Pubblished on CAO & Cousins 2011 spring issue.
…Suddenly, with a sharp and unpredictable jerk, the horse swerved towards the valley. I somehow managed to recapture the reins and from the corner of my eye I saw a black spot descending quickly, like a fury, in the tall grass from the hill above. For a brief moment I thought of my amulet, placed with the traditional ritual in the traditional bag before leaving, and I wondered to myself with a certain irony if this time the amulet would bring me luck again.
It was about nine o'clock in the morning, and we had been marching on horseback and with donkeys for several hours, ascending to the high pastures of the south-western Tajikistan.
Elena Polshyna, her son Nikita, and Mansur Tanokov were behind me, a few meters back. The only thing I could hear was the voice of Mansur shouting, while galloping his horse, the only word he had learned in Italian: "no problema!" which was followed by the whistle of his almost two-meter-long-staff as it lashed the air. The dog was diverted from its course, and with an even greater fury started running toward him, while he repeatedly brandished the wood in an attempt to discourage the determined attack of one of the most beautiful dogs I had ever seen.
Our journey had begun three days earlier, when we left Milan for Dushanbè. I knew exactly what we were getting into: in fact, we were expecting the infamous attacks of the “Central Asians" who were guarding their flocks in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan is the poorest and smallest of the republics of Central Asia, but perhaps the only one where sheep husbandry has remained to this day, besides being traditional, the sole means of livelihood for the majority of population.
The flocks are generally small – medium in number and shepherds move them annually from the steppe areas to the high mountain pastures in order to supply them with fodder. One of the ethnic groups that traditionally carries out this job and that descends from ancient generations of shepherds is, strange as it seems, of Uzbek origins.
The Kaliki shepherds are – legitimately so – the descendants of nomads who, since the dawn of time, have been moving throughout these great Central Asian countries despite the recent boundaries imposed on them by the Russians (designed more to politically divide and therefore to weaken any attempt to claim territory, than to unite peoples) in that huge geographical basin.
The Kaliki, whose habits in some ways could be compared to the our “butteri” (*shepherds on horse) from central Italy who used to exist there once upon a time, are proud of their lifestyle, of their livestock and of their wonderful dogs.
One of these shepherds is called Mansur Tanokov. He is famous, from the steppes up to the wild Alpine valleys of Tajikistan, for his generosity and his pack of guardian dogs, as well as for his flock of more than 1,500 animals. I had the honour to meet him in person, and then to follow along with him and his animals to their summer pastures in those alpine areas.
Thus, encamped in a small tent at an altitude of about 3,000 meters next to dogs, sheep, rams and lambs, I had the opportunity to observe closely what is the real work of men and dogs in those so very remote and distant areas.
This dogs and this men are the Shepherds of Central Asia.
In Italy this ancient breed is enjoying a growing reputation among dog lovers and breeders. These dogs, because of their very rustic nature and their natural inclination to guard the property, have also become, alas, a subject of great commercial interest in the western world. Many have noticed this aspect and are eagerly writing texts in which they focus too often on the selection aimed at producing "four-legged burglar alarms". It is through this coupling of only the most aggressive subjects, that we are trespassing into the sad field of genetic maltreatment. Others devote themselves to the creation of online forums where they advertise their dogs (which mostly come from Eastern Europe) as most similar to the "original" Central Asian ones. These are all dogs that have very little left of the Asian shepherd, very little indeed.
Identifying themselves as the so-called "aboriginal type," those subjects would align their dogs with the ones who still exist in Central Asia and share with man the mythical transhumance travels, the river crossings alongside frightened sheep, the day-and-night guardians who combat wolf, bear and mountain leopard attacks.
The high mountain is very tiring; moving with a caravan and camping here is even more so. It 's quite different from taking a trip with booked hotels, a jeep with a driver and an interpreter, or making site visits by appointment during the day, seeing the dogs, taking pictures next to the shepherd, and then going to eat in the restaurants of the capital in the evening!
But let’s get back to the story.
Here comes the owner of the flock and calms the black dog as if by magic, nods only once and this proud beast crouches quietly, so quietly that Mansur gets down from his horse and greets his colleague with a hug in front of the dog without any problems. I light a cigarette, to see this is priceless, I pull out the camera and try to take as many photographs as possible, but I stay on my horse! The march ahead is still long.
Another flock and the another attack while we are still with the horses and donkeys laden with food, following the bed of a river that winds south at high altitude.
Way down we see very high mountains, beyond that is Afghanistan.
We have almost arrived; the camp with Mansur’s helpers appears on a meadow behind a bend of the river, and it’s finally clear that here there is not only the sheep, but dogs which this time are running toward us with overwhelming joy, puppies included; they would all like to celebrate the shepherd’s return.
As night falls, we are in our camp, and crouched on a rug, we drink green tea and eat boiled lamb soup with onions, a specialty hard to interpret…Darkness falls and so does the cold and I "hole up" in my tent: my heart is thudding, is it the altitude? Or is it because it's the first night with a true herd, with the famous Central Asian shepherds?
