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" Travels in Central Asia - Chapter IX "excerpt

Arminius Vambery travelled through Central Asia in the mid 19th century, the author of one of most vivid and detailed accounts of life among the Turkmen as well as the oasis kingdoms of Turkestan.

A Hungarian linghist, he was fluent in the Turkish langauage and disguised as a learned and important man from Constantinople, he journeyed throughout Turkestan recording all that he saw and encountered...

I have chosen to reproduce parts of this text in an effort to illustrate the nature of life, aside from the myth and misunderstandings that pervade, at this late date, our very distanced view.


"'Who knows when Khiva will again have great good fortune to harbour in her walls so many pious men !......":
At last, having got all ready for our journey, we gradually assembled in the well-shaded court of Toshebaz. I was able that day for the first time fully to appreciate the influence that the pious charity of the Khivities had exercised upon our mendicant karavan. It was only in the case of the more stingy that we could discern any traces of their former rags: in the place of torn felt caps, worn amongst the Yomuts, my friends had donned the snow-white turban; all the knapsacks were better filled; and what was most pleasing to see was, that even the poorest of the pilgrims had now his small ass to ride upon. My position was greatly changed, for I had the use of an ass, and half a share in a camel too; the former I was to ride, the latter I was to employ for the transport of my traveling bag containing my clothes (in the strict plural sense), a few MSS. I no longer carried, as I had done in the desert, merely black flour; but white Pogatcha (small cakes baked in the fat of mutton), rice, butter, and even sugar. I still preferred retaining the same dress. True I had come into possession of a shirt, but I took care not to put it on; it might have rendered me effeminate, and it was too soon to indulge in any such luxury.   From Khiva to Bokhara we had the option between tree routes, (a) by Hezaresp and Fitnek, crossing the Oxus at Kukurtli; (b) by Khanka and Shurakhan on its right bank, with two days of desert from the Oxus at Karakol; and (c) up the river by water, and then, disembarking at Eltchig, proceeding through the desert to Karakol.

As we decided to go by land, our Kervanbashi's tadjik from Bokhara, named Aymed, left it to us to choose between the first two ways. We had, in company with a dealer in clothes from Khiva, hired the camels from Aymed, and the latter had recommended us thee route by Khanka as, at this period of the year, the safest and easiest.

It was on a Monday late in the afternoon when we suspended the functions of conferrers of blessings, and extricated ourselves from the embraces that seemed as if they never would end, and quitted Khiva by the Urgendj gate. Many, whose zeal was transcendental, ran for half a league after us; their feeling of devotion forced tears from their eyes, and full of despair we heard them exclaim, 'Who knows when Khiva will again have great good fortune to harbour in her walls so many pious men!'


"I found here two half-naked Dervishes on the point of swallowing down their noonday dose of opium; they offered me a little portion also, and were astonished to find me decline... ..."
My colleagues, seated up aloft on their camels, were not again disturbed; but I, on my ass below, was repeatedly visited with active evidence of their friendship, until even my steed could no longer endure it, and, to my great delight, galloped off with me: and it was not until I was far beyond their reach that I thought it proper to recommend him greater steadiness. I was obliged, however, to tug a long time at the reins before I could induce my long-eared hippogriff to change his headlong career into a more sober yet still somewhat rapid trot; when I sought to moderate this still further, he began to show temper, and, for the first time, emitted a distracting cry, the richness, pliancy, and fullness of which I should have preferred criticizing at a little farther distance.

We passed the first night in Godje, distant teo miles from Khiva. In spite of its insignificance it possesses a Kalenterkhane (quarters for Dervishes); we meet with such in Khiva and Khokand, even in the smallest hamlets. Hence to Khanka we transversed a country uninterruptedly under cultivation: along the whole way we saw excellent mulberry trees; and as my ass continued of good courage, and kept his place in advance of the karavan, I had time in passing to regale myself with berries as large and as thick as my thumb.

  Still keeping the lead, I was the fist to reach Khanka; it was weekly market. I dismounted at the Kalenterkhane at the furthermost end of the town, situated upon the bank of a rivulet, and, as usual, well shaded by the poplar and elm trees.

