Vis­it­ing life and death among sheep

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By ERIK NILS­SON and CUI JIA

We fol­lowed death to the pas­ture.

This sac­ri­fi­cial lamb was killed to honor us.

We came late. The de­cap­i­ta­tion ar­rived be­fore we did.

We’d re­turned from chas­ing new­born live­stock with an 8-year-old eth­nic Kazakh no­mad be­neath snow­capped moun­tains to watch his grand­fa­ther, Huan Sezde­han, saw­ing the hide from a be­headed sheep dan­gling by its back legs.

Its un­blink­ing face gazed at us from the ground, next to a vat froth­ing with blood — the byprod­uct of ha­lal butcher­ing.

Huan Sezde­han’s 8-year-old grand­son Nurhanat Yer­gayit was stabbing the air with a dis­em­bod­ied hoof.

The boy later charred skew­ered chunks of sheep over the fam­ily’s por­ta­ble stove. Most of the mut­ton was roasted out­side and served on a sheet on the floor.

No­mads don’t lug ta­bles around. Un­der­stand­ably.

We’d in­sisted against Huan Sezde­han’s fam­ily slaugh­ter­ing the sheep. Still, he and his 22-year-old son, Nur­sun­tan Huan, cor­nered the crea­ture, lashed it to his mo­tor­cy­cle and zipped out of sight across the prairie.

A sheep is worth about $160 — a sixth of the house­hold’s an­nual in­come. In the end, the crea­ture bleated louder than our protests.

That’s the ex­alt­ing hos­pi­tal­ity of the no­madic Kaza­khs in the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion’s Ili pre­fec­ture’s Zhaosu county.

The boy play­fully swished the dis­em­bod­ied hoof through the air like a wand, squished gobs of meat be­tween his fin­gers and gnawed at the pelt with a pair of pli­ers while his fa­ther carved up the car­cass. I thought about the herders’ re­la­tion­ship with food and the an­i­mals that pro­vide it, that are it.

I’ve rarely seen my food breathe. They rarely don’t see it breathe.

Ili’s no­mads’ lives re­volve around their live­stock.

Zhaosu’s chil­dren start rid­ing horses at age 5.

The typ­i­cally scat­tered rovers con­gre­gate on iso­lated knolls on week­ends to hold horse races. Only chil­dren aged 8 to 12 com­pete. Their nim­ble­ness in­jects speed.

We watched a 12-year-old’s steed eject him mid-race. He got up wip­ing ooz­ing blood from his nose and lip onto his sleeve.

“It’s fine,” he said. “It hap­pens all the time.”

While his nose dripped crim­son into his split lip, his only com­plaint was slight mus­cle pain else­where.

He pointed out that boys not only learn how to ride but also how to fall.

A win­ner of that day’s race ex­plained that par­ents check on the horse first if an ac­ci­dent hap­pens when a child is rid­ing.

The herders care more for sick sheep than healthy hu­man fam­ily mem­bers and mourn flocks’ mis­car­riages.

Ili is a place where live­stock roam sea­sonal lanes on cer­tain roads and bridges.

Its epic migration of tens of thou­sands of an­i­mals and thou­sands of peo­ple from win­ter to spring pas­tures is peak sea­son for traf­fic po­lice.

That said, the pre­fec­ture’s con­ges­tion is more likely to come from hooves than wheels at any time of year.

I pho­tographed a po­lice­man smooching with a pre­ma­ture lamb on the lips as he stretched out on the grass­land. (The crit­ter ini­ti­ated.)

Re­la­tion­ships with live­stock change af­ter they’re be­headed.

Kazakh no­mads have for mil­len­nia passed sum­mers play­ing buzkashi — ba­si­cally polo with a de­cap­i­tated sheep car­cass.

Two teams of horse­back rid­ers line up on ei­ther side of a field and — at the word “go!” — ex­plode for­ward at light­ning speed and a thun­der of hooves to grab the roughly 30-kilo­gram car­cass to hurl it into a goal.

Once the car­cass is seized, oth­ers ag­gres­sively claw to try and snatch it away. It’s a mosh pit of grab­bing and jab­bing horses and hands.

Clans take turns slaugh­ter­ing sheep and of­ten stuff hides rather than play with the full corpse, to share and cut costs. But th­ese are torn to tat­ters af­ter a few ses­sions.

Our lunch the day be­fore was of horse in­testines with 76-yearold Hasan Wor­man­bek, one of about 100 men in Zhaosu’s Sarkuobu vil­lage who hunt with golden ea­gles.

Two of the rap­tors work­ing to­gether can kill wolves, he says. Oth­er­wise, they catch foxes or rab­bits.

The rap­tors eat the bun­nies. Lo­cal be­liefs for­bid hu­mans from dining on hares.

His fam­ily wears the fox pelts. His grand­son’s hat is from one killed by an ea­gle. The birds crack their spines by yank­ing the ca­nines’ skulls up to­ward their tails.

Wor­man­bek ex­plains this while stroking a stuffed fox with but­ton eyes he made to train his birds. No inkling of irony seems to shine through.

The cute crit­ter is cloth aside from the real tail. It looks more like a child’s play­thing than an in­stru­ment to teach preda­tors how to de­liver death from above.

Wor­man­bek tows it be­hind a horse with a meat chunk slung in a noose drag­ging from its neck to con­di­tion the birds to as­so­ciate the sight with food.

He says the win­ter­time moun­tain­side hunt­ing ses­sions keep him spry.

Our time with the Kazakh no­mads made me won­der anew what they know that we don’t.

“We’re fit be­cause we do man­ual la­bor,” Sezde­han says.

Herders eat nat­u­ral food they pro­duce. They drink from streams of melted moun­tain snow they don’t need to boil, he ex­plains.

“City peo­ple get their food from stores and some­times sleep late be­cause they can be lazy,” Sezde­han says.

“They spend money in fancy stores. We don’t earn much. But we save a lot. It’s eas­ier on the grass­land. There’s nowhere to spend.”

Zhaosu’s in­hab­i­tants nav­i­gate a world ac­cord­ing to a compass upon which na­ture is true north.

I thought of the sheep we were eat­ing. The one I saw breath­ing.

Our hosts are used to know­ing what they eat — to the ex­tent of re­call­ing the per­son­al­ity a meal had be­fore it ended up on their plates.

Life lessons come from that death on that pas­ture.

It nour­ished our minds and souls be­yond our bel­lies and bod­ies. Con­tact the writ­ers through erik_nils­son@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

Huan Sezde­han and his 22-year-old son, Nur­sun­tan Huan, tie a sheep to a mo­tor­cy­cle to trans­port it over the grass­land to their spring pas­ture for slaugh­ter.

Horserac­ing is a com­mon pas­time among Zhaosu’s no­madic eth­nic Kaza­khs. The county in Xin­jiang’s Ili pre­fec­ture is home to more horses than any­where else in China.

A bee­keeper pro­duces honey in a wild fruit-tree for­est in Xinyuan in Xin­jiang’s Ili pre­fec­ture.

Yili pre­fec­ture’s eth­nic Kazakh no­mads spend warmer sea­sons in yurts.

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