Mommy Travels: Central Asia – People, Food and Culture

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!

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mommy Travels: Central Asia – So Near Yet So Far

Last year I got a wonderful opportunity to work on a Central Asian project covering the countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Needless to say, the wanderer in me was extremely excited at this opportunity – I had heard a lot about Central Asia but only through books or stories or maybe some history. The mum in me was a bit doubtful though, about leaving the kids for long stretches at a time. The family deliberated and we all decided to jump into this new adventure called Central Asia!

Central Asia held a special meaning for me being part of the erstwhile Soviet Union. I was in my primary years when the Soviet Union still existed and there was a lot of cultural exchange between our countries. I remember mobile vans stationed at schools or other places that sold children’s books from the USSR. My favourites were Russian folk tales. A large part of my early years was spent reading about Baba Yaga, Buddhimati (wise) Vasilisa and Prince Ivan. To me it felt like an opportunity to go to a land which had fascinated me most of my childhood! But a land that was too far from me.

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However, when I started booking my tickets I realized with shock how close some of these countries are! Almaty is a 3.5 hour flight from Delhi and direct flights to Bishkek and Dushanbe would be under 3 hours. Going to Tashkent from Delhi is probably just a little longer than going to Bombay! Each of these cities is beautiful and yet undiscovered by the Indian traveler. Though a very interesting subset of South Asians are very familiar with these countries. These are our medical students! On my first flight to Bishkek (via Almaty), I was surprised to notice a large no. of young Indian people. I was even more surprised when I realized that they were all also transiting to Bishkek! Upon enquiry, I found out that there are approximately 5,000 Indian students studying medicine in Bishkek alone! And they are such a high percentage of the total student population, that they get Diwali holidays as well! Anyway, I digress.

Central Asia remains unknown to most of the world even after more than 25 years of independence. Being part of the Soviet Union, Central Asia along with the other countries behind the iron curtain was hidden from the rest of the world. Even after the break up of the USSR, Central Asia remained under the shadow of Russia and being land locked and away from the Western Economic powers, did not receive much economic attention from the globalized world. Each of the five countries have followed their own path of economic and political transformation. Moving from centrally planned economies to being led by the market has not been easy and some countries are ahead of the others in this transformation.

Till date I have been to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Tashkent and Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Almaty – only for a few hours (Kazakhstan). Each of these cities is beautiful in its own way and deserves a blog of its own. There is a lingering flavor of the USSR – in the buildings, in the city plans, in the systems that have survived through these years. But there is also a lot of newness as these countries strive to come out of their old identity. A lot of old buildings have been pulled down and beautiful new ones erected. (I simply loved the ones in Dushanbe) Many countries are resurrecting their old heroes – the statue of Ismoil Somoni was erected in 1999 in Dushanbe. Similarly a statue of Manas, another local hero was erected in Bishkek in 2011. These have come up in places that used to have statues of Lenin earlier.

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I have had some of the most fascinating and educating conversations with various people during my visits. I was keen to to understand what they feel about the break up of the USSR. The new generation seems to have embraced the new world order while many from the older generation are nostalgic about the Soviet era. They remember the ease of jobs and services and how the basic needs of the citizens were taken care of. For example, the education system or provision of other public services. The state provided free education, day care and a job upon turning into an adult. The state’s role has now contracted and it is no more the main employer or provider of other services such as health care etc. These jobs have been turned over to the private sector. However, markets are not necessarily fully evolved in all the countries and many individuals also talk about increasing corruption or lack of quality of public services.

Most young people clearly prefer the merit based system and the opportunity to work hard and rise high. When a colleague said that it was very hard for anyone to be poor during the Soviet reign – I immediately became dreamy eyed till she went on and said that there was very little incentive for people to work hard and a disincentive for the brighter people. It reminded me of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and how well it brings out the fallacies of the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need”.

On the one hand, there was no need to work hard, on the other, there was hardly any incentive to either. There was no encouragement to enterprise – in fact it was illegal! (I feel like laughing since all we talk now is  about promoting entrepreneurship). You couldn’t run even the smallest shop – whatever one produced was for the state. Everything was centrally planned – down to what clothes people would wear! There used to be pattern makers at the national level who would decide about 30-40 patterns of shirts/ dresses/ pants etc., the kind of fabric and colour – and all Govt. factories would manufacture a certain number of each type of clothing! (Anyone from the fashion industry reading this!) Imagine every fifteenth person wearing identical clothes!

I found a slide online which elaborates on what I am saying (not sure of source so can’t give credit):

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It was even more surprising when during an official discussion, my colleagues mentioned that people traditionally do not have the habit to save. It sounded odd to me (since in India – everyone is busy saving – either in their bank accounts or under their pillow or inside tin boxes!). The reason was even more baffling. Since the state was supposed to provide for everyone, savings were actually frowned upon. You were probably a bourgeoisie if you decided to save some money!

Another interesting aspect was the attitude towards religion. The Soviet Union followed a policy of state atheism which basically discourages all religion. It is different from secularism where the state is officially neutral in religious matters. In simpler terms, the Soviet Government told its people to practice religion within the confines of their houses and that nothing of religious nature was to be done publicly. There were of course mosques and churches, but fewer and far between. Coming from India, where we celebrate everything together, on the streets, this seemed to me fascinating, bizarre, peaceful and bland all at the same time! Central Asia is a traditionally Islamic region and twenty eight years later, the attitude of people towards religion continues to be muted, though some countries are more religious than others. However, most of the Governments continue to discourage overt religious activity.

OK, I have just realised that it is pretty late at night (1.53 a.m.) and this is becoming a very long piece. I still haven’t got a chance to talk about the people, their food or culture, but if I start doing that now, this blog will become interminably long and probably not end. So however abrupt this end may seem, I must publish it and sleep. I hope you have enjoyed peeking into Central Asia. I will definitely be back with more. And do think about taking your next holiday in one of the Central Asian countries. I promise you will not be disappointed.

So for now dobroy nochi. That’s good night in Russian.