Chinese Exports

Chinese trucks carrying goods over the Qolma Pass from China to Tajikistan

We all know that China’s economy has flourished largely on its exports, and that the volume of Chinese exports is tremendous, but even so it has been interesting seeing in person Chinese goods across the world, as well as their effects on local economies.

One of the first and oddest visibly Chinese products we saw on our trip were these rear view mirror decorations in Syria and Iran. It was peculiar especially because of the disjunction between the clearly traditional Chinese “good-luck” design and the Islamic “Allah” in Arabic script. We imagined a factory in Guangdong Province somewhere churning these out, not knowing what it says or for where it is destined; whereever the factory may actually be, I think that the trinkets are actually produced largely for domestic consumption in Muslim Xinjiang (where we also saw them).

The Syrian driver whose car this was in didn’t even recognize the red and gold ornament as Made in China!

Given the historical influence of Russia in Central Asia, we were surprised to find that the trains in Turkmenistan were Chinese-built. They were brand new and fairly luxurious, especially considering the absurdly cheap (and clearly subsidized) fares. The train we took in Iran (also new and comfortable) was also Chinese built, as were the cars of the Tehran Metro. The Tehran Metro cars, we think, are exactly the same as Hong Kong MTR cars!

On the Tehran Metro

Chinese automobiles are also making headway around the world. In addition to Chery dealerships in Iran and elsewhere, we saw long convoys of new Chinese minivans coming over the Qolma Pass from China into Tajikistan, sometimes filled with other Chinese products such as toilet paper. The Chinese minivans are fast becoming the main mode of public transit on the Pamir Highway. We were told that, prior to the arrival of the minivans, it was sometimes hard to find any public transport, with waits of a day or two for a car. With the cheap Chinese vans ($4000-6000, and with lower maintenance costs than other, older vehicles), there are more cars and cheaper rides. The vans even had Five Friendlies seat covers, with their names in Cyrillic (the script used in Tajikistan)!

Another example of cheap Chinese products improving the world–solar energy. Living in remote locations in the high Pamirs, the Kyrgyz in Tajikistan have no access to any other electricity and no doubt the ability to have music during the day and reading light at night is a welcome luxury in their lives of privation. We were told that they used smoky oil lamps before the solar power came along.

Yurt solar power

We were able to trace the solar panels to the place where they were likely once purchased–Kashgar’s Sunday Market.

To many Americans, the availability of cheap Chinese goods might mean DVD players in the kids’ rooms or a nicer iPod; to Tajikistan, Chinese manufacturing efficiency has brought transportation, music and light.

Unfortunately, the Chinese are exporting ill habits as well. We were told by a Hunza man that the Chinese have proposed to expand the Karakoram Highway to four lanes, with parallel rail lines and gas pipelines. The cultural and natural setting of Northern Pakistan is a fragile one, and no doubt such “progress” would be devastating. Such destruction and environmental degradation are being exported elsewhere as well, for example in Southeast Asia where the Chinese are buying up huge amounts of raw materials to feed their growing economy–in Laos Derek saw a new highway to speed up the transport of timber into Yunnan Province, and the forests of Indonesia are coming down at a startling rate.

As the Chinese economy grows, its impact on the world will become greater and greater, and the scale of the country is such–unimaginable to those who have not been there–that it will be felt in every corner on Earth. From people to products to ideas, we can only hope that the Chinese contribution will be a net positive one.

Ismailis and the Aga Khan

[Please also refer to my posts of 5.20 and 5.28 for an introduction to the history of Islam.]

The Tajik Pamirs and northern Pakistan share not only mountainous terrain and certain ethnic/cultural links but also religion: Ismaili Islam. The Ismailis are Shiite Muslims who believe that the true seventh Imam was a man named Ismail rather than his younger brother Musa, as the Twelver Shiites (such as those of Iran) believe. While during certain periods, such as the Cairo-based Fatimid Empire, Ismailis were a powerful force, today they form a small minority of Muslims, often scattered in remote mountainous terrain.

The historical distinction between Ismailis and other Shiites may seem minor, but, over time, this simple succession dispute has led to a universe of divergence, as Ismailis have become among the most progressive of the Islamic sects, in stark contrast to the Shiites of Iran. Indeed, the distinction between Ismailis and other Muslims has grown so great that one (Sunni) Kyrgyz woman in Tajikistan told us that the Tajik Pamiris were not even Muslim. Of course, despite the strong lingering of pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions the Ismaili Pamiris are in fact Muslim, as are the Ismaili Hunzas of northern Pakistan, but it is true that the Ismaili worldview of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is clearly a world apart from some other sects of Islam, and, to this outsider, far more appealing.

