Kumis

Some in the past have had the gall to suggest that this project is nothing more than alcoholism dressed up in exotic hats and tweed jackets. These scurrilous individuals should take careful note of today’s post and the extravagant lengths I’ve gone to to track down what is the least alcoholic beverage we’ve drank here yet. It’s fermented horse milk time!

Towards the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow’s “In the Zone” section, we get a bit of analepsis describing Tchitcherine’s period of exile in Kyrgyzstan. His Soviet higher-ups in Their wisdom have assigned him to the effort to alphabetise the local Kyrgyz language, placing him on the especially unprestigious committee for the letter Ƣ, which “seems to be a kind of G.”

I have been in Kyrgyzstan the past two weeks, and can report having seen plenty of odd things, but not one Ƣ among them. Was Tchitcherine’s project a failure? Or a total invention of Pynchon’s?

Well, closer to the former. As so often in Pynchon, the image both ridiculous and perfectly symbolic, the colonial force nailing down the language of a colonised people by squabbling committee, turns out to be drawn pretty much straight from reality. Kyrgyz had no standard written form prior to 1928, with some regions using an Arabic script and others no written language at all. At this point, the Soviets decided to step in and force all the Turkic languages of the area into a new common mould, the Uniform Turkic Alphabet. But the work of Tchitcherine and his Ƣ bros didn’t last long, because the Soviets changed their mind in 1940 and demanded all the ‘Stans adopt Cyrillic lettering. Kyrgyzstan still uses this Russian-based Cyrillic script today, although they discuss changing to a Latin script (as Kazakhstan is in the process of doing) to distance themselves from the Soviet colonial history of the alphabet. Dig at any little plot point in Pynchon, you fall down the most resonant rabbit holes…

But enough history, where’s the booze? Our fermented mare’s milk, known as kumis (qumys in Pynchon’s spelling — written language being after all but a shadow of the true word) first appears in a song sung as part of a duel, a sort of verbal dance-off Tchitcherine and his assistant Dzaqyp Qulan observe between a girl and a boy in a small village. The boy’s just sung some pretty weak material about bringing his friends to destroy her family. She retorts:

You’ve been drinking a lot of qumys
I must be hearing the words of qumys —
For where were you the night my brother
Came looking for his stolen qumys?

Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 356

The kumis he is accused of stealing is a sour, lightly alcoholic (1 – 2%) drink made by fermenting horse milk. Horses are everwhere in Kyrgyzstan, and in rural areas, everyone’s making their own kumis. As finished kumis is drank or poured off into old coke bottles and water bottles, the vat is continually topped up with fresh milk, forming a kind of solera. The fermenting milk is stirred with a stick called a bishkek, which apparently prevents it from going off. Off milk being somehow distinct from sour milk… (Could our Kyrgyz village boy not have found some vodka to steal instead? I guess in the 1920s, remote Kyrgyzstan was not yet vodkaed terrain.)

I began my hunt for kumis at Osh Bazaar in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek (which coincidentally shares the name of the milk stirring stick). A single stall bore some Cyrillic letters that looked like they might possibly say kumis — Кымыз. I tentatively asked the woman behind the counter “kumis?” (Google Translate, I see now, turns Кымыз into “seduction.” What exactly did I ask that woman?) She nodded yes and served me a non-small bowlful of off-white milk.

It tasted… wrong. Tangy, meaty, smoky, sour milk. I wanted to finish it. I also wanted to not vomit. Because she’d served it to me in a fancy little bowl, I had to wrestle with these emotions right beside the very serious Kyrgyz woman who’d sold me the stuff. I made it maybe a third of the way through the bowl before concluding that any further sips would constitute too great a risk to my immediate digestive integrity, and gave her back the bowl, saying thank you. She gave out a squeak of surprise and upset on seeing that I had not finished it, like how could you waste something so good. I ate some pretty bread and went back to my hostel to recover.

Grave marker with cup and dagger.

Later on in my trip, I encountered a field filled with thousand-odd year-old gravestones collected from around the country. Many of these depicted men holding cups over daggers. My guide shared her interpretation of the figures: when receiving visitors, you would offer them a cup of kumis, and watch their reaction. If they drank it happily, you would know they were locals and friends. If they grimaced: dagger. I got off lightly.

