A Kazakh herder returns home after grazing sheep and cattle on the pasture in the Akyaz Valley, in Zhaosu county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. (HU HUHU/XINHUA)
New roads, solar panels and motorcycles are improving living conditions in the remote Akyaz area
As the first rays of sunshine climbed over the snowy mountains on the Akyaz Valley, Nurkaldi Tursunali drove his 60 sheep to the pasture before going back to his log cabin to drink milk tea by a burning stove. It was a typical start to the herdsman's day.
Winters are harsh in the valley, and Nurkaldi's family and his flock do their best to avoid the bitter cold. About 130 kilometers from the nearest town, Akyaz is an important winter grazing place for herders in Zhaosu county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Despite being at an altitude of 2,000 meters, the valley has a warmer climate than surrounding areas, and abundant grass and water. It is sometimes referred to as the "Valley of Life".
For centuries, herding has been an ancestral tradition for nomadic Kazakhs in Zhaosu. Migration begins in October, and more than 10,000 people drive 400,000 cattle and sheep to their winter homes, where they remain until May.
To enter the valley, herders and their animals must pass a narrow, winding road. With cliffs on both sides, the road is just wide enough for a car to pass. Drivers hold their breath when zigzagging on the icy, rocky passage, careful not to fall off the cliff when taking sharp curves.
It usually takes two hours to drive to the heart of the valley. Sheltered by three mountains, the homes of the herders are scattered along the 200-kilometer valley. The nearest neighbors are just 400 to 500 meters away, while some people live dozens of kilometers away and have to ride on horseback for two or three hours to visit a friend.