Monday, September 14


At the feet of Nagarjuna (creator of the Prajnaparamita sutra, carved here onto boulders by Vajrayana Dzhungars in the 16th-18th centuries), lies Las Vegas of the Steppe.

The Ili River flows into the man-made Kapachagay reservoir, and through the races of the hydro-electric turbines, on its way to Lake Balkhash. The area is home to 50 spanking casinos, and a gambling industry 'measured in the tens of billions of dollars'.

At the time of Kazakh independence in 1991, the per capita GDP was around $1500 and a regulatory-collapse, coupled with the dreary post-Soviet entertainment culture, spawned a home-brewed gaming scene in Almaty. Little bingo parlors and pinball parlors run by new mom-and-pop 'entrepreneurs' sprang up everywhere. Aleksander recounts seeing one in the spare kitchen of the kindergarten next door. By 2007, this homegrown industry had grown to 132 casinos, over 2,000 slot rooms, and 53 betting shops. With per-capita GDP crossing $10000,  the promise of larger-and-larger oil/gas revenues to come, the need to isolate the social costs of gambling, and the desire to bring this wild-east under control of the ruling elites, President Nazarbayev promulgated a new law that restricted gambling in Kazakhstan to two zones - around Kapchagay, and around Schuchinsk. Most of the mom-and-pop slot rooms migrated to Bishkek, went underground, or got converted to discos. The big Malaysia, Macau and Monaco-based gaming consortia moved in, as did the World Poker Tournament, developing the James Bond environment they think they can sell to Russian and Chinese high-rollers. It costs about USD 500 to enter some of these casinos (you get some amount of chips to play as part of admission), and the market seems to consist of young men from as far afield as Baku and Beijing. The 'size of the opportunity' is large enough for Kazakhstan to hold it first Gaming Congress recently, where, the agenda says the following were discussed:

the mechanism and specificity of online gambling; legislative regulation and taxation of gambling business in Kazakhstan; how to attract players to casinos: shows and entertainment programs as a lever for influencing; success stories and tricks of creating a successful casino from owners of the largest casinos in Kazakhstan; analysis of gambling zones in Kazakhstan: how to choose the most profitable area; modernization methods of lotteries to increase their popularity; approaches to attract investors to casinos ...

(At the hotel lobby in Almaty, where the gambling congressmen were beginning to congregate, someone asked me that billion dollar question - erm, what are bitcoins? )

Our friend Natalya works in one of these casinos as a hostess. Her new husband is employed as a driver by the gaming industry. Local opinion in Kapchagay is in grudging admiration of the boom, and soft jobs, that the gambling industry has brought. At the time of the 2007 announcement, apartment prices in Kapchagay went up overnight from $2000 to $10000, and longtime residents feared being priced out of their cinderblock houses by hordes of high-rollers. But the casinos have a huge appetite for service workers - cooks, maids, bouncers, cashiers, drivers to take customers around, bar-girls to sit on their laps.

From a story in the NYT:

But one of the chief selling points of a major gambling center on the Central Asian steppe is also among the chief sources of anxiety among residents: Chinese gamblers. The Chinese appetite for gambling may stoke investment fervor from Macau to Malaysia, but for many Kazakhs the idea of encouraging hundreds of thousands of Chinese visitors to cross the border 400 miles to the east raises the specter of an invasion.

“This town will be a lot like Hong Kong,” said Sayassat Yusenbaev, 28, a businessman having dinner at a Kapchagai restaurant with friends from his office.

Not so, said another man at the table, Sayassat Dyussembayev. “People in general are feeling negative about the Chinese, but they don’t need to worry: the Chinese will come in large groups and stick together in one casino, like a herd,” he said.

People in Kapchagai say they share the widely held belief in Kazakhstan that the Chinese are seeking to economically colonize their sparsely populated neighbor. “They already have taken over the markets around the border,” said Mr. Bakiev, the grocer. “They can buy everything here.”

The Ili river flows into the Kapchagay dam.

