A reading list on the Istanbul–Kathmandu route (the hippie trail)

One of my hobbies is learning about the overland trail between Europe and the Indian subcontinent that flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s, often called the hippie trail for its identification with the counterculture. On one hand, young people in those days had an opportunity that Europeans today lack, as Afghanistan subsequently erupted into a series of wars that ended the possibility of easily transiting the region. Some cities in Iran were developing quickly on a Western model due to the Shah regime, an era ended by the Islamic revolution. On the other hand, the journey took up to a month of hitchhiking or sitting in a bus when we today can fly today for a meagre amount of money, and many who made the journey lost weeks battling Hepatitis A or other illnesses. The publications on the era are a window into a very different world, by turns romantic and dismal.

  • David Tomory, A Season in Heaven: True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu (Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 1998) ISBN 0864426291. A collection of oral histories by a number of Western Europeans (and some Americans who started from Europe), covering many different aspects of the journey and describing various places in the Subcontinent that they settled in upon arrival. This book is the best place to get started on the era.
  • Patrick Marnham, Road to Katmandu (1st edition Macmillan, 1971, 2nd edition with new introduction by the author IB Tauris in 2005) ISBN 184511017X. A lightly fictionalized account of the author’s 1968 journey through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal.
  • Michael H.C. Baker, Journey to Kathmandu (London: David & Charles, 1974). Instead of just hippies, this account from the spring of 1967 represents what was in fact a more typical demographic among English-speaking travellers then: fairly conventional young people trying to get to and from Australia cheaply. Baker was a driver in a convoy of three covered lorries (trucks) that formerly belonged to the army. Carrying 46 passengers, they travelled for several weeks through France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
  • Borna Bebek, Santhana: One Man’s Journey to the East (London: The Bodley Head, 1980) ISBN 0370302605. Right after graduating from university in his native Yugoslavia, Bebek set off on the overland trail in January 1977, though from Pakistan he sailed to Thailand and Mauritius before finally reaching India. Set against the memories of those who made the trip earlier, this book is interesting because it documents the little-discussed Yugoslav presence on the trail, and Bebek writes of how by 1977 the hippie era was already seen as ancient history. This is an English translation of the Serbo-Croatian original published as Santhana: Putopis (Zagreb: Nakladni zavod MH, 1979).

Another source of information is Nico Morrison’s project The Flower Raj, which tries to document the lives of Westerners who fell in love with India from 1950 on, a poignant task considering that so many of this generation have already passed away. The project’s blog includes a number of travelogues contributed by those who made the overland journey.

On the etymology of Hungarian srác

While brushing up on my Hungarian by reading through Routledge’s Colloquial Hungarian (the 2nd edition, which lives up to its title more than the 1st), I learned the previously unfamiliar word srác ‘guy’, the phonetic shape of which is somewhat unusual for Hungarian.

Searching through Google for an etymology took some work, but eventually I came across this article on the very subject at Magyar Narancs (a liberal weekly with a satiric touch roughly comparable to Private Eye):

In the 1950s srác was truly slang (just as csávó is now). The word is of Yiddish origin, that is, from the form of German spoken by Eastern European Jews, which is also the source of haver, szajré, a stikában and many other Hungarian words. The word derives ultimately from Hebrew sheretz (the plural form of which is shratzim), which refers to creeping, crawling creatures. This Hebrew word is found in the Bible at the very beginning, in Genesis 1:20, where it is used to describe the swarming of aquatic animals. Yiddish speakers, knowing Scripture, used this word in a comic metaphorical way, to describe groups of children (let’s not forget that in olden times there were many children playing together outside homes) as little swarms of creatures. Thus the word shratzim came to be used, later shortened to shratz. (The word entered German slang also as Schratz.) Today it is used only in Hungarian: in Yiddish the word did not put down strong roots, and Yiddish dictionaries published in the 20th century make no mention of it: it came to pass that in the 19th century it entered Hungarian slang (the first written attestation dates from 1888) and became entrenched there, while in the donor language Yiddish it was quickly forgotten.

As several sites I came across listed the word among Romani borrowings into Hungarian, I wanted to do some fact-checking, but indeed there is a German Schratz ‘child’ according to Heidi Stern’s Wörterbuch zum jiddischen Lehnwortschatz in den deutschen Dialekten with the same etymology (under the entry for Scheres), so it looks like the claim holds water.

