The sun was approaching its zenith, the air was cut by a chilly late September breeze. Our old UAZ-469, better known as Vilis, was loaded, ready to take us to sharper winds, up on the mountains in central Azerbaijan.
We are heading to Zarat Kheybari and the lush summer pastures north of Shamakhi, the ancient capital of the homonym governorate during the Russian empire. Also known as Gurdluca Ayrıgı, the range is home to a small community holding on the slowly dying-out nomadic traditions in modern-day Azerbaijan. There the Terekemes move with their livestock, chasing green meadows and fresh rivers.
The regimental Soviet Union did not affect their wayfaring life, nor has the wealth of oil and gas dented it - today the flashy glamour of Baku’s glass-and-steel skyscrapers feels more distant than the mere 200km separating their pastures from the capital. High on the mountains over the summer, down to the plains during the winter, their calendar is paced by their animals - constantly on the move, year by year, century by century.
"In the past people would load all their belongings on horses, mules, and camels. Sheep and cows were taken off by shepherds, their families traveling on horses. After the Soviet Union cars replaced the horses, but the livestock, mainly sheep, is still lead by shepherds," says Gulameddin Khasiyev, an ethnic Tat - a minority group of Persian roots - who embraced the nomadic life in his twenties. Now in his forties, he could not see his life being any different.
On the road we met five terekeme who descended to the nearest village to buy fruits and vegetables. We gave them a lift. The man, two women, and the two boys squeezed into the car with us. We drove towards the Zarat-Kheybari pasture, up in the most remote mountain plateau of Shamakhi, some 42km from the town.
In September, as autumn approaches, the families prepare for their seasonal move from the summer bivouac to their winter one. The migration is a process which continues till the first half of October.
The Terekemes mainly populate the highlands and the lowlands in the Central Aran as well as a few areas in the south and the west of the country. The community never has been officially registered, estimates put them at about 500 individuals. In their Oguz-Turkmen tribes on medieval sources".
In their “Oguz-Turkmen tribes in medieval sources” published in 2012 ethnologists Bahram Mammadli and Anvar Chingizoglu report that as early as the 11th century, tribes originating from Central Asia wandered to the Caucasus, Iran and Anatolia, mixing with the local communities and adopting, in part, daily customs and language. They were referred to as “tərakemə," “turkmens” in Arabic. In current Azerbaijan, they speak Azeri and use a few specific words describing their nomadic way of life.
Before long rocks and mud take over the tarmac, the road gradually narrows down to become a track.
Soon we spot the lowing herd winding slowly over the lea, shepherds of all ages calmly walking alongside the flock, dogs flawlessly guarding the precious animals. The “bed” - literally “leaving for the winter camp” - is ongoing and it will last for about six days.
Our robust, off-road Vilis finally reaches a summer camp with four tents. They are traditionally built in thick felt, which creates a constant room temperature inside and it protect from the cold and the wind. Nowadays however, most Terekemes use polyester covers. At the camp there are just a few of newborn lambs and sheep that are left. Many families have already left.
The charm surrounding the nomads and their life under the stars is something for poetry books. Yet the reality is harsh.
"Not everyone can live the nomadic life,” reflects Khasiyev. “It is slow, yet hard and intense. It requires patience. It is also profitable, we produce healthy milk, cheese and wool. You just need to get used to the hard work."
It certainly suits him. Originally from Zarat-Kheybari, Khasiyev has been moving between the same summer and winter camp most of his adult life as a herdsman. More often though, the pastures change their route every two, to three years.
When the weather is favorable, reaching the lowlands is easy and quick. But the stars do not always align. Like in 2014, recalls Khasiyev, when winter arrived earlier, and was unannounced, and blizzards caught the migrating community by surprise.
“That night sheep and cattle got trapped in an unusual snowfall,” recalls Khasiyev. “We wanted to go out, but we were met with gale and snow up to one metre deep. The animals could not move, we tied them to the horses and somehow managed to dig them out of the snow. Thank God, we reached the winter camp.”
Before setting off, food needs to be prepared.
Sprightly walking in and out of the tent, Goychek Suleymanova is quick in her galosh, the rubber shoes she wears on her feet with thick wool socks. As she toiled day after day, year after year, her hands have turned rough, leathery, yet warm at the handshake.
“We bake bread and lavash (a soft, thin unleavened flatbread) in tandir (a cylindrical clay oven),” explains the lively 66-year-old Goychek Suleymanova, her wrinkly face opened in a smile, her head wrapped in a two-layered scarf. “For the winter we prepare qovurma, that is boiled meat immersed into butter that can preserve the meat for a very long time. We also carry with us motal, the sheep cheese we produce which matures in the sheep's skin, and nehre butter."
When the school starts, children go to school. Fourteen-year-old Dedeli, Goychek’s grandson, is already down in the village to attend his classes and he comes to the pastures only during the summer holidays. His brother Nijat, a peppy toddler of eighteen months, is running in the meadows, playing with the lambs.
We moved to Mikhtoken (Mıxtökən silsiləsi), a pasture about nine kilometres from Zarat Kheybari. Nazbike Madatova is walking towards her tent.
"In the past we had spinning wheels and we would use the sheep wool to wove carpets and bed covers,” the 58-year-old flashes back. “We made this carpet,” she adds pointing at the colorful rug on the floor. “Today everything is modernized, we don’t wove the carpets anymore, we buy already-made things, including carpets"
“When we move we put all our mattresses and blankets inside of this farmash,” she says turning towards a half-meter long and over a metre wide carpet box which is used to collect blankets, mattress. “This has not changed over the years, in the past we did the same."
She is ready to set off with her husband and daughter to the winter dwelling near Qarasu, a village about 120 km away from Baku.
The departure day has come. At dawn everyone is ready to set off - all appliances, pots, spoons, blankets, mattresses are collected bundles called bokhcha. The tent is dismantled, layer after layer. Around noon a sturdy Kamaz truck arrives and everyone helps in to load it - men and women, everyone is involved in the work.
After two laborious hours, they drink their tea, eat a piece of bread with cheese, take the last things and get into the car. The migration begins.
Photo and text: Guler Abbasova
Editor: Monica Ellena