I found here two half-naked Dervishes on the point of swallowing down their noonday dose of opium; they offered me a little portion also, and were astonished to find me decline. They then prepared tea for me, and whilst I drank it, they took their own poisonous opiate, and in half an hour were in the happy realms; then, although I saw in features of one slumberer traces of internal gladness, I detected in those of the other convulsive movements picturing the agony of death.

I should have liked to remain, to hear from their own lips awaking an account of their dreams; but our karavan was just then passing, and I was obliged to join it, for as it takes hardly an hour to reach the bank of Oxus from here, time was important if, as we intended, we were to cross the same day. Unluckily for us, this part of the way was very bad; we did not get out of the mud and marshy ground until evening was drawing in; and we consequently determined to pass the night in the open air on the bank of the river.


"As for its quality of sweetness and good flavour, the inhabitants of Turkestan are of opinion that there is no river on the earth comparable to it, not even the Nile, Mubarek (the blessed)......."
The breadth of the Oxus was here so great that both banks were hardly distinguishable at the same time; this was probably owing to the season, for its waters were swollen, and covered a greater surface from the abundant supplies it had received in the spring. Its yellow waves and tolerably rapid current presented a spectacle no without interest to my eye. The nearer bank is crowned far away to the horizon with trees, and with farms. One discovers on the further side also of the river, far in the interior marks of cultivation, and towards the north the Oveis Karaayne mountain appears like a cloud suspended perpendicularly from heaven. The water of the Oxus in its proper bed is not so drinkable as in the canals and cuttings, where by its long passage the sand has had time to settle.   In this place the water grits under the teeth, just as if you had taken a bit of a sand cake, and it must allowed to stand some moments before it can be used. As for its quality of sweetness and good flavour, the inhabitants of Turkestan are of opinion that there is no river on the earth comparable to it, not even the Nile, Mubarek (the blessed). At first I thought that this good flavour proceeded rather from fancy wrought up to a fit of enthusiasm on reaching its banks after having traversed the thirsty waterless desert. But no, the idea is founded on error; and I must admit myself that, as far experience of water extends, I have never found river of source that yielded any so precious as that of the Oxus.

".....when men and asses were forced to quit the boat until it was got afloat; and when the water sufficed to bear it we again embarked."
Early next morning we found the ferry. Here at Gorlen Hezaresp, and other places, the fords are the privae property of the Government, and are let to private individuals. The latter dare to transport to the opposite bank only such strangers as have from the Khan a Petek (passport), which is obtained on payment of a small tax. The Hadjis had one joint passport, but I had procured an extra one, which was to the following effect:-

Literal Translation

It is notified to the watchers of the frontiers and the toll collectors, that permission has been given to the Hadji Mollah Abdur Reshid Efendi, and that no one is to trouble him'

No objections had been made to us on the part of the police. The document merely had this effect- that we, as Hadjis, were to pay nothing for being ferried over in the boat belonging to the Khan. The ferryman at first would not understand it so, but at last he consented, finding himself obliged, whether he had the feeling or not, to act upon the principle of charity, and to transport us, with out baggage and asses, to the further bank.

  We began to cross at ten o'clock in the morning, and did not reach before sunset a lofty bank that leads on the right to the Shurakhan canal. The great river, properly so called, took us half-an-hour to pass; but we were carried by the stream far down the current, and before we reached the desired point through the armlets, now up, now down, the whole day passed away, and under such a broiling heat as I rarely before had experienced. In the main stream it was well enough, but in the armlets at the side we settled every ten paces on the sand, when men and asses were forced to quit the boat until it was got afloat; and when the water sufficed to bear it we again embarked. Be it said, that the landing and re-embarkation of the asses was a terrible labour, and particularly with respect to some of the obstinate ones; these had to be carried out and in like helpless babes; and I laugh, even now, when I think how my long-legged friend, Hadji Yakoub, took his little ass upon his back, held it firmly by the fore-feet that hung down upon his chest, whilst the poor little brute, all in a tremor, strove to hide his head in the neck of the mendicant

" When I introduced myself they bade me welcome, and had bread and fruit laid before me. I offered money, but they laughed at that, and they told me that several of them had not, for twenty years, had any money in their hands.,......."
We were obliged to wait a day on bank at Shurakhan, until the camels were brought over; we then set out, proceeding through the district called Yapkenary (bank of canal), which was cut up everywhere by canals. Yapkenary forms an oasis, eight miles long and five or six broad. It is tolerably well cultivated. After it begins the desert, whose edge, called Akkamish, has good pasturage and is peopled by Kirghis. At Akkamish the karavan began slowly to wind along its way. The Kervanbashi, with myself and two others who could depend upon the pace of our asses, went out of our way to make an excursion to Shurakhan, and to complete our store of provisions at the weekly market there, or, to speak more plainly, to divert ourselves.

