Sunday, August 30


I wake early. The memory of Basshi's heat is distant, at this altitude in the Tien Shan a quilt is handy in the wee hours. Parting the curtains of the mountain cabin, I look down at Kolsay lake.

Clouds swirling in from the West have darkened this dawn. Sharp rain is angling in on the Kolsay, the surface ripples in protest. A bee-keeper trudges up the trail on the other side of the lake, his hives on a yoke on his shoulders. In the high-up valleys, spring will arrive only in October; the bees are being carried to where the wildflowers are to come as soon as snow melts next week, with a promise of bee-loud glades to come in the days after.

The creak-creak of the beekeeper's yoke floats clearly across the Kolsay, for there is no other human sound in this place of snowmelt and wildflowers.

In 1827, a son was born to Pyotr Semenov, an officer in the Tsar's army who occupied several estates in Ryazan (about 200 kms SE of Moscow) and "owned many serfs." This boy, also named Pyotr, was to go on to become one of Russia's eminent explorers and botanists - who devoted many years  exploring these parts of the Tien-Shans, and, who, towards the end of his life, successfully applied to Tsar Nikolas II to formally change his family name to Tien-shanski.

Pyotr Semenov, the future Tien-Shanski, went to university in St. Petersburg and soon found himself in a circle of thinkers led by Mikhail Petrashevsky.  The Petrashevsky Circle was a Russian literary discussion group of progressive commoner-intellectuals, on the lines of French utopian socialists like Charles Fourier (who coined the term feminism.) Among the members were writers, teachers, students, minor government officials, and army officers. While differing in political views, several  were sons of serf-holders opposing Russian serfdom. Among those connected to the circle were the writers Dostoyevsky and Saltykov-Shchedrin, the poets Pleshcheyev, Apollon Maikov, Taras Shevchenko. Semenov was one of the more nationalist-minded of the circle, and as such he was spared the wrath of the Tsar, who saw freethinkers as seeds of insurrection.

The previous generation of Russian nationalist elites had internalized this lesson from Napoleon's invasion - as long as Russia remained inferior in military terms to France, Prussia and Austro-Hungary, it was imperative to retain strategic geographic depth. Napoleon had been defeated chasing the Russian army deeper and deeper into the steppe till winter overcame his supply lines. For Semenov's generation, the Crimean War was to teach another lesson - as long as Russia remained inferior in naval terms to Britain and France, it was imperative to secure free water ports from which counterattacks might be launched in international waters. The Crimean War had been lost because the western navies had bottled up Sebastopol, and Russia's Black Sea fleet had been unable to break free, even as her Baltic fleet remained snow-bound.

The two lessons combined to form a new strategic quest - to colonize Central Asia: both to secure strategic depth and secure east-flowing waterways such as the Amur from Central Asia to the Sea of Japan and on to warm-water ports in Korea.

To this calculus, Russian nationalists added another motive, a version of Russia's mission civilisatrice: that the exploration and study of the 'Russian East' contributed to samopoznanie - Russia's self-discovery - not only geographically as a great Eurasian nation, but also as a civilizing force on the 'Tatars.' Semenov wrote of explorations around the Caspian, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia:

"By all these routes Russia moves forward, as Providence itself has ordained, in the general interest of humanity: the civilizing of Asia."

"Just let the children of [the] West say now that we still stand on a low level of civilization! If this low level is already producing such marvelous fruits for the interests of humanity in general, then we are fully justified in expecting even more from a higher [level of civilization], which will quickly develop in view of the rapid pace characterizing the history of our development."

In 1856, Semenov sets off for Central Asia, passing through the area around the Kolsay on his way to Issyk-Kul.  In the course of the trip he finds that the river Chu doesn’t flow from the lake Issyk-Kul, and thus Issyk-Kul has no drainage. The winter of 1856 Semenov spends in Barnaul, where he classifies his collected material and writes reports to the Russian Geographical Society.