The 140 km long Kapchagay dam was completed in 1969; they began slowly filling the reservoir in 1970 over a period of 20 years. Like most 'large hydroelectric' projects, it was though the lake would provide an abundant source of power for Almaty, and irrigation for arid farming in the region. However, environmentalists have expressed deep concerns about its environmental impact upon Lake Balkhash. Between 1970 and 1985, the volume of Lake Balkhash declined by 39 cubic kms, dropping 2 meters in depth. Later, with a moratorium on further filling of the reservoir,  this situation improved somewhat; today, the volume of Balkhash increased a bit once more due to additional river discharge from China, although the water quality had been dramatically reduced and it has become increasingly saline at the Kapchagay side, which is twice as salty as the southwestern end. The 'beaches' around the reservoir attract hordes of summer weekenders from Almaty (a hour away without traffic), and the popular ones are vistas of empty beer bottles and trash. On the road out of Almaty rise billboard after billboard, each advertising a different Russian pop-tart and the Kapchagay casino she will be twerking in.

Below, a ride through Kapchagay and across the reservoir.

Wednesday, September 9


The road from Dzharkent to Bayseit is dotted with small Uyghur villages.  Chinese long-haulers rest under their trucks cheek-by-jowl with borzoi bitches; göşnan and şorpa smells vie with the aroma of apricot.

Uyghurs started to settle in today’s Kazakh territory in the 19th century after the Qing conquest of Dzhungaria.

The first Eastern Turkestan Republic (Uyghur: شەرقىي تۈركىستان ئىسلام جۇمھۇرىيىتى‎ Sharqi Türkistan Islam Jumhuriyiti) was a short-lived breakaway Islamic republic, founded in 1933, centered on Kashgar, primarily the product of an independence movement of the Uyghur population sensing an opportunity with a China preoccupied by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. With the sacking of Kashgar in 1934 by Hui warlords (nominally allied with the Kuomintang government in Nanjing), the first ETR collapsed. At this point, the USSR stepped into Xinjiang and effectively took over, ruling by proxy through an ethnic Chinese (i..e neither Uyghur, nor Kazakh, nor Chinese Muslim Hui/Dungan) warlord Sheng Shicai. With Soviet assistance, Sheng quelled Uyghur and Dungan uprisings, and expelled 20,000 Kazakhs out of Xinjiang to Qinghai (i.e. towards China), where they were massacred by their co-religionists the Hui.

The USSR sent a commission to Xinjiang to draw up a plan for the development of Xinjiang/Turkestan, led by Stalin's brother-in-law Alexander Svanidze, Deputy Chief of the Soviet State Bank. This resulted in a Soviet 5-year loan of 5,000,000 gold rubles to Sheng Shicai's regime. In 1940, Sheng Shicai concluded an agreement granting the USSR additional concessions in the province of Xinjiang for fifty years, including areas bordering India and Tibet. This placed the area under virtually complete control of the USSR, keeping it on maps as part of China in name only. Soviet advisors swarmed around Turkestan, developing plans to extract minerals from desert and mountain.

In 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and Stalin pivoted to the 'Western' front. Sheng took the opportunity to dump the USSR, and seek relations with the Kuomintang. With each Soviet defeat to the Nazis, Sheng expelled more Red Army military forces and technicians residing in Xinjiang. In August 1942 Sheng demanded that the Soviet Union withdrew all military forces and political officers from Xinjiang in 3 months, and, in a few days, met with Mme Chiang Kai-Shek, who flew to Urumqi with letter from Chiang Kai-Shek promising his forgiveness to Sheng for all his transgressions. Sheng was appointed the head of the Kuomintang branch in Xinjiang in 1943, and, to prove his zeal, arrested a number of Chinese communists and executed them. Among those killed was Mao Zemin, brother of Mao Zedong.

Many of the Turkic elites of the Ili region of Xinjiang had had close cultural, political and economic ties with Russia and then the Soviet Union over many generations. Refugees from the Sheng/Kuomintang alliance fled to the Soviet Union and sought Soviet assistance for Uyghur rebels fighting the Kuomintang. The result is called the Ili rebellion. At the end of the fighting, the rebels had set up a second East Turkestan Republic (1944-49.) The pro-Soviet Uyghur who became leader of Ili rebellion, Ehmetjan Qasimi (photo below), was Soviet-educated and described as "Stalin's man." It was declared:

The Turkestan Islam Government is organized: praise be to Allah for his manifold blessings! Allah be praised! The aid of Allah has given us the heroism to overthrow the government of the oppressor Chinese. But even if we have set ourselves free, can it be pleasing in the sight of our God if we only stand and watch while you, our brethren in religion ... still bear the bloody grievance of subjection to the black politics of the oppressor Government of the savage Chinese? Certainly our God would not be satisfied. We will not throw down our arms until we have made you free from the five bloody fingers of the Chinese oppressors' power, nor until the very roots of the Chinese oppressors' government have dried and died away from the face of the earth of East Turkestan, which we have inherited as our native land from our fathers and our grandfathers."

