National Geographic : 1936 Jan
THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE One dripping evening the court was especially long and noisy. As I lay on the anteroom floor wrapped in my padded all seasons overcoat, I heard an incessant rum ble of voices from the inner room. Now and then someone pounded a fist on the table; the words I didn't understand, but I judged they were curses. Finally there was a loud exclamation, a crash as all the Begs put their hands together in an oath on the rough-hewn table. It was the sig nal that I knew so well: the court was over; judgment had been passed. The door opened and a troop of men filed through the anteroom out into the night. The Begs mounted and rode off into the darkness amid a splattering of mud and a jangling of silver saddle trappings; then the night settled back into the quiet drip of rain off the gently sloping roof. I crawled out of my overcoat and went into the inner room. A tallow candle sent a flickering light into the corners and showed Ahmed, a Kazak servant (page 38), sitting cross-legged on a sedir, his fingers playing over a string of prayer beads, his eyes, un seeing, glued to the floor. I settled myself on the other sedir and waited. After sev eral minutes Ahmed broke the silence. WHIPPING FOR A TAX DODGER "Yes, Ferengi, the chief's wrath has been stirred again. A Kirghiz yurt owner owed him a tax of six sheep. Months ago the man promised on his oath to pay, but when I went to get the sheep he made excuses: the sheep were far away on the highlands; they were too young; not fat enough. So I came home empty-handed. "Tonight the Kirghiz court demanded an explanation; they asked me for the six sheep, and when I told them how I had been put off there were angry words, for an oath is held sacred among us tribal people. We have but one punishment for broken oaths: the riders have taken their whips tonight and they will use them." Ahmed had seen whippers return before and it was always in an ugly mood. "Keep out of sight tonight," he warned. Then he added, "Don't worry; they will have slept it off by morning." I rolled myself up in the blankets on the sedir reserved for me and was but half stirred to consciousness when hours later the sullen group stamped in. Dripping over coats were hung up, Sayjan Beg curled up on the opposite sedir, and blankets were rolled out on the floor to bed down the other Begs; all without a word having been spoken. There was silence, save for the dripping of the wet padded overcoats and the patter ing of rain on the roof. "Our tribal business here at the head quarters is finished," announced Sayjan Beg one morning. "We leave for the high land pastures before sundown." On Ala Beg's shoulders fell the burden of organiz ing the party. He disappeared and by mid afternoon had rounded up the various men who were to go with us. MANY TRIBES AND MANY TONGUES As we started from the headquarters cabin that afternoon, ours was the charac teristic Central Asian polyglot party: seven different nationalities and Sayjan Beg, a mixed Kirghiz-Tatar. I cantered ahead with the chief and his friend, Ala Beg. Behind rode Foo Ben Yee, the Tungan half Arab and half Chinese; Arduch, the Kalmuck boy; Shang Yo Yacup Beg, the Tatar official of the valley; a Turki sol dier; Ahmed, the Kazak servant; and four other Begs.* The many national groups of Central Asia living in such intimate geographical and social relationship have naturally be come adept at picking up languages and dialects. Whenever I met with groups made up of tribesmen speaking different tongues, I was always fascinated to note how soon they fell to conversing in a jargon understandable by all. Our own party quickly evolved a common tongue; it re solved itself into a sort of pidjin Turkish a composite of half a dozen Turkic dialects. The day was magnificently clear-a rather unusual occurrence in the Tekes, where clouds commonly hover over the Tien Shan so that few and fleeting are the glimpses one gets of its towering peaks. Just once did I catch sight of the majestic 23,622-foot Khan Tengri, and I learned by experience that one can never be certain of the Tekes weather; within a quarter of an hour a brilliant day may change into a torrent of rain and hail or a driving wind storm. But the natives do not complain; it is this very rain which makes the Tekes * See "Desert Road to Turkestan," by Owen Lattimore, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, June, 1929; "Life on the Steppes and Oases of Chinese Turkestan," by W. Bosshard, March, 1931, and "On the World's Highest Plateaus," by Hellmut de Terra, March, 1931.