Sunlight filters through screens of branches and rushes. It falls on golden and silver ewers and on gleaming copper samovars. It lights like a butterfly upon the silk turbans and striped chapans—caftans—of the guests. The delicate colors of their clothing tell where each man comes from: green and violet for Mazar-e Sharif, mostly beige for Sar-e Pol, wine for Aqcheh.
In a cage hanging from a ceiling beam a myna chatters in Persian, the lingua franca of Afghanistan, a language we are beginning to speak. Another wicker cage holds a chukar, a belligerent little partridge used in fights on which bets are made.
We slowly sip our tea—Roland a black one from India, which is said to warm, and I a green Chinese one, which refreshes. A water pipe circulates among the other guests. We hear them exchanging greetings and newshome contents need to be insured. “Is your bazaar hot?” asks one, a question that means “Is your business good?”
There is much talk about the price of wheat and of the current market for Turkoman silks and Astrakhan fur, other elements of the Turkistan economy.
A man asks us where we are from. He offers Romain sugared almonds. Our son thanks him in Persian. The man is delighted, and so are all the other teahouse guests. They ask him to count in Persian, and Romain does so, to ten. This is nothing new for the boy. Everywhere he goes in Turkistan someone undertakes to teach him how to count.
The teahouse we have chosen is part of a caravansary, which is a stopping place for caravans. Here the caravaneer can find a room for himself, fodder and a resting-place for his beasts, and warehouses in which to store his goods. In the old days he found refuge from brigands as well.
The caravansary is a square of buildings and walls surrounding an open courtyard; the latter is a parking lot for animals and also for the trucks that are slowly replacing them. When we step out of our teahouse, we find ourselves in the courtyard.
“Khabardar!” shouts a horseman who is entering. “Watch out!” We step aside, he comes in and stakes his horse to a wooden peg in the ground. He pays the keeper of the caravansary the equivalent of a cent and a half for a day’s stop. Fodder is extra. Rates vary according to the kind of animal.
The caravansary keeper augments his income by gathering and selling manure. The price of this bonanza varies according to the kind of manure and how much straw and grass are mixed in it. Sheep manure is held to be excellent for cooking fires. That of cows and donkeys, when molded into pats, produces excellent heat and is believed to keep mosquitoes away. We note that the caravansary keeper is now gathering manure. Romain would very much like to aid him in this interesting task, but we manage to dissuade him.
Little Flame Gives Big Assurance
Toward evening new guests arrive. These are the big caravans that pass the winter days traveling across the steppes. Loaded upon the camels we see flour, forage, cotton, salt blocks, and charcoal. Night falls. The marketplace is closed. Watchmen patrol the deserted streets, calling out to each other in the darkness.
Before the locked shutters of every third or fourth shop they hang a little kerosene lantern. These do not give a great deal of light, but when, in the middle of the night, I am awakened by a howling dog and glance out my window, I find reassurance in the sight of the small wavering flames.
In the morning we set off by car for Sheberghan, following a line of telephone poles standing at drunken angles across the infinitude of the steppe. It is winter and there is snow on the ground, but this sometimes melts under the sun and the ground softens.
Then trucks sink into the ground and leave deep furrows. The extreme variations in Turkistan temperatures have given rise to a nickname for the land, “Country of the fan and of the fur.” During the blazing summers, not a drop of rain will fall.
We keep the line of poles in sight at all times, for the truck tracks are legion, and confusing to follow; they lead off in all directions. “Tong! Tong!” chants Romain. His sharp young eyes have spotted a caravan ahead, and he alerts us with the onomatopoetic Turkoman word for camel bell.
The caravaneer ties the bell to the neck of the last camel in his caravan, a string of from five to a dozen beasts roped together. Should he be riding in the lead and doze off, the sudden silence of the bell would awaken him if a thief tried to steal the tailender.
We watch the caravan pass. It cuts directly across the line of poles and seemingly follows no landmarks, but we know the caravaneer will not lose his way. Like a sailor at sea, he navigates by the sun and the stars, as his forefathers did before him.
We see flocks of sheep and goats on the steppe, although the area has been drought stricken for three years, and the livestock of this part of the country has been reduced by 80 percent. Romain would like to run after the flocks, but we do not let him go until we see that the shepherds have restrained the great mastiffs that guard the animals. They are very dangerous.
Often a shepherd picks up a curly lamb for the little boy to pet. This is the celebrated Karakul of the Turkomans, which produces the fur called Astrakhan, for the Volga port from which it was exported in large quantities.
The manner in which the pelt is obtained is cruel. For one grade of fur the lamb is slaughtered a few days after birth. For a still better quality pelt, the ewe is killed and the unborn lamb skinned.
The one that Romain is petting has been saved for breeding stock. Grown, it will be an extremely rugged animal, well suited to the rigorous climate in which it lives. It carries a reserve of fat in its tail (preceding page). During the summer when the baked ground produces no nourishing grass, the sheep can live on the stored fat.