Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders

  • By Li Juan; translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan
  • Astra House
  • 320 pp.

This newly translated memoir has long been loved in the author’s native land.

A memoir about hauling snow, shoveling manure, and living in a mud hut in one of the harshest environments on earth may not sound like a pleasure read. Yet, miraculously, Li Juan’s Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders is somehow just that. Part travelogue and part cultural exchange, the book luxuriates in wide-open spaces and the simple wonder of the everyday.

A bestseller in China for years and winner of the People’s Literature Award, Winter Pasture is Li’s first book to appear in the United States. Initially, there are some lazy colloquialisms to get past, but it’s hard to know whether they’re the fault of the author or the translators. Soon enough, the book finds its stride and balances both beauty and accessibility on every page.

To find an “adventure truly worthy of an author,” Li leaves her northwestern China home to tag along with a family of herders on their annual trip to a winter grazing spot in the arid Xinjiang Province. (A trip for which she woefully under-packs. By the end, Li’s only T-shirt is so filthy that nobody will stand near her for photos.)

For months, she lives with Cuma, a Kazakh herder in his 50s, his family, and their sheep, camels, cattle, and horses. Once out in the remote wilderness, all five people — along with a housecat named Plum Blossom — sleep, eat, listen to music, and hide from the wind in a hut made of dung and brick. The quarters are close but not claustrophobic.

Outside, amid the grass, the animals, and the desert-mountain landscape, it would be easy for Li to lapse into predictable ruminations on loneliness and the desolation surrounding her. Instead, she sees a place of wonder where the soul, unbridled, can run wild.

Not much happens in Winter Pasture. Yes, visitors come and go, hard work is done in the brutal cold of the steppe, and Li embroiders alongside Cuma’s wife and teenage daughter, but this is far from a plot-driven adventure log. Yet it is packed with charm and the same kind of lyrical nature prose found in Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and the work of Tang poet Li Po.

Because the book is such a quiet one, I was at first puzzled by a comment I’d seen that Li’s writing is “the closest thing China’s literary scene has got these days to the spirit of dissent.” Yet as she chronicles herding sheep, getting teased for her grimy jacket, or helping the nomadic teens with their Mandarin homework, I could feel the whisper of that dissent rippling between the lines. It was as subtle as it was undeniable.

Li’s immediate rebellion is in her portrayal of her host family. Kazakh herders are Muslims of Turkic origins, and there are reports that members of this minority have been persecuted in China and even sent to internment camps. Yet Li — a Han Chinese, the ruling people of the country — never sets herself above them. Each person comes across as nuanced and complex despite the pervasive stereotypes surrounding rural herders. Yes, Cuma may drink too much and lack reliability, but he possesses a wicked sense of humor and a deep love for his family.

The other hint of revolt is in Li’s depiction of herself. The object of suspicion in her home village because she’s a woman uninterested in marriage (and often unkempt), she is as far from “prim and proper” as urban Beijing is from the dunes of Xinjiang. While she willingly fades into the background and lets her subjects take center stage, she is frequently wry and sarcastic. She makes herself heard.

With the intelligent, witty Li Juan as our guide, Winter Pasture becomes more than just a trip to an otherwise unknowable, far-off place full of people we’ll never meet. It’s a life-affirming declaration that the world would be terribly boring — and seem achingly small — if we all looked, worked, dressed, spoke, and dreamed the same way.

Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a contributing writer to Book Riot, Horse Network, and the Independent, and is also the host of HN Reads on Horse Network, a monthly interview series with authors of horse books. She lives in Chicago and is still a Colorado native.

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