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Elmira Köçümkulkïzï   and   Daniel C. Waugh

Domesticated animals are central to the lives of pastoral nomads. Which animals would be important would vary depending on local geography and ecology. Central Asian nomads usually kept four or five kinds of animals--horse, sheep, goat, camel, and cow. The Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz even have a special term for them, tört tülük or besh tülük. In some areas of Eurasia other animals also were important. Nomads living in high mountainous regions raise yaks. Even though the donkey is normally associated with towns and agricultural regions in Central Asia, donkeys also are quite common in some mountainous regions and historically have been an important beast of burden.

The Chinese annals some two thousand years ago described the role of animals amongst the nomads to the north of China:

The bulk of their stock consisted of horses, oxen and sheep; but in smaller numbers they bred likewise camels, asses, mules, horse-ass hybrids, wild horses and hybrids of the same. On reaching manhood, when able to bend a bow, they were fully equipped and mounted on horseback. In time of peace they hunted for their living; but when harassed by war, they cultivated martial exercises, to fit them for invasion or attack, which was agreeable to their disposition. The taller troops were armed with bows and arrows; the shorter with swords and spears.


The Chinese, who were settled in towns primarily in agricultural regions, had a hard time appreciating the nomads' lives. The nomads continually moved, generally along predictable routes, in order to ensure that their animals always have pasturage and be near a source of water. The regular patterns of nomadic movement frequently included contacts with people of towns, with whom the nomads would exchange goods. This exchange, which brought silk and other products to the nomads and horses to the Chinese, helps explain the beginnings of the "Silk Road."


Nomads' economic and social life very much depended on their livestock. Their herds provided food such as meat and dairy products, wool and leather from which they made clothes and all kinds of other household items such as felts, quilts, pillows, and mattresses and necessary decorations for their yurts. Animals were also the most important exchange commodity. In the past, qalïng (kalïm), bride price, and qun, blood price, were paid in cattle. Today, in some rural regions of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the bride price is still paid partly with cattle in addition to money. Horses, oxen, yaks, and camels served as the means of transportation.


The importance of the animals can be seen in traditional greetings. Among the nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz it is common to ask, Mal-janïngar amanbï? i.e., "Are your cattle O.K.?" and follow that question by another traditional inquiry of well-being, Bala-çaqangar menen tinç jatasingarbi? i.e., "Are you living a peaceful life with all your children?" When two young people get married, the most important blessing or wish the Kyrgyz, especially the elders, express is the expression, Aldïngardï bala, arqangardï mal bassïn! i.e., "May you have a lot of children running in front of you and a lot of cattle behind you!" (lit.: May your front be filled with children and may your back be filled with cattle!).

Among the five domesticated animals listed above, Central Asian nomads prize horses the most, for they have a lot of value in terms their use and function. Here, along the main highway from Osh to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan we see herds of mares near the yurts or standing next to their foals which are tied from their head to a jele, a strong rope with its two ends tied a short iron qazïqs. Today, the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz, who settle in the Suusamïr Valley through which the highway passes, make money by selling koumiss [fermented mare's milk] to travelers. Mares are milked several times a day. Their foals are tied to the jele so that they do not suck their mother's udder. However, every time the mares are milked, the foals also get to drink some of the milk. After they are milked the mares go away for grazing and when their udder is full again they come themselves to their foals. Every herd has a male stallion called aygïr. In this picture the white horse which standing alone on the left is the aygïr.


The value of horses to the nomads historically goes well beyond koumiss which is important both for food and for ritual purposes. Horses are relatively easy to take care of; in contrast to other animals, they can survive through cold winters. They are also the fastest moving animals. The Central Asians have a saying, "The horse is the wings of the human being." The mountain pastures and grasslands of the steppes were particularly suited to raising horses. As Marco Polo put it when traversing the Pamir Mountains, "A lean beast grows fat here in ten days." To the Chinese, the Central Asian horses were far superior in quality to those which could be raised in the Chinese lowlands; the "heavenly horses" which "sweat blood" were the prized trade object sought from the nomads.

