CHENDEK, Russia – With its eyes bandaged and legs bound, the stag groaned in pain as its huge curved antlers were severed with a hand-saw.
The powerful beast surged forward to break away as blood spurted from the stumps, but Siberian herdsmen pinned it down until their work was finished.
The gory de-horning of the Maral deer is an annual ritual in this isolated part of Siberia and dates from the 17th century. It is essential for the export of antler horn – a prized commodity on Asian markets and money-spinner for the under-developed region.
Some deer die from shock during the de-horning but in this case the stag’s stumps were treated with salt and the animal was released back into the lush mountains to grow new antlers – which one day will be culled again.
KYRLYK, Russia – Ertechi Klesheva’s weather-worn face showed little emotion as she conjured up the gods of Siberian mountains and rivers who she says flock to her hut on command.
She set ablaze a branch of juniper, sprinkled milk into her deified fireplace and mumbled prayers in the ancient language of Turkish nomads, who have for centuries lived in Russia’s desolate Altai mountains dividing Siberia and Central Asia.
Ertechi is one of a handful of shamans, their traditions rooted in Siberia, who have survived 400 years of Russian expansion and are now undergoing a post-communist revival.
In the dim light of her wooden hut in Altai’s forgotten Djan-Yusok mountains, she knelt and bowed to the spirit of Altai’s sanctified Mount Belukha – Russia’s second highest peak.
“The gods of fire, rivers, lakes and holy Mount Belukha, which gave birth to the universe, have come to me to protect the health and well-being of the people of Altai and their livestock,” Ertechi whispered, tiny bells tinkling on the shoulders of her dusty dark red robes.
“We shamans used to be a lot more powerful before communism,” said Ertechi, switching to Russian for a visitor. “When the Bolsheviks started arresting shamans, some even managed to fly away from the prisons.”
“Our beliefs lived on and now everyone in Russia is free to do whatever they wish, no matter what their ethnic group is,” Ertechi said. “It was the will of our gods that we preserve our tradition so that there may be no war and no thunder.”
PANJI POYON, Tajikistan – Tajik soldiers squint through the sun and dust at the slowly approaching silhouette of an Afghan truck rumbling across a river bridge.
“Documents! What’s your cargo?” barks one as the heavily loaded truck pulls over at a control point on the river Panj which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan.
In a trailer nearby, a customs official leafs through papers as Afghan drivers wait outside in the shadow of their trucks. A swallow swoops in and settles in a nest above his head.
ABOARD THE WHITBY ROSE – His eyes fixed on the North Sea horizon, British skipper Howard Locker steers his boat far out to sea where he hopes to stumble on enough fish to save the day.
But things are not looking good for Locker – one of the last remaining trawler men in the north-eastern town of Whitby where EU fishing quotas, climate change and decades of overfishing have crushed the local fishing industry.
“The market has collapsed,” said Locker, who has been fishing out of the harbour for more than 40 years. “When I was 16, I couldn’t believe I’d be scraping a living like this.”
“We are the last of the great hunters. A lifetime at sea. For what?” Locker added, as gusts of icy wind lashed his face.
For now, he is worried about his son who wants to make a career out of fishing. There is no future in it, Locker said.
“He said he wanted to go fishing. I could’ve killed him. Honestly. And he loves it,” Locker said with joking frustration as he looked at his son from the window of the skipper’s cabin.
“I have a little grandson, two-year-old. If he ever thinks of buying a (fishing) rod, I am going to hit him with it. I am.”
SHEWAN SHARIF, Pakistan – Yielding to the hypnotic beat of drums and the intoxicating scent of incense, the woman danced herself into a state of trance, laughing and shaking uncontrollably alongside hundreds of others at Pakistan’s most revered Sufi shrine.
Swathed in red, the Sufi colour of passion, she shouted invocations to the shrine’s patron saint in an ecstatic ritual repeated daily in the dusty town of Sehwan Sharif on the banks of the river Indus.
With its hypnotic rituals, ancient mysticism and a touch of intoxicated madness, Sufism is a non-violent form of Islam which has been practised in Pakistan for centuries – a powerful antidote to extremism in places such as the province of Sindh.
It is scenes like this, where men and women dance together in a fervent celebration of their faith, that make Sufis an increasingly obvious target in the conservative Muslim country where sectarian violence is on the rise.
At a crossroads of historic trade routes, religions and cultures, Sindh has always been a poor but religiously tolerant place, shielded by its embrace of Sufism from Islamist militancy sweeping other parts of Pakistan.
But this year peace came to an end with a string of attacks across the province, including against Sufi places of worship, as militants seek new safe havens and new ways of destabilising the country.
“They are trying to kill us,” said Syed Sarwar Ali Shah Bukhari, whose father, a Sufi cleric, was killed in a bomb attack on the family’s ancestral shrine in February.
Bukhari, 36, is now the oldest living descendant of a prominent Sufi “saint” whose tomb his family has tended for generations in a tradition handed down from father to son.
“It was never like this before,” Bukhari, wearing a black turban and silver embroidered slippers, said nervously outside the Dargah Ghulam Shah Gazi shrine, its vast dome shining bright above the bleak mud-brick homes of his native Maari village.
In Qambar, a ramshackle town in the shadow of rocky hills separating Sindh from the lawless province of Baluchistan, Sufis said only a miracle could save them after their spiritual leader Syed Ghulam Hussain Shah narrowly survived an attack this year.
The seminary is packed with turbaned students of all ages, with older, bearded peers poring over religious texts and singing Arabic verses in dimly lit, rose water scented rooms.
The memory of death hangs heavily amid its stone walls. This is where Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto came for spiritual guidance just days before she was killed in 2007.
“The enemies of Islam are killing people. Satanic forces are behind all this,” said Shah as he recalled the day Bhutto sat in front of him, asking questions and crying.
“May God keep us all safe.”