I wasn’t content to remain the total stabbable outsider though. I came back to kumis several more times over the course of the trip, orbiting around it, circling closer, looking for a way in. In Pynchon, Central Asia itself is sometimes approached in much the same way. He often seems to use the region to stand in for some secret heart of the world, a hidden centre of meaning for the chaos of life and history that can only be approached obliquely. In Gravity’s Rainbow, this is clearest through the mysterious “Kirghiz Light” that shines from a place “at the edge of the world … where words are unknown.” After the singing duel, an older wandering singer called an aqyn, kumis in hand, sings of this Kirghiz Light:

The roar of Its voice is deafness,
The flash of Its light is blindness,
The floor of the desert rumbles,
And Its face cannot be borne,
And a man cannot be the same,
After seeing the Kirghiz Light.

Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 358

This Light is found not straightforwardly in the physical Kyrgyzstan, but “in a place which is older than darkness, / Which even Allah cannot reach,” (p. 358). Against the Day revives this trope of Central Asia as buried chakra of the world and seat of blinding reality. When the Chums of Chance witness the Tungaska event “ripping apart the firmament over western China,” the “veil separating their own space from that of the everyday world” is torn and a “sacred City” is revealed (p. 793). This “Shambala” echoes through the book.

What makes this part of the world so evocative for Pynchon? Where does that Kirghiz Light come from? I can say that for me, the “Kyrgyz light” that most affected me was the light of the stars at Song Köl, a high alpine lake in the Tien Shan mountains. It was by a wide margin the most astonishing, moving night sky I have ever seen. There’s a line in a Tim Winton novel that goes something like ‘dots as worlds, and milky smears as worlds of worlds.’ The whole sky was a textured web of light, the centre of the Milky Way hanging right there. In the aqyn’s Kirghiz Light song, he sings that “the face of God is a presence / behind the mask of the sky” (p. 425). If you’ll let me be a little grandiose, and who’s going to stop me, I might say I caught a glimpse at Song Köl.

Song Köl is also where I had my second try at kumis. My wonderful guide Elmira got some off the people running the yurts we were sleeping in, who had themselves been given it by some nearby shepherds. This stuff was pretty different to the first batch, mainly in that it was highly carbonated, I guess from bottling before fermentation was finished. Yogurty, with an almost citric tang, and a meaty cheesy smoky edge. The fizz lent it a vaguely 7Up-ish angle, while retaining a slightly creamy milky texture. Challenging still, but I found I could happily drink a little more than the first time, and it earned a couple of other fans in our group too. Elmira was swigging it from the bottle on the bus on to our next destination.

Homemade honey and kumis by the roadside

A few days later, I saw a woman selling what looked like more kumis from a little table on the side of the road. She spoke a little English and confirmed that it was horse milk and that it was good. By this point I was ready to move into kumis evangelism, and paid 100 Som (~$1.50) for a bottle to share with the rest of our group that evening. Elmira tried some, and confirmed that is was good, said it was strong. I found I could drink it by now with only medium trepidation. I even went back for a second cup! (The fact that I’d accidentally joined a Kyrgyz family party not long earlier and been plied with numerous shots of vodka may not have hurt). Others were less enthusiastic. One member of the group described it as the most disgusting thing she’d ever had in her mouth, and this seemed to be pretty well reflective of the general sentiment. Happily, no-one tried to stab me for suggesting they drink the stuff.

I cannot claim to have become a real kumis fan. The combination of acidity, creamy milkiness, and meaty smoke (which I think must come from the wood fired stoves being used around all the houses and yurts while the milk’s fermenting) is really pretty challenging going for an unaccustomed palate. Kyrgyz people wishing to cure themselves of an ailment will sometimes undergo a kumis therapy involving drinking five 200 mL cups in a day. I still feel that the only thing that much kumis might cure me of is the will to live. But Kyrgyzstan was a deeply beautiful country, and I certainly have a soft spot for this weird sour milk for helping get me there.

Go read Pynchon in Central Asia! Go for the mountains! Go for the stars! Maybe skip the kumis?

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