The horse is the animal which made possible the creation of some of the great nomadic empires such as that of the Mongols. The horse seems first to have been used in warfare to pull chariots, evidence of which can be found all across Eurasia. The saddle and mounted archery developed some time after 1000 BCE. It was the invention of the stirrup (allowing an archer to steady himself while riding) between 200 BCE and 200 CE which really made the difference in the nomads' ability to wage war from horseback. Since their lives were so closely connected with their animals, the nomads became the great specialists in cavalry warfare. Hunting from horseback developed skills such as the ability to shoot accurately from powerful bows when galloping at full speed. The ancient rock carvings in the northern valleys of inner Asia often show such hunting scenes. Nomads' horses were hardy. Compactly built (shown here is a Mongol horseman lassooing), they could travel long distances without tiring and survive in winter by digging down through the crusted snow to find grass. The Franciscan monk, John of Plano Carpini was advised when setting out to Mongolia in the 13th century not to take his European horses: "They would die, for the snow was deep and they would not know how to dig up the grass from under the snow like the Tartar horses." In fact, there were limits to the effectiveness of the nomadic armies--their size and how long they could stay in a given region very much depended on the availability of pasturage, since, as Friar John noted, "the Tatars have neither straw nor hay nor fodder." Sven Hedin, the famous Swedish explorer of Inner Asia in the early twentieth century, found that his most reliable mount in the high country of Tibet was his Ladakhi pony (here is one today used as a pack animal), a breed well acclimatized to travel abpve 12,000 feet.

Although horses would not normally be ridden just for recreation, the nomads' skill on horseback also was developed in various traditional games. These include races, mounted competitions involving struggling for possession of a headless goat carcass and carrying it across a "goal line," and some traditional courtship competitions pitting men against women to determine who was most deserving of the future bride. The sport of polo developed out of traditional riding competitions of the horse nomads and eventually spread from Central Asia both east and west to become a popular pasttime of the city elites. We know that polo was all the rage in China between the seventh and tenth centuries; players of the game included women and members of the imperial family. The photo here is of the polo grounds in Leh, the capital of Ladakh in Northern India.


Horses were important in the rituals of nomadic hospitality both because of their fermented milk (koumiss) and as gifts that would be presented to honored guests along with full harness. Mirza Muhammad Haidar, from one of the important sixteenth-century Central Asian families, desribed vividly a scene of such hospitality in which the local tribal leader Kasim Khan entertains a much more prominent khan or ruler:

On meeting, Kasim Khan approached and said: "We are men of the desert, and here there is nothing in the way of riches or formalities. Our most costly possessions are our horses, our favourite food their flesh, our most enjoyable drink their milk and the products of it. In our country are no gardens or buildings. Our chief recreation is inspecting our herds. Therefore let us go and amuse ourselves with looking at the droves of horses, and thus spend a short time together." When they came to where these were, he examined them all, and said: "I have two horses which are worth the whole herd." These two were then brought forward; (and the Khan used to say that never in his life had he seen such beautiful animals as these two). Then Kasim Khan resumed: "We men of the desert depend for our lives upon our horses; and personally I put my trust in no others than these two. I could not bear to part with either of them. But you are my esteemed guest, so I beg you to accept whichever of them appears to you the better, and to leave the other for me." Having examined the points of each, the Khan chose one which was called Ughan Turuk; and truly such another horse was never seen. Kasim Khan then selected several others from his droves, and gave them to the Khan.

He next offered the Khan a cup of the spirit koumiss, saying: "This is one of our forms of hospitality, and I shall esteem it a great favour if you will drink it." Now the Khan, a short time before this, had renounced all intoxicating liquors; so he excused himself, saying: "I have foresworn such things as this: how can I break my vow?" To which Kasim Khan replied: "I have already told you that our favourite beverage is mare's milk and its products, and of these this [koumiss] is the pleasantest. If you do not accept what I now offer you, I am totally at a loss to know what to give you in its place, in performance of the duties of hospitality. Years must elapse before such an honourable guest as yourself again enters the house of your humble host; and now I am incapable of entertaining you. How can I make reparation for this?" So saying he hung down his head with shame, and marks of sorrow appeared upon his face. Thereupon, for his host's sake, the Khan drank the spirit to the dregs, to the great joy of Kasim Khan. Festivities then began, and during twenty days they continued to indulge together in quaffing cups of the spirit koumiss.

Although this may seem odd to Western sensibilities, the respect accorded to horses as the most important animal would extend to their sacrifice for religious and other rituals such as marriages, funerals and memorial feasts. Ancient burials of important people often included many horses, so that their owners be equipped for travel in the afterlife. Friar John described in some detail the rituals for a Mongol burial:

...They bury with him a mare and her foal and a horse with bridle and saddle, and another horse they eat and fill its skin with straw, and this they stick up on two or four poles, so that in the next world he may have a dwelling in which to make his abode and a mare to provide him with milk, and that he may be able to increase his horses and have horses on which to ride. The bones of the horse which they eat they burn for his soul...

