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Stories from the Field, pt. 2: The Dead

December 15, 2010

Stories from the Field, pt. 1 is here.

When your birthday party is three days long, there will always be plenty of downtime. In between rounds of chai and bozo (a muddy drink made of wheat, slightly beerish), Abay and I found ourselves bored and restless, our eyes on the horizon. Lake Issyk-Kul sat there calmly, awaiting our latest visit to its sands, and red cliffs called to us from the east. Between them sat a small settlement of adobe domes and metal framed yurts. Nobody lived there, though – not anybody living anyways. It was a Kyrgyz necropolis, a city of the dead, a devotional space set aside for the ancestors that made our cemeteries of humble placards and crosses seem quaint. I asked nervously if we could go see it, and was hesitantly given the go-ahead.

The travel writer Colin Thubron had been seen such places when he was passing through and had been equally enthralled. “Often the graveyards looked more substantial than the houses of the living,” he wrote. The Kyrgyz man with whom he was driving was almost proud of such a comparison. “They say we live like paupers and die like kings!” Here in Ak-Sai, the man’s remarks held true. The people in town lived dusty lives of poverty. Proper jobs were nowhere to be found, so there wasn’t much to do besides yip at your cattle and drink vodka. When we went into the local store the week before, three middle-aged women were standing in a huddle, taking shots out of plastic cups. When they passed on, though, they would be interred in honorific castles, plaques engraved with their faces marking their memory.

These mausolea greeted us at a ridge overlooking the lake, the only architecture of note for miles around. They were adobe frames topped with crescent-crested domes, apparently empty but meant to house a soul. Some weren’t empty entirely, but shamefully littered with cardboard detritus and plastic bottles. The other architectural motif was something like a yurt of the dead, like typical yurts but small and metallic. They looked sad and bare without any covering of felt. I suppose the idea was that these homes were houses for the deceased, but I knew the dead lay elsewhere.   Behind each structure was a large mound of dirt, a wooden stake atop each one, rotted by the sun. Some people simply couldn’t afford to die like kings – they had no house here, only the mound and the wood. Flaking paint told their most basic details, but it would soon be lost to time, and the piles of dirt would surrender to anonymity.

It was so unlike the graveyards I’m used to that I was drawn to put it on film. Yet when I flashed a photo, Abay glared at me angrily. “You shouldn’t do that,” he said. I shrugged and let the guilt slide off my shoulders. We went on and checked out the lake, but when we were walking back I noticed my lens cap was missing. We retraced every last step, to no avail. It had vanished. “It’s in the next world,” joked Abay. I went to the graves I had shot and apologized. “I’m sorry, Jumabai, I’m sorry. I just liked your house. Rest in peace.”

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