His botanical collection grows: 70 plant species, several (including the Semenov mountain ash, the Semenov fir and the Semenov maple) never described before, hundreds of thousands of specimens of insects (including hundreds named after him.) In Barnaul, Semenov meets Dostoevsky. The summer of 1857 he launches himself anew into the high Tien-Shan. More plant species are discovered, but not a trace of volcanic ash is found. Semenov concludes von Humboldt’s theory of the Tien Shan’s volcanic origin is false; he reclassifies the range as comprising of fold mountains - the Tien Shan was uplifted prior to the Cenozoic Indo-Asia collision, but the intracontinental weakness of Asia's interior has caused further deformation and upliftment in the range after the collision of India into Asia. Semenov studies the natural altitudinal belts of Tien Shan and the level of the ridges’ snow lines; he explores territories of three out of four largest river systems of Central Asia and describes the riparian geology of one of the Tien Shan’s peculiar aspects – differentiation on parallel chains and formation of very long lateral valleys.

At the end of his exploring years, Semenov goes on to become the head of Russian Geographic Society for over 40 years (1873-1914). In 1897 he organizes the first Russian population census. In the year of 50th anniversary of his first trip to Tien Shan, Pyotr Petrovich Semenov applies for, and  is awarded, the title of Tien-Shanski. He presents his vast collection of paintings of Dutch masters to the Hermitage. At his death in 1914, people remember him as saying “Our glory is the glory of Russia."

The wind shifts, the clouds are now scudding in from over China. Rain, sun, rain over the lake, all in one hour. On our hikes we furl and unfurl umbrellas.

The White Cat Toqtamish

In 568 AD, a Sogdian
came to Istami’s Western Turkic Khaganate
from Khosrau the First’s Sassanids, to serve as a guide
to a caravan of traders from Khrurasan.
On the tired banks of the Ili River he saw
a white cat crouching in the color of night
like a patch of snow in Talas, surrounded
by clean meadows and friendly darkness.
He saw several worlds on the white cat’s body
calmly swirling. Arrows, bloodshed,
cries from the slaughtered city all disappeared
in its white whirlpool. After a few moments,
he gave up on Manichaeism.
One thousand four hundred thirty-nine years later,
in the middle of the night, my wife and I
also see a white cat,
about three months old, small but dignified as he strolls
by the dried-up pool of the Weixiu Garden,
like the crown prince of the last dynasty, crossing
time and space in the lamp’s shadow, returning to the old garden
to survey his obscure but noble memories.
He doesn’t avoid our touch, but
won’t respond to our babbled cat-speak; separated
by a leaf, a flower,
the polite night breeze, he concentrates
on taking in the scents of many worlds.
He tries to use his liquid eyes
to tell us something, but in the end
he leaves us like flowing water.
We think he went to the White Horde
of 1382, what we call Toqtamish,
wanting to set out at night
to conquer the Golden Horde and rule over Russia.

                                                                                 - Hu Xudong

Tokhtamysh (Tatar. Tuqtamış, died 1406), descended from Chingis Khan's grandson Tugha-Timur, was the khan of the Blue Horde, who briefly unified the White and Blue Horde divisions of the Golden Horde into a single ulus.

Sunday, August 23

Chokan Valikhanov

You write me that you love me. I will tell you without ceremony that I have fallen in love with you. Never, to anybody, not even to my own brother, have I felt such attraction as I do to you, and God knows how this has come about. One could say much in explanation, but why should I praise you! And you will believe in my sincerity even without proof, my dear Vali-khan, and even if one were to write ten books on this theme, one would write nothing: feeling and attraction are inexplicable.

—Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1856, Semipalatinsk

Chokan Chingisov Valikhanov  (Kazakh: Шоқан Шыңғысұлы Уәлиханұлы, Shoqan Shynghysuly Walikhanuly; Russian: Чокан Чингисович Валиханов), born Muhammed Qanafiya  (1835-1865) was a Kazakh scholar, ethnographer, historian, compiler of Manas, and participant in the Great Game. Regarded as the father of modern Kazakh historiography and ethnography, the Kazakh Academy of Sciences is named after him.

