BOOK REVIEW / The final caravans: 'Alone through the Forbidden Land' - Gustav Krist: Cambridge, 9.95

Ahmed Rashid
Tuesday 25 August 1992 23:02

SIXTY-SEVEN years ago an Austrian carpet dealer was the only Western witness to the last bang of the magnificent, ancient nomadic societies whose lives, customs and traditions were being delivered a death blow by Stalin's Russia. The survivors of the Holocaust that was let loose in Muslim Central Asia by the Red Army today constitute five newly independent nations, whose futures are once again teetering on a political knife edge.

The Central Asian Steppes were considered the centre of the universe by conquerors such as Genghis Khan, but after the 1917 Russian revolution the region disappeared into limbo. A nomadic and peasant society that lived on horseback was thrust into Communism by the forced collectivisation of land and animals. The new Soviet Asian man was invented, and Moscow cut off Central Asia from the rest of the world.

In 1925 there were no witnesses to the final round-up - which saw the death of more than a million Uzbeks, Turcomans, Kazakhs and other tribesmen - except one.

Gustav Krist, an Austrian soldier during the First World War, was captured and held prisoner in Central Asia for nearly five years. When he escaped back to Austria in 1920, his wanderlust could not be contained. He became a carpet dealer in Persia, and in 1925, meeting some Turcoman nomads on the shores of the Caspian Sea, he accompanied them back into Central Asia.

Pretending to be a geologist sent from Moscow, Krist defied the Soviet ban on travel in the region. He returned to his old haunts in Bukhara, Samarkand and the Pamir mountain range on the borders of China and Afghanistan. The trip took 16 months. His travelogue has been reprinted at a good time: there is a growing interest in Central Asia, but so little literature available.

Krist travelled with one of the last Turcoman camel caravans that still traded along the old Silk Route through the bleak Kara Kum desert. Thousands of Turcomans were at that time fleeing into the desert to avoid the Red Army.

The Austrian wandered through Bukhara at a time when the vast covered bazaar, which held the last free market in the new Soviet Union, was still thriving. Bukhara was the second most important city in the Islamic world, after Mecca: 21,000 students were studying to be mullahs at the dozens of madrassas, or Islamic colleges, while more than 100 mosques were open in the city. But by 1930 only one madrassa and one mosque remained in


However, the most heart- wrenching chapters deal with the Kirgiz. Inhabiting the 'Roof of the World' in the Pamirs, some 300,000 Kirgiz nomads, with their huge herds of yaks, horses, camels and sheep, were being slowly squeezed by the Red Army. Krist spent an entire winter with the Kirgiz in the freezing mountains, and then accompanied them on their last great trek.

'To an enormous distance I could see camel train after camel train; the entire horde was on trek, flying from officials of the Soviet . . . hot tears filled my eyes, although I little suspected at the time that I had been the witness of the last march of the free Kirgiz.'

The book describes in detail a way of life that has almost disappeared. How are yurtz - the traditional felt tents of the nomads - constructed? How does one extract poison from tarantula spiders? How are karakul lambs reared and turned into fine skins? The black and white pictures that the author took are unique, especially the one of the last Kirgiz trek, in which camel trains wind across the horizon.

Today the five Central Asian republics are coping with the problems of unexpected independence - acute food shortages, the devastating after-effects of Soviet exploitation of their resources, and widespread environmental pollution. An Islamic revival is under way and ethnic conflicts are a source of major instability. The book is a marvellous evocation of a bygone age that will never return and can never be experienced again, not even by Western connoisseurs of the extraordinary.

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