We know from burials of Mongol notables in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that the harnesses and saddles would be often be decorated with costly gold and silver. It is a mark of particular honor to sacrifice an animal as valuable as a horse; this practice continues in Central Asia today. Whereas people in other societies generally consider horse meat to be something inferior (the very thought of eating it is offputting), Central Asian nomads consider horse meat a delicacy, and are especially fond of horse sausage.

Another indication of people's love for horses can be found in oral epics of Central Asian nomads. Almost all epic heroes possess a horse with which they grow up together. For example, in the Kyrgyz epic Manas, the hero Manas' horse Akkula is born at the same time when Manas is born. All the horses in epics have special names which are related to their quality and color. In some older epics horses have the ability to talk and fly, for they advise the hero on making certain decisions and save them from dangerous situations. It is important to note that the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz use the term janïbar, i.e., "one which has a soul" only in reference to a horse.

Many societies decorate their riding and work animals presumably both as a mark of their respect for them and also as a mark of the owner's wealth and taste. In the past, it would be common at least for the wealthy to decorated their horses with beautiful leather coverings and harness with silver designs. Some of the most beautiful traditional textiles were woven or embroidered to be used on animals, among them head decorations for camels, saddle bags and saddle cloths. In Central Asia today, one is much less likely to see such decoration, although practical items such as the qurjun, a saddle bag, are still very common, even if the designs now are not always the traditional ones. The qurjun is made from sheep or camel's wool, or occasionally from cotton. The designs on and the color of the qurjun vary from region to region. Ordinary white qurjuns do not usually have designs. In the past, among the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz, a qurjun was part of the girl's dowry when she got married. Parents would send their daughter to her husband's home on a nicely decorated horse with a special saddlebag which was filled with various gifts to be given to her husband's relatives.

Central Asian saddles (eer) are made from hard wood such as walnut and juniper tree. As this example shows, their shape is similar to that of the "Western saddle" known in the United States, which makes it easy for the rider to keep his or her seat if the hands are occupied. These saddles are quite comfortable, something that is very important where nomads may be on horseback for long periods of time. In the past, only jïgaç ustas, "carpenters" were able to make good saddles as well as yurt frames. Most often saddles were decorated with silver ornaments and nails.

A köç, i.e., nomadic movement from pasture to pasture was a special occasion among the Central Asian nomads and a significant enough part of nomadic life to be described in some Kyrgyz oral epics. The scene here shows Kyrgyz in Western China returning in late summer from their pastures; it is not uncommon still in Mongolia to see caravans following the seasonal pattern of movement between permanent winter residences in towns and the mountain pastures in the Altai. Such migrations traditionally were quite festive. The caravan of animals would be loaded with yurts and other belongings and covered with colorful felts and carpets. The people, especially women, wore their nice colorful clothing and also decorated their horses and camels.


In the past people moved in larger groups with all the clan or tribe members. Usually the tribal leader or the aksakal, a white bearded elderly man, led the köç on horseback. In some wealthy families, where the man had two wives, the first wife, baybiçe, led the köç while the husband rode at the very end to make sure that no one was left behind. As in this picture, women carried their babies in front of them. Children were taught to ride horse at the very young age of 4 to 5 years. Those young children who could not ride the horse alone during long movements sat behind on their mother's or father's or other relative's horse. The child would sit on a special seat called böktörünçök made of a rolled blanket or mattress. On their long journey to their new encampment, people go through several summer pastures of other tribes and clans. When the köç passes by other encampments, people offer them food and drinks such as bread, ayran (yogurt), and koumiss to show their hospitality and wish them safe journey.

Of course in many areas where modern transportation is available and a network of roads has been built (one sees this, for example, in some regions of Central Kyrgyzstan), trucks may be used at the beginning and end of the season to transport family goods and even the smaller animals. It is not uncommon in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia to see vehicles parked alongside the Mongols' gers (yurts).