Chokan Valikhanov was descended from Chingis Khan - by way of several iconic Chingissids - Shayban Khan (c. 1270, son of Jochi and grandson of Chingis, whose other Turcko-Mongol descendants  became Persianized, in time calling themselves Shaybani Uzbeks); Urus (Russian) Khan, eighth Khan of the Golden Horde (c. 1370); Jani Beg Khan, instrumental in splitting the Kazakh-Khanate from the Golden Horde (c. 1470); Kuchum Khan of Sibir  (c. 1570),  the last khan of the Khanate of Sibir, whose attempt to spread Islam and cross-border-raids were vigorously opposed by the Russian Tsar; and Ablai Khan (defeater of Dzunghars and founder of the modern Kazakh nation, c. 1770.)

Chokan's grandfather Vali was descended from Kuchum Khan. Tsar Alexander I had created an estate for Vali Khan in Kazakhstan, where the first European-style house to be inhabited by a Kazakh khan was built. Vali Khan's wife (i.e. Chokan's grandmother) was the even more formidable Aighanym (Queen-mother), a most astute stateswoman, who corresponded with ladies of the Russian aristocracy, advocated with the Russian colonizing powers first for her son and then for her grandson, and carved out a role for the old nobility of the desolate steppe within the imperial dispensation handed down by the Tsar from St. Petersburg. Chokan's father, named Chingis in memory of the distant Mongol ancestor, was awarded, during his life, six appointments as senior Sultan of Kushmurun okrug (county), a term as chief Kazakh advisor to the frontier board, a promotion to Colonel, and a separate term as senior Sultan in the Kokshetau okrug.  Chingis Valikhanov was one of the first Kazakhs to learn Russian. Chokan was the first Kazakh to enter the Russian intelligentsia, befriending prominent thinkers like Petr 'Tien-Shan' Semenov and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

As a young boy, Chokan was enrolled in a village school, where he was encouraged to zhety zhurttyn tilin bilu (learn the languages of seven peoples) - Kazakh, Chaghatai, Arabic, Persian, Mongol, Uighur and Russian. He learnt herding and falconry, lived in a yurt, went on long excursions in the steppe during summers, and practiced Islam "in a Kazakh way" (i.e. mixed with Tengriism.)

The Russian colonial experiment desired to create a class of Russified Kazakhs. To this end, Chokan was allowed entry into the Siberian Cadet Corps Institute in Omsk in 1847,  the first Kazakh to get an university education. He was a fine student, and attracted the interest of orientalist scholars on the one hand, and recruiters for military intelligence on the other. He befriended Dostoevsky, in exile in Siberia and Kazakhstan. When Chokan left the Institute in 1853 - he was not allowed to graduate since the last year of military coursework was not permissible for inorodets (foreigners) - he had imbibed everything that was available in the form of higher education at the Russian frontier.

Grigorii Potanin, the future explorer of inner Asia, ethnolinguist and botanist, was a friend made in Omsk. The two decided to go on to St. Petersburg - Chokan to enroll in the Eastern Studies Department, Grigorii in Natural Science. At some point in their lives, they would travel to explore the territories that their Russian education had taught them to think of as a terra-incognita. Potanin wrote:

"before the time of his travels he [Valikhanov] would study the philology of Eastern Tribes, and I would establish a collection for the Petersburg Botanical Gardens and for the Zoological museum of the Academy of Sciences. He in his plans would go far away; at the time the border with China was still closed to Europeans, and could only possibly be crossed on an incognito journey. He therefore thought of going under cover of some kind of disguise ..."

At St. Petersburg, Valikhanov also built on something that his grandmother Aighanym had instilled in him as a child - love of Kazakh folklore, legend and song. He steered himself towards ethnography - and part of his legacy rests on collecting for the first time the oral tradition of the Kyrghyz epic Manas, which he wrote was a kind of

"encyclopedia, a collection of all the stories, tales, traditions, of all the geographical, religious, intellectual ideas and moral concepts of a people ..."