Mari and Chuvash potatoes

The series of article collections Диалекты и топонимия Поволжья that the Chuvash state university in Cheboksary published in 1972–1977, is a great resource on language contacts in the Volga–Kama region, and anyone interested should really read all of it now, because the print on these low-quality mimeographs of typescripts is fading so quickly that already many passages are illegible in at least the Helsinki university library’s copies. Two papers in this series deal with the terms for ‘potato’ in Mari and Chuvash respectively. As potatoes reached Eurasia from the Americas only fairly recently, after many languages had already separated into divergent dialects, there is often a colourful array of names for the plant (a similar situation can be found with terms for ‘maize’ in various regions).

As F. I. Gordeev explains in his paper on the Mari terms (vol. 5, 1977, pp. 11–22), potatoes were not cultivated in the Mari lands until the mid 19th century. Therefore, there is no mention of the potato in the earliest Mari vocabularies published in the 18th century. From the 1860s on, however, the crop proved immensely popular (it was certainly the only thing I’ve ever seen planted during my visits to Mari El). Gordeev lists the following terms:

  • Variants of Russian картофель, such as карт, картопка, картофка, etc.;
  • пареҥге, the word in the Mari literary language, or slightly phonetically different forms. This is clearly a loan from Tatar бәрәңге, a word that Gordeev claims is ultimately from Russian Парфён, supposedly the name of a trader who introduced the potato to the region, though this sounds to me like rather an urban myth;
  • рокмын < рок ‘earth’, мыны ‘egg’, lit. ‘egg from the ground’;
  • роколма < рок ‘earth’, олма ‘apple’, lit. ‘apple from the ground’ (cf. French pomme de terre or, as Gordeev points out, Moksha модамарь), this is found in the Hill Mari region;
  • рокома < рок ‘earth’, олма ‘apple’, lit. ‘apple from the ground’, this on the other hand is found in the Meadow Mari region;
  • тури, турти, турицки, for which Gordeev gives no etymology except to point out that the last seems to contain the Russian suffix ‑ски.

Chuvash names for ‘potato’ are treated in a paper by L. P. Sergeev (vol. 1, 1972, p. 53–62). He distinguishes six names for the plant across the Chuvash dialects:

  • ҫӗрулми < ҫӗр ‘earth’, улма ‘apple’;
  • паранкӑ, which Sergeev claims contains an ancient Chuvash suffix ‑кӑ (so the word would be < паран + ‑кӑ) and the compound has been used for other plants like nightshade and found in toponyms, so it must be of Chuvash origin and fairly old;
  • карттохкартахви < Russian;
  • калтток < Russian;
  • кантук < Russian.

The respective papers delineate the exact regions where each of these terms is found. The two different explanations of the пареҥгепаранкӑ presents a mystery, but I suspect that tracking down a similar paper somewhere on Tatar names for ‘potato’ (which would discuss бәрәңге) may shed more light on this.

Nørgård’s Symphony No. 8

This 2012 article by Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen originally appeared in Danish on the website of the Danish new music organization SNYK. With the permission of the author, I present here a translation into English for the benefit of Nørgård fans worldwide, especially as the work will gain new attention with the release of its world premiere recording on the Dacapo label.

A photograph of Per NørgårdAs you may know, Per Nørgård turns 80 years old this year. And he has even written a new symphony, the eighth in his cycle, which will be premiered in Helsinki on September 19, 2012. On this occasion I met with the composer to talk about symphonies in general and the Eighth in particular.

The Symphony No. 8 is unmistakably a Nørgård piece. And not just that, it is unmistakably a Nørgård symphony! Like his earlier symphonies, it opens with a intial attack from which rising and falling lines unfold. And at the same time it is – like the seven symphonies before it – completely unique. The opening has none of the violence that characterizes the openings of the Fifth and Seventh. Its falling melodic lines are not as ethereal as the movements that begin the Symphony No. 6, or so regular, even rule-governed, as the descending overtone series with which the Symphony No. 3 begins.

It is its own, and it is Nørgårdian. But what actually makes something a Nørgårdian symphony and distinguishes it from other genres? Nørgård doesn’t have a short, concise answer to that but instead unfolds a long train of thought:

A symphony is a work where the motion, the momentum, is like a clear unfolding of the material. When it has a relentlessness, something – as Sibelius called it – compelling about what one is dealing with. What might be compelling could simply be that the work radiates a “suchness”, where one can say that it is just a question of having an inevitable way in which it unfolds its basic material. This will not be found, for example, in a series of variations, where you can have one more variation or one less. In a symphony the material imposes itself on you, so to speak.

