Little more than a hamlet in the desert, home to just thirty-four families, Bulunkul began life as an artificial settlement created by the Soviet Union. A few of the people who live there are still employed to maintain the Soviet-era weather station. Others catch fish in the nearby lake, or tend to livestock – a few cows and sheep that share sparse grazing with a herd of yaks.
The settlement consists of a handful of low, white-painted houses, clustered around the fenced-off area that holds the weather instruments. At one corner, a rusting pile of abandoned machinery hints at some abandoned industrial experiment. The surrounding hills are lion-colored, dry sand and bare rock glowing in the intense high-altitude sunlight. It has an end-of-the-world feeling about it, a tiny community poised on the brink of a huge emptiness.
During the Soviet era, food and energy for the people who lived here were subsidized. Now, with no viable agriculture or industry to support them, the people who still live here are sustained largely by remittances sent home from family members working abroad, mostly in Russia. A homestay operated by one family provides a little extra income during the summer months when tourists still come.
The young woman who works at the homestay, a pleasant, intelligent girl in stylish galoshes and a tiger-print wrap, went to Dushanbe to study to be a doctor. While she was there, she fell ill and was thrown out of medical school for missing too many courses. With nowhere else to go, she came home to Bulunkul.