The Ili rebels engaged in retributive massacres of Han Chinese civilians, especially targeting people affiliated with the Kuomintang and Sheng Shicai. Sheng himself fled Xinjiang in 1944 (after unsuccessfully appealing to Stalin to be let to change sides again; 11 members of his family were killed in the endgame), and 50 trucks accompanied him, loaded with 'personal property earned in Xinjiang over 15 years', including 1,500 kg of gold  and  15,000 kg of silver - which he took with him to comfortable retirement in Taiwan.

At the conclusion of WW II, once the Japanese surrendered, Mao's PLA started slowly prevailing against the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War. When the PLA started to push into the Xinjiang frontier, Stalin saw the possibility of tremendous strategic advance - welcoming the Chinese communists into the orbit of the Soviets and making China a junior partner to Russia. To this end, the Ili rebellion could become a sacrificial pawn. There was a secret Stalin Mao pact. Mao telegraphed the leaders of the second Eastern Turkestan Republic, inviting them to attend the Inaugural Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference to be held in Beijing. They took the bait; on August 22 1949, the five top leaders of the Ili rebellion - Ehmetjan Qasimi ("Stalin's man"), Abdulkerim Abbas, Ishaq Beg Munonov, Luo Zhi and Delilhan Sugurbayev - boarded a Soviet plane in Almaty headed for China. Soon, cables said they had perished in a mysterious plane accident near Lake Baikal.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, former KGB generals revealed that  the five top ETR leaders had had their plane diverted to Moscow on Stalin's orders, where they had been imprisoned in the former Tsar's stables, personally interrogated by the head of MGB Colonel General Viktor Abakumov, and then executed.

With each geopolitical twist and turn, there had been Uyghur influxes into Kazakhstan - in 1934, in 1949, and again in 1962 (when the Sino/Soviet split was accompanied by an increase in oppression by the Chinese government over the Turkic minorities.)  As a result of many flows into the USSR, the Uyghurs, while never forgetting the dream of autonomy over East Turkestan, started to view Kazakhstan as something of a refuge and an adoptive homeland.

In the rest of Kazakhstan, the Soviet era had brought significant in-migration. The bigger Soviet labour camps were built here. Many minority groups (Koreans, Germans, Poles, Chechens, Ingush, Tatars) were deported to these camps during the 1930s and 1940s, under accusation of being traitors in the Great Terror wreaked by Stalin. Other Soviet citizens, mainly Slavs and Europeans, also fled to Kazakhstan from the European front to escape the advancing Nazis. Under Khrushchev, the Kazakh steppe became a destination for Russian homesteaders to conquer Virgin Lands. Kazakhs, as a result, were decimated - collectivization had disastrous effects on the nomads and destroyed a way of life that had been stable for millennia. By the 1990s the Kazakhs were no longer a majority in the Kazakh SSR.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new 'stans', the presence of minorities in Kazakhstan became problematic for the newly independent Kazakh elites. A solution has been found in ambiguity. The Kazakhs emphasized the common past - under Turko-Mongol clans, under the Tsars, and under the occupation of the Soviets. The political leadership guaranteed citizenship to all ex-Soviet residents, but at the same time supported discriminatory linguistic and demographic policies, and kept encouraging the promotion of ethnic Kazakh hegemony in the state sector. President Nazarbayev administration has kept a delicate balance between concessions granted to the 'national minorities' (mostly related to every nation being able to stay within its own folklore, though every citizen has to learn Kazakh) but kept tight control over economy and politics.

Uyghurs in Kazakhstan, then, live in limbo. They can open small businesses, study Uyghur after they study Kazakh, organize cultural events, keep beards  -  provided they do not organize politically, and accept tight State control over relations with their relatives in Xinjiang. A common suspicion of Islamic extremism lingers over them.

We wander around Bayseit, the village is festive on Saturday, the market day. At the local Uyghur school, a children's ensemble plays the dombra and the dutar. Traditional Uyghur music, however, as in Xinjiang, has been given a run for its money by Bollywood.

