China's Kazakhs: livestock breeders and yurt builders

Norlan and Norbeti are newlyweds. They celebrated their nuptials last winter, but it was only in May that they moved into their own felt yurt (tent) in White Poplar Valley on the slopes of the snowcapped Tianshan Mountains.

They will stay in their yurt until September, when they and their whole Victory Production Brigade will move back with their sheep, goats, cattle, and horses to their winter quarters farther down the mountain slopes.

I came across Norlan and Norbeti on an idyllic patch of moist greensward looking out across alpine pastures. They were helping Norlan's mother build another yurt, beside their own, for the rest of the family - a younger brother, 17, and three sisters, the oldest of whom is 19.

Norlan is a Kazakh, a descendant of nomadic horsemen who helped Genghis Khan sweep across Central Asia and a great deal of Russia. Today the Kazakhs, a Turkic people like their neighbors the Uighurs, number 890,000 in Xinjiang, the former Chinese Turkestan, where they have their own autonomous district near the Soviet border.

There are more Kazakhs on the Soviet side of the border, where they constitute the Republic of Kazakhstan, one of the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union. (But the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan are far outnumbered by non-Kazakh immigrants from Russia and other Soviet republics.)

The Kazakhs are no longer nomadic. But they are horsemen and livestock breeders par excellence, moving (as do Norlan and Norbeti) with their herds from well-defined winter pastures to summer grazing grounds.

The young couple invited me inside their yurt, which was immaculate and quite spacious. Their walls and ceiling are of thick white felt, wrapped around a framework of sticks, crisscrossed like a lattice. At the top there is an opening for air to circulate, and part way to the top another small opening for a chimney should a stove be used indoors.

Inside, the place of honor is occupied by an iron bedstead, on which are neatly piled boldly patterned handmade carpets. A fringed canopy hangs above the bed. The felt covering of the tent is secured to the framework of poles and sticks by woven strips of wool in bright colorful patterns. These, and the cushions above the bed, are the handiwork of Norbeti.

Norlan owns one horse, five cows, 25 sheep, three goats. He used to have twice as many sheep, but sold them last year to pay for his wedding, receiving about 80 yuan (about $41) per sheep. He is now once again gradually building up his flock.

Norlan also does collective work for the production brigade. For this work he was paid about 600 yuan last year. Following Kazakh custom, his wife and mother do not work. But his unmarried sister keeps the production brigade's books, and his brother has just started to work as a herdsman, like Norlan himself. His sister will stop working when she gets married, probably in a couple of years.

The Victory Production Brigade to which Norlan belongs is one of three brigades specializing in livestock-raising belonging to the East Wind commune. The commune, with a total population of 8,000, also has a brigade specializing in farming.

Norlan's father died when the boy was 15 years old. Norlan went to work immediately, but his family required support from commune funds - about 300 yuan or $155 per year - until recently when his sister and brother began to work. Because of this support his sister was able to complete high school and two younger sisters are at school now.

We went outside to see how the yurt Norlan's mother was making was progressing. The framework was nearly complete, but the doorposts and the ridge poles had yet to be hammered in. ''It won't take us long,'' said Nolan. ''Maybe another hour or two.'' His brother, taking time off, was sprawled on the grass listening to a radio blaring songs in Uighur, a related language.

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