Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!


By Jeremy Tredinnick

Late in the afternoon the weather turns, the lowering sky replaced by pure-white cotton wool clouds set within a deep blue heaven, mirroring the snowy frosting on the high peaks and ridges. Our van turns off the main valley road and bumps and grinds over a puddle patchwork track into rolling hills. High fences follow the contours of the land endlessly as we journey through a mixture of open fields and thick forest; above us an eagle soars, watching for a chance to swoop down on one of the many marmots that scurry to safety by the side of the road as we pass.

At last we reach a village of well-worn but homely wooden houses, cross a ramshackle log bridge, and pull up outside a long, single-storey building. Gratefully stretching my legs-road travel in the Altai is a lesson in durability for vehicles and passengers alike-I am introduced to Nurlan Toktarov, founder and director of the Katon-Karagay Maral Farm, where we will overnight. The director's handshake is strong and testing, his eyes clear and penetrating, his face open and inscrutable at the same time; he is the highly respected patriarch of this community, and we will dine with him that evening.

Before supper, however, I'm shown round the farm's health sanatorium complex by Aldiyar, Nurlan's youngest son. An offshoot of the farm's main industry-the production of pantocrine-based products derived from the antlers of the maral (a Siberian subspecies of red deer, cervus elaphus maral)-the rustic sanatorium buildings contain "treatment" rooms with bathtubs that are filled with steaming water piped directly from nearby hot springs, with an addition of a silty red-brown "soup" taken from the cauldrons in which the deer antlers are boiled during pantocrine extraction. Short baths in this solution are said to provide huge health benefits, even miraculous solutions to long-lasting ailments. The explanation of the full treatment process is somewhat lost in translation for me-something happens after the bath, but I'm not sure what-and I am told I will be given a treatment later; having had many late, enjoyable but exhausting nights recently, I figure I could do with a pick-me-up. But first... food.

Our repast, as ever in Kazakhstan, is a feast of nature's bounty: the table groans under the weight of dishes of meat, fresh vegetables, aromatic bread, dried fruit, honey... and the inevitable bottles of vodka and cognac. Between mouthfuls we trade toasts of welcoming, gratitude and good fortune, and I learn of the farm's history. Nurlan worked for the government once, but made his fortune as the owner of a business manufacturing high-tech agricultural parts. An Altai Kazakh, he returned to his homeland after the collapse of the Soviet Union to find it suffering cruelly: the price of maral deer antlers, an important source of local revenue, had plummeted from US$1,000 to US$200 per kilo; the marals were disappearing from the forests; work was scarce, and the locals, unable to make a sustainable living, were leaving in droves.

Nurlan made a decision: he began buying land, which was cheap at the time, brought in 50 marals and began a deer farming operation. His persistence and dedication paid off; today, the farm is a family business employing local people who live on and work the land, and its extensive forests are home to thousands of marals, from whose new antlers the amazing chemical extract pantocrine is drawn.

Maral keeping first began in this part of the Altai in the 17th Century, but the medical benefits of deer antler extract have been praised for thousands of years by various Asian cultures. Only relatively recently, however, have modern scientists understood its chemical properties. Pantocrine (Cornu cervi parvum) has a nutritional profile including collagen, amino acids, essential fatty acids, important phospholipids, minerals, trace minerals and other functional proteins, all vital components for human metabolism. It promotes protein synthesis, building lean muscle and tissue, has been shown to increase work capacity and appetite, and improve sleep. It also has an anti-catabolic action that reduces wasting and debilitation, and increases production of red and white blood cells, thereby accelerating healing and recovery. In other words, pretty good stuff.

The Katon-Karagay Maral Farm came to national attention because of a particular pantocrine product it produces. This "elixir" ("Vostochnyi") is a concoction of pantocrine, local berries, nuts and different plants, developed by the farm in association with the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences. After an international competition, it was selected to accompany a manned space flight in 2001 as an energy booster for the Russian, American and Kazakh cosmonauts, who all gave it the thumbs-up on their return.