The camel clearly was the most important animal for the development of the long-distance overland trade across Asia. It was first domesticated between 4000 and 3000 BCE, either in southwest Arabia or northeast Africa. The Bible indicates that by 1000 BCE camels were considered to be valuable animals in the Near East, and by around 100 BCE the Chinese had become aware of the camel's value thanks to the interaction with the steppe nomads. The caravan trade along the Silk Road tended to involve the one-humped dromedary in western Asia and the two-humped Bactrian camel in the higher and colder regions of central and eastern Asia (the ones shown here are in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia). The evidence about the importance of the Bactrian camel along the trade routes coincides with our other information about the opening of the "silk routes" across Eurasia.

Transport by camels was really quite cost-effective. They do not require roads, as would carts, and can carry loads averaging as much as 500 pounds. Camels can survive on the sparse vegetation in dry regions, and are known, of course, for the fact that they can go for days without drinking. They do not store water but rather are very efficient in using it. The camel's value for inner Asian trade continued into the twentieth century, when travelers would still encounter extensive caravans plodding across the desert. Joining them was at times the only way for an outsider to penetrate regions far from urban centers. In settled regions, camels occasionally are used to pull plows, and it is fairly common to see them hitched to carts. The one here is in Agra, India, near the Taj Mahal. European explorers traveling across the deserts of the Central Asian regions of the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sometimes rode in wagons pulled by two or three camels--an interesting variant on the horse-drawn stage-coaches familiar in the American West.

The camel is probably the second most respected animal for the nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. There are some legends and folktales about camels in Central Asian oral literature. The birth of an ak taylak, white baby camel, was and still is considered equal to the birth of a human baby. Traditionally, among the Central Asians when a baby is born the person who hears the news first informs the relatives by saying the word Süyünçü! (lit.: süyün - to be happy, i.e., "Happy news!") And people give him or her all kinds of gifts. Well-off maternal grandparents usually give the person a sheep or calf. In the same way, when a white baby camel is born, the person who sees it first, informs the owner by saying Süyünçü! Then the owner should give the person a gift depending on his wealth. If the owner is wealthy, he usually gives a sheep or horse. Women tie a white scarf around the head of the mother camel after she gives birth. They also put may, butter, in the baby camel's mouth.

While those who grow up in societies far from camels would have a hard time romanticizing what seem at first glance to be ungainly beasts, since they are so valued camels are in fact the subject of lyrical songs and poetry in many cultures. A third-century Chinese author wrote how the camel "swiftly dashes over the shifting sands. It manifests is merit in dangerous places; it has secret understanding of springs and sources; subtle indeed is its knowledge." Chinese poetry contains numerous allusions to camel caravans, and there were legends about flying camels somewhere in the mountains of the Western Regions. Glazed ceramic statues of camels, often accompanied by their drivers and loaded with goods, have been found in many Chinese tombs; clearly they were perceived as playing an important role in the afterlife. The image here is a rubbing from a tile in a Chinese tomb.

Like other animals of the nomads, camels provide some essential products for daily life. The thick camel wool is used to make ropes, cloth and felt. The Kazakhs make a drink called shubat from camel's milk, and camel milk yougurt and cheese are consumed even today by the Mongols living in the northern regions of the Gobi desert.


For many centuries, oxen were among the draft animals used by nomadic Mongols and Kazakhs to draw carts. Travelers in the Mongol Empire such as the Moroccan Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century rode in carts. He wrote: "These people call a waggon araba. They are waggons with four large wheels, some of them drawn by two horses, and some drawn by more than two, and they are drawn also by oxen and camels, according to the weight or lightness of the waggon." Marco Polo described how large yurts might be transported on such carts, rather than dismantled. The ox-carts in Mongolia today are still constructed by traditional methods and are quite suitable for movement across flat grasslands such as the area near the historic capital of the Mongol Empire, Karakorum. The Kyrgyz, on the other hand, did not use carts at all because the rough terrain was not suitable for them.


Yaks have traditionally been the main animal for nomads in many parts of Tibet, since they adapt uniquely well to altitudes of 14,000-18,000 feet. Not knowing their limitations when he tried somewhat foolishly to climb 24,700-ft. Mt. Mustagh Ata in the 1890s, Sven Hedin complained that his yaks transporting his camping gear had conked out at about 20,000 feet! Yaks' coats are long and shaggy, and the wool particularly warm; their milk is especially rich in butter fat. Shown here is a yak being milked in Ladakh, the Tibetan culture area of northern India. In some areas (for example in the Karakorum Mountains of Northern Pakistan, a cross between a yak and a cow (known as a dzo) is common. Yaks may be seen in the Pamirs, where they are raised and even ridden by Kyrgyz herders in Western Xinjiang. Yaks would seem to rival donkeys for stubbornness. Although bulky animals, they show some agility on steep slopes, to the extent that one of the local guides in the Pamirs even tried to persuade a presumably gullible European that yaks negotiated awkward places on narrow paths by walking around them on their hind legs. Despite their somewhat intimidating appearance, most domesticated yaks are quite shy. The early European explorers of Inner Asia such as Sven Hedin, who liked to dramatize the dangers they experienced, reported dangerous encounters with wild yaks though. Even though the main herding animals in the Pamir-Alai mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan today are sheep and cows, yaks may also be found there in the pastures below the imposing rock faces.

