The Steppe of Hunger

The English-language publicity for Sergey Dvortsevoy’s film Tulpan, a love story among the hardscrabble pastoralism still found in some parts of Kazakhstan, said that the film was set on the Hunger Steppe. Intrigued by that name, I lazily googled to find more but got only links to Tulpan reviews with that wording and forgot about the matter for a couple of years. Well, while recently reading Étienne de la Vaissière’s surprisingly entertaining Sogdian Traders: A History, I found the name in a slightly different form:

To the north of Samarkand, between Ustrushana and Čāč, the Steppe of Hunger formed a considerable obstacle on account of its aridity. It compelled travellers to follow the piedmont north of the Turkestan range as far as Zaamin, and thereafter to reach either Ferghana or the Syr Darya as rapidly as possible, then the piedmont west of the Tianshan to finally get to Čāč.

Armed with the wording Steppe of Hunger, I could then find plenty of references to the area by this name. In Russian it is know as the Голодная степь and there is an entire article about the area at the Russian Wikipedia under that title.

However, the association with hunger seems to exist only in Russian. In Kazakh the area is called Мырзашөл and in Uzbek Мирзачўл. These are compounds of mïrza ‘lord’ (< Persian) and šöl ‘desert’.