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W.O.W. | Aksakal

If you hike into Barskoon valley, chances are you’ll be headed for the Aksakal waterfall, also known as “the elder’s beard”.  Spectacular in the summertime, it’s the winter that really gives these falls their name.  On deeply cold, clear days, climbers with ropes and ice picks head into the valley to spend a pleasant day climbing “the beard”.   The white ice cascading down is brilliant against the dark rocks, and it’s not too difficult to step back and imagine this white flow as actually belonging to an ancient elder of Kyrgyzstan, still watching over the land.

The fundamental backbone of Kyrygz tradition is a deep respect for elders.  This respect is reflected in the language, in social interactions, and in the symbology of clothing and ceremony.  The Kyrgyz language allows itself an exuberant complexity with the multiple endings that should be used to attribute respect as due.  On the bus, older women and men can expect younger riders to readily give up their seats.  When seated at a table, elders have the place of respect, farthest from the door (and therefore the warmest). 

The name aksakal (sometimes written aqsaqal) is translated most literally as “white beard”, and refers to the men in a village who have earned a status as a respected elder.  These men are respected and revered after having dedicated their life to their work and their family.  They are deemed men of quality character and voluntarily take on the role of aksakal, upholding the informal cultural rules of a community and necessarily consulted about decisions that influence their village.

Groups of these elders within a village form an aksakal court, which over the flows of history has wielded differing levels of power.  Always informal, the pre-judicial court often focuses on resolving interfamilial conflicts.  Even in cities, with larger populations, aksakals preside over areas called mallahs, performing the same role of offering mediation, wisdom, and decision on deeply local matters.  

Everywhere in Kyrgyzstan, the youth can be seen readily bestowing respect on their elder counterparts, and tradition mandates that young men cannot wear a beard until their father wears one.   It is a beautiful culture to witness and take part in, and frequently visitors to rural regions will have the opportunity to see and perhaps meet one of the aksakals of a village.  Expect a true upholding of Kyrgyz hospitality in the exchange, and perhaps a request for a photo or two!

Ruby Mitchell

Online Content Editor @ White Leopard Travel Co.

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