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

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...

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.

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Meet the Author

Paul Salopek
Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s 21,000-mile Out of Eden Walk is a multiyear experiment in slow journalism. Moving at the beat of his footsteps, Salopek is walking the pathways of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age and made the Earth ours. Along the way he is covering the major stories of our time—from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival—by giving voice to the people who inhabit them every day. His words, as well as his photographs, video, and audio, are creating a global record of human life at the start of a new millennium as told by villagers, nomads, traders, farmers, soldiers, and artists who rarely make the news. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @OutofEdenWalk.