The symphonic can be compelling in many ways.

The compelling character of a symphony for me lies in the fact, that it is never something that is explicitly stated. That is, the symphonic material is precisely not just material; it is in a state which ensures that it never gets through with itself. That state can be the unity behind it then.

As Poul Ruders once put it, the symphony is like a big bear that one wrestles with.

Such a description might remind one of Vagn Holmboe’s description of the symphony as a an uninterrupted flow, a single long breath, as a process that must be seen as something inevitable (Mellemspil (Copenhagen: Edition Wilhelm Hansen, 1961), pp. 43–44). For Holmboe this process is associated with his “metamorphosis principle”, which is a constant transformation of basic material from one state to another. I therefore asked Nørgård whether he thinks that the concept of “metamorphosis” is linked to the symphonic.

That’s what Holmboe thought, he answers promptly. When asked what he himself thinks, Nørgård’s answer is initially more hesitant:

That was the case for Holmboe. I have never been especially interested in it, except when I studied with him, of course. It would have been rude otherwise. We wrote dialogues about it, and I tried then to write something clever about metamorphosis, which was preserving the unity of something that constantly and overtly moves from something to something else, but in a different way than variation, which doesn’t have that compelling quality.

Here that word from the description of the symphony comes up again, compelling, and when I mention that the idea of metamorphosis can be seen to be incorporated into the infinity series, which gradually and continuously transforms a starting point, Nørgård concludes:

Metamorphosis is really the basis for all of my music, I think. That is why the word itself has not interested me much, for what would it be if it wasn’t metamorphosis?

Nørgård’s metamorphosis is quite different from Holmboe’s. What they share is the perception of music as an irreversible organic process, a perception that really dates back to Carl Nielsen’s views on music as expressed particularly in the writing of his Symphony No. 4 (and later placed as a motto in the published score): Music is life, and, like it, inextinguishable.

Life in the first part of the Symphony No. 8’s opening movement consists of three elements:

  1. A rising, rhythmically exact motion,
  2. Falling, more rhythmically intangible motions,
  3. a “floor” between them.

As Nørgård explains:

The first movement has decided on a portal to enter. This is in the form of a “floor” in the middle, whose material is bound by a sort of gravity. It is a type of horizon, a line in the middle and it moves between a rhythm which consists of dotted eighths and then quarter notes in triplets, very close to each other, but it provides a variant between what is falling, set against triplets. They stand therefore opposite a rising and falling, which in a way is relentless and could theoretically go on forever, because when the one that is rising reaches the middle, where the other is falling down to, they could in principle pass through each other.

As the following excerpt from the score shows, one can find lines of the score that actually pass through each other and go on in opposite directions.

On Nørgård’s piano at home is a sketch where this first movement is described as “Sequences of Consequences”:Music example

So how does this symphony compare to the others?

I seem to have noticed a similarity in the way that the Symphonies Nos. 3–8 open, with an initial attack that the music flows out of. Nørgård responds:

The Third has an ideal symphonic beginning. The Fourth is the least symphonic. The Third is a big, serious older brother, while the Fourth has a more of an observer relationship with the symphonic. The Fifth, on the other hand, was no doubt a beginning for me, a beginning of a symphony.

And why was that? I ask myself this question. I don’t know why, but I was entirely aware of it from the beginning. It was a beginning that made me more and more aware that it was a big bear that I had got involved with. I either had to go ahead with the rather large sounds that are at the opening of the Fifth, and it would be a violent task, or I had to find a whole other way. And in that case it would have not been the same kind of work.

In fact, it’s related to the Symphony No. 6, although the Sixth is more of a will to write a symphony. So it was the desire to get out of something that really took hold of me. And all the violence in it from the beginning, that swirling tonal material, formed an excellent starting point, I think, for that symphony.

I mention that the Sixth was originally presented as a more “mature” version of the Third. Nørgård recognizes this idea, but the differences are more important:

Where the Third is almost programmatic in its attack – here comes a big bear with a start and everything that really demands attention – yes, what is the beginning of the Sixth other than a kind of rough draft. It bursts out into this huge atmospheric space and therefore may be related with the Third; but I see them as very different, those two.