A traveler across the border in China writes:

Uyghur enthusiasm for Hindi film songs has moved from consumption to production. ‘Hebbeli’ is a popular bootlegging which skillfully juxtaposes Hindi film videos with Uyghur pop songs. We see a suave Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood megastar, fronting massed lines of scantily-clad chorus girls, lip-synching to the Uyghur with uncanny accuracy: ‘Khanimlar, ependiler, diqqet … mushundaq yashash kerek!’ (ladies and gentlemen, observe .... this is how to live!) Even in the heart of the Uyghur countryside you can hear local singers, accompanying themselves on the dutar long-necked lute, singing Uyghur-language cover versions of Bollywood classics. One major influence was the 1951 classic ‘Awāra’ by Raj Kapoor, a love story between the vagabond Raj and rich girl Rita.

This was one of the first films to be shown in the Uyghur region post-Cultural Revolution when its core theme of class-contradictions was deemed acceptable by the authorities. It was shown in villages across Xinjiang, projected onto sheets hung outdoors. But class struggle was not what audience took from this film. Instead it gave them their first taste of melodrama, romantic love and tragedy, and it filled an aching need for such things after the emotional wasteland of Cultural Revolution.

"It was the first film that I saw that wasn’t Chinese revolutionary propaganda”, says Aziz from Shahyar. “They showed it in our village, and we boys climbed up onto the courtyard wall to see it. We sang the title song ‘Awāra Hoo’ all the time”.

I am soon mobbed in Bayseit by young Uyghurs who ask me if I know Salman Khan. An enterprising quartet proceeds to snatch shashlik skewers and dance out a garba number lest I be a talent scout from India. The old woman selling fruit beckons me from across the street and presses some white apricot in my hands. One of the young men translates: "She is asking you to give her regards to Raj Kapoor and his family", and then, with a grin, "She also says 'Awalagu.'"

Tuesday, September 1

Charyn Canyon

As Imperial Russia expanded into the Siberian Far East, it encountered rival territorial claims from China In 1860, Russia imposed an agreement on China's waning Qing dynasty that roughly set up the current border.

In 1951, two years after the communist victory over nationalists in the Chinese civil war, Beijing signed an agreement with Moscow -- accepting China's existing border with the USSR, as well as armed Soviet control over the Amur and the Ussuri rivers.  The Cultural Revolution in China of the 1960s, essentially a power struggle between  Mao and the government bureaucracy, created great internal instability. Beijing declared its border with the USSR was the result of "unequal" treaties made a century earlier.  The Chinese nuclear detonation of 1964 brought angst to Kremlin. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 also increased Chinese suspicions of Moscow's intentions south of the Amur into Manchuria.

On March 2, 1969, a group of People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops ambushed Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island. The Soviets suffered 59 dead, including a senior colonel, and 94 wounded.[citation needed] They retaliated on March 15 by bombarding Chinese troop concentrations on the Chinese bank of the Ussuri River and by storming Zhenbao Island. The Soviets sent four then-secret T-62 tanks to attack the Chinese patrols on the island from the other side of the river. One of the leading tanks was hit and the tank commander was killed. On March 16, 1969, the Soviets entered the island to collect their dead; the Chinese held their fire. On March 17, 1969, the Soviets tried to recover the disabled tank, but their effort was repelled by the Chinese artillery. On March 21, the Soviets sent a demolition team attempting to destroy the tank. The Chinese opened fire and thwarted the Soviets.[citation needed] With the help of divers of the Chinese navy, the PLA pulled the T-62 tank onshore.

In August, the PLA tried another provocation, this time near where we are, in Kazakhstan. A Chinese military patrol crossed into the Lake Zhalanashkol  region, about 3 miles into the Kazakh SSR. The USSR was better prepared this time. the Soviet soldiers crossed the border to attack. The Soviets eliminated the Chinese patrol, crossed over into the Chinese border zone and killed about 30 Chinese soldiers. They continued to hold the Terekty River, an intermittent stream which flows China to Kazakhstan, till the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1990s.

