Books

Living the Good Life in a Hole in the Ground

Li Juan spent minus-20-degree nights with nomadic herders in the Chinese steppes. You’ll want to join her.

Sheep in the remote Chinese steppe.
Li Juan

What is it about stories of survival under extreme conditions that makes them so enthralling, that can even leave some readers hankering to emulate them? “I wanted to live in one room with my whole family and have a pathetic corncob doll all my own,” wrote Wendy McClure in her charming 2011 memoir, The Wilder Life, about the lengths she went to, as child and adult, in her devotion to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. You may not have gone as far as McClure, who slept in a fiberglass covered wagon on the South Dakota prairie, but you’ve probably wondered how well you’d hold up during Wilder family winter, or on a frigate ice bound in the Arctic Sea.

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This fascination with life in harsh, remote landscapes is not exclusive to Americans, either, to judge by Li Juan’s Winter Pasture (translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan), the account of a winter the Chinese essayist spent living in, essentially, a hole in the ground with Kazakh herders in northwestern China. In this tale of age-old human ingenuity and perseverance, the smallest pleasures—a piece of candy, a new red hat, a visit from a distant neighbor—pop with a luminosity that our cornucopia of contemporary consumer goodies cannot rival. People can figure out how to survive under the most punishing circumstances, and learning about how these people do it—how they have done it for centuries—makes Winter Pasture an unlikely but inspiring getaway read for the late pandemic.

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A celebrated writer in her homeland—although one who, as the translator Eric Abrahamsen explained to me in an email, “very much came from the periphery of the Chinese literary establishment”—Li is a member of the Han ethnic majority. Eschewing the Beijing scene, she lives in Xinjiang province, where her mother runs a small general store patronized by Kazakh nomads in search of rope and other essential supplies. In a typical moment of disarming honesty, Li admits that one reason why Cuma, a middle-aged herdsman, agreed to let her accompany his family on a three-day journey to the vast, frigid steppes south of the Ulungur River is that he owed her mother money and she offered to cancel his debt—which no one expected him ever to pay off. (Historically, the Han majority has had a colonial relationship to the Kazakhs, who are Muslims, and the Chinese government has detained and persecuted Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region, most notably the Uyghurs. If this context affected Li’s interactions with the Kazakh herders she visited, she does not say so.)

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Nevertheless, Cuma and his family made Li work for her keep. A pastoral people, these ethnic Kazakhs drive herds of sheep, cattle, horses, camels, and goats from one grazing area to another according to the season. Their winter pastures, owned by the herders’ clans, are vast expanses of low-lying dunes consisting of little more than grass, sand, and (if the herders are lucky) snow. This landscape is so sparse in resources that if the herders need mud—and they usually do need it for insulating their stoves and other uses—they must make it from dirt they’ve hauled along with them. In the winter of 2010, when Li was there, the temperature got as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. (Her hand cream froze solid in its tube.) One of Li’s chores was to march off into the desert, looking for spots where a slight ridge provided enough of a block to the wind to allow snow to accumulate. She’d pack as much snow as she could into a large bag and arrive back at camp, bent over nearly double under the load, bearing the camp’s only source of water.

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In this inhospitable landscape, the herders make the most of one remarkably versatile material: sheep manure. Unlike the droppings of their other livestock, sheep manure is neither too wet nor too dry. It can be formed and dried into bricks, which the herders use to line the walls of their shelters, called “burrows,” 6-foot-deep pits dug into the side of a dune. The burrows are tight quarters, about 100 feet square, accommodating a sleeping platform (also made of sheep manure bricks), a tiny kitchen, and stove (which burns sheep manure). The pens where the animals spend the night are similarly built of sheep manure, the bricks formed into walls that, as Li puts it, “magically, continuously radiate heat.” The herders cover the walls of their burrows with hangings famed for their elaborate needlework, creating a snug, colorful living space where they spend the very long winter nights. Going outside after dark isn’t an option, on account of the wolves.

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Li Juan on a horse in the snow-covered desert.
Li Juan. Astra House
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For Li—petite, 30-ish, bespectacled, and a bit of an oddball—it’s a surprisingly enjoyable existence. She loves the food, which included fried dough, plenty of meat, and the salted, buttered, spicy tea the herders consume in great quantities. At first, she seems a classic fish-out-of-water journalist, more likely to disastrously bungle the tasks assigned to her than to provide any practical help. But as the books goes along, the reader realizes that Li is no city-slicker New Yorker feature writer who at best tends a few chickens at her house in the Adirondacks. She’s got some cattle of her own back in the village and knows how to herd them, although her usual method—throwing rocks at the beasts—doesn’t really work in a desert where there are no rocks to throw. She’s modest about her rustic skills, and Cuma teases her about her uselessness, relegating her to the thankless task of watching over the wayward calves, but she pulls her weight.