I note that the last three symphonies are structurally similar to each other with their division into three movements “fast–slow–fast”. That this does not reflect a particularly preferred gesture that Nørgård has worked towards is shown by the Symphony No. 7:

The Seventh appears to have three movements, but it really doesn’t. No, the Seventh is really in a single movement, which is interrupted by an intermezzo that makes a tunnel into a different view. And when it has presented this otherness, then the third movement continues where the first left off.

And the Symphony No. 8?

Somewhere in my thinking the Eighth stands as three possible states of being.

The first movement is the classical symphony, an arrow pointing in a direction, whereas the second movement, here we have a situation where it spins around in a kind of never-ending three-part carousel. And the third movement, what is that then? I was very excited about it, only I didn’t know until I worked towards it, but suddenly I was well aware of it. It’s the one where you have nothing to hold on to! If you look at the third movement, its rhythm is puzzling, because there doesn’t seem to be any pulse. It’s like blades of grass that sprout up. And yet you see a form as you go along. So in my mind the third movement is the only new option.

Writing a movement like this third movement, which is entirely open, created a sense of panic for Nørgård:

What happens with me if I don’t have any real sense of the form from the moment I start, but instead I only experience it from moment to moment like raindrops?

It’s music where you have nothing to hold on to. You find it along the way. That means that for every step, you have to ask what the next one will be. The attacks are like sprouts that grow up and accelerate. When will they come on? So I had to work by intuition the whole time, and it was a strange feeling.

Then there are places where the movement gathers itself together and there you could say, But that way of starting, we’ve already seen that three minutes earlier, but that is just the result of what is happening along the way. Something is gathering itself together, you see, something that is initially vague. In its later recurrences it will therefore have established a relationship with itself, which means that it has an almost quotation-like character when it returns. I feel that way in particular about the third movement. So that made the third movement a huge challenge.

What the music in the third movement collects towards turns out to be the music from the first movement. The rising motions, the “floor” theme and other thematic gestalts from the first movement show up and lead to a final, floating almost Lux Aeterna-like section titled Lento visionario. Here the “floor” melody is included in a big harmonized pianissimo space, which theoretically could go on forever. The ending is almost magical in the way it combines harmonic clarity with an ultrashort melodic apotheosis, the details of which shall not be revealed here.

In the first movement the different lines are brought together into a motivic gestalt, which appears as a mixture of ascending and descending motions. As Nørgård puts it, The upward and downward motions have a strange mating dance.

Musical example

This motif, or melodic line (which apparently can never exhaust itself; even after that long B the motion continues) leads to a contrasting section. At first glance, this section is based on a siciliano figure. But it’s not so easy as that:

The eternal 6/8 is unstable. A normal siciliano is suggested but never fully materializes. Sometimes it is shifted by an eighth note. When will the dotted eighth and sixteenth note result in one, and when will they not? This creates a textures of vibrations that never repeats itself. It revolves the whole time around the siciliano motif, so one just rediscovers it. It’s like one of those toys where you push it down, and it comes right back up again.

Musical example

(The siciliano rhythm is knocked down and comes right back up again…)

It would not be a true Nørgård work if these changes, which are after all relatively simple, did not feed a somewhat more radical interpretation. In this case it is the interpretation of a 6/8 bar, which is put into play through further differentiating between the bar’s inherent following from a fourth note and an eighth note.

Then that’s that – you can say, Yes, that was an easy way to write a symphony, you just keep going and going, but that isn’t what I’m doing. I’ve found something new here. It has to do with the interpretation of 6/8. People think they know that 6/8 is. 6/8 consists of a long note, a quarter note, and a short one, an eighth note, or vice versa, an eighth note and a quarter note. At any rate, the quarter note can be divided so that it contains a triplet.

For if one subdivides the quarter notes in a 6/8 bar into triplets, this allows a smaller short+long or long+short motion within the bar’s overall short+long or long+short. Through the contrapuntal nature of this rhythm Nørgård achieves a detailed rhtyhm of great sophistication, which transforms an ordinary 6/8 into something completely different, something as yet unheard.

The figure below shows two different gestalt setups of this idea.

Musical example

Now, it’s never so simple in Nørgård’s music. The complex itself becomes more complex. At that moment that these two rhythmic structures are added together – the knocked down siciliano and the triplet subdivision – the siciliano rhythm is transformed to quadruplets against a 6/8 bar that is further distinguished by the triplet divisions (bar 77). Later the basic 6/8 part’s basic structure is more pronounced (bar 94). (For the record, it should be said that deferring the siciliano figure to quadruplets may help clarify a figure which might otherwise risk being being blurred compared to the triplets, as a rhythmically unchanged siciliano would be very close to.)

