In Uzbekistan, Lola Akinmade Åkerström follows the threads of a family history that has helped keep watch over the Nuratau region’s abundant nature for over three generations.
Our minivan hits a ditch and jolts me
violently from my sleep. I wake up to see a sheer drop into the Sangzar River out
of the window to my left, and instinctively slide away from the edge.
This means we’re nearing our destination—the remote
village of Hayat deep within Uzbekistan’s Nuratau mountain range. The word ‘Hayat’
means ‘life’ in Arabic and I am clinging on for dear life as we navigate the
last treacherous stretch of narrow mountain road before arriving into the quiet
village, 2,169 meters above sea level. In
less than two hours, the landscape has transitioned before my eyes from the arid
Kyzylkum Desert to the flat plains of the Barren
Steppe, and now into mountains.
Several burly Russian shepherd dogs—known as Central Asian Ovtcharka—bark our arrival and
Narzullo meets us. He’s wearing earth-toned fatigues and, from a distance,
could easily blend into the surrounding mountains. Born and raised in Hayat, he
works as a mountain ranger and runs a three-room guesthouse in this village of
roughly 650 residents, a few kilometers from the borders of Kazakhstan and
Local legend says that during a severe drought thousands of years ago, all water sources in the region dried up but the spring in Hayat kept producing water. Hence it being called the ‘spring of life’, shortened to ‘hayat’.
After a modest lunch of mosh kichiri (a risotto-like bean porridge) with freshly-baked tandoor-leavened bread, Narzullo is ready to show us his mountains and the nature biosphere reserve which his family has been guarding for three generations.
On the northern slopes of the Nuratau mountain range is a nature biosphere reserve of the same name. It protects a variety of fauna such as golden eagles, grouse, and bearded vultures, as well as a certain endangered species of large-horned mountain sheep, known as Severtsov argali. The Nuratau mountains is said to be the only place on earth where Severtsov argali, mountain sheep of Central Asia, still roam wild, and Narzullo is going to take us hiking to see them.
Our hike starts from the sheep paddock right behind Narzullo’s guesthouse, heading towards Yamonkechi passage. Less than two kilometers in, and we’re already at the nature reserve that was officially founded in 1975 to protect this endangered species of sheep. There’s a roughly eight-hectare secure enclosure where some of the argali are kept and bred to keep their population growing.
Narzullo’s father worked as a ranger for several decades protecting the lands. Now, Narzullo works as a ranger and biologist, guarding the land, just as his father did.
As I struggle across uneven rocks, Narzullo quickly scales a nearby peak in sneakers, in search of the argali. A few minutes later, he signals to us from his height to watch a mini rampage of sheep deftly scale the slopes in front of us. Narzullo’s descent back to join us is even quicker, and we continue our hike, making a turn towards another peak. From that vantage point, I’m treated to panoramic views of Hayat village and Hayatbashi gorge with the Nuratau mountains and Lake Aydarkul further out in the distance.
After offering a dowry of two pumpkins, Narzullo’s grandfather married, and had 11 children—six sons and five daughters—a handful of which still live in the village. “He was the one who first established this biosphere in the 1960s,” he notes, before it became officially recognized in the 1970s. And the torch was passed on. Narzullo’s father worked as a ranger for several decades protecting the lands. Now, Narzullo works as a ranger and biologist, guarding the land, just as his father did.
We stop by ruins and Narzullo points out the remains of an old fortress and ancient mosque. The hilltop fortress, called Shaxi Korgon, made it challenging for enemies to attack—from this vantage point, one could see for kilometers on end. It’s as beautiful for travelers of today as it was helpful for armies back then.
As we wind our way back towards the village, a large tree catches my attention. “It’s over a thousand years old,” Narzullo explains as we stare down the Biota orientalis—a type of cypress tree—known as ‘archa’ to the villagers. “You have to make a wish to it because it has special powers.” With branches that get so heavy that they resemble trunks, these mystical trees often draw pilgrims seeking prosperity from far and wide.
Several of Narzullo’s uncles and aunts still live in the tiny village. A man quietly observes us, hands clasped together, from his backyard as we make our way back from the mountain trails onto gravel roads. Well into his 80s, he is wearing a regal-looking purple coat, and I walk over to him, seeking a photo. When he asks for my name, I tell him the shortened version I’ve been using since birth—Lola.
“Are you African?” he continues. I respond that yes, I am Nigerian.
“Then tell me your real name. Because I know it has a meaning. African names always have deep meanings.” Visibly stunned, I tell him my full name—Onoaralolaoluwa.
“He’s my uncle,’” Narzullo finally shares after our exchange. I’d already assumed he was the local wizard. But Hushbek is a man who has been curious about the world since his childhood, he tells me.
I accidently bump into another uncle, Misha—a shepherd—the very next morning. Watching him lead sheep out into a paddock, I walk up to him to ask for a photo. What starts as a simple greeting turns into an invitation into his home to meet with his Kazakh wife, Tamara, and their son, Shukrat.
Misha pulls down a framed photo of six brothers, including Hushbek. They are flanking their father—Narzullo’s grandfather—who sits in the middle. And with that, Misha proceeds to tell me a familiar story about his father being a guardian of the reserve, about working as a ranger alongside his brother for many years, and how his own nephew was now protecting the land…
An Adventure.com featured contributor, Lola Akinmade Åkerström is a Stockholm-based writer and photographer. Represented by National Geographic Creative, she is also the author of 'Lagom: The Swedish Secret of Living Well'.