Shurakhan, which is surrounded by a good wall of earth, boasts only a few houses for dwellings, but consists of 300 shops. These are opened twice a week, and visited by the nomads and settlers of the country round. It is property of the Emir-ul-Umera, or elder brother of the Khan, who has a fine garden here. Leaving my companions to make their purchases, I went back to the Kalenterkhane, that stands before the gate of the town. I found here several Dervishes, who had become as thins as skeletons by the fatal indulgence in that opium called Beng

  (prepared from flax) and the Djers, and were lying about dreadfully disfigured upon the damp ground in their dark cells.

When I introduced myself they bade me welcome, and had bread and fruit laid before me. I offered money, but they laughed at that, and they told me that several of them had not, for twenty years, had any money in their hands. The district maintains its Dervishes; and I saw, indeed, in the course of the day, many a stately Ozberg horseman arrive, bringing with him some contribution, but receiving in return a pipe, out of which he extracted his darling poison. In Khiva, beng is the favourite narcotic; and many are addicted to this vice, because indulgence in wine and spirituous liquors is forbidden by the Koran, and any infringement is a sin punished by the government with death.

As it grew late I proceeded to the market to look for my friends, and it coast me much labour to make my way through the waving crowd. All were on horseback, sellers as well as buyers; and it was extremely droll to see how the Kirghis women, with their great leathern vessels full of Kimis, sitting on the horses, hold the opening of the skin above the mouth of the customer. There is adroitness in both parties, for very seldom do any drops fall aside.


".....and bewitching was the view by the clear moonlight of the caravan winding onwards, the Oxus rolling with a dull sound on our right, and the fearful desert of Tartary on our left. "
I found my fellow-travelers, and we proceeded together to rejoin the karavan, now five leagues distant. The day was intensely hot; but, happily, here and there we came, in spite of the sandiness of the land, upon Kirghis' tents, and I had only to approach one of them for the women to make their appearance with theirs skins, when a regular squabble arose amongst them if I did not accept a drink from everyone. To quicken thus a thirsty traveler from in the heat of summer, is regarded as a supreme degree of hospitality, and you confer a kindness upon a   Kirghis when you give him an occasion to carry out its laws. The karavan was waiting our arrival with the greatest impatience: they were upon the point of starting, as henceforth we began to march only by the night, a great solace both for us and for the cattle. Immediately upon our coming up the move began, and bewitching was the view by the clear moonlight of the caravan winding onwards, the Oxus rolling with a dull sound on our right, and the fearful desert of Tartary on our left.

" Man must keep moving; for, behold, sun, moon, stars, water, beast, bird, fish, all are in movement; it is but the dead and the earth that remain in their place!'"
The next morning we encamped on an elevated bank of the same river. The district there beard the name of Toyeboyun (camel's neck), probably from the curves described by the bank: it is inhabited in certain months of the year by Kirghis. In an interval of ten hours I saw in our neighborhood three families of them, who in turn remained near us, but at most only three hours, when they moved further. Nothing could give me a more vivid picture of nomadic life; and when I afterwards questioned a Kirghis woman respecting this unsettled mode of existence, she answered laughingly, '"We shall, I am certain, never be so indolent as you Mollahs, and remain sitting days and days in one place! Man must keep moving; for, behold, sun, moon,   stars, water, beast, bird, fish, all are in movement; it is but the dead and the earth that remain in their place!'

I was upon the point of making many objections to the philosophy if this nomadic lady, when a cry was heard from a distance, in which I ccould distinguish the word Buri! (the wolf, the wolf). She hurried like lightning to herd that was grazing afar off, and her shouting had such an effect that this time the wolf contented himself with the fat tail of a sheep, and with it took to his heels. I felt very disposed to ask her, as she returned, what advantages resulted from the wolf keeping 'moving,' but she was too much troubled by the loss she had sustained, and I returned to the karavan.

by Arminius Vambery

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