Wednesday, July 29


(Above: a Polish map of 1903 showing the province of Semirechye. Below: contemporay Google Map.)

We are driving NE from Almaty to Saryozek, and once we reach that hamlet we turn south to cross the hills into the village of Baschi, on our way to Altyn Emel. This is the historical Semirechye - the legendary land of mountain, desert, lake and steppe - where settled civilization has met nomadic cultures over thousands of years - overlapping, competing, winning, or capitulating - for it is a terrain that admits to both lifestyles: herding in the limitless steppe, or growing crop in the green valleys of the short rivers.

The Turkic name is Yeti-su or Zhety-su, literally Seven Rivers - that flow down from the Tien Shan and Alatau (Altai) into Lake Balkhash. The Ili is the primary of these rivers, the others are the Chu, the Karatal, Aksu, Lepsy, Charyn, and Chilik. The Russian calque or translation for Zhety-su is Semi Rechye (i.e. Sapt-Ab rather than Punj-ab.) This is land bounded to the south by the Tien Shan, to the North and the East by the Alatau, and to the Northwest by Lake Balkhash. The Western door leads to Transoxiana - Otrar, Samarkand, Bukhara.

On the road leading towards the Xinjiang border, Saka kurgans dot the sloping land - most were robbed in antiquity but one here or there will still yield outstanding archaeological finds such as the Golden Man. The occasional shepherd's big Iranian nose hints at ancestors who were Sogdian.

"At the time of the Arab conquest of Tansoxiana, Semirechye's southern fringe had a flourishing agricultural and urban population chiefly composed of the same Sogdian stock, engaged in irrigated or dry farming, professing one or another of the main religions - Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, or Christianity - entertaining a lively exchange with the Turkic nomads, and acknowledging, when necessary, their suzerainty. This prosperity continued and even increased after the spread of Islam here in the tenth century, which began with the conquest of the western-most segment of Semirechye and then made giant strides with the voluntary conversion of entire Turkic tribes. In the eleventh century, Semirechye became the senior province of the Qarakhanid dynasty, and shone with a florescence of Turkic-Islamic culture. This came to an end after the Mongol invasion, but not through the standard method of willful destruction accompanying the conquest. Here it resulted from the fact that the Mongols preferred to live in Semirechye, grazing their herds, holding there their quriltays (conventions), or fighting their internecine wars. Agricultural and urban civilization ultimately succumbed to the nomads' way of the Mongols, and re-appeared only after the Russian conquest in the 1860s. A small settlement which the natives called Alma-Ata was then developed as the administrative center of Semirechye ....

After the Mongols modified Semirechye to suit their lifestyle, the region came to be called Moghulistan (or Mongolistan, Land of Mongols; the form Moghulistan is based on its spelling in the Arabic alphabet, which tended to omit the abraded sound n from the word "Mongol"). "

(from  Svat Soucek's "A History of Inner Asia".)

The great folk epic Manas, most melodiously claimed by the Kyrghyz from amongst the Turkic peoples - includes the hero Manas' conquest of Moghulistan in the 16th-17th centuries.The Epic of Manas is divided into three books (eight in extended versions.) The first is on Manas, the second describes the deeds of his son Semetei, and the third of his grandson Seitek (the extended versions go down to the 7th generation after Manas - that of Chaghatai. ) The epic begins with the destruction and difficulties caused by an invasion of the Oirats into Semirechye. The shepherd Zhakyp reaches maturity in this time as an owner of many herds without a heir. His prayers are eventually answered, and on the day of his son's birth, he dedicates a colt, Toruchaar, born the same day, to his son's service. The son is unique among his peers for strength, mischief, and generosity. The Oirat learn of this young warrior and warn their leader. A plot is hatched to capture young Manas. They fail in this task, Manas is able to rally his people and eventually elected as Khan. Manas expands his reach to include all Moghulistan. One of the defeated Uyghur rulers gives his daughter to Manas in marriage. At this point, the people choose, with Manas' help, to return from the Altai mountains to their "ancestral lands" in the mountains of modern-day Kyrghyzstan.

Zhakyp's dream about the birth of Manas recalls Chingis Khan:

In my last night's dream,
I settled down on the upper Ala-Too
And caught a young baarchin eagle.
When I took him hunting,
The sound of his flapping wings was heard,
Unable to withstand his wrath,
All the animals fell over in fright.

Reaching with my right hand,
I grasped the sun for myself.
Reaching with my left hand,
I caught the moon for myself.
My right hand held the sun,
My left hand held the moon,
I took the sun
And put it in place of the moon,
I took the moon
And put it in place of the sun.
Together with the sun and moon,
I flew high into the sky.

The further lineage of Manas is betrays the culture-deficit pastoralists must have felt when they lived in proximity to settled civilization, for Manas' legitimacy comes in part from sufi saints, part from Caliphs, and part from Kïdïr (Khidr, or al-khidr/al-akhdar in Arabic, meaning the Green One, identified syncretically with the Canaanite god Kothar in Israel/Palestine, Vishnu in India, Sourūsh in Iran and so on.)

