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.

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.