Chokan Valikhanov's first expedition (1855-56) was an exploration of the Kazakh Kyrghyz border, around Kolsay Lake and Issyk-Kul. This was a major military undertaking, under the command of the Colonel who governed Trans-Ili, to secure the submission of the Bugus Kyrghyz; and also a scientific one, where Chokan came in.

Below: sketch by Valikhanov of Kyrghyz man, 1856.

We find Chokan's tone when he describes coming upon the mazar (gravestone) of Kozy-Korpesh.

It was nighttime. At 10 versts, before arriving at picket number 4, stands the grave of Kozy-Korpesh, famous in Kirghiz (i.e. Kazakh; in Valikhanov's time, Kazakh was not used for Central Asian peoples to prevent confusion with Cossacks; and the term Kirghiz was used wholesale to describe Turko-Mongol steppe dwellers, while the Uzbek city dwellers of Samarkand and Bukhara were called Sarts.) poetry. We had studied the poem well and certainly wanted to take a look at the grave. At the time of our exit from [picket] number 2, we had to cross through the Kizil'kueskii picket at night. But we wanted to be there by morning so that we could drink tea at the grave. It is nice to drink tea on the trail, at especially at the ruins, at ancient graves. Its nice to think about the past, and worry about the present.

(Kozy Korpesh and Bayan Sulu are the Romeo and Juliet of the steppe - their story is known from Russia to Mongolia - even Pushkin composed a lyrical poem on the couple. Two friends, Sarybay and Karabay swore to marry their children. Sarybay died during hunting before the birth of his son Kozy. When they met, Kozy and Karybay's daughter Bayan fell in love, but as time passed the perfidious Karabay changed his plans. He promised  his daughter to the local dzhigit (trick-equestrian) Kodar who once rescued Karabay’s flocks. Kodar tries to break the love triangle by killing Kozy. Bayan resorts to cunning to revenge her lover. She promises to marry Kodar if he digs a well with spring water. Kodar starts work, as the well gets deeper, Bayan helps lower him by letting down her plaits, Kodar digs holding on to the hair of the girl. Unexpectedly, Bayan shears off her plaits and Kodar falls to his doom. Revenged, Bayan sees no reason to live and stabs herself with a dagger on the grave of Kozy Korpesh. April 15 is celebrated as Kozy-Korpesh/Bayan-Sulu day, i.e. Lovers' Day, in Kazakhstan.)

The account of the journey to the Tien Shan lakes, wistful and laden with folk-tales from the steppe, served notice on the Russian establishment that if the subaltern could speak, he also listen - gather military intelligence - by passing unimpeded as a local. It was decided that Valikhanov would be sent to a secret mission to Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan. The Russians saw Chinese Turkestan as a potential colony, given the Hui (Xinjiang Muslims) insurrections against the Qing dynasty, the rise of the British in India, and the cultural proximity of the peoples of Kashgar to the pacified Kazakh and Kyrghyz tribes. To many Muslims of Central Asia (and this feeling continues to the present day), compared to Chinese policy of seeking capitulation, the Russian policy advocated a willingness to bend to local tradition, dating back to the tolerance of Catherine the Great.  So wrote Peter Tien-shanskii Semenov of Valikhanov:

He was the only one at the time under the command of the Governor-General who could be send in Kirghiz national costume to Kashgar, and could, through his high degree of intellectual development and talents, collect for information for Russia of the utmost value not only about the contemporary state of Kashgar, but all of Altyshar [6 towns of the Kashi region] ..."

The mission kicked off in 1857. Valikhanov first traveled to Verniy (Almaty) to scout out information from traveling herders about the situation in Kashgar. In 1858, he was able to attach himself to a trade caravan in Semirechye, disguised as a merchant named Alimbai. The caravan had 42 people, 101 camels, and 65 horses. They traveled through the Alatau, meeting up with Kashgari and Tatar merchants, although rumors of a Russian sympathizer in their ranks began to spread. Thanks to Valikhanov's ability to befriend the Muslim elders in the caravan, and invoke Allah with chapter and verse when needed, the needle of suspicion never pointed to him.  They crossed over very treacherous mountain terrain and reached Kashgar in October 1858.

