In the Land of Genghis Khan
Wind-swept Chuya Steppe along Russia's southern border is home to Kazakh sheepherders
CHUYA STEPPE, RUSSIA — All you can feel, all you can think about, is the wind. A bitter, relentless, perpetual gale, blowing the high steppe clean of everything not anchored there by an effort of will.
Tugging at your coat collar, flattening the sheeps' wool against their bodies, whipping at the horse's saddle cloth, it is a wind that chills and desiccates as it blows.
It dries shepherd Atlant Kasyanov's face to a leathery parchment; it dries the pressed cakes of sheep dung outside his hut into slow-burning fuel; it dries and preserves the strips of mutton hung over the cabin's entrance door into durable rations.
The wind has blown here this fiercely for thousands of years. Eight centuries ago, it tore at the banners of Genghis Khan's Golden Horde, the mounted warriors who swept out of Mongolia across this barren plateau, 7,500 feet in the mountains.
A couple of miles from the Kasyanovs' solitary hut, a 200-foot cliff stands full face against the wind. It is honeycombed with caves and tunnels that were used as a primitive foundry to smelt metals, making use of the wind's blast as natural bellows.
Local lore has it that Genghis Khan's warriors beat out their scimitars and breastplates beneath this cliff. Archaeologists who have inspected the site are skeptical. The waste left by the ancient smiths is a millennium and a half older than the Horde, they say, and was more likely forged by Scythian tribesmen before the time of Jesus.
Mr. Kasyanov's concerns are more immediate - keeping his flock healthy and himself warm. Wrapped tightly against the chilly gusts, he wheels his horse and gallops around his tightly bunched sheep as they graze.
Keeping order just down wind, responding more to his own whims than his master's whistles, a bounding yapping dog frolics.
Step inside his sturdy flat-roofed log cabin, shut the door behind you, and you are enveloped by the warmth of the stove and a faint, not unpleasantly sheepy smell hanging in the air.
By the stove, two sick lambs huddle against the wall. Under the blankets on a low cot, two small boys huddle against each other.
The arrival of visitors turns Kasyanov's young wife, Bakhtagul, away from her routine chores and jogs an ancient ritual of hospitality into motion. Tea is served in the local manner, with ewe's milk, thickened by a little flour and a pinch of salt. To eat, there is a bowl of lightly fried balls of bread dough.
The Kasyanovs are Kazakhs, whose nomadic forbears have herded sheep for generations.
A good Muslim, Mrs. Kasyanov wears an elaborate signet ring inscribed in Arabic script with the name of Allah. Her own name, in the Turkic language dominant in this remote corner of Central Asia, means "happy flower."
This one-room cabin is the family's spring quarters. Outside, folded and piled on the grass, is the heavy felt yurt that the Kasyanovs will erect high in the mountains for the summer when they take their sheep to pasture there.
And when the snows return, they will come down with their animals to the village until next spring.
There Kasyanov will shear his sheep, slaughter a few, and pick out some lambs, selling them - along with his wool and meat - to the local collective farm from which he rents his flock.
Like the barbed-wire fence marking the Mongolian border just up the hillside, the idea of a collective farm on this timeless steppe has a curiously impermanent ring to it.
National borders, economic arrangements, shepherds and their flocks may come and go. But the wind blows on and on.