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For Central Asian “Gypsies,” Wealth Hangs By a Hair

Barno Urmanova—a human hair wholesaler in the tight-knit Mugat, or “Gypsy,” neighborhood of Andijan, Uzbekistan—sorts a collector’s haul. (Photograph by Paul Salopek)
Barno Urmanova—a human hair wholesaler in the tight-knit Mugat, or “Gypsy,” neighborhood of Andijan, Uzbekistan—sorts a collector’s haul. (Photograph by Paul Salopek)

We plod across the historic Fergana Valley. We walk among dormant winter villages en route for the border of Kyrgyzstan. It is cold. The sky is the grey hue of a battleship. At a lonesome crossroad, next to a fallow cotton field, we meet two representatives of the world’s beauty industry. They too are on foot: a middle-aged man and young girl, wrapped inside their tired old clothes, members of a settled nomad group called the Mugat, a minority often associated with the Roma, or Gypsies, in Uzbekistan.

“Wait,” says my guide, Aziz Khalmuradov. He calls the couple over. They obligingly open the grain sacks they carry.

“What is it?” Khalmuradov asks me.

“It looks like hair,” I say. “A lot of hairballs.”

“That is correct,” Khalmuradov says approvingly, master to pupil. “Human hair for export to China.”

Read the full story, or explore more content from the Out of Eden Walk at outofedenwalk.org.