After the Terekty incident, the USSR prepared contingency plans for Chinese reprisals. It was believed Chinese tank brigades would come rolling into Kazakhstan to threaten the vulnerable underbelly of the USSR at Almaty. The Charyn canyon was the first natural obstacle across the steppe, running north south along the border - if this line were held, the tanks would have to force their way through the far-easier-to-defend Dzungharian Gate to the north. We pass the machine gun pillboxes on the Kazakh side of Charyn, dotting the landscape, about 100m apart, all along the gorge.

During this time,  US officials watched the ideological and political split between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China escalate into fighting on Sino-Soviet borders. Some U.S. officials wondered if the Soviet Union might launch attacks to take out Chinese nuclear weapons facilities.

The Sinologist Allen Whiting wrote to Henry Kissinger:

Between 1966 and 1969, Soviet military deployments doubled the number of ground force divisions near the Chinese border while bringing the units originally there from half to full strength. Soviet artillery, nuclear and conventional, is concentrated along China's northeast frontier with a firepower density estimated as comparable with that opposite NATO. Soviet 500-nautical mile nuclear missiles (SS-12) are deployed so as to threaten vital rail and industrial centers in Manchuria. During this period, existing Soviet airfields have been improved and additional bases constructed targetting China. Particularly salient for striking China's nuclear production facilities are ten new Russian airfields in Outer Mongolia.

Soviet military deployments and political behavior indicate an increasing probability of a Soviet attack on China, presumably aimed at destroying China's nuclear capability. A Sino-Soviet war raises the risk of nuclear weapons being used by one or both sides. A Soviet attack on China will increase the bitter hatred and siege mentality with which the Chinese are likely to view the world for the rest of this century.

We roll across the steppe towards  Charyn National Park, established in 2004 and located within the territory of the Uyghur and Kegen Districts of Almaty Province. The canyon stretches 150 kms along the Charyn River in the northern Tien Shan mountain range. In parts, it attains a depth of 300 m, and it has been called one of the ten most impressive canyons in the world.

The Charyn canyon is estimated to be 12 million years old - the multi-colored geology is the result of different stages of sediment deposition. Dark rocks at the bottom are volcanic lava rocks; the red cliffs are from debris flows. Downstream of Charyn there is a left-over stand from a prehistoric forest of Sogdian Ash. The Sogdian Ash is a rare, endangered species and the Charyn canyon is one of two places where it still grows in numbers. The river itself is turbulent in the canyon, flowing through some serious Class VI rapids.

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.

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.

Sunday, August 17

La Albiceleste Defend

Getting into the National Stadium at Brasilia feels like getting into a college game. Argentine fans are a vocal and visible minority, and are being tolerated well. Streaming in through the barricades, they chant
        Olé, olé olé olé, Die-go, Die-go! (i.e. Maradona, their patron saint.)
to which the Brazilians (supporting Belgium today) roar
        Bel. Zi. Ca. Bel. Zi. Ca.

We seat ourselves, here to watch two teams trying not to lose.

Since the injury to Angel di María earlier in the World Cup (he is playing today, but barely), coach Sabella moved Argentina to 4-4-1-1, with Lionel Messi behind striker Gonzalo Higuaín. Ezequiel Lavezzi plays a supporting role from one wing, everyone else defends. Argentina’s fullbacks and midfielders stay back more than almost anyone else’s in the tournament. This is not beautiful, but effective. To beat a deep-seated defense the rival coach will add to the attackers, but that is precisely the trap Sabella wishes to set. Draw the enemy out, and suddenly Messi might be counterattacking in a sprint across an open midfield, or feeding the ball up to di María or Higuaín.

Vincent Kompany loses the ball to Mascherano; who passes on to Messi.  No. 10 dribbles past de Bruyne and Fellaini before finding di María, whose pass into the area is deflected off Vertonghen. That flick bass-ackwards Belgium’s defense who were zagging as the ball zigs, and Higuaín’s sweeping shot rockets from the edge of the area across Courtois and into the corner;  after the match he dedicates the winner to Alfredo di Stéfano, critical in Madrid after a heart attack.

Note for future world cup matches: you will definitely be able to get scalped tickets if the home team is not playing.  Just wait till the starting whistle, prices will collapse to 25% of face value within 5 minutes of kickoff.

The word olé itself, as a Spanish exclamation, is thought to be derived from the Arabic invocation of Allah, the oath والله (w-állah, “by Allah!”), from Andalusian times.

Olé, olé olé olé, Die-go, Die-go!