Valikhanov lived each day in fear of discovery followed by summary execution. He found the area under the sway of the Kokand Khanate of Ferghana, and trading if India, Persia, Afghanistan, Armenia. He quickly befriended the Kashgari aksakals (white-beards or elders), one of whom arranged for him to take as a temporary wife a local noble woman - a Kashgari custom that allowed the local administration to keep tabs on visitors; in the event, it was she who provided Valikhanov with useful information on the political situation.

(Below: Valikhanov's sketch of a Kashgari woman, 1859, from the Smithsonian.)

Rumors of a Russian spy increased. Mandarin sent by the Qing were increasingly anxious to quiz the merchants. One of the dialogs Valikhanov recounts runs thus:

... he came into the room wearing the outfit of a Chinese mandarin ... came close by ... approached [Valikhanov's traveling partner Naimanbai] too both his hands and asked:
'Oh, so here are our guests? Where are you from? Who are you? And which ones among you are from Andijan?'
'We're from Margelan [Ferghana Valley] and Tashkent.'
'How many are from Margelan?'
'[And from] Tashkent?'
'From Bukhara?'
'When did you leave from your homeland?'
'12 months [ago.]'
'For what reason did you come here.'
'For trade.'
'Are you Muhammedans? Could one of you by any chance be Russian?'
'We have not seen a Russian in ten years.'

Valikhanov returned to Verniy in 1859, leaving behind his Kashgari 'wife.' He was not to marry again till late in his (short) life. In Verniy, Valikhanov found himself a celebrity, and his fame spread to all of Europe. Ill for many months after his travels, he wrote his accounts of travel and published his sketches. Handsome rewards, promotions, deputations to the imperial capital of St. Petersburg - all followed. Dostoevsky wrote:

Be the first of your people to interpret to Russia the steppe. its significance. and your people in their relation to Russia, and at the same time serve your homeland as its enlightened intercessor before the Russians. Remember you are the first Kirghiz [Kazak] to be educated in the European way. Fate has made you moreover a superlative human being, has given you both a soul and a heart ..."

In the spring of 1861, at the age of 26, Chokan Valikhanov became seriously ill with tuberculosis and had to leave St. Petersburg. He returned to his native steppe in hopes of restoring his health. He never returned to St. Petersburg. In 1862, he successfully ran for senior Sultan, but Governor-General Alexander Duhamel refused to confirm this position due to Valikhanov's ill health. He continued to collect Kazakh judicial practices, advise the Russians to go gently on Kazakh policy, even as he told his people to take the best from European civilization. Retiring to a village near Altyn-Emel, he married the local Sultan's daughter in the last years of his life.

During his last years, Valikhanov served tirelessly to defend the "oppressed peoples" of the steppe against increasingly muscular Russian colonization and encroachment. His particular concern was how to deliver the fruits of European enlightenment without destroying either the nomad's lifestyle or the syncretism of folk-Islam that the tribes had achieved. He was vocal in his assessment that heavy handed suppression of the nations of steppe and mountain would create openings for radical Islam, for which he used the word 'fanaticism.'  In this sense Afghanistan is Chokan Valikhanov's vindication.

Chokan Valikhanov died of tuberculosis at 29, in 1865. There is a small museum dedicated to him on the road to Basshi in the village of Valikhanov, where he has his final resting place.

Valikhanov's brief life has been compared to a "meteor flashing" through the sky of Eurasian studies. We owe our understanding of Manas and the Central Asian folk tradition in large part due to his pioneering work. An excellent compilation of  events in Valikhanov's life can be found in SCM Bailey's doctoral thesis at the Univ. of Hawaii, from which some of the material above is drawn.

After his death, Dostoevsky said to a visitor:

You see that big rosewood box? That was a present from my Siberian friend Chokan Valikhanov. It is very dear to me. In it I store my manuscripts, letters and those things that are dear to me in my memory.

