A warm portrait of stark, strenuous lives in remote China.
From her home in northwestern China, essayist and nature writer Li joined a family of Kazakh herders—and their camels, sheep, cattle, and horses—to spend winter on immense pastureland where the population density was “one person per every square mile and a half.” Winner of the People’s Literature Award in China, this charming memoir, the author’s first to be translated in the U.S., captures the harsh reality and quiet pleasures of the herders’ nomadic way of life, migrations threatened by the consequences of overgrazing. Amid “towering waves of immaculate golden sand dunes,” where temperatures plummet to minus 31 degrees, the family constructs a burrow made with sheep manure, the “sole building material available in the desert,” incomparable because it “can magically, continuously radiate heat.” With wall hangings, rugs, a hearth, and a tablecloth for meals, the burrow becomes a home. Although the author wondered what contribution she could make, she took on a variety of necessary tasks: “I cleaned the cattle burrow and sheep pen every day, hauled snow”—critical for providing water—“made nan, embroidered,” and sometimes helped out with the exhausting job of herding. Li offers affectionate profiles of neighbors, visitors, and members of her host family: Cuma, the father, “intelligent and ambitious, capable and cocky,” and too often drunk; his reticent wife, whose “aloofness was enough to give you goose bumps. But when she did smile, she was radiant. Light beams shot out from between her brows as if she invented this ‘smiling’ business”; and their 19-year-old daughter, who had to leave school and dreams of becoming educated and independent in order to help her family. The arduous work caused Cuma and his wife to rely on daily doses of painkillers, but their mastery of their environment, and their contentment, earned the author’s admiration.
A rare look at a disappearing world.