This difference is perhaps no more apparent than in Pakistan. In the fabled lands of Hunza in northern Pakistan, the population is largely Ismaili, having converted in the 1830s, while the rest of the country is largely Sunni and, to a lesser extent, Twelver Shia. In Hunza areas, it is common to see local women out and about living their lives, and to interact with them on a socially equal basis, as in the West. Just a couple hours south, it is essentially impossible to even see a woman in public, because they live in seclusion, public life being the exclusive domain of men. The Hunza Valley is exceptionally safe, a haven of calm befitting the beautiful landscape; a couple hours south, sectarian violence necessitates battlefield levels of policing by armed soldiers. In the Tajik Pamirs, whenever a local person spoke of religion, he or she stressed the unity of humanity and faith, in sharp contrast to some religious who see people of other faiths as fundamentally misguided and dangerous.

Flag of the Ismailis, Hunza Valley, Pakistan

All of this is thanks, I believe, largely to the stewardship of the living Imam of the Ismaili faith, the Aga Khan. That’s right–while Twelver Shiites believe that the twelfth Imam was the last, the Ismailis believe in a line of succession that has survived to this day from Mohammed to Karim al-Hussainy, the forty-ninth Imam and the current leader of the Ismaili faith, generally referred to by his hereditary title, Aga Khan IV.

I do not know too much about the history of the Ismaili Imams, but as of the nineteenth century the Imam of the Ismaili faith already had some prominence in Iran, acting as a governor of some localities. The forty-sixth Imam was granted the title of “Aga Khan” (an Iranian-Turkic royal title) by the Shah of Iran. The family later moved to British India, where the 48th Imam, also known as Aga Khan III, played a significant role in the establishment of the Muslim League and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Aga Khan III also served as the President of the League of Nations, the pre-United Nations body that existed between the two world wars. His son acted as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

Karim al-Hussayni (Aga Khan IV) was born in Switzerland in 1936, grew up in part in Kenya and attended Harvard, where he studied–get this–Islamic history. When it was time for his grandfather Aga Khan III, in accordance with Ismaili custom, to choose a successor from the family, he chose his grandson Karim rather than Karim’s father to be the 49th Imam because he believed that it was good for the Ismaili faith to have a younger Imam who had grown up in the atomic age. The Aga Khan currently lives in France carrying on his family’s distinguished history of public service with the work of the Aga Khan Foundation, one of the largest privately run development organizations in the world. I’ll discuss the Aga Khan Foundation a bit later, but first I wanted to convey a sense of the Aga Khan’s spiritual leadership of the Ismaili faith–the following excerpts from the website of the Aga Khan Development Network put it succinctly.

The Aga Khan has emphasised the view of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith: one that teaches compassion and tolerance and that upholds the dignity of man, Allah’s noblest creation. In the Shia tradition of Islam, it is the mandate of the Imam of the time to safeguard the individual’s right to personal intellectual search and to give practical expression to the ethical vision of society that the Islamic message inspires. . . . [The] wisdom of Allah’s final Prophet in seeking new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, provides the inspiration for Muslims to conceive a truly modern and dynamic society, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam.

The key to the dignified life that Islam espouses is an enlightened mind symbolised in the Quran’s metaphor of creation, including one’s self, as an object of rational quest. “My Lord! Increase me in knowledge,” is a cherished prayer that the Quran urges upon all believers, men and women alike. . . . This spark of divinity, which bestows individuality and true nobility on the human soul, also bonds individuals in a common humanity. Humankind, says the Quran, has been created from a single soul, as male and female, communities and nations, so that people may know one another. It invites people of all faiths, men and women, to strive for goodness.

The message is one that I find exceptionally sympathetic. The Aga Khan stresses compassion and tolerance, the opposite of the sectarian and other chauvinism and violence seemingly promoted by some Islamic sects. He stresses individual rights and freedom of conscience. He believes in the intellect and “new solutions” rather than stale dogma, which can cause many religions to turn cruelly reactionary and conservative. He recognizes that the religious message, the gift of the prophets, is meant to “inspire” and cannot necessarily by itself solve the world’s problems, and that the most important thing is to retain “fundamental concepts” and “goodness.” The worldview is overwhelmingly universalist, a belief in the brotherhood of man and not just Shiites or Muslims.