The only rule: no exit in the dark, not even for physiological needs, the dogs could possibly not recognize us in the darkness and they could attack.
It's about 3 or 4 am when I suddenly wake up and hear the dogs taking off as fierce warriors; out there, outside of my tent, there’s something happening and what I'm about to tell you is not the story of just any breed, but is the story of livestock guardian dogs at work in Central Asia, a true story of brave animals.
These are used as flock guards, and especially at night, they do their out-and-out, endless rounds and patrols. The packs are usually composed of a number ranging from 3-5 to 8-9 males with a maximum of two females.
The work to be done in these environments is hard, and the energy necessary is always to the utmost.
Suddenly, growls of anger and very clanging barks are loading the atmosphere with suspense, then human screams and two shots…after that, absolute silence, only the flowing of the river … I'll find out what happened in the morning: a bear in the night had managed to kill a donkey, the dogs had done their job, they launched the attack, they have discouraged the bear without assaulting it, they used their intelligence, they know better than anyone what a hungry plantigrad is, and the risks that an eventual frontal attack would imply. So they woke the shepherds who were able to shoo the bear away.
There was nothing left to do for the donkey, but this seems the least of concerns for Mansur who says: “the bear will return.” In the meantime he sustains his courageous dogs with the remains of the unfortunate donkey.
The working pack of Mansur Tanokov consists of a pale adult male Aktosh, who’s name means "white stone", a female who comes from the neighbouring Turkmenistan and a black female who has injured a leg which we are trying to medicate. Then there are the puppies: two black, one black and white, children of his dogs, and two coming from a herd nearby that Mansur had bartered or traded: a beautiful fully gingery one and the other a charcoal – gingery one.
In the days that follow I’ll spend much time with them, considering that the adults have included me as part of their flock to defend, therefore I’m safe!
Every day, the boiled lamb is the only protein source and the stews measure up to an 8-course meal. It isn’t easy to turn down, and banquets in the meadow with views beyond compare are almost always full of guests who come visit, eager to learn about the "Westerns." Here, the guest is a gift from Allah and hospitality is sacred; often the discussions get hot, some speak Russian, and luckily there are Elena and Nikita who have the patience to interpret for me.
The work of dogs is not continuous, they are guardians but not minions, so the spectacular contests with the potential enemies of the flock is not common. It's very interesting to look closely at the behaviour and tactics that these dogs have in their blood and that they adopt instinctively. They conduct themselves as if they are constantly preparing, searching for the ideal position that is almost always a high point for sighting threats, chosen in relation to the position of the flock grazing at that time. The pack leader favours these high points, such as a rock or the edge of a cliff.
When the threat comes, the "infantry" sets off first, as the subordinates are the first ones to spring up and they complete a route, often in a straight line, which places them, in just a few seconds, midway between the intruder and the position occupied by the pack leader, who observes the scene. The decision will be up to him: if the danger is worthy of his consideration, he will spring into action in time to reach his subordinates and attack with them; otherwise, he will remain on watch while the others manage the situation.
For the puppies life is a little easier: they can sleep and rest more during the day and stay at the camp with the men. Mansur often prepares a traditional mixture that the little ones drink all together, eagerly; this consists of the following: water, salt, sheep fat, and flour to help them grow. Once adults, they’ll have to hunt alone for food and in these areas the marmots are among the most sought-after prey. In the evening, the shepherds themselves move the young dogs away from the camp; this way they get them used to going around in the surroundings and guarding at an early age.
The fights are quite frequent and even in such a rough and tough environment everyone rushes to divide the dogs in order to prevent injury, unless for a very good reason, such as discipline by a senior dog.
The children share everything with the animals, including the dogs; their lives are completely intertwined with the events and adventures of a pasture that, in addition to being one of the highest in the world, is certainly one of the most fascinating and ancient, existing to this day as it was thousands of years ago.
I spent 12 days at high altitude in a tent, with people who have values that we seem to have forgotten, with dogs and flocks, in the most rugged and wild natural landscape, which has remained virtually intact over the millennia.
"…I crossed rivers on horseback, ate never-ending sheep soup, but mostly I was lucky enough to be able to see beautiful dogs, working dogs, that have by now disappeared in most rural western countries."
A special thanks goes to Mansur Tanokov and to Elena Polshyna who have done everything possible to help me make this trip, perhaps one of the toughest and most beautiful expeditions I've ever done; and I also thank Orca, my first female dog, without whom I would have never gotten to know these wonderful dogs.
It’s early morning when I remove the stakes from the red tent that suddenly deflates like a bursting bubble. I put everything in bags and I load the pack animals while watching the sunrise. The dogs are quiet, I say goodbye with certain melancholy to the puppies that are napping.
We expect at least a fourteen hour-march and this time I have a donkey to take me back to the valley …I wonder how many other dogs, in defence of how many flocks, we will meet during our descent…I gulp down a quick cup of tea, and watching the donkey in front of me, I ask gently if it could please take me home.
Text and photographs by