Tarantula Schnapps

From: Jim Klima <73141.1201@compuserve.com>
To: Jonathan Singer

Subject: 1996 "It Will Be So Awful, It Will Be Wonderful" Tour -- Continued --

At this point the itinerary becomes more vague because it is hard to predict where cheap airline tickets and available visas will lead us. A further complication is the problematic issue of timing seasonal changes across continents and dealing with unfamiliar seasons like monsoons. The basic rule for this leg of the trip is to remain on the north side of the Himalaya when the weather to the south is hellishly wet and/or hot and to retreat to the south side when the weather on the north side becomes freezing cold, turning an unheated, cinder block hotel room into a refrigerated tomb.

North of the Himalaya (and related mountain ranges) lie the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). This a cluster of new countries that have recently broken away from the Soviet Union: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan. Actually these countries are not the least bit new - Alexander the Great (330 BC), Genghis Khan (1220 AD), and Tamarlane (1370 AD) all slaughtered hordes there during their quests to conquer the known world. Legendary desert cities such as Samarkand served as way stations for Marco Polo and the endless streams of trading caravans plying the Silk Road between China and Europe. Of course all that commerce generated the usual assortment of evil despots, mysterious politicians, and bandits of unprecedented wickedness. See the story below about tarantula schnapps.

Figuring out the rules for these newly emerging countries is very difficult. After decades of strict domination by Communism, everything related to red tape now appears to be in a state of flux. From the Cadogan Guide for Central Asia: There are no rules. This is worth remembering. Not quite true, but worth remembering. History s biggest, most expensive, most pervasive, most notorious bureaucratic monster (the former USSR) has sunk to its knees. It is still dying, and will go on doing so for some time yet. Meanwhile new systems of controlling people - or empowering them - are tried, flung-out, adopted and adapted all the time on every level; across the CIS, in newly-independent states, in would-be independent states, and in individual, excitable town halls. Before 1991 bureaucratic hurdles had to be scrupulously cleared. Now many of them are simply waiting to be pushed aside. Such an approach may sound rash. It is merely appropriate.

Since jumping through hoops has never been my forte, I will be happy just visiting Uzbekistan and maybe Kazakhstan. However, because the Russian influence is still prominent, life can be a pain for independent travelers. For example, there is the usual two tiered pricing where the price for a foreigner is ten times what the locals pay. Visas are required to enter the countries and in order to obtain them, you must have accommodation booked and receive an invitation from a CIS organization. The transport, lodging, and restaurant infrastructure is geared toward big buck tour groups. Independent travelers are going to this part of the world but the stories of frustration and exasperation I have read on the Internet will make staying there on the cheap quite a challenge.

Here is how an Australian travel agency described Uzbekistan. They, of course, will sell me a letter of invitation for $120, an obscene amount which must include the necessary bribes but I am wary because the agents I have been emailing all have Russian names.

Uzbekistan conjures up visions of the Great Silk Road. Its capital is Tashkent, the cultural centre of the country. Here you will find theaters, a conservatory, museums, shady parks, exhibition halls, stadiums, swimming pools, libraries and gardens. Unfortunately, the city was leveled by earthquakes in the 1960 s so all the architecture is Russian cinder block. I can hardly wait to roll in during August when the temperature hits 45 degrees C.

Other major centres are the ancient desert oases of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Samarkand is a majestic and beautiful city with a history that goes back 25 centuries. It withstood the invasion of Alexander the Great and seduced Tamerlane into decorating the roofs of its domes and minarets with brilliant blue tiles. There are many ancient monuments and architectural masterpieces here, such as the ancient madrasahs on Registan Square, the Bibi-khonum mosque, the Timurids burial vault, and Ulugbek s observatory.

Bukhara is of a similar age with ornate buildings, many of which have been preserved, turning Bukhara into an open air city museum. Even Genghis Khan stopped in his tracks when he saw the great Kalyan minaret whose great beauty spared it of the Khan s savage destruction of the rest of the city. Unfortunately it was also known as the Tower of Death because criminals were routinely tossed off the top as punishment. Better that than the infamous Bug Pit the description of which even I cannot bear to plagiarize. I can just see the Unit sipping tea and enjoying a meal of plov (scraps of mutton and shredded yellow turnip on a mountain of rice) by the pool of Lyabi Hauz while mingling with bearded old men in striped coats and colorful turbans. I myself will acquire a taste for shashlyk (skewered chunks of fatty mutton barbecued over charcoal, i.e. kebabs) and lepeshka (unleavened bread). Khiva was a small town fortress during the 11th Century but was destroyed by the Mongolian invasion. Later it achieved fame as the last great oasis on the caravan route to Russia. Today Khiva is a time capsule in the desert, virtually unchanged in the 400 years before the Russians came, with mud streets, inward-looking squares, and wrapped in 2200 meters of unbroken city walls. Supposedly the only place to stay in Khiva is in a madrasa, which I believe is an Islamic seminary.

With the expected difficulties and improbable rewards, you may wonder what leads a person to such destinations. Perhaps I just want to get a sense of the tenacity and ferocity of the people who have lived and died in this part of the world for thousands of years. Let me relate an incredible story from the Cadogan Guide to Central Asia by Giles Whittell who, in turn, tells the tale of Gustav Krist, an escaped Hungarian POW in eastern Tajikistan during the Russian civil war.

While traversing these wild mountains himself, Krist sheltered for a night in a forester s hut. The hut, according to its owner, stood on the site of an old caravanserai that had been taken over by the Bolsheviks only after bitter fighting. When it fell, its keeper boasted before a revolutionary tribunal of having killed 411 men:

His procedure was ingenious, wrote the credulous Krist. He entertained the newly arrived guests with drink, including always tarantula schnapps. When they were thoroughly drunk on this poisoned liqueur he threw them into the cellar to feed his bear. He used to keep the bear for weeks without food till it was reconciled to human flesh.

After this gruesome confession, a detachment of the Red Army was sent back into the mountains and-- sure enough--under the ruins of the bombarded caravanserai they found the cellar with a great savage bear and the bones of hundreds of its victims covering the floor in thick layers.

Tarantula schnapps, the forester told Krist, has been known and used in Turkistan from time immemorial. If you want to brew it, you catch a number of the poisonous spiders, put them in a glass, and throw in some scraps of dried apples or apricots. The furious brutes fling themselves on the food and bite into it. They thus inject their poison into the dry fruit, which you then mix with fermented grapes. Thirty or forty tarantulas make about a quart of the deadly brew. A tiny glass of this liqueur is enough to drive a man insane. Half an hour after he has drunk it the victim is so paralyzed that he cannot move; an hour later he is raving mad.

The caretaker of the caravanserai used to dope his guests with this tarantula schnapps, and as soon as paralysis set in, he threw them to the bear, who did the rest. The Russians condemned the man to death, but in the night the Sarts (local Uzbeks or Tajiks) broke into the prison and fetched him out into the desert. They tied him with ropes to the saddles of two swift camels Uand~ stuffed pepper in their behinds so that the infuriated animals dashed out into the desert dragging the body of the hundredfold murderer after them. A few days later his skeleton was found, picked clean by the vultures.

Kind of takes your breath away, doesn t it? Believe me, I will do nothing to rile the locals in the CIS. Likewise the local KGB (secret police) who are still in control and eager to catch foreigners without the proper paperwork!

(To be continued)

Copyright (c) 1995 Jet City JimBo

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