The second movement is in every way a contrast to the first movement (although the rising and falling motions can be said to be occur transformed in the harmonies’ voice leading).

Of this movement, the never-ending three-part carousel, titled “Rotundum” on the paper on the piano, Nørgård says:

It’s a soundworld that I had already heard when I was writing the first movement. So I knew where I was going, unlike when I was moving on to the third movement. And I was delighted to immerse myself in this movement, because there’s something special in these sounds. The movement is almost like an Amager shelf, where three images appear. It turns, and then the new image comes.

And what role does this movement have in this context, then?

I’ve never thought about it before, but based on intuition I would answer, that the axis of rotation is continually in motion. Try to imagine that there is a space that arises, so there must be something that is constant. It is not just something that shows up. It is itself the tempo of the rotation, the very axis that the whole moves around. And on this axis are the three types of expression. It is very much a resting point.

Musical example

The three images from the Amager shelf, or the three-part carousel which forms the basic material of the second movement, Nørgård characterises as the State of Being. Or, as it is put later, the spinning axis that the symphony itself spins around. Note the harmonies, which in the second and third element are composed of different versions of chords with both a major and minor third.

I mention to Nørgård that the second movement shares this focus on harmony with the second movements of his last two three-movement symphonies, the Sixth and Seventh.

I think it has to do with how you view tempo. If you look at it the way I in fact do in this case with these movements, then what we might call the slow tempo is present.

But if we imagine the fast tempo from the first and third movements, it will be such, that it is really the same thing, heard at different distances. For if you hear something fast vibrating at a great distance, it will act like slow sounds that change. And it is these that appear all by themselves in e.g. the second movement’s theme. It is as if we have come so far from it that we only see it as a sound. Melodically and acoustically. In contrast, when you come closer to it, you see that there are always vibrations around it. And it is the point in between that interests me. So a sound that one thinks is static, is in fact vibrating between different states.

With this our conversation came to an end. Per Nørgård went to have a rest before another visit an hour later, and I went home with, as is usual for a meeting with Nørgård, a head full of new impressions and thoughts that would gradually settle in the coming days.

Six weeks cycling South Africa

In January and February 2014, we cycled some 2000 km across South Africa from Johannesburg to Cape Town. South Africa proved a fascinating country from a number of perspectives, and I would strongly recommend it to cycle tourists. Instead of a detailed account of our trip – which would quickly bore readers with our recounting the innumerable tiny towns we passed through that all had the same shops – I shall offer here some more general impressions to guide others planning such a trip. A map showing a route cycled from Johannesburg to Cape Town Continue reading

Why flying on Air Madagascar is not advisable

On the day we were supposed to fly out of Madagascar, we said goodbye to the Academy of Free Travel house and cycled back to Antananarivo’s airport the way we came over a month ago. Piled onto the back racks of our bikes were a few giant-sized Chinese shopping bags, rolls of foam and some twine that we had bought in a Tana market. Bike boxes do not exist in Madagascar, and the ones we came with were already beaten up after the long journey from Europe, so these materials were all we could work with.

We spent a couple of hours dismantling the bikes and carefully wrapping them, then checked into our Air Madagascar flight to Johannesburg and went through security. When we got to the gate, we were surprised how few passengers there were from the Boeing 737 parked on the tarmac outside. Boarding did not proceed on time, and a few minutes later the gate agent announced that the flight had been canceled. Probably because there aren’t enough passengers to make it worthwhile, said a Russian businessman with long experience with this airline.

After initial panic among the several dozen passengers, a somewhat orderly queue formed to find out what to do. A policeman canceled the exit stamps in our passports, we were sent into the baggage claim area to retrieve the luggage we had checked (one of the “bike bags” is already torn and in need of further reinforcement), and then we visited the airport’s Air Madagascar office where we were told of the possibility, but not guaranteed, that the flight would leave the next day.

Though we rue bitterly that we were denied the departure we had been looking forward to, at least the airline sorted for us a hotel room, a shuttle to the hotel and back to the airport, and meals. We had hoped to be lodged in one of the nice 4- or 5-star hotels near the airport (which apparently do much of their business from Chinese businessmen), but instead the shuttle took us and a number of other would-be passengers some kilometres back towards Tana, then down a very dodgy side street to a 2-star establishment known as the Les Flots Bleu.

