SHEEP HEADS and EYEBALLS Travel Journal - 1996: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbek, (Part 6)

Friday June 21, 1996: Dzhambul, Kazakhstan: People were beginning to slow down eating the piles of food. We were then served two strange entrées. One was a briny mutton soup. The other was more of a delicacy. It was tea that had been brewed in an old traditional samovar. The tea was mixed half-and-half with camel’s milk and had a very rich wild-animal taste to it. The briny mutton soup was outright gamey.

As we munched on sweet cakes and drank our camel-milk tea, the governor went into a long discourse. I think the great amounts of cognac and vodka had, indeed, loosened his tongue. He wound up by saying that they had chosen Mr. Jackson as the honored guest because of his heartfelt love expressed during his toast. So it was tradition to celebrate and honor Mr. Jackson with the ceremonial presentation.

All the women who had been in the tent left, and the tribal men all moved in closer and tighter around both sides of the front table. Then through the doorway came two men carrying platters. On one huge platter was the boiled fat and meat of a freshly killed sheep. On the other platter was the boiled head of the sheep totally intact. The boiling process had loosened and split the black skin of the sheep’s head, making it look even more grotesque than it was. But I could see very plainly that eyes, ears, brains, teeth, and tongue were all very well together.

With great pomp they set the ceremonial sheep head down in front of me. I began thinking, I only came to this Marriott coffee shop to have a little oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar, milk, and bananas, and a slice of toast with marmalade jam … and now look what I’m faced with.

I leaned over to Nadia, our translator, who was sitting next to me, and asked what I was supposed to do with the thing. “You must take the first bite of it … and ceremonially you must eat the eyes.”

Oh, sure!

 I reached over, put one hand on the top of the sheep’s head, and tore off an ear and bit down on it. I then quickly passed the platter to Nicholi. An old tribesman next to Nicholi saw that I didn’t know what to do with it, so he motioned for Nicholi to pass it to him. He then took out a sharp, narrow knife about eight inches in length. He grasped the sheep’s head in his left hand, pried open its mouth, and ran the knife up through the tender meat, through the sinus cavity, and with great precision, right out through the eye socket of the skull. Obviously this was not his first date with a sheep’s head. His skill with the stiletto had preserved the eyeball in perfect shape. With about three quick twists of the knife and a downward motion, he removed the eye, a round core of brain, and a lot of something else back out through the sheep’s mouth cavity. Johnny Carson would have paid great money for this elder’s act on his show in the days before his retirement. That was funny … but what came next wasn’t. The old man reached over the top of Nicholi and handed to me the fistful of prized parts. I thought, Okay, how do I get out of this?

I smiled graciously, took the eyeball and other parts in one hand, held up the remaining bit of the ear with the other. I worked my way up to my knees from my sitting position while still holding the vital parts in my hands. The pressure was on. I started out on another impassioned speech about how honored we were to be their guests. I thanked them for their accepting us into their family and how we would always remember them with love and gratitude. “I neither feel worthy of all you have done for us, nor worthy to accept this honor by myself.”

I thereupon took another bite of the ear, reached over a couple of new friends and handed the entire moist handful of parts down to Tyler. Everyone broke into applause. After all, I didn’t want to hog all the ceremonial spotlight.

I heard him mumble, “Thanks a lot.” He was stuck. There was no one else to pass it to, and it was on their land that he was going to drill his oil well.

He said later that his dad had been in a situation just like that years ago and had told him that the secret to the matter was found in a simple formula: “Don’t look, don’t bite … just swallow.”

I’m sure I’ll remember that next time. Everyone was having a great time as the party ended.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 6a.jpg

I took lots of pictures, and eventually we got into the vehicles and headed out. I thought surely we would head back to Shepte village … but no. The governor and his top Kazakhs got into our van and also followed in one of their vehicles. They had two more historic sites to show us. One was a mountain called the Sleeping Lion and had great tribal significance to them, dating back to the fourth century. I won’t tell the story here, but it was very similar to the story of Masada in Israel in the Roman-Jewish history of the first century.

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It was still very bright and hot as we loaded up to see the last site on their agenda. I looked at my watch, and it was nearly 7:30 p.m. I was hoping that the next point of interest would be just a quick drive-by look-see, because it was almost a four-hour drive back to Aktau from where we were.

We headed up into a dry mountain region. Suddenly I realized that we were following a rusty iron pipe that was coming from somewhere on up into the mountain pass ahead. We gained elevation quickly, and off in the distance, I could see green shrubs and small trees in that mountain crevasse. At the end of all driving possibilities, we got out and started walking … still following the rusty iron pipeline. Sometime in the past someone had dammed up the stream of spring water and funneled it into the pipe. We kept walking up through the narrow pass between two sheer rock outcroppings. At a bend in the rock formation, we turned a sharp right. There, hidden away, was a rock basin where the cool spring water was spilling over the granite lip and on down the mountain. It was a great place, in the middle of miles of sand, to stop and rest.

