Li Juan’s experiences in the winter pasture have her traveling, living, and working with a family of Kazakh herders, who along with their new neighbors are carrying on a way of life their people have practiced in the region for centuries. With the coming of each season, they migrate with their families, yurts, and livestock to the pastureland that will offer the most favorable climate and the most grass for the coming months, moving north to higher altitudes from winter to spring to summer, and south, back to lower altitudes, from summer to fall to winter. But the year that Li Juan has chosen to accompany these nomadic pastoralists, she is told on more than one occasion, will be the last. After millennia of grazing vast swathes of land, moving from one spot to the next to allow for the grasses’ recovery and regrowth, overgrazing has now officially been deemed a problem. The reason for this—and the herders’ feelings about it—remains unclear. Regardless, the herders must settle. They will henceforth live along the Ulungur River, around what have long been the spring and fall pastures, where the government has called for land to be reclaimed for cultivation and for aid to be given to the newly relocated herders to help them adjust to their new lives.
Another age-old Kazakh tradition, besides transhumance, is handicraft and textiles. Specifically, felt-based textiles. Living with a hundreds-strong flock of sheep means ready access to plenty of wool, which the herders use to make thread and felt. They use these materials to make carpets, wall hangings, mats, bags, and bands (bau, бау) for securing parts of the yurt frame together or to the ground. Various examples of these felt products feature in Li Juan’s daily life on the winter pasture, spread, hung, and piled throughout the earthen burrow. In Chinese, Li Juan simply refers to them as “wall hangings” and “patterned rugs” or “patterned mats,” depending on which surface they decorate or cover. In this English translation, we have opted to include the romanized versions of their Kazakh names. Syrmak (сырмак), which are used as both carpets and wall hangings, are made by quilting ornamental patterns of multicolored felt onto a plain white, brown, or gray felt—a kiiz (кииз). Tekemet (текемет) are carpets made by pressing and rolling dyed-wool patterns. Ayak-kap (аяк-кап) are small embroidered felt bags, and tus-kiiz (тускииз) are cotton wall hangings that bear intricate patterns embroidered using tambour stitch. Of the process for making these, Li Juan provides only glimpses—Sister-in-law’s questionable dyeing process or Sayna sketching a ram’s horn pattern with soap to teach her young daughter how to stitch—so we encourage readers to look up how the finished products look. The same goes for the foods and the central tablecloth and main seating area (dastarkhān, дастарқан), for which Li Juan simply gives Chinese equivalents, but for which we have added the Kazakh. On the map that follows, the place-names used are, on the whole, Kazakh renderings, for examples: Dopa in Kazkh, Dure in pinyin, 杜热镇; Akehara in Kazakh, Akehala in pinyin, 阿克哈拉村. Note also that this map is an illustration of the area, rather than a precise representation, and not to scale.
Many thanks to Altinbek Guler for providing translations into English and transliterations into the Latin alphabet of all the Chinese renderings of Kazakh found in the original text.
Lastly, it might help with navigating the narrative to know that since the regions where Li Juan lives, in her everyday life and during her stay with the Cumas, are a confluence of Chinese and Kazakh culture, some of the placenames in this translation are in romanized Kazakh and others in Mandarin pinyin. Also, the characters might be one year younger than stated in the book. We are unsure if their age is based on the Gregorian calendar or the East Asian reckoning, which puts a person at the age of one at birth.
—Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan, August 2020