In her travel memoir Winter Pasture, out next week with Astra House, writer Li Juan chronicles the winter she spent with a family of Kazakh herders in a remote region of northern China. In the excerpt below, translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan, Li describes the preparations required for the journey.
From the moment I released my second book, my mother started bragging to the whole village that I was an “author.” But our neighbors only ever saw me, day after day, muck-faced and mussy-haired, chasing after ducks from one end of the village to the other. They all expressed their incredulity. Even as my mother kept going on and on about it, when they turned to look, they’d catch sight of me scurrying along a ditch as fast as my slippers could carry me, hollering and brandishing a stick. Not at all as advertised, quite undignified really.
Eventually, some of them came around to believing her. Eighteen miles from the lower reaches of the Ulungur River, the government was establishing a new herder village named “Humuzhila.” One of the villagers approached my mother to ask me to become the “assistant village head,” with a salary of two hundred yuan per month. To emphasize that it was a good deal, they said the village head himself only earned four hundred yuan.
Deeply offended, my mother proudly declared, “My daughter would never agree to that!”
The visitor looked perplexed and asked, “Didn’t you say she’s a writer?”
In short, I am something of an enigma in Akehara village, where I live with my mother. I am suspicious for four main reasons: one, I’m unmarried; two, I don’t have a job; three, I don’t visit our neighbors much; and four, I’m not what they would consider “proper.”
But this winter, I decided to embark on an adventure truly worthy of an author—I would follow the migrating herds deep into the desert south of the Ulungur while observing and noting every last detail of nomadic life in the dark and silent winter. My mother didn’t waste a minute before spreading this news to anyone who would listen—to further emphasize how extraordinary I was. But how were we even to begin to explain my work to the herders? This was the best she could come up with: “She will write. Take all your comings and goings, your work ’n’ stuff, and write it all down!”
The herders let out a collective “ooooh” of understanding before lowering their heads to mutter, “What’s there to write about?”
In any case, word of a Han girl bound for the winter pasture quickly reached the herding teams across Kiwutu township. My mother began to select a family that would agree to take me along.
At first, my ambitions were grand. I wanted to spend the winter in a destination that was at least two hundred and fifty miles away, which would mean over a dozen days by horseback, so that I could get a taste of the hardest, most unforgiving aspects of nomadic life. But all the families who were planning to journey more than ten days refused to take me along for fear that I’d be nothing but trouble. More importantly, as the day of the great migration approached, my ambition dwindled. Think about it: to sleep on the frozen ground only to wake a mere four hours later for two whole weeks. Before daybreak, every day, I would have to grope my way through the darkness to start the journey ahead. Herding sheep, keeping up with the horses, keeping the camels in check and grooming calves . . . for my petite eighty-eight-pound frame, two weeks would have been pushing it. So the trip was truncated to a week’s journey . . . and finally, a week before we were supposed to leave, I cut the trip down to three days.
* * *
Among the herder families that passed through Akehara village, those who intended to travel only for three or four days belonged to Kiwutu’s herder team number three. Mama Jakybay and her family were no exception. I had spent a summer with them, and ideally I would join them again for the winter. But after a few months, a rumor circulated among the herders that I was Jakybay’s son Symagul’s “Han girlfriend,” which made me angry, and Symagul’s wife, Shalat, even angrier. For a while, whenever she saw me, her face stretched so long it nearly hit the ground.
Another important reason why I couldn’t stay with Mama Jakybay was because no one in her family spoke Mandarin. Communication between us was difficult and led to misunderstandings.
Herding families that did speak a little Mandarin were mainly young married couples, to whom my presence would have been a nuisance. Newlyweds are invariably deeply in love. If at night they were to express that love, then . . . well, how would I get any sleep?
The winter pasture isn’t a particular place. It’s the name of all the land used by the nomads during the winter, stretching south uninterrupted from the vast rocky desert south of the Ulungur River all the way to the northern desert boundary of the Heavenly Mountains. It is a place of open terrain and strong winds. Compared to the region to its north, the climate is warmer and more constant. The snow mantle is light enough that the sheep can use their hooves to reach the withered grass beneath. At the same time, there is enough snowfall to provide the herders with all the water they and the livestock need to survive.
The winter pasture is considerably drier and less fertile than the lands the livestock graze in summer. Each family herd grazes an enormous area. The sheer distance this puts between the families means that contact with one another is a rare occurrence. You could almost call it “solitary confinement.”
Herders entering the winter pasture search for a depression sheltered from the wind among the undulating dunes. There they dig out a pit up to six feet deep, lay several logs across the opening, and cover it with dry grass as a roof. A passage is then dug sloping down into the hole and a crude wooden door is fitted to complete this winter home: they call it a burrow. Here, a family can return for protection from the cold and wind during the endless winter months. A burrow is never very big, at most a hundred or so square feet comprising one big sleeping platform and a stove, as well a tiny kitchen corner, a tight squeeze. Life inside is spent shoulder to shoulder without any privacy to speak of.
In brief, living in a winter burrow is no vacation, but what other choice did I have?
And so, I eventually settled on Cuma’s family.
Cuma could get along in Mandarin and three days was all it took to get to their land. The Cumas were pushing fifty, and their nineteen-year-old daughter, Kama, would accompany me and the migrating herd while her parents would drive to the burrow in a truck—it wasn’t going to get any better than that!
Frankly, the real reason they took me on was that Cuma had owed my family a good deal of money for several years. His family was poor and it didn’t look like they would ever pay us back, so we gave up expecting it. Why not stay with them for a few months and cancel the debt? That was my mother’s idea.
Later, when I found myself hoisting thirty pounds of snow, tottering across the desert huffing and puffing like an ox, I couldn’t help but sigh: bad idea.
Excerpted from Winter Pasture by Li Juan. Copyright © 2021 by Astra House. Translation copyright © 2021 by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan. Used with permission of the publisher, Astra House. All rights reserved.