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Secrets of the Pamirs.  By Johann Gornensky. Veche, Moscow, 2002. 384 pp. (in Russian)
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Reviewed by Barisbi Ulaq-Ulu


In his new book, the traveller Johann Gornensky describes a journey into one of the most ancient cultures in Central Asia. The book consists of 20 chapters, an introduction and a postscript and is illustrated with many black-and-white photographs. The reader is invited to learn of the history of the research and exploration of the Pamirs, a region linked to famous names, such as Marco Polo and Sven Hedin. “Even today, the Pamir, known also as the 'roof of the world', harbours many undiscovered secrets” - the words on the back cover of the book stimulate the curiosity of the reader, encouraging him to undertake an expedition into one of the most impressive country sides in Central Asia.

Naturally, no reader should expect scientific treatises. But it is certainly recommended reading for those seeking an introduction to the multi-coloured oriental world of these mountains. With insight and understanding for the country and its ethnic groups, Gornensky describes the rich ancient popular belief, even today universally vital to the peoples of the Pamirs. He devotes a whole chapter to local religions, their vitality sharply focussed in conversations he relates with mountain people. Reading through the book, I felt transposed back into the magnificent scenery of the Roof of the World, with its mountain ranges, lakes, torrents, and hospitable people. The book reminded me not only of my own trips through Central Asia, but in particular of my childhood and adolescence among the Kyrgyz people. Although the author enjoyed the hospitality of many mountain dwellers, it becomes clear to the reader that he remained a stranger in the Pamirs. Notwithstanding, he succeeds in making the reader a participant in the incomparable oriental atmosphere. „I started travelling to Tajikistan about a quarter of a century ago, when I first was engaged in the Snowman of the Pamirs.”  The quote introduces the chapter GULS, ALMAS, WAJDY, which is dedicated by the author to certain mysterious souls to whom the Russians refer to as Snezny Celovek.

Gornensky went to such well-known localities as Pajron Lake and the valley of the river Siama, where he discovered traces of GUL on his tent. Once he and his female companion heard strange whistles, which persisted until they approached a village. Gornensky assumes that the pursuer was a GUL. One can read about the author’s conversations with mullahs, herdsmen and tourists about the GUL. Many unanswered questions conclude the chapter, where the author states: “The only definite fact about the relic hominid is that he has certain abilities and a living habit that, in part, I learnt from personal observations, but most from tales related by mountain dwellers.”  Still the reader is encouraged to undertake the voyage on his own, to seek out himself traces of the legend in the heart of Asia.

As in his previous book Legends of the Pamirs and Hindukush, many names of places are incorrect. The author neglects modifications in pronunciation resulting from Tajik place names being enunciated by Kyrgyzians. Similarly, in Pamir many local names of Turkic origin are modified to Tajik pronunciation, thus sometimes sounding completely different to an outsider. Never- theless, Secrets of the Pamirs can be recommended to anyone preparing for a voyage through the Roof of the World, to discover the Central Asian Orient. In particular, for the newcomer interested in learning more about the mysterious GUL in the Pamirs, the book should be of particular interest.


Barisbi Ulaq-Ulu, September 2004

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