We couldn’t complain so much: the hotel had wi-fi and the restaurant served (and gratis) the best food we’ve had in our entire trip here. Plus, we were a motley crew, and it was fun to speak to a Botswana-born hotel owner from the idyllic Île Sainte-Marie (Visitor numbers are down, but you don’t live there for the money, you live there for the lifestyle.), a South African economist spending a lot of time in booming Nigeria, and a group of twenty or so Korean tourists.

The next day we had a breakfast and lunch at the hotel and then were shuttled to the airport. Check-in for the flight began late, but most people made it to the gate before the expected departure time. Again, just before boarding was due to begin, it was announced that the flight was canceled.

The Air Madagascar staff claimed that the flight was canceled for weather reasons in Johannesburg. This was immediately exposed as a lie when some South Africans among us telephoned the Johannesburg airport, who said the weather was fine. By claiming it was an unavoidable weather problem, they wanted to avoid compensating us again with hotels and meals. This time the group had to hold their ground for several hours at the airport’s Air Madagascar office, essentially preventing the employees from closing up and going up before we could get our lodging/meals/transportation vouchers. Eventually they again sent us to the same hotel, telling us that the earliest possible opportunity to get out of here would be on Tuesday, in two days.

So, we were back at Les Flots Bleu, though this time the mood was more boisterous as many wanted to drink to forget, and one Dutch girl had to celebrate her birthday under these abysmal circumstances. The next morning, I slept late, only to discover upon waking that all the South Africans had left, probably just giving up and buying a ticket on the competing South African Airlines Airlink flight Antananarivo–Johannesburg that flies daily and has actually left every day that we’ve been stranded.

We spent our Monday lazily in the hotel, but towards midnight got a taxi to the airport instead of waiting for the free shuttle at 0300, so that we could beat the large Korean tour group to the front of the check-in queue. Antananarivo’s airport is open all night long, the lights are shut off completely for a couple of hours. Cleaning staff and security made their rounds, so it never felt entirely deserted as we set up our position at the check-in desks.

The Air Madagascar flight managed to leave on Tuesday morning around 0600 as scheduled, but it was nonetheless a stressful experience. Check-in did not open until an hour and a half before the scheduled departure, and boarding was delayed long past the time printed on our boarding passes. Every time an announcement was made, we quaked in fear that the flight would again be canceled. Only once a team of stewardesses arrived and a fuel truck began to fill the plane could I start to regain my optimism.

Bottom line: if you want to fly between South Africa and Madagascar, avoid Air Madagascar at all costs and take the South African Airways Airlink flight instead.

Looking back at a journey in Madagascar

Tomorrow we fly from Madagascar to Johannesburg and begin several weeks of cycling across South Africa. While it was nice to see Madagascar for myself, I am appalled by the environmental destruction here, which reduces the country’s appeal as a tourist destination because the interesting nature is all forest-based, and the forest is nearly gone. The environmental destruction goes hand in hand with a stagnant political situation, where both opposing blocs are corrupt and focused mainly on the wealthy centre of the island while the impoverished remainder of the country gets ignored. It can be depressing.

From my experience, I offer the following list of things you should take with you to ease your trip, especially if you plan to cycle as we did:

  • A mosquito net. Only more expensive places (30,000 ariary/night and higher) tend to have mosquito nets. There were some cheap rooms on the coast that had nets, but these were filthy, dusty and torn. We regularly put up the inner layer of our MSR HubbaHubba 2 tent in hotels for protection from mosquitos and other insects (there are lots of roaches here).
  • Suncream. Imported suncream (Nivea) is available in Shoprite supermarkets in Antananarivo, but at such high prices that you should bring it from home. The locally-made sun-protection cream is not reliable and will not stop your exposed face and hands from burning.
  • Earplugs. You might imagine that cycling in Madagascar will bring you through remote, tranquil wilderness. In fact, people live everywhere on this island, and chances are that anywhere you sleep will be noisy.
  • Peanut butter. You need something you can spread on a baguette to provide a break from (and more energy than) the rice you’ll be eating at least once a day. You don’t need to bring any from home, just pick some up at a Shoprite supermarket in Antananarivo before setting off. A big jar of imported South African peanut butter (country of origin: India) can be bought for 10,000 ariary (around 3€).

Phantom linguistics publications

It is frustrating when one is alerted by catalogues to books on language that were never actually published.

Routledge’s Language Family Surveys series now covers most of the major language groups of the world. However, the announced volume on the Manchu-Tungusic languages, said to be edited by Alexander Vovin, never appeared even though it worked its way into the Helsinki University Library catalogue (on order) and Amazon. I hear that Vovin is still working on this, but it will appear from a different publisher.

