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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Where Lenin and Muhammad Met

When Gustav Krist decided in 1923 that he was fed up with being a Persian carpet merchant, he decided to set off for the remote lands of Turkestan and Bukhara. Less adventurous types might have decided that traveling the length and breadth of Persia by pony was excitement enough, that a complete ban on foreigners on pain of death in the new Soviet Central Asian republics was a threat not worth defying, or that crossing the Qara Qum desert in 40-degree Celsius temperatures would be a living death. But Krist was not to be put off. He knew the region already, having spent several years there as a prisoner of war, and he borrowed the official papers of a friend who was virtually the only other Westerner in the region. He crossed the Qara Qum by camel -- although it virtually killed him -- and the Pamirs besides, and spent 14 months traveling the whole region end to end. The result is "Alone through the Forbidden Land," first published in Vienna in 1937 and recently reissued in English. The catalogue of adventures is amazing. Krist makes no effort to be a likeable character, but he wins your respect when he is uncoiling a poisonous rishta, or guinea-worm, from the flesh of some unfortunate traveler, or disarming a Russian borderguard to cross into Persia. He found Turkestan on the cusp of two eras, just as it had been arbitrarily split into five republics and Soviet power was tightening its grip. Islam was in retreat, the nomads were being driven off their pastures and the commissars were moving in. One of the fascinations of the book is reading it in another threshold age when the red stars have just been taken down and the mosques reopened. Judging by what is going on now and what Krist saw then, Islam's retreat seems to have been only a strategic one. In the cell of a Bukhara imam, Krist found a library of sacred texts right next to a poster in Uzbek screaming "Workers of the world, unite!" "I ventured in some astonishment to ask how it was possible, and was informed that Bukharan students found no difficulty in keeping the teachings of Lenin and of Muhammad in two separate mental compartments," he tells us. Each people Krist fell in with -- the Bukharans, Turkomans or Qirgiz -- inherited a neatly defined Soviet republic and more recently an independent state. The pen portraits he gives restore them to their original distinctiveness. The residents of Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan, are the most devout and sophisticated Moslems, drawing on an ancient civilization. The Turkomans are fanatically hospitable as well as more liberal. Their women go unveiled. In the book's most memorable chapters, Krist describes crossing the Pamirs with a group of Qirgiz nomads who were in flight from the Soviet tax collectors. The Qirgiz pay only lip service to Islam, we are told, and draw on a much more ancient nomadic culture for their core beliefs. He describes pitching his yurt every night in the mountains, sitting by the fire as the storyteller spins yarns until dawn. His nomad hosts offered him one of their teenage girls as a concubine but he refused, not out of moral considerations, it seems, but because he was revolted by the girls' unsavory habit of eating their lice. There are two types of travel writer. There are those who milk every incident in their journeys for all they can and smother the reader in lush prose. Then there are those who give the impression they have seen much more than we will ever hear about and create the aura of the cool, self-possessed traveller. Bruce Chatwin is the modern exemplar of the second type and Krist is a storyteller in the Chatwin mode, a master of the perfectly laconic detail or deadpan remark. "I knew something of summary Russian justice. Once already I had almost faced a firing squad. I might not get off a second time," he informs us early on. But he does not elaborate. In Bukhara he distills the gentle lunacy of life under the last Amir in one anecdote: "In the opposite wing the guide opened the doors of a built-in cupboard. A completely furnished railway sleeping-compartment of the end of the nineteenth century came into view. The last Amir's father had a passion for railway journeys and to indulge it often travelled to and fro between Bukhara and Qaghan. The mullahs, however, objected, and he had an exact copy made of a sleeping compartment. Behind the window of the compartment there was a tiny room in which his servants used to stand and wave strips of colored paper past the window panes so that His Majesty might enjoy the complete illusion of a railway journey." And if you ever want to know how to make tarantula schnapps, turn to page 92. "Alone Through the Forbidden Land" by Gustav Krist, Ian Faulkner Publishing, 229 pages, ?9.95 ($14.82). This book can be ordered through Zwemmers.