Below, we pass the village of Valikhanov near Altyn Emel.

Sunday, August 16

In the Tien Shan to Kolsay Lake

We turn south from Altyn-Emel, and cross the Steppe towards the Tien Shan. This is big-sky country. A cloudburst on the open steppe is dumping rain over a small patch - you see it in the far distance an hour away, as you drive up and speed through the splatter you know exactly where it is going to stop, and past that point the rain is in your rear view. In that wet patch are tall trees, maybe Boreas conspires with the Altai to drizzle everyday exactly on a glade of Chione.

Our immediate destination is the village of Sati in the foothills, gateway to the Kolsay National Park.

Leading up to Altyn Emel via Kapchagay, every few miles Dima's radar-detector would chirp and he'd slow to a crawl, on best behavior as we passed a police car hidden in the bushes. Usually Aleksander would gesture to me to cut out the video camera: "Our police are ... unpredictable." As we turn to the hills, the police checkpoints disappear - for we are so close the Kyrghyz border that peace is kept by Border Security, who are more interested in smugglers than speeders.

On the approach to Zhalanash and Sati, where the road starts climbing up from the flat steppe onto the front range, lie scattered the abandoned barns and paddocks of a kolkhoz, or collective farm, now overgrown with wildflowers. Kolkhozes, and their nationalized counterparts, sovkhozes, made up the socialized farm sector that emerged as Soviet agriculture after the October Revolution of 1917, ruthlessly enforced as antitheses to family-farming.

A kolkhoznik was paid a share of the farm’s product according to the number of workdays, while a sovkhoz employed salaried workers. The kolkhozes were required to sell their grain to the State at fixed prices. These procurement prices were set very low. In 1948 the Soviet government charged wholesalers 335 rubles for 100 kilograms of rye, but paid the kolkhoz roughly 8 rubles. The difference between what the State paid the farm, and what the State charged consumers, represented a major source of income for the USSR.

Members of kolkhoz were allowed to hold a small private plot, and perhaps some animals. The size of the private plot varied over the Soviet period but was usually about 1 acre.  Before the Russian Revolution of 1917 a peasant with less than 13.5 acres was considered too poor to maintain a family, yet the kolkhoznik survived his neo-serfdom by means of these plots - in 1938 4% of total sown land was in the form of private plots, but these plots produced 20% percent of gross agriculture output.

The villagers were required to do a minimum number of days work per year on the kolkhoz. In one kolkhoz the requirement was - a minimum of 130 days a year for each able-bodied adult, and 50 days per boy aged between 12 and 16 - distributed around the year according to seasonal agricultural cycle. If a kolkhoz member did not perform the required quantum of work, penalties might involve public shaming, confiscation of her private plot, and a trial that might result in a year's hard labour at a corrective camp.

In both the kolkhoz and sovkhoz, villagers were prevented from leaving, especially moving from rural areas to towns. In urban areas, a system of internal passports and residence permits existed to control the movement of population, but in the countryside the villagers did not even have the internal passports legally necessary for any domestic movement. Until 1969 all children born on a collective farm were forced by law to work there as adults, unless specifically given permission to leave.

The larger kolkhozes recruited teachers, doctors, smiths as collective members. When the cooperative farm of Zhalanash collapsed along with the Soviet Union, the assets of the kolkhoz were divided up as "privatization". The Sati kolkhoz's primary-school-teacher got (as her share of a lifetime of work) a tractor - that she did not know how to operate nor take care of. It rusted up, and sits there still on the side of the barn, the tendrils of wild peas have enveloped it completely. The teacher went to beg on the streets of Almaty.