Anna Marie and I had no more than gotten seated when the rest of the group walked around the corner. I was ready to turn around and head back down the mountain, but the governor had different ideas. Someone spread a piece of greasy paper on the ground and plunked down four rocks, one on each corner of the paper. Next, out of nowhere came a long, ugly tube of camel intestine, with horse-meat sausage bulging out. The drivers had also packed up a fresh supply of cognac and vodka.

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Anna Marie and I looked at each other and simply rolled our eyes. To these desert people who eat sand every day as a regular diet, the cool water and mountain shade are like heaven to them. They began going through the same ritual of offering their snacks to us. We politely refrained. I looked at my watch and knew it would be late when we got all the way back to Aktau.

Our trip back was an absolute experience of beauty. The sun slowly set over the desert, and all along the roadway we watched the camels as they flopped down in the sand to sleep for the night.

Friday, June 21

This morning Anna Marie and I checked out of the hotel, finished our business in Aktau, and then headed for the airport. I didn’t know what we would have done in Central Asia if we had not had angelic and human assistance. Nicholi, Tyler, and Nadia saw to it that we got through customs and passport control and headed out to the plane. They had also phoned ahead to Almaty, the capital city of Kazakhstan, and arranged for Olga to not only meet us but to also purchase our tickets for the flight to Dzhambul.

We had about an hour and a half between flights, which gave us an opportunity to get acquainted with Olga. She saw to it that we got through customs and passport control and then said good-bye. The horse-trailer shuttle truck was just getting ready to leave the terminal as we came out of the building. We took off like crazy and just barely got on as they closed the side doors. The shuttle took the whole load of people a very far distance from the terminal to another Yak-40 Russian plane. Everyone was pushing and shoving as they left the trailer and walked to the plane to be loaded through the stairway that dropped down from the tail of the plane.

Somewhat jostled and bruised from the Asian crowd, Anna Marie and I made our way halfway up the tail stairway. The woman looked at my ticket and began yelling words I couldn’t understand.

I looked at her and asked, “Dzhambul?”

She hollered, “Nyet, nyet, Dzhambul.”

We had gotten clear out on the far edge of the runway, the trailer shuttle had left, and we were on the wrong plane. She led as we pushed our way back down the stairway through the shoving people at the bottom and out under the wing of the plane. There she found a man with a radio phone and called for a trailer-truck to come back out and pick us up. The flight to Dzhambul was scheduled to take off at 7:30 … It was now 7:30.

Finally the shuttle came rumbling out across the tarmac to pick us up. This could be real serious, I thought. No one spoke English, and we almost got on the wrong plane to a destination city about which I had no idea. It was very possible that we could have gotten off that plane in an unknown city, with no return flights for at least a week and absolutely no contact phone numbers or visas.

We had the long ride back to the terminal. By now it was really late. The plane to Dzhambul had probably already taken off. I was thinking about how I could get back in touch with Olga and get her back out to the airport to pick us up.

The trucks that pull the shuttle trailers were very separate and totally without communication possibilities between the riders and the truck driver. There was no way to even vent my frustrations by yelling, “Dzhambul … Dzhambul” to the driver. He simply drove up to the terminal, hesitated, and then took off. Fortunately, while he was hesitating, we jumped off. I ran back into the terminal and found some uniformed people. I just kept showing my ticket and saying, “Dzhambul, Dzhambul.” Finally another angel appeared, smiled, took us back out to the tarmac, hailed another shuttle trailer-truck, gave explicit instructions to the driver, and sent us on our way.

When we pulled up behind the Russian Yak-40 that was bound for Dzhambul, the tail ladder was still down. We ran over and started up into the plane. The woman there scowled at us. Something had delayed the plane, and they were not happy. But that delay allowed us to get on, stash our suitcases in the luggage bins behind the strap curtains, and slide into the two available seats. Anna Marie and I looked at each other, smiled, and breathed, “Thanks, again, Lord. It’s a wonder that you let two stupid little kids like us run loose all around this world. We’re sorry that we take up so much of your guardian angel’s precious time keeping us out of scrapes … but thanks.”

We landed in Dzhambul about 9:30 p.m., but it was still as light as if it were 5:00 p.m. Ruth Bittle, back at our office in Denver, had been able to contact Kazakhstan through e-mail and fax via the Caleb Project, and sure enough, Steve Unangst arrived in time to meet us in Dzhambul, Kazakhstan, instead of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. That saved us one whole day’s drive by automobile.

Steve took us to an apartment flat previously owned by some Russians. There we met Brett and Maria Westbrook from Muncie, Indiana, who were to be our hosts for the next four days. Anna Marie would now begin to experience the Central Asian lifestyle—no showers, no hot water at all, and no cold water about 75 percent of the time. Everything has to be purchased at the bazaars, and luxuries are things that are rumored about when groups gather and discuss what they read in leftover US or UK magazines. Life for many here is really difficult. Since the Russians began leaving around 1990, over 50 percent of the men in the city were unemployed, and 70 percent of the former factories and plants had shut down.

The Westbrooks fixed us a fine dinner of noodle soup and Kazakh bread. We even had some tea before we went to bed.

Next Week: Opening Historically Shut Doors