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While in Kyrgyzstan for the World Nomad Games, I had the privilege to meet many interesting people, including camel shepherd Dustin, a job I wasn’t even aware existed until my recent visit. Nor was I even aware that there were camels in Kyrgyzstan!
Meeting the Kyrgyz people was one of the highlights of my time at the World Nomad Games. The people I met were incredibly open and patient as I inquired about their lives, so different from mine. I learned so much and didn’t realize how little I knew about camels until my conversation with Dustin.
Dustin is a camel shepherd in the summer months and a cook during the winter months. He takes care of 30 female camels. Males are aggressive he says, so he stays clear of them. Camels have been known to kill people if they get angry enough. His eyes grow wide, his body language expansive as he mimes a camel stepping on an unfortunate soul, then crushing it under its massive weight.
It’s hard to imagine as I affectionately stroke the check of Zita, one of Dustin’s camels. She seems to enjoy it and flutters her long eyelashes at me in response.
Soon after, she sits down. I wrongly interpret this as an invitation that she wants to prolong our meeting. She spits on the ground, narrowly missing my foot. Even with my limited understanding of camel behaviour, it’s clear that she’s had enough and wants to be left alone. Dustin laughs. You’re lucky she didn’t aim for your head.
Camels don’t play a huge role in Kyrgyz culture, as they do in some other cultures. When I mentioned to one local that I had met a camel shepherd, she admitted that she had never met one. If you happen to be going for a winter hike, you may find yourself hiking next to a camel! In winter camels roam free in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, They walk long distances to find a mate. They can also be aggressive at this time, so be sure to keep your distance.
And how does a camel shepherd round-up his camels in spring? In Dustin’s case, he entices them with two of their favourite foods – apples and candies! Who knew that camels had a sweet tooth?
So what exactly are camels used for in Kyrgyzstan? They’re used primarily for guiding tourists. Dustin also sells their fur, which is quite warm quote. Given Zita’s displeasure at simply being stroked when she wanted to be left alone, I can only imagine the bravery it would take to sheer a camel!
Meeting Dustin was one of my highlights at the World Nomad Games. He gave me an insider glimpse into his life of a camel shepherd and opened my eyes to a world that I didn’t even know existed. Our encounter also made me realize that despite my soft spot for animals, I am no camel whisperer!
The next World Nomad Games will be held in 2018. Follow Discover Kyrgyzstan on Twitter for the latest updates.
Note: My trip was organized in cooperation with Discover Kyrgyzstan, and made possible by the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). All opinions are my own.