His forefathers were all khans,
Blessed by Kïdïr from the beginning,
His ancestors were all khans,
Blessed by Kïdïr from the beginning.
In places where they had stayed overnight
Sacred shrines were built, for
God had blessed them from the beginning.
In the places where they had passed by
A city with a bazaar was established, for
God had blessed them from the beginning.
They had exchanged greetings with twenty Sufi masters,
Learned writing from a caliph,
And they thus were called great "sahibs."

Here is a clip produced by the UNESCO on Manas.

After Baschi we drive east towards Zharkent; the local Uyghur stations battle Chinese AM broadcasts from over the horizon. Here and there is a village with Chinese truck-drivers sprawling in the shade underneath their vehicles (it is 40 degrees in the sun.) The electric poles stand forlornly, there is no wire slung between them; in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, when salaries stopped, the people of Semirechye had to resort to stealing copper wire (and any other metal from culverts, power transmission equipment, phone lines) and selling them to the "Khitai" (Chinese, Cathay-ans.) Those lumbering convoys of trucks carrying back pilfered scrap - copper, iron, steel - was what ruined this road, grumbles Dima, our driver. Aleksander laughs uproariously - his description of the ride, which he unfailingly offers about once an hour, is "Chinese massage."

Tuesday, July 28

Aleksander's Grandfather and the First of May

We are in Almaty, walking in the shadows of the soaring Tien Shan range. Across high valleys, to the south and west, lie Kyrghyzstan, and Bishkek. Our guide in these parts is Aleksander, a silver-haired former museum director, a 4th-generation Russian in Kazakhstan, who is to take us into the Tien Shans and the Alatau (i.e. Altai) which he knows like the back of his hands, for his family has been in them for 150 years. Midway up the northern Tien Shan lies Aleksander's mountain home with a 100m frontage of apple trees; from his front porch he can see far below in the plains, where the night train crosses the Dzhungarian Alatau towards Ust-Kamenogorsk, its front beam stabbing around like a flashlight as it negotiates the loops and the switchbacks of the track.

Ethnic Russians came into the area in the mid 1850s, once a Russian piedmont fort - Verniy - had been constructed at the base of the Zailiysky Alatau mountain range between the Big and Small Almatinka rivers. (Verniy became Almaty - from Alma-Ata, Apple-Father, for apples are from Kazakhstan.) Aleksander's great-grandfather was one of the early homesteaders, drawn from West of the Volga to the Central Asian frontier by easy land and opportunity. Between 1850 and 1910 the number of Russian peasants settled in Kazakhstan was over a million. Aleksander's grandfather grew up on the homestead in the high valleys, managing orchards of apples, peaches and apricots, or undulating fields of mountain-potatoes. The area was not collectivized at the same pace as the rest of the USSR; Sovietization would take till 1936 to catch up to Bishkek, so Aleksander's grandparents were allowed remain smallholding-farmers for a while.

One May-Day (solemnly celebrated as International Worker's Day in the Soviet union as in many other countries) in the late 1920s, as the village band was preparing to greet some bigwigs visiting from Bishkek, Aleksander's grandfather came out of his house in the morning, stamped his feet in exasperation, shouted "Damn this First of May!" and went back inside.

Neighbors heard him clearly. A few hours later, the police came and took him away.

Karlag (the Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp) was one of the largest Gulag labor camps, located in Karaganda Oblast, Kazakh SSR, USSR. About 800,000 inmates served in total in Karlag over its history. At the height of Stalin's terror, you could be denounced for almost anything and disappear into Karlag, essentially to be worked to death in the steppe.

Aleksander's grandma, as well as his mother and her siblings - waited in trepidation for the worst. They did not join the May Day festivities, expecting to be picked up at any time, as the  "family of the traitor" could easily suffer the same fate as the principal. In the late afternoon, his grandma gathered up enough courage to go to the village ataman's house. He did not open the door, and made the sign of the cross from behind his lace curtains.

The next day passed, all eyes were red from crying. At midnight, there was a great whinnying of horses outside the gate. Footsteps crunched in the gravel. The women adjusted their kerchiefs, hid bits of cheese and black bread on their persons, and huddled at the stove, expecting the worst - denunciation, deportation, rape, enslavement. The door opened and Aleksander's grandfather came in. The other footsteps retreated away into the night.

He went straight to bed without speaking a word.

When he woke well past noon the following day, he saw his entire family sitting around his bed wordlessly; they had kept a soundless vigil all night next to his cot. It took three days for his story to come out.

A neighbor had denounced him for blasphemous irreverence towards May Day. After arrest, he spoke to higher and higher levels of officers in the Soviet security apparatus and tried to impress upon them his version of the story, viz:  It had snowed overnight! On the eve of the first of May! the apple crop was done for, with the frost and all. Damn a snowfall on the first of May!

He had been passed up the chain by one official after another, and finally he had been granted an interrogation by the highest-ranking NKVD person of the oblast. Aleksander's grandfather sat across the Commissar of Internal Security Himself. The Great Man surveyed him impassively and inscrutably smoked cigarette after cigarette. Finally he said: my mother said the same thing!

Excuse me, Your Excellency!

My mother, you oaf. She's from rural-stock too, a farmer's daughter. When she came out yesterday in Bishkek she saw the snow and said the same thing - damn a first of May that snows! So I believe you. You can go.

Below: fields of wildflowers in the mountains south of Almaty, as we drive up with Aleksander towards the Kazakh-Kyrghyz border.