Kazakhstan's slow migration up into the ranks of middle income countries is startlingly apparent as you climb the foothills into villages like Zhalanash and Sati. The ruins of the kolkhoz give way to festive alpine scenery - the air crisp, the roads lined with pennants aflutter, a brand new mosque in every corner. We come across a hand-painted sign "Alterations". Aleksander and Dima are comically annoyed - "this place now has a shop for alterations?" We have to stop and go up the country lane to sate their curiosity. Yes, there is indeed an Alterations shop in Sati now; and its main customers are the young border-guard recruits, who are nominally stationed at posts far up in the hills but in practice base themselves in the relative comfort of Sati, where jackets can be cut to the latest trend. We pass a small battery of very young guards.  Aleksander gestures to me to cut out the video camera: "Our border guards are ... unpredictable."

Past Sati, the road ends. We drive up steep and dubious-looking trails, hugging the Kolsay and Kaindy streams rushing headlong to join the Chilik on it way to Bartogai reservoir.  At the park entrance a padlocked barrier has been placed across the track - no one is in evidence. We wait, then Dima starts leaning on the horn. Lace curtains of the cottage at the back part; the ranger's wife pads out, to scowl at our paperwork and permits. We wait, splashing cold snowmelt from the Kolsay onto our faces, welcome relief from the heat of the sand dunes we have left  behind. After a long time, the woman has read every line of every form we have, and her face breaks out in a serene smile. Bul üşin barlıq ğoy - it's all in order! She gestures us on. But what about the padlocked barrier? Oh, just tug at the lock, it has no key. Everyone knows that!

We climb up. The last 3 kms are quite treacherous, 15-degree grade, hairpins and switchbacks on loose hillside gravel. Dima spins his wheels a few times, precariously close to a 500 ft drop into one abyss or another. At a couple of places, we stop to break branches off trees that have grown into this trail since someone last came up  - in order to make enough space for our vehicle. As we lurch up, we disturb a bobak, a Central Asian marmot or "prairie dog" (marmota bobak) A colony of bobak possibly helped the bubonic plague epidemic along as a reservoir host. Plague is caused by the bacterium yersinia pestis, commonly present in populations of fleas carried by ground rodents, including marmots, in various areas of Central Asia. Nestorian graves dating to 1338 near Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan (about 10 miles from where we are) have inscriptions referring to the Plague, and are thought by many epidemiologists to mark the outbreak of the epidemic. In the 14th century, plague killed 25 million people in Asia, before crossing over to Europe and killing another 100 million people there - between 30 and 60% of the population in the worst-affected areas - as Black Death. We hobnob not with the bobbing bobak.

The heat and dust of the plains become a memory - the air is crisp, rain showers swirl through, apple blossoms and wildflowers are everywhere, the track is carpeted by wild alpine strawberry. Mid-afternoon, we roll down ahead of a gathering cloud-bank to the lake.

Wednesday, August 5


The Dzungarian Gate is a pass in the Dzungarian Alatau mountains along the border between Kazakhstan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which for millennia has been considered the only feasible route for invasions between Eurasia and China. It is known for its fierce and almost constant winds. Herodotus in his Histories writes of travelers' reports of a land in the northeast, where griffins guard gold and where the North Wind issues from a mountain cave. This land, Hyperborea, is inhabited by a tribe that is descended from Boreas, the god of Wind, and the snow-nymph, Chione.

Nomadic raiders of the Eurasian Steppe have tended to come pouring in through the Dzungarian Gate. In the 3000 miles of mountain from Manchuria to Afghanistan, going west from China (or Mongolia) you must pass either north of the Tien Shan through Dzungaria, or south of the Tien Shan through the Taklamakan desert and the Tarim Basin. Trading caravans usually took the southern route and nomadic raids the northern - because the Tarim leads to Ferghana Valley and Iran, while Dzungaria leads only to open steppe. The difficulties with the southern route were in the high mountains between the Tarim Basin and Ferghana Valley. The Taklamakan, however, was too dry to support grass, and therefore lacked nomadic hordes likely to rob caravans, while Dzungaria had a fair grazing, few towns to base soldiers in, and no significant mountain obstacles once you passed the Gate. Therefore, the trade went south and invasions took the northern route.

