National Geographic : 1936 Jan
WITH THE NOMADS OF CENTRAL ASIA unique in Central Asia-a verdant paradise in the hub of a large expanse of semidesert. We were not the only ones on the trail. It was the last of June and the hot weather on the valley floor was rapidly drying up the grass, sending the nomads up to fresher pastures. We overtook many caravans of them. Some of the riders were mounted on saddled oxen. Servants and others too poor to own or keep horses ride oxback; it is a common and respectable means of transportation-slow, but comfortable; un romantic, but safe. BABIES STRAPPED TO CRADLES Each caravan consisted of from three to a dozen cattle on which had been piled the dismantled yurts and their contents (see page 46). Women on horseback were herd ing the pack animals along the trail. Across the saddle in front of them many of the women balanced the typical Turkish cradle. The babies are strapped down tightly, with a hole in the bottom of the cradle to permit the calls of nature, for the infants are fre quently kept thus tied down for twenty-four hours at a stretch. "It makes the baby grow straight," one of the mothers told me. For several hours the horses had been straining up the steep path. The warm air of the lowlands was giving way to upland air that made one tingle. Suddenly we came out on the highland plateau. It was far and above my wildest fancy. It dwarfed any of the stories that I had heard about it. It was superb-mile after mile of rolling pasture land, knee-deep suc culent grass; sharp ravines appearing like notches cut out of the highlands; irregular patches of tall pines running down the sides of the ravines. Here was grass to pasture millions; here was a summer yurt ground which was fault less. No wonder that these highlands were heralded through Asia-the Tekes plateau has no peer. Coming from the dried plains around Kuldja and having left behind thou sands of miles of semiarid Russian steppes, I felt like dismounting and rolling on the turf. The horses whinnied and capered as they trotted along through the tall grass. Dotting the plateau were little colonies of yurts-three or four in a group, with horses and sheep milling about them. "There is our destination," cried Ala Beg, pointing to a group of yurts at the head of a deep ravine. Our highland host came smiling to greet us as we galloped up abreast. We dis mounted, threw our reins to the servants, and were soon inside the yurt, guzzling bowl after bowl of mare's milk. I was amazed at my own capacity; one seemed to get a second wind after the third or fourth bowlful. KUMISS IS MILDLY INTOXICATING I soon discovered that kumiss is also mildly intoxicating. When I got up to go out I found myself somewhat unsteady; and all from pure mare's milk a day old. None of the Kirghiz Begs, the initiated, seemed in the least affected; in fact, they claimed that a full stomach of kumiss is an aid in sighting game. But milk drinks can be downright intoxicating to the Kirghiz Begs as well as to the foreigner-that I learned later in Kalmuck yurts (page 56). The hostess brought in a copper teapot, scraped up a few hot embers from the scat tered heap of ashes under the center hole of the yurt, and soon had a fire blazing. Two healthy little children toddled into the yurt. One wore a small jacket that covered not much more than his arm pits; the other had not a stitch on. The men made much of them. The nomads, childlike themselves, have great love for children and will play with them by the hour. Even the richest Beg is considered poor if he has no children, while the poorest servant gains much re spect if he has many children playing around his yurt. Foo Ben Yee, the bearded Tungan, was seated near the hostess, who was kneeling by her copper teapot, stirring the fire. She was expecting to add another son to the yurt in a few weeks. Reaching over, Foo Ben Yee tapped her on the belly, and in a jovial way complimented both her and her husband on their fertility. She beamed happily (see illustration, page 6). So long as a wife is bearing her husband children, she reigns supreme in her own household and has the respect of her hus band and of the world at large. Only after she has stopped bearing does her husband look around for a new wife, and she is rele gated to the yurt of the past generation. Foo Ben Yee's comment called for a round of risque repartee, at which the men laughed boisterously and the hostess smiled deferentially. As usual in such badinage, Ala Beg carried off first honors.