Sheep, goats and wool products

The economic life of nomads across much of Eurasia often has depended above all on flocks of sheep or goats. Here we see them in pastures in the Pamirs, in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, and in the Gez River valley south of Kashgar in Xinjiang. They supply milk and meat; the fat of the tails of certain varieties of sheep is an essential part of many diets and may commonly be seen in butcher shops of markets such as the bazaar in Kashgar. In economic terms, sheep and goats are prized above all for their valuable wool. In regions such as southern Tibet and Ladakh in northern India today, raising goats is very lucrative, their hair being used to weave gossamer-thin shawls of great value. Historically the trade in that wool and the weavings from it formed a very significant part of the economy of Kashmir (hence the term "cashmere" used to refer to fine woolen garments today).

The shearing of sheep normally is done in early spring before people leave for the mountain pastures, although one also sees shearing being done in the mountains in late summer. Much of the raw wool is sold in towns, but many objects needed for everyday life are still made by the herding families. For example, the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz still make felt in traditional way. After the wool is sheared people soften it by beating hard with special smoothened sticks called saboo (from the verb saba - to beat; "beating [stick]") which are about one and a half meters long. A certain amount of wool is placed on a tarp and several people sit in a circle and start beating it very hard with two sticks to make it soft and to get rid of its dirt and dust. Then the wool is washed and ready to make felt. The felt is produced by rolling up a mat of raw wool and pressing it. Felts are valued for their insulating properties in covering yurts and are used as well for rugs and saddle cloths. Many are decorated either by pressing into the wool colored designs or sewing them on. The antiquity of such techniques can be seen in the beautiful felts excavated from frozen tombs in Mongolia that date back more than 2000 years.

To make wool threads for decorating shïrdak felts, the wool is spun by hand with the help of iyik, a spindle which is to be seen in this picture taken amongs the Kyrgyz in the mountains of Western Xinjiang. In the given example, the spindle whorl has been made from the knee bone of a yak. In other areas, some people use a modern spinning wheel operated by a foot pedal. The wool thread is also used to weave carpets and cloths such as the long, narrow decorative strips used to wrap the frame of a yurt. While spinning is normally done by women, in some regions such as Ladakh the men both spin and weave.

Central Asians usually make their own quilts and pillows rather than buy factory-made ones. In cotton-producing regions (this generally means the lowland river valleys) people normally use cotton for making quilts and pillows. In other regions of Central Asia, people still use wool to make quilts. Hand-made quilts are still popular because every girl is given a dowry when she gets married and the main dowry consists of hand-made quilts, mattresses, and pillows stuffed with wool or cotton and covered with colorful soft textiles. When the coverings get dirty or if the wool or cotton gets too thin, people just take them apart, wash the coverings and put in a new stuffing. The photo here shows quilts being stuffed by Kyrgyz women in Western Xinjiang. During the day the sleeping quilts will be carefully stacked at one side of a hut or yurt.


From animal skin nomads made clothes such as pants, vests, hats, shoes, horse harness and various household items including dishes. çanaç, a long leather container in which the mare's milk is fermented is usually made from the goat's skin. The skin is softened by spreading bitter ayran (yogurt) on it. Then two people soften it by stretching by the edges which makes it easier for removing any remaining flesh from it. In rural Central Asia people still use supras, a special round shaped "table cloth" made from leather which is used for storing some flour. When women make and roll dough they spread the supra underneath the large bowl so that the flour does not spill on the ground. Unlike çanaç, from which all the hair has been removed, the exterior side of supra has wool. Traditional dowries also included a supra, a large wooden cutting board, ash takta, and short and long wooden rollers called ubölük and oktoo.

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© 2002 Elmira Köçümkulkïzï and Daniel C. Waugh.

Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. Additional funding has been provided by the Silkroad Foundation (Saratoga, California).