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Winter Pastures is rich with the habits and textures of domestic life in the burrow, presided over by Cuma’s wife—known only as “Sister-in-Law”—a warm but taciturn woman with a particular knack for roasting flatbread in, yes, sheep manure charcoal. Cuma hugs her for two solid minutes when he comes home at the end of every long, cold day on the desert. Their 19-year-old daughter, Kama, pulled out of school to help with the flocks, dreamed of life in the city, but has absorbed enough of her parents’ resourcefulness that she wouldn’t, for example, simply discard an empty soy sauce bottle. Instead, she slices off the top to make it into a chopstick holder, using scissors to cut a frilly pattern around the edge. The family wastes nothing. When a shoe becomes too battered to serve another day, Cuma removes the sole, flattens the upper under a rock, and uses the leather to patch other shoes.

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Not all of this fixer-upping is driven by necessity. Cuma—talkative, a kidder, constitutionally restless—can barely sit still during the long nights and spends hours removing the handles from tools to attach them to other tools that get used a bit more often. Li, a dreamy scribbler who likes nothing better than to nap in the bedclothes after a long day of chasing calves around, finds the imposed indolence delicious. Peaceful and quiet are a pair of words that appear like incantations in the passages of Winter Pasture devoted to her deepest feelings. So when the visiting veterinarian finally brings the parts Cuma needs to repair the family’s broken satellite dish, making television once again a part of evenings in the burrow, Li considers the addition a catastrophe.

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The herders also have a small solar panel they use to charge the TV and their cellphones; as described by Li, theirs is a life in which modern technology and primordial custom mingle easily. A neighboring family has a son who is “never fully present” to Li’s mind, his nose always buried in his phone, a device that contains a veritable library of Kazakh pop songs. Others use their Bluetooth speakers to supply the music for the “Black Horse Trot,” or kara jorga, a prancing Central Asian folk dance. Li, a Mandarin speaker with a smattering of Kazakh, gets stuck translating the Mandarin-language programming for her hosts and often a passel of guests, although she considers the shows “trashy.” The herders scoff when a rider on television whose horse has broken its leg appears in the next scene on the same horse, miraculously recovered. “To poor city folks,” Li writes, “all horses look the same,” so the director simply used the same animal. “But for a herder, the difference between one horse and another is as obvious as the difference between two people.”

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Winter Pasture features some beautiful writing, particularly when describing the landscape, whose extraordinary flatness allowed Li to “fully feel the roundness of the earth—the earth curved down in all directions as our team of camels inched along the crest of the sphere.” It’s a place where twilight barely exists and when night comes on, “darkness, like a kettle of water, fills the world.” But hers is largely a plainspoken and humble authorial voice. (When Li mentions that her own needlework is “incomparable,” you know she’s really, really good at it.) Cuma and his family, by contrast, are vividly drawn and full of all the contradictions and eccentricities you can only learn about people when you’re cooped up in a very small space with them for months.

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It was an opportunity that turned out to be fleeting. The year she was there, in an attempt to protect the grasslands from overgrazing, the Chinese government was offering the herders subsidies to settle down on farms along the Ulungur River. The vanishing of the old nomadic ways dismays Li, but when she expressed this to a trader, he looked at her and asked, “Have we Kazakhs not suffered enough for you yet?” The work of a nomad was so punishing that Cuma and his family ate painkillers all day like candy. Cuma’s disdain for farmers—they don’t eat meat as often as herders—seemed unlikely to withstand the temptation of the subsidies and the price he’d get for his land: more than enough to buy a car and get into the business of selling rides, a longtime dream.

Who would begrudge Cuma and his clan a more easeful life? But Li is right that something will be lost, the very things McClure longed for when reading Wilder’s books as a child: familial togetherness, shared purpose, and the reenchantment of the material world, the way that scarcity makes everything precious. Early in Li’s stay, Kama found a crushed imitation gold ring in a jacket pocket and carefully hammered it back into its proper shape as a friendship gift to her guest. Ordinarily Li would never wear such a thing, but she came to love it. “When I herded the calves deep into unknown terrain,” she writes, “I couldn’t help but touch the ring finger on my left hand with my right hand … as if the ring was my body’s one antenna, its one point of entry, the place where my body began. Under the blue sky, the ring was ever so bright and so profound.”