I am sorry – I know I broke off quite abruptly on the last blog. But here I am, to continue my story of Central Asia. The region consists of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. A quick rehash – last year I got the opportunity to work in Central Asia and since then have been to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Almaty (Kazakhstan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan).
Each city is beautiful in its own way and so are its people. Whoever I met, strangers or not, were all very welcoming. In each of the country offices, I not only felt welcomed, it seemed as if I belonged. Colleagues went out of their way to show me around their cities on weekends, bringing their families with them. Total strangers, instead of just giving directions, decided to walk part of the way to my destination. In Samarkand, I unwittingly left my shopping behind and the hosts were kind enough to get it transported all the way back to my office in Tashkent. Though the shopping was inexpensive, getting it back was priceless!
Central Asian people come from diverse ethnicities and cultures. Being an arid and landlocked region, both agriculture and trade were difficult to develop and its earliest people were nomadic tribes that roamed the land. Over the centuries there was migration of Iranian people, of Turks and of Arabs. In the 13th and 14th centuries the Mongols took over a large part of Central Asia and a few centuries later Russia and China expanded into the region.
The modern day people of Central Asia reflect this diverse history. Sitting with two of my colleagues during my first visit to Bishkek, I was puzzling out the ethnic mix. I had noticed that people seemed to have east Asian features, European features and other mixes. The European features come from a mix of Russian or Tatar (Mongol) genes while the ethnic Kyrgyz looks more East Asian. My colleague with European looks is a mix of Russian, Tatar and Kyrgyz blood while she informed me that people with looks like mine are of Tajik or Uzbek origin. I was surprised, till more than once, locals started talking to me in Uzbek language when I responded to their As-Salaam-Alaikum with Wa-Alaikum-Salaam.
This greeting is more commonly heard in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. And a lot of Tajik and Uzbek words will sound familiar to an Indian. The counting sounds very similar to our ek(1), do(2), teen(3), bees(20), tees (30) as do many words – khareed (to buy), mahalla (colony) etc. This is not really surprising since Hindi and Urdu that are spoken in India are sister languages and Urdu has Persian, Turkic and Arabic influences. Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Turkmen are Turkic languages while Tajik is a Persian language. However, Russian is spoken widely and acts as a unifier for the region exactly like English does for India, a country that has 22 major languages and 720 dialects. Conversely, English is understood by few and spoken by even fewer people. For many official meetings, I had the help of interpreters and when on my own, I have had to depend on google translate or sign language!
Nevertheless, Hindi is probably a language that movie lovers in Central Asia may understand! A bell boy in Tashkent, on hearing that I am from India, asked me in broken Hindi – aapko hindi aati hai? (Do you know Hindi?) Surprised I asked him, how he knew Hindi and the answer of course was Bollywood! Bollywood is probably India’s biggest brand ambassador across the world. From South East Asia, to the USA and now to Central Asia, everyone seems to have seen and loved Bollywood movies! For me personally they have acted as ice breakers and conversation makers. A very serious discussion suddenly turned into a warm exchange when the official I was meeting decided to ask me about Mithun and Sholay!
Moving on to food. Hmmm (silence…) Now what can a picky vegetarian who basically prefers Indian food above all, say about the food of a region that is primarily meat eating!!! Needless to say, that has been my biggest challenge! But let me try. The food is a confluence of the nomadic life (meat, dairy), Uzbeks and Turks (rice, breads, noodles, kebabs) and Persian (seasoning, vegetables and sweets).
One of my most favourite has been the Central Asian non (naan). This naan is different from the Indian version of naan and is a round flatbread baked in a Tandyr (tandoor). It is almost sacred and people never leave any leftover bread and take it home instead. While it tastes great even if you have it just as is, it becomes even better if had with chakka. Chakka is much like hung curd or cream cheese. There is also a form of the Indian type of naan called lavash. There is another form of bread, where small pieces of dough are fried, it is slightly sweet and reminded me of shakar paras. It can also be compared to a doughnut.
The plov (pulao) is famous across the region and there are apparently 200 varieties of it. It is Uzbekistan’s national dish and is featured on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as listed by UNESCO. Traditionally cooked in animal fat (though commonly in vegetable fat), it consists of rice (of course), meat, onions, carrot and zeera (cumin) as the main spice. I got a chance to taste it and it was quite nice. The samsa is another famous dish – which I would have loved to try had it been vegetarian! It is similar to the Indian samosa (actually introduced to India by Central Asian traders in 13th-14th centuries), except that it is baked in an oven and not fried.
Another dish I really liked was a noodle soup called laghman. It is an Uighur dish that originated from West China and now can be found across the region. (Uighurs are a Turkic ethnicity who now primarily live in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). The dish is basically made of hand pulled noodles cooked in meat stew – for me the restaurant kindly cooked it in vegetable stew – and it was one of the best vegetarian meals I had found in Central Asia by far.
The dry fruits of the region are of course famous across the world and I have brought back loads every trip! Spices very similar to Indian. Fruits and vegetables bigger. I discovered a most awesome fruit not found in India – called Persimmon. Juicy and sweet, it can pass of easily as a tomato but tastes totally different.
As with food and language, an Indian would identify with a lot of art and crafts in the region, especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Our Mughal architecture is of course influenced by Uzbekistan (Babar came from Samarkand) and a lot of designs and patterns seem no different from those found in India. A lot of the embroidery work is very to the work that comes from Kashmir. Stories too are similar. I did not know that the many stories I read about Mullah Nasruddin actually come from Uzbekistan.
This is not surprising since most of us have read in history about the old Silk road and then about the origin of Babur. What I did not know was that the cultural mingling started much before that. Many Buddhist monuments have been found across Central Asia. Dushanbe is home to the largest Buddha statue in Central Asia and dates back to 5th century A.D. There is something very heartening in the fact that at the time Taliban was destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, Tajikistan was restoring the ancient Budhha to its lost glory.
It is again past 1 a.m. and as I get ready to sleep I dream of a world that celebrates its similarities instead of exploiting its differences and where love takes precedence over hate. Amen.