children from running too far from the bosom of their villages, and kept the respect for the mountains, with their potential danger, alive. Their marked absense for many decades had started to see this crumble. “But now”, Suiunbek looked at me with a mix of solemnity that was fitting with the gravity of the story, and a boyish exciement at the thought of the legends returning, “they are coming back”.
Having listened with baited breathe to the story, and watched Suiunbek absorb the role of the storyteller, one he took on with great conviction and an entrancing quality, it is easy to see how the oral folklore tradition has remained such a central part of Kyrgyz identity. From the epics of Manas, to the tales of old, and often with a musical accompaniment, storytelling by old men in felt kalpacs is a powerful way to learn and teach captive audiences about the land known as Kyrgyzstan.