We end the evening meal well past midnight, toasting each other with tumblers of elixir-vodka mix. I'm ready for my bed, head swimming with all the alcohol I've imbibed. It's then that I'm told a member of staff will now take me for my treatment! Looking bleary-eyed towards the door, I see a vision-a beautiful young Kazakh woman stands patiently waiting... and she's dressed in a nurse's uniform.

As my new friends say their goodnights and head off to their beds, I follow the nurse towards the sanatorium, mesmerised by her sashaying, voluptuous figure, trying to imagine myself in a more surreal situation, but hardly able to walk straight. Entering the building I'm greeted by another nurse, a no- nonsense matron who sits me down and takes my blood pressure: it's 120 over 80, which is good; with this knowledge they prescribe the amount of pantocrine mixture I will have in my bath-too high a concentration can be dangerous to your system, I have been told-and my gorgeous attendant leads me into my bathroom. With sign language-my translator has retired for the night and my Russian is as limited as the nurse's English-she instructs me to strip, lie in the already prepared bath for 10 minutes, gently scooping water over myself, and when I hear her knock on the door to get out, dry and dress myself, and meet her outside.

So here I am, in the remote northeast corner of Kazakhstan, at two in the morning, having a bath in the secretions from maral antlers, much the worse for vodka, with a lovely young female nurse waiting just outside my door. The mind boggles-well. I'm not too sure what my brain is doing, but although the water is slightly greasy and has an odour redolent of a pine-tar solution I used to use for itchy skin, I find I'm incredibly relaxed and comfortable. My bizarre reverie is disturbed by a gentle knocking, and I obediently struggle out of the bath and back into my clothes.

Outside, my blood pressure is taken once again-it's now down to 90 over 70, whatever that means-and then I'm off again, being led towards my chalet bedroom by my raven-haired beauty. She ushers me inside, motions for me to get undressed again, sit on the bed and wait, for she will return, then disappears. Suddenly my mind goes into overdrive. The strictest decorum has been followed at all times, I have no reason to think what I'm thinking, but in my brain-addled state a number of outrageous scenarios pop into m\ mind-forgive me, I am only human, and she is very attractive.

I strip to my boxers, sit on the bed, and wait for whatever is coming. Another quiet knock, the door opens and in she comes-she really is heavenly-holding something, I'm not sure what. Smiling, she gently pushes me onto my back, then over onto my side, pulls my boxers down... and very professionally slides a syringe into my rectum, swiftly administering 15ml of pure elixir into my colon-the final part of the treatment. She signals me to lie on my side for 20 minutes, then leaves.

I pass out.

I'm up at dawn, and despite once again having had far less sleep than necessary, I feel fine. No, I feel great. Who would have guessed it?

Before moving on to my next Altai adventure, Nurlan and Aldiyar take me to see a few marals being assessed. In a stockade much like a cattle ranch, each huge animal is driven in turn into a confined padded area, where a tough farmhand sits on its back and holds it still to keep it from hurting itself-or any of us. Nurlan inspects the massive velvet-covered antlers, feeling the tips, and deciding whether they are ready to be removed. One animal is released with his antlers intact, but the other two are deemed ready for harvesting. It takes only a dozen seconds or so for the farmhand to saw through each antler-there is a brief oozing of blood, caught in mugs by the onlookers, before the stumps are packed with a sandy poultice to protect them from infection, and the wild-eyed animal is freed.

I ask Aldiyar if the deer feels any pain. "No, it is like cutting your nails," he replies, "there is no pain." The maral is afraid of course, so the processing is done as fast as possible to minimize its discomfort, but the animals seem to calm down as soon as they are freed, and are soon grazing happily again, perhaps even happy to be free of 20 kilos of horn on their heads. The antlers, meanwhile, have been inspected, weighed, tagged and sent off to the boiling sheds, where they will begin a process of boiling, heat-drying and wind- drying that can last for a month.

The end result, packaged neatly in small bottles blazoned with a proud prancing maral on the label, will be sold around the world at high prices. My last taste on this trip, however, is straight from the source, as a cracked mug filled with a bloody mixture of maral essence and... you guessed it, is pressed into my hand. And why not, I think. Bottoms up!