The Aga Khan’s religious message also goes to compassion for the weak, a message common to many religions but often paid only lip service.

At the heart of Islam’s social vision is the ethic of care of the weak and restraint in their sway by the rich and powerful. The pious are the socially conscious who recognise in their wealth, whether personal talent or material resources, an element of trust for the indigent and deprived.

Traveling in Ismaili areas has given me a great deal of respect for the Aga Khan precisely for his commitment to improving life of the poor. He recognizes that his flock, the Ismailis, live in remote circumstances at the edge of the Muslim/civilized world, and literally helps build bridges to connect them to each other and to the outside world. The Aga Khan works through partnerships with, and funding from, all sorts of other entities including multilateral organizations and governments, adding to the available pool of resources from the Aga Khan personally and private contributions (including those of wealthier Ismailis). The Aga Khan is sadly uncommon in being a world spiritual leader who also looks after his followers’ material well-being.

While areas of geographical focus are chosen based on the presence of local Ismaili populations, the Aga Khan Foundation provides all services on a non-discriminatory basis without regard for religious affiliation, ethnicity or gender. The mission of the Aga Khan is far broader.

[The] combined mandate [of the Aga Khan Development Network, or AKDN,] is to improve living conditions and opportunities, and to help relieve society of the burdens of ignorance, disease, and deprivation. . . . The impulses that underpin the Network are the Muslim ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and the duty, guided by the ethics of the Islam, to contribute to improving the quality of all human life. The pivotal notion in the ethical ideal of Islam is human dignity, and thus, the duty to respect and support God’s greatest creation, Man himself.

Not only is the Aga Khan’s (and his grandfather-predecessor’s) mission impressive, but the organizations have shown incredible results. For example, the Hunzas benefit from significantly higher levels of social development (such as health and education levels) than the rest of Pakistan. Everywhere you see Aga Khan projects–schools, clinics, dams and canals, restorations of historical sites, etc. To hear locals speak of the Aga Khan is moving. Doesn’t it seem unlikely that an eighth century schism could have such real world consequences in the twenty-first, and make Ismaili areas of Pakistan such havens of peace and prosperity while other parts of the country burn with religious strife? The Hunzas converted only in the 1830s–had they not, how different may life in northern Pakistan be today, without the leadership and development assistance of the Aga Khan?

The Aga Khan is, in one word, inspiring. What would it be like to be born and educated in Europe, to attend Harvard, and be a living Imam? A man of the twentieth century, and with the political burdens of public service, but also a descendent of Mohammed and a spiritual leader? I do not know as much as I would like to about the man, but could he have made any better use of his position?

The Stans: A Comparison

We’ve now visited, though some fairly briefly, four of the five “Stans,” the Central Asian republics that were once part of the Soviet Union, and I thought that it was worth doing a comparison, similar to my post of 5.7 on the states of the Persian Gulf.

Religion. All of the Stans are essentially entirely Islamic, but each having lived within the Soviet Union means that relatively few seem to take the religion and its proscriptions too seriously. Although we saw little pork being eaten (other than by resident Russians, Koreans and other “non-native” ethnic groups), alcohol flows freely, including especially vodka and beer. The most religiously conservative country is probably Uzbekistan, whose Fergana Valley is likely the most traditional region in the Stans, while as an ethnic group the Kyrgyz, often living in the wilderness, feel the least Islamicized. The only non-Sunni area, I believe, is the (Shiite) Ismaili Pamirs (post on Ismailis to come).

Crumbling infrastructure. The Stans were largely undeveloped in terms of modern infrastructure before the arrival of the Russians, and the departure of the Russians, who provided substantial financial support and investment in the region, has meant that the Stans have suffered greatly in maintenance of public works. Other than Turkmenistan and perhaps Kazakhstan, the Stans simply cannot afford to maintain themselves at the level of development and wealth that they enjoyed as part of the Soviet Union. This is most apparent in remote and rugged Tajikistan, which was the poorest republic of the Soviet Union. Because of the serious drop in living standards suffered at the time of independence, which was multiplied by a bloody civil war, many Tajiks, we were told, are nostalgic for the Soviet era. Western development assistance has played a role in supporting Tajikistan, but it has not been sufficient, as the electricity/fuel shortages of the previous winter showed. We found ourselves wondering whether the Tajik city of Murgab in the high Pamirs is even sustainable, now that it has lost its mission as a Russian military outpost–the setting is in so many ways inhospitable to human habitation, especially at such urban levels.

