Actually, the more educated persons remember that the camel devours thorns with great pleasure, and afterwards, thanks to its humps, it can do away without food and water for weeks. And that it is 'the ship of the desert', and it spits on all of you, so, you’d better stay out of trouble!
Anyway, a century ago the camel was a usual landscape element both in villages and cities, and was pictured in some local emblems as the main detail, and also was a character in many legends and fairy-tales, and the participant in ceremonies and events. For a nomad his good camel was a source of pride, like a fashionable car for people nowadays.
We may say with good reason that the camel was beside the human from the cradle to the grave. Pregnant Kazakh women never ate camel’s flesh, afraid to bear their foetus as long as she-camel does. And nomads believed that camel’s meat was… the holiest out of all kinds of meat. The famous researcher into Kazakhs’ life, Vassily Radlov, writes the following: “The camel is held in great respect among Kirghizes; to a certain degree it is regarded even as a sacred animal. The legend has it that Allah created the camel and appointed the great Aulie (the saint) as cameleer”.
One more typical feature of the Steppe was camels-catafalques. Big funeral caravans were often seen on the roads and paths during the pre-revolutionary period. The remnants of devotional (and wealthy) nomads were their loads carried from all the corners of the Steppe to Turkestan.
“In some generations of the Middle and Senior Hordes they do not bury rich people who died in winter, but wrap them into a piece of felt or cloth and hang them on trees instead. When spring comes, they bring them to Turkestan and bury them close to the grave of Khoja Akhmet, the Kirghiz prophet”, wrote Aleksey Levshin, the first Russian explorer of ‘Kirghiz-Kaissak hordes and steppes’.
One more fact: in the past camel’s hair was one of the important sources of nomads’ wealth and currency incomes of the Russian empire. One out of four sorts of camel’s hair called ‘zhebaga’ and taken from camel’s sides went for the manufacture of the famous ‘armyachina’ (camel’s hair fabric). And ‘armyachina’ was exported to England at the price of 16 roubles per one piece (size 20 arsheens to 6 vershoks, in metric system it will make 14x0,27 m). The raw “zhebaga” was sold at the foreign markets at the price of 6-6,5 roubles per pood (16 kg).
But the majority of humped animals was engaged in their direct duties: in that period they were breaking their backs at main caravan roads in the Great Steppe. We may say that it was just camels that worked as key “wheel horses” in the system of commercial cargo and passenger transport. Thousand-camels trade caravans crossed the Steppe in every direction – from Siberia to China, from Turkestan to Astrakhan, from Altay to Ural. Those onlookers who were careful to measure everything in precise units write about caravans 20-30 miles long. Their infinite move was a magnificent and captivating view!
It is only the camel that really can, without tiring, go forward humping goods 2-3 centners (100-150kg) in weight, not drinking water or eating food for weeks and covering 40-50 kilometres every day. This unique animal eats almost everything. In terms of pantophagy it can be compared perhaps only to the rat. “The camels of our Cossacks ate their mittens and the leather saddle, and the Mongols once assured us that their caravan camels that had gone hungry for a long time ate the old tent of their owners on the quiet”, the famous geographer Nikolay Przhevalskiy writes in his essays.
The humpbacked heavyweights carried all sorts of goods! In the middle of the 19th century Ural Cossack fishermen occupied themselves with fishing in the Aral Sea. And soon they got caviar production going there, which resulted in some difficulties. There was no railroad at that time, and the distance between the producer and the customer was about 1,000 versts (over 1,000 km). As usual, the camel, the main propeller of Central Asian trade, came to the rescue. Every winter many kilometres of caravans, wafting an amazing fish smell across the steppes, carried their valuable goods from the Aral Sea through Orenburg to the gourmets’ tables in European Russia.
But camels were not beasts of burden only. After Turkestan was annexed to Russia, the connection between the main city of the region, Tashkent, and the mother country was via the postal route that started in Orenburg and crossed the Kazakhstan steppes. The length of the whole path was nearly 2,000 versts (over 2,000km) with 96 postal stations kept by the government and private owners. Each postal station had 9-10 three-horse carriages.
On some path runs (especially in sandy areas) camels were used instead of horses – they were harnessed to post carriages and private tarantasses in the same way – three to a carriage. Here are the memoirs of the famous Swedish explorer Sven Hedin about his experience of driving in such a humpbacked three-horse in 1893: “Camels are very obedient, they run well, and the coachman can leisurely sit on the coach box, but sometimes we came across such stubborn camels that were always striving to turn off the road and follow their own path; then the coachman had to sit on the back of the camel in the middle. The reins are attached to the stick put through the nose cartilage; such is the cruel way of making these huge animals obey”.
And when ridden, camels went at a trot running up to 100 versts a day over a week. Camels are known to have run a verst (1,067 meters) in just 2 minutes 11 seconds at the races in Uralsk, on 30th August 1888.
The end of the camel era came with the arrival in the Steppe of the “iron horse”. But few know that for some time steam trains could not exist without their two-humped predecessors. Some photos still exist of camels carrying bunches of saxaul to the stations of Turksib. In difficult times saxaul wood was used as a worthy substitute for coal.
When cars emerged, camels became an element of a fairy-tale antiquity. The miserable and unwanted vagrants that had grown wild scattered across the socialist steppes, scaring those who came along with their wild appearance. But time can change people’s attitude very quickly. Today the disgraced humpback has returned to the life of the villagers. Somehow, in the interior of the country, the people remembered that the camel is a proven means of transport, a reliable source of nourishment (they nearly forgot about the healing shubat – camel milk!), and a verified provider of clothes. The “ships”, caught in the deserts and steppes, returned to their home harbours, and again, like thousands and thousands of years before, they are doing their usual work – helping people survive.