Pelicans and sweat scrapers in Central Asia

Thomas Atkinson’s diaries continue to intrigue me. As mentioned previously, I have been reading and transcribing the diary for 1849, which records the journey the Atkinsons made from Kapal in the Zhetysu region of Eastern Kazakhstan back to Barnaul in southern Siberia, a distance of more than a thousand miles.

The journey took them most of the summer as they explored the Djungar Alatau Mountains and all the river valleys of the Zhetysu before reaching Lake Ala Kool, located close to the border with Xinjiang in western China. In the 1840s this region was still known as Chinese Tartary, although the border was mostly unmarked.

The Atkinsons, including their new baby Alatau, departed their winter base at Kapal in May 1849 and by the middle of August, after many adventures, had finally left the Djungar Alatau Mountains behind them. They were to retain a fondness for this region for the rest of their lives. Their aim now was to travel between Lake Ala Kool and its smaller westerly companion lake, Sassyk Kool – which translates as ‘Smelly Lake’. From here their aim was to travel into the largely unknown Tarbagatai Mountains and then across the steppe northwards to the Altai Mountains.

By the 13th August 1849, the Atkinsons had reached Lake Sassyk Kool. The lake itself is actually quite hard to see as it is surrounded on all sides by dense reed beds, as I found out during a trip there in 2015.

Dense reedbeds surround Lake Sassyk Kool in Eastern Kazakhan

This is how Thomas describes their arrival at the lake:

Our way lay along the end of the lake at a verst distant. Having gone some versts Lucy wished to ride up to the shore. We did so that she might have a good view. On reaching the reeds I saw two pelicans sitting on a sandbank. I instantly dismounted and walked in amongst the reeds until I got within shot. I fired and they both rose up and flew a short distance where one fell dead. The other fell a short way further but was able to swim. Neither of them could be got as the Kazakhs were afraid of the waves, although both were floated to some reeds about one hundred paces from the shore. I was obliged to leave them, but most reluctantly.”

The mention of pelicans caught my attention. One does not immediately think of Kazakhstan in relation to pelicans, but in fact these large birds exist in several areas in Central Asia, including the Caspian Sea. In fact, I had come across them once before, in Mongolia.

During a stay in a remote part of Western Mongolia in 2006 – probably a thousand miles east of the Zhetysu region – I had attended Naadam – the Mongolian summer festival that is celebrated every July with competitions of archery, wrestling and horse racing. Here, as you can see in my photographs, I noticed that some of the horsemen had a strange implement sticking out of their waistbands.

Horseman with a sweat scraper in his belt

Known in Mongolian as a Khusuur, this implement is used after a horse race to remove the copious amounts of sweat produced during a long (often 25km or more) race. Its use means that the sweat does not freeze on the horse’s body. One horseman was very happy to show me this interesting piece of equipment and to explain its origin. I was told that riders normally wear the khusuur in their belts, while horsebreeders wear them tucked into their long boots.

The first one I saw was made from wood, carved with seven horses for good luck. But I also caught site of another version, whose origin was only too clear:

Mongolian khusuur made from a pelican’s head and beak

As can be seen from the photo above, some of the older khusuurs are made from the heads of pelicans, as the Mongols believe the beak is the perfect shape to scrape sweat from a horse. The skull is wrapped in felt and ‘eyes’ are fixed into it. Pelicans in Mongolia are now protected, so this practice is now banned, although some of the older men still have these scrapers, passed down to them through their families.

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