These invasions were by no means one-directional from east to west; we read a poem composed in the early 11th century, preserved in the Diwan Lugat at-Turk, "in which Muslim Turkic, presumably Qarakhanid, troops carry out a raid on the Uighurs beyond the Ili River and despoil their Buddhist temples:

Qudruq qatiy tügdümiz
tänrig üküs ögdümiz
kämsip atiy tägdimiz
aldap yana qactimiz

We tied the horses' tails securely; we praised God Most High greatly (meaning the cry of allahu akbar aong the heathen ranks); we attacked them driving the horses, and then feigned flight (that they would come after us and we might turn on them and rout them.)"

(From The Šabdan Baatır Codex: Epic and the Writing of Northern Kirghiz History edited by Dan Prior. The agglutinative aspects of such bellicose chants were not lost on Tolkien as he formulated Black Speech -  Ash nazg durbatulûk ...)

The British journalist and MP M. Philips Price - Eastern Front correspondent in WW I, witness to the Bolshevik Revolution, traveler in Dzungaria c. 1910 wrote:

One can picture the Dzungarian Gate in the Ice Age: a narrow strait through which the Arctic-AraloCaspian Sea ebbed and flowed into the seas of Central Asia, scoured by icebergs descending from ancient glaciers on the Ala-tau and Barlik Mountains and forested perhaps down to the water's edge,—not unlike the Straits of Belle Isle at the present day. Now a change has been wrought; earth-movement has drained the sea. But away to the north there still remain the lakes of Ala Kul, Sasik Kul, and Balkash, and on the south Ebi Nor,—pools left in the desert—all that remains of the great icy sea. The alluvial plains, once its bed, are now covered by desert grasses, while the forest clings only to the shaded slopes and gullies on the northern slopes of the mountains.

Past the Dzungarian Gate, the Dzungarian Alatau gets three names from West to East: Degeres, then Altyn Emel, then Koyandytau. In 1218-19, when Chingis Khan started his rampage through Eurasia, he came in through the Dzungarian Gate. (For the casus belli, see Juvaini.) As he passed the spurs of the Alatau, he was struck by a vista of golden grass against the setting sun on a ridge between two peaks - he named it Altyn-Emel, the Golden Saddle. The area is one of Kazakhstan's largest national parks today, covering nearly 5000 sq kms, between the Tien Shan and the Alatau.

This is the best place in Central Asia to see certain rare ungulates - the goitered gazelle, the kulan wild ass, Bukhara deer, Przhevalsky horse. Below, one of the rare arkhar (ovis orientalis vignei), also known as the urial or shapo, a rare Central Asian big-horn wild sheep, a red-brown cousin of the argali that used to range from Ladakh to Siberia, but it now confined to pockets in its former range.

The village housing the park headquarters, Basshi, or Baschi, is the gateway to Altyn-Emel. We are put up in a local guest house, peaceful with a big garden: apricot falling off trees, crunchy apples just ripening, purple pears halfway there, the front gate decked with a trellis of grape vine, and yurts across the street. The manageress has no English, but she beams us smiles showing a mouthful of gold every time she bustles by, carrying all the home-made jam you'd care to eat. Outside, late summer is blazing; once evening falls, they fill the cattle-trough with water for naked children to splash in, as the mothers sit demurely dipping their feet.

The park is famous for the Singing Dune, which hums like an aircraft engine in the right conditions. The wind from the Dzungarian gate maintains this barchan dune,  2km long and 120m high, in a funnel of flat-land bounded by the Ili River to the south, the Ulken Kalkan spur to the east and Kishi Kalkan to the west. If you slide down, the dune emits a loud humming noise, often likened to that of a church organ, or droning aircraft. The generation of noise is related to the movement of the sand: scientists debate whether the it is the resonant movement of air between the grains, or discharge of static electricity. Local legend offers a different cause: that the noise is from the delight of the evil spirit Shaitan, working through a part of Chingis Khan's army that was lost and is buried beneath the sands.

Below, we brave the 40 degree heat, the shifting sand, and the hyperborean winds to slide down the Singing Dune of Altyn-Emel.