Another phantom publication is Teach Yourself Yiddish, a book that was meant to appear in 2009 and compete with the new edition of rival Routledge’s Colloquial Yiddish, a book which very much exists. Supposedly authored by Chaim Nelsen and Barry Davis, Teach Yourself Yiddish never did appear, in spite of also being announced at Amazon complete with ISBN.

Various Turkic–Mongolic etymological observations

Preparing to study Mongolian from Krueger’s An Introduction to Classical (Literary) Mongolian (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 3rd edition 1993), I’ve been re-reading the Routledge Language Family Surveys volume The Mongolic Languages ed. Juha Janhunen. Below are some musings on and follow-ups to trivia within.

Examples of some crucial [Khalka] consonant contrasts: ad [at] ‘demon’ vs. at [aʰt] ‘castrated camel’; dal [taɮ] ‘seventy’ vs. tal [tʰaɮ] ‘steppe’.

So modern Mongolian is one of those languages that, instead of a voiced–unvoiced distinction in dentals that I could actually pronounce, has an aspirated–unaspirated distinction that I’ll never get down. That’s a damn shame.

[Turkic borrowings in Mongolic] often show a specialized meaning, whereas the native [Mongolic] words have a more general semantic profile, cf. e.g. Mongolic *xüsün ‘hair’ vs. *kilga.su/n ‘hair of a horse’ ← Bulgharic kïlka = Common Turkic *kïl (qïl) ‘hair’.

The ordinary Chuvash word for ‘hair’ today is ҫӳҫ. However, for Russian конский волос ‘horsehair’, the Skvortsovs’ dictionary gives лаша хӗлӗхӗ. For Cv. хӗлӗх, Fedotov’s Этимологический словарь чувашского языка gives a wide array of Turkic cognates, but they are all glossed as ‘horsehair’, so it’s unclear to me on what grounds Claus Schönig in the passage I’ve quoted believes it ever meant ‘hair’ in general.

In the Common Turkic branch, rhotacism, lambdacism is generally absent, but it is occasionally observed in preconsonantal position, which makes the dating of certain loanwords problematic, cf. e.g. Mongolic *buxas ‘pregnant’ (from Common Turkic *bugaz id.) vs. buxar.la‑ ‘to cut the throat’ (from either Bulgharic or Common Turkic, cf. Common Turkic *bogaz ‘throat’).

That Bulgar Turkic had a cognate word for ‘throat’ showing rhotacism is attested by Chuvash пыр id.

Mongolic ulus ← Common Turkic uluš (later replaced in most Turkic languages by a reborrowing from Mongolic).

There is an informative entry on Common Turkic *uluš/ulus on page 152 of Clauson’s A Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkish, which notes that the original Turkic form uluš seems to survive only in Karaim.

Mongolic *kerbish ‘brick’ ← Common Turkic *kärpič

The Common Turkic is the source of Russian кирпич. It must say something of the material poverty and fondess for wooden buildings of the Russians of old, that they had to take the word for ‘brick’ from a population generally associated with yurts.

The early Kipchak source Codex Cumanicus exhibits [Mongolic] borrowings like abaɣa ‘uncle’, čïray ‘face’, ebäk ~ elpäk ‘very much’, yada‑ ‘to get tired’, qurulta ‘assembly, council’, manglay ‘forehead’, nögär ‘follower’, and qaburqa ‘rib’.

For what it’s worth, several of these are commonplace in Tatar as well, namely абый, чырай, бик, маңгай and кабырга.

Mongolic *köper > *köxer ‘proud’ > ‘happy’ vs. Turkic *küpez (> *kübez) ‘proud’, Mongolic *köperge > *köxerge ‘bridge’ vs. Turkic *köprüg (*köbrüg).

Of the first set of words here, I’m tempted to claim some connection to Tatar чибәр ‘beautiful’, with cognates in languages of the Volga region meaning ‘happy’. Could the k‑ of the Mongolic or Bulgar word cited above have shifted to an affricate before a front vowel in some other language that was the source of the Tatar? However, I don’t seem to own any etymological reference that describes this possibility. Äxmat’janov’s Татар теленең кыскача тарихи-этимологик сүзлеге suggests only that the Tatar is borrowed from a Mongolic cegeber ‘white, clean’.