Police/Military presence. I found myself feeling sorry for Central Asians because of the omnipresence of the police and military. There is nothing about the region in particular that would suggest heavy-handed, corrupt, autocratic regimes–I think all the machinery was just inherited from the Soviet Union. We personally witnessed bribes in all the Stans that we visited except Turkmenistan (not that Turkmenistan is so clean–we later heard of tourists who had been ripped off by Turkmen customs officials). Of the Stans, Tajikistan felt the most like a police state, with numerous police checkpoints and a security force still referred to as the KGB. On the other hand, Tajik officials generally seemed quite polite and friendly, whereas the Uzbek government is infamous for human rights violations and corruption. Turkmenistan has the worst reputation as a police state, but during our short stay it really didn’t seem that bad to us–people seemed like they were quite freely going about their lives, even if under a paternalistic government and an 11 p.m. curfew. Kyrgyzstan is arguably the most “free” of the Stans we visited (hotels didn’t even ask for passports and registration of foreigners has been abolished), but this didn’t mean that the officials were any friendlier or less corrupt.

Food. The cuisine is essentially the same across the region, with the same dishes, both native and imported, found in each country. We did think that food in Kyrgyzstan was marginally better than in the other Stans that we visited. See post of 7.5.

Language. All of the major Central Asian ethnic groups are Turkic and speak Turkic languages, with the exception of Tajikistan, which speaks an Iranian language. Although Kazakh, Turkmen, Uzbek and Kyrgyz are distinct languages, it seemed to us that very many Central Asians professed to speak more than one–and so I believe that the languages are probably more similar to each other than, say, the Romance languages of Spanish, French and Italian. While Tajik is very similar to Farsi and not at all related to Turkic languages at a linguistic level, I thought that the inflection with which Tajiks speak sounded surprisingly Turkic–but this could have been in my mind. [Speaking of connections between Turkic and non-Turkic languages, it recently occurred to me that questions end with a “mi” in Turkish and a “ma” in Chinese, and that “water” is “su” in Turkish and “sui” in Chinese–if this is not a coincidence and there is a reason for this, please let me know!]

Wealth. I do not know how things were within the Soviet Union, but the Stans are diverging in terms of wealth. We did not visit Kazakhstan, but we were told by numerous travelers that things are seriously expensive there. It is unclear how wisely the gas revenues of Turkmenistan have been spent, but the extraordinarily cheap fares for the squeaky new sleeper train in Turkmenistan showed that the Turkmen are clearly benefiting in at least some ways from their country’s newfound money. Tajikistan was the poorest republic of the Soviet Union and remains poor–it is hard to see how the country could catch up given its serious disadvantages in location and terrain. Traveling from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan, or from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan, it is startlingly apparent how relatively modern and developed Tajikistan’s neighbors are. As one Kyrgyz woman living in the Tajik Pamirs put it, “life is hard” in Tajikistan, with scarce electricity and such basic pleasures as fruit.

Level of Russification. Ethnically, the Russians are most present in Kazakhstan, where they make up about a quarter of the population, and, while we have been to neither Kazkhstan nor Russia, it is likely Kazkhstan that is the most Russified in other respects as well. Among the Stans that we visited, however, Kyrgyzstan felt the most Russian, with the most Russian language in use, alcohol consumption at its highest, surly (or lack of) customer service and a general lack of apparent happiness in the urban population. Uzbekistan feels the least Russian, there having been something of a conscious campaign to make the country more Uzbek, including by abolishing the Cyrillic script that was used for the Uzbek language in Soviet times in favor of the Latin alphabet.

Ethnicity in Central Asia

Central Asia is a mishmash of ethnic and cultural groups–Turkmen, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik and others–and suffers from the same problem that many other parts of the previously colonized world suffer–poorly drawn boundaries. It likely wasn’t possible to draw the borders of Central Asia such that ethnic groups are entirely contained within one state–nor is it, I suppose, necessary to do so–but the Soviet Union deliberately delineated the various Central Asian republics as to divide and keep subdued. The boundaries are not only peculiar and irregular but also at times seemingly illogical and nonsensical, with disregard for not only natural features but the ethnic makeup of various regions.

