The donkeys of love (handmade in Kyrgyzstan)

It’s almost sunset by the time we reach the tiny village of Shor-Bulak, by the shores of Issyk Kul. We have been walking under the sun and sweating for hours. A travellers stench steams from our socks as we take of the shoes to get into Salkin’s home. She is awaiting us by the road, she knows somebody foreign is looking for her. “Salkin Ismailova?” we have been asking every few meters. “8, 10, 12 houses further” – her neighbours invariably reply. Behind our backs we have heard the word “inastranci” – somebody warning her by phone of our arrival.

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We sit in her kitchen, listening to her thoughts while she carefully trims the fur of one little felt donkey. She is doing “extra hours” – she says – because she loves her handmade job. The donkeys are an order from MUJI, a Japanese design company that works with the local women on a regular basis. As far as we understand, Japanese volunteers train the women in perfecting their craft skills and establish a long-lasting relation that makes local businesses sustainable. Just like in real life, not two donkeys are the same; the Japanese, though, require all little animals to be as similar as possible, and it took them months to devise a way of making crafts from different women a homogeneous product. Now, Salkin shows us with pride her husband’s novel contribution to the project – a foam template that makes uniformity heavenly easy. “He helps us in any way he can” – she happily adds.

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Her kitchen, however, has nothing of a production line, and it’s hard to imagine the slow-paced Kyrgyz ladies working under stress. These felt donkeys seem to be born in the calm mood of the local villages, and Salkin says that although the felt takes all her energy away, it also brings good vibes to her days. Six days a week she sits around in a nearby workshop with her friends, watching their favourite TV programs or singing Kyrgyz love songs as they work. Those who know a foreign language also sing to the donkeys (or the sheep, camels, polar bears) in other tongues, so they will remember some words when they get to their new homes in Germany, France of Spain. She tells with an innocent touch that she hopes they will find good homes wherever they go. And by looking at her simple room – white walls, simple curtains, her sons crafts – we understand she is totally unaware that the Western excess means the donkeys will be just one amongst a hundred toys and decorations in the living room of someone who can probably not distinguish handmade from factory products – but who knows, lets hope they find a crafts lover.

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Up to 10 donkeys per day, for a salary that she says is good enough, althogh it does not account for all the hours spent. Six days a week they work, and one they rest. We are lucky to have come today because tomorrow is “bathing day” – the day reserved for her group to use the public bath in the village. She would be busy taking shower and washing all the home clothes. We silently confess that we could do with a “bath day” too.

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For this and other interesting women-led craft initiatives in Kyrgyzstan, check OVOP Association “One Village One Product” in facebook. 


This post is part of the series Snail Trails – Handmade in Asia – a roving initiative to document, collect and share crafts from the places we pass by and the artisans we meet on our way East. Because there is a life behind the souvenirs and we are curious to see what it looks like. If you also want to know more click here for artisan’s and craft stories. 


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