For the second set of words, I’ve long suspected a connection to Greek γέφῡρα, but the entry in Clauson on page 690 mentions no connection between the Turkic and other language families (except the loan in Mongolic), mentioning only morphologically Dev. N. fr. köpür‑ [‘to froth, to foam’] but with no obvious semantic connection. On Greek γέφῡρα, Beekes on page 269 of his Etymological Dictionary of Greek suggests the Greek is borrowed from Hattic hammuruwa ‘beam’, with all instances of the words in Homeric Greek representing ‘beam’ and the meaning ‘bridge’ is attested only later. However, if a meaning ‘bridge’ is attested for this word by the mid 1st millennium BC, would that not give plenty of time for it to be borrowed into an unknown Iranian language of Central Asia and then picked up by Turkic?

Back to Antananarivo for an Academy of Free Travel New Year’s

From Fianarantsoa we returned quickly to Antananarivo by taxi-brousse to meet up with other participants of the Academy of Free Travel base for a New Year’s excursion. At 0645 on a Monday we arrived at Fianarantsoa’s taxi-brousse station, where a tout immediately appeared in the crowd to show us the way to the ticket office. A single ticket to Antananarivo cost 18,000 ariary. We were then pointed to one taxi-brousse out of many in the parking lot, and baggage handlers lifted our bikes and panniers up to the roof, where they were expertly strapped down. Because there were many other vehicles parked in front of ours, and we were still the only passengers for this particular taxi-brousse, we thought we were in for a long wait. Traffic in front of us moved quickly, however, and a large family appeared to complete the obligatory number of passengers, so we were on the road within an hour.

The taxi-brousse journey was considerably less uncomfortable than I had been led to expect. Passengers were seated three across, leaving enough room to not feel cramped. One could read or even sleep. Due to the twists and turns in the RN7 road, and the consequent slow speeds, it took us all day to cover the 300-some kilometres to Antananarivo. We finally arrived at 1730, though we spent the last half hour stuck in the kind of traffic jam typical of the capital. Arriving at Tana’s taxi-brousse station was extremely unpleasant, with a large crowd of impoverished men trying to get work as porters, who would grab our panniers and try to carry them off for us in spite of our refusals. Luckily, we had just enough time to cycle up to the Academy of Free Travel’s base in the north of the city before it got dark – being outside at night in Antananarivo is not advised.

There was a brief reunion with those acquaintances of ours who were in Antananarivo at the time. The next morning, we set off for the point decided on for the New Year’s gathering, near the village of Andasibe. We left the house at the unusually late hour of 0700, leisurely walked across town to the eastbound taxi-brousse station, and paid 5,000 ariary each for the three-hour journey to Moramanga.Some Russian travellers among Malagasy in a cramped taxi-brousse There, we switched to a local bus (paying another 2,000 ariary) and after another hour of travel were dropped off in front of Andasibe’s train station.

Some of the gang had already been here and knew of a nearby place along the railway where we could all pitch our tents and make a campfire.The engine of a train standing on railroad tracks The railway divided us from the Andasibe National Park. While some of the Academy of Free Travel members had been hitchhiking around the island, others had learned that trains were an interesting way to get around, including for free: the freight trains here typically attract some locals, who are tolerated by the rail company as long as they are discreet, so no reason some of us couldn’t try it as well. Indeed, we were waiting for another group to join us that evening off a westbound train.

We had a dinner of pineapple, lychees and bananas with buckwheat porridge cooked on a campfire. Having become accustomed to being early to bed and early to rise in the Tropics, most of us fell asleep before midnight. At dawn the next morning we were awoken by a local police officer, who asked us to pack up and leave, repeating that we were on propriété privée (in fact, it was a worthless piece of scrubland between a river and the railroad track, but travelers report that such phrasing is typically used to drive camping foreigners to hotels). As the Academy of Free Travel has well over a decade of politely ignoring annoying police officers in a variety of Third World countries, we held our ground and the gendarme eventually got bored with us and left. A group of people gathered around a small campfireWe got up and took the tents down, but remained for an hour or two to drink tea and listen to the whooping of lemurs from the national park.

We all returned to Antananarivo by taxi-brousse on January 1, a day when the capital seemed abandoned and almost all businesses (even petrol station shops and hotel restaurants) were closed. The Russians are now choosing their next destinations around Madagascar, but I feel like I have seen enough and would rather stay in Antananarivo for a few days to concentrate on my reading, though we will cycle to a place or two in the vicinity before our flight out.