At a purely geographical or cosmetic level, the epicenter of the odd boundaries is the largely Uzbek-ethnic Fergana Valley, which was carved up by the Russians among three countries, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrygzstan, in part due to the region’s reputation as a historical center of rebellion (apparently deserved–think 2005 Andijon massacre). Take a look at a map–the borders are comical. As if the general outlines were not strange enough, there are several enclaves/exclaves in the Fergana Valley resulting in little “islands” of Uzbekistan in Kyrgyzstan, and of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Uzbekistan. Not having visited any of these exclaves, we are not quite sure how formalized the boundaries are, but given that the Central Asian states as a general rule do not have great relations with each other, we imagine that there are at least passport checks at each, clearly a great impediment not only to commerce but problematic for any who live in an exclave or have reason to visit one. On the other hand, from what I hear, the large number of Fergana Valley Uzbeks who ended up in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have not suffered greatly from their minority status, as both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have to some extent protected their cultural/linguistic identity.

In terms of history and present-day difficulties, I think that the Tajiks have the greatest complaint. Perhaps the two greatest cultural treasures of Central Asia and the Silk Road as a whole are the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, which have been important centers of Tajik/Iranian culture, from Sogdian and Achaemenid through Samanid times (see my posts of 6.12 and 6.19). Even though in later periods most of Central Asia was overwhelmed by Turkic peoples, and became part of Turkic states, the centers of Bukhara and Samarkand themselves remained culturally Tajik cities populated by Tajiks. Nevertheless, they are now squarely within Uzbekistan. Given that Samarkand and Bukhara are probably the second and third largest cities in Uzbekistan, this means that a substantial portion of Uzbekistan as a whole is Tajik–I have heard estimates of up to 50%. Perhaps because they are so numerous as to be threatening to national identity, the Tajik minority in Uzbekistan seems to suffer the greatest mistreatment by the government of any Central Asian minority group. The Uzbek government, not known for being the most democratic or, shall we say, human rights-oriented regimes of Central Asia, deliberately suppresses Tajik language and cultural identity. We were repeatedly told, for example, that many ethnic Tajiks are identified as ethnic Uzbeks in their papers, artificially inflating the official count of the ethnic Uzbek population. Tajiks from Tajikistan complained that it is very difficult to obtain visas to visit Uzbekistan–the Uzbek government prefers to minimize contact between the ethnic Tajiks in Uzbekistan and Tajiks outside Uzbekistan.

The many pockets of minority-majority regions affect travelers’ experiences as well. One of the most colorful pockets of Uzbek culture that we encountered was not in Uzbekistan but in the Uzbek village of Arslanbob in western Tajikistan and the best Uzbek market in Central Asia is in Osh in Kyrgyzstan. By far our most memorable and culturally dense Kyrgyz experience will have been in the eastern Pamirs in Tajikistan, and not in Kyrgyzstan. And, as I mention above, the great centers of ancient Tajik culture are located not in Tajikistan but in Uzbekistan. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it didn’t matter so much that the boundaries were so odd–the republics were all part of the greater whole anyway. Thankfully, while the republics have been forced to rebuild/reroute railroads, roads and other infrastructure that zig-zagged across national boundaries, the poorly drawn borders have not led to any full-blown wars since the independence of the Central Asian republics.

Food of Central Asia

Central Asia is, simply put, not a culinary destination. While there are some regional dishes of note, which when well-prepared are tasty, none would rank among the world’s most delicious, and restaurants offering a truly high standard of skill and quality are quite rare. Sheep fat is the predominant recurring theme. So often do we find ourselves longing for the edible delights of China, or Thailand, or almost anywhere else in the world… sigh.

First, some classic dishes served all across Central Asia. (Given the common Turkic background of most of the Central Asian ethnicities, and with surprisingly little variation in Tajik areas, the cuisine is fairly similar throughout the region.)

The food most dear to a Central Asian’s heart, I think, would be shashlyk, or meat on a skewer. Now, it may almost be a stretch to call this a “dish,” but it is definitely one of the most common foods eaten out (as in Iran and Turkey, I suppose, although the Central Asian variety is decidedly inferior). Shashlyk is usually chunks of lamb meat, and not the ground sort that is called kofte in Turkey and kubideh in Iran, sometimes alternating meat/fat/meat/fat. The fat is especially prized by Central Asians, although we usually just spit it out after taking a nibble for flavor–in fact, we often do the same with the bits of meat because it can be impossible to separate it from the fat.

