It was the title that first caught my eye. Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt sounded both exotic and mysterious; it spoke to me of a bygone era of whimsical journeys to unknown lands, of music playing late into the night and the magic of discovering new cultures. Yet I hesitated before picking up this collection of tales from expats and visitors to the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. It is one thing to be an expat, to live and work in a foreign city, but would I relate to other people’s stories?
I needn’t have worried. Within moments of beginning to read Jacyntha England’s “First Snow”, I was lost in a land of -40°c winters and 40°c summers, a place where the kindness of strangers is superseded only by the welcoming warmth of friends and neighbours and where children can play together in courtyards until late in the balmy summer nights.
As I moved through the collection, I began to take note of the stories I enjoyed until it became clear that there were going to be none that I didn’t enjoy. The book is divided into six sections including topics such as the arrival of Kazakhstan, Kazakh history and traditions, and cross-cultural exchanges and each was equally fascinating.
I found “Mourning on the Steppe: Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era Labor Camps”, Stanley Currier’s account of a visit to a former Soviet-era labour camp turned museum, to be especially moving and poignant. “Table of Unity” by Gualtiero Bestetti was a lovely story about introducing Kazakh friends to Western food and traditions whereas Raquel Taravilla Pujado discussed her first introduction to a full Kazakh meal in “Birthdays and Beshbarmak”.
My favourite story was editor Monica Neboli’s own contribution, the eponymous “Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt”, an authentic glimpse into life in the Kazakh village of Damba.
It was the stories in the final section entitled “The Silent Steppe” that impressed me the most and rather embarrassingly reduced me to the overuse of superlatives. “Dirt Roads, a Donkey and a Life Transformed” by Victoria Charbonneau was absolutely inspirational. Abraham Lincoln once said that “No man is so tall as when he stoops to help a child” and Charbonneau’s story is of what can be achieved through mentorship and support of a young person.
Rowena Haigh and Yolanda Cook contributed to the final story “The Long Horse Ride: Journey Across the Steppe” about the Kazakh leg of the endurance horse ride that started in Beijing after the 2008 Olympics and ended in London just before the 2012 Olympics. This collaboration was simply incredible and a wonderful conclusion to this collection.
While the authors in Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt come from all walks of life and all four corners of the globe, I was struck by the sameness of the expat experience. One by one the authors learn that the only way to overcome the grinding loneliness and sense of otherness as an expat is to get out there and interact with the local culture. This collection inspired me in ways that I had not expected and I would certainly recommend it to expats, lovers of travel and adventurers alike.