ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —There is a memorable scene in one of Chinhgiz Aitmatov’s novels in which one of the central characters runs naked through the legendary marijuana fields of the Chui River valley on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, covering his sweaty body with the plants’ resin, creating a super-powered gooey concentrate that is carefully scraped from his body and molded into pliable bars that are dried before being smoked.
As a recognized gesture of courtesy, the man saves the lion’s share of the dark brown “plasticine,” or plastilin, for the Russian drug dealer who recruited him for this relatively lucrative, albeit illegal job.
An online news story published Sept. 10 indicates that this harvesting practice for “dichka,” as the wild marijuana is called in post-Soviet Central Asia, is also done by bodies on horseback, typically in August. “It begins with a freshly showered person riding naked for hours on a clean, washed horse inside a two-meter-high ‘forest’ of marijuana,” reports Merkhat Sharipzhanov. What is essentially a rewrite of this story appears on a separate online site accompanied by Youtube video in which a group of Kazahk rappers extol the virtues of the Chui Valley weed.
I encountered the works of Aitmatov, the best known writer in Kyrgyzstan, while teaching a few years ago at an American university in the nation’s capitol, Bishkek, which is located in the Chui River valley. Aitmatov, who died shortly after I left in 2008, wrote in Russian and Kyrgyz and his most widely recognized works are probably The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (1980) and Jamilya (1958). The harvesting sequence I described appears in The Place of the Skull, which was published in 1989 by Grove Press. Place of the Skull, or Golgotha in the New Testament, is the site outside ancient Jerusalem where it is said Christ was executed. The original Russian work, Плаха (1986), is also known in translation as The Scaffold.