Legends of the Pamirs and the Hindukush.
 By Johann Gornensky. Aleteja, Moscow, 2000. 207 pp. (in Russian)
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Reviewed by Barisbi Ulaq-Ulu


With the highest peaks of the old Soviet Union, the Pamir mountains lie in the previous Soviet republic of Tajikistan. During the last ten years, there has been a lot of bad news coming out of the heart of Central Asia: Civil war, instability related to Afghanistan and heavy drug smuggling over the borders. Johann Gornensky's book is therefore all the more a pleasant surprise with it's material collected during his expeditions. The book ic richly illustrated with photographs by E. M. Michaelovsky, who had also taken part in the Pamir expeditions of 1981-1991, and divided into five sections: "Pilgrims to the Pamir", "Travelling to the land of Happiness", "Tears on the Eye-Lashes", "The Epilogue", "and a "Dictionary of words of the Pamir languages" which includes 88 words in all.

In the first part of the monograph, the author stresses that his book is a result of many years travelling in mountainous Tajikistan. The author confesses: "It took years of travelling through the mountainous country of Tajikistan before I appreciated which questions one should ask.This is because the subtle Orient only tells you what you can comprehend, answering those questions you ask, but giving no additional information". The book is written in simple, understandable Russian and the ancient legends of the world's highest mountains, collected by the famous Russian traveller, are like the pearls on the necklace of an orient beauty. Sympathetic readers will find it grippingly interesting and will appreciate the work of a true expert. Besides being a keen reader, I had great pleasure refreshing personal memories about the ancient city of Osh, South Kyrgystan, where I was once a student at the university lying in the foothills of the holy mountain, Suleyman-Tag.

The author writes with love and understanding about the throne of King Solomon, which is part of the rocky slopes of the holy mountain. At that time I did not understand the importance of the Suleyman-Tag for the local Kyrgyz and Usbek population. I should mention here that the majority of the city residents were Uzbeks. Women, who could not have children, used to climb up to the rock where the throne was and asked God to send them children. This, of course, was during Soviet times when such religious ceremonies were forbidden.

This superstition was as equally undesirable as belief in the "Almostu" or "Almasty". For the Tajiks it is "Gule", the wild hominid. The reader is referred to pages 10-11, 29, 30, 136, 157, 159 and 161-164. I became interested in the subject when my own brother Hussein told me about his meeting which such a creature. This happened when I was a schoolboy in Achy, a mountainous place in the Suzak district, Jalalabad region, Kyrgyzia during the mid- fifties. Our mother was not surprised by this meeting since she had often heard of such creatures. In our region at this time lived Kyrgyzians, Kurds, Tajiks, Balkarians, Uzbeks, Tatars, Germans and Russians, and names, such as "Gulbiaban" and "Jeztyrmak", from different languages were in common use among the people. Even today nobody can deal with the snowman problem in Middle Asia without consideration of the ethnic variety of the region.

Unfortunately, there are a few small mistakes which will be obvious to knowledgeable readers. There are place names such as "Chyurak-Tash"(pp.16) which should be "Chyrak-Tash", meaning "a lantern"("tash" being "a stone"), "Sara-Tash"(p.15) instead of "Sary-Tash" meaning "a yellow stone" and "Mazar-Ly-Su" instead of "Mazarly-Su" meaning "the river (water) that has a grave"(p.65). All are Kyrgyzian place names. The Kyrgyz name for the snowman is "Jeztyrmak", meaning "jez" ("copper") and "tyrmak" ("finger"), and not "Jetztarmak" (p.170). And there is a mistake in the personal name of "Sarympsak" which should have been "Sarymsak", meaning in all the Turkic languages "a Garlic"(p.50). Despite these insignificant mistakes, Gornensky's monograph is a nice present for anyone interested in "Almasty" or "Gule" or for those who enjoy the ancient flavour of oriental legends.

Barisbi Ulaq-Ulu,  September 2000.