With roasted vegetables (not too common)

A common site–a man fanning a shashlyk fire

Plov, the national dish of Uzbekistan (derived from Iranian polo, I suppose), is available in other parts of Central Asia as well. The plov pictured here, from Bukhara, was surprisingly good–often, plov is way too greasy (on the upside, no chapped lips!).

In pan, a mountain of plov next to a pool of fat

Served up, topped with sweet stewed carrots, reconstituted raisins and meat

Dumplings exist across the entire stretch of Asia from Korea to Turkey, and are even called by the same name (mandoo in Korea, manti in Turkey as well as in Central Asia, both derived I believe from the Chinese mantou). Central Asian manti is generally filled with bits of lamb, lamb fat and onions. This picture probably makes them look more appetizing than they are (not only chapped lips, but glossy cheeks!).

The younger brother of the manti, chuchvara, which are really quite similar to Chinese wantons. Chuchvara are similar to (Russian) dumplings called pelmeni, which are sometimes served in soup.

Just as manti exist horizontally across Asia, samosas exist vertically from the Indian subcontinent into Central Asia. One of the most common snacks, somsas can be triangular or square. Here, some huge ones sold at a bus station.

In the oven (called a tamdyr, similar to the Indian tandoor)

My favorite Central Asian food, although one that really varies in quality. Generally, laghman (from the Chinese lamian, I believe) is better the closer to China you are. In an Uzbekistan homestay I once had it made with instant noodles, another time with spaghetti–a travesty, really. In Kyrgyzstan it was often delicious. [Addendum: Laghman as served in Xinjiang China has become one of my favorite foods in the world.]

One is often served basic soup, or shorpa (similar to Indian shorba). This soup has some stuffed vegetables, or dolma (just as in the Mediterranean)

A simple but tasty stew that we were served at a guesthouse. We think that this (in contrast to shashlyk) is close to what Central Asians eat on a day-to-day basis at home.

Everything of course is served with bread. Big and beautiful, bread (generally called nan, as in India) is central not only to the meal but to the hearts and cultures of all of the Central Asian nations. The patterns are made with special stamps.

On display in Bukhara

Most famous (although in my opinion not most delicious), the nan of Samarkand

Just as important as bread is the local beverage of choice, tea. Tea in Central Asia is surprisingly high quality, and you often have the choice of black or green, although green is more common. You are usually served tea with a plate of snacks and copious amounts of bread.

Moving on to country-specific specialties:

Shirchai, tea with salt and yak butter eaten with chunks of bread torn in, was described to us as the “national food” of the Pamiris. We believe that this is similar to other salty buttery tea drinks served in high altitude areas such as Northern Pakistan and Tibet.

Breakfast in the Pamirs or in Kyrgyzstan was usually a rice porridge, sometimes served with an odd sauce that looked like vegetable oil. It tastes like it looks, although Derek liked it with butter and sugar added in.

The Kyrgyz, living as they do among milk-producing animals, always have on hand all sorts of dairy products, some of which are better than others. Some butter and cream served with bread.

What to do with all the dairy? Some of it is dried into little cheese/yogurt balls sold throughout Central Asia. People often snack on these, and like to hand one to visitors, which puts one in an uncomfortable situation because the balls are often quite difficult to eat–hard as a rock, chalky and extremely strong-tasting. But good with beer, we are told!

Another Kyrgyz specialty, the “national dish” if you will, is beshbarmak, which is noodles with lamb. The concoction tastes more or less like sheep fat, a flavor we have become quite accustomed to at this point. The second is beshbarmak Kazakh-style, which is apparently made with much wider noodles and soupy.

In addition to more purely local food, Russian and even Korean food is often available in Central Asia. The Korean food is generally served by ethnic Koreans, who were forcibly relocated by Stalin from the Russian Far East (near Vladivostok near Korea) to Central Asia because he was afraid of their possible allegiance to Japan (which seems like a rather quacky idea to me).

What I believe would be described as goulash, with various salads, served in Osh

Food served in a Korean restaurant in Uzbekistan. As you can see, it’s not what a Korean from Korea would consider Korean food (it was served with bread!), but it was tasty nonetheless.

Perhaps more recognizably Korean is kykcy (from Korean guksu), which is a sort of Russified/Central Asianized naengmyun.

Finally, can’t forget the fruit! Central Asia has a wealth of fruit, especially melons and apricots/peaches/plums. Much of this is available in dried form, along with a variety of seeds and nuts well in excess of what you can find in most other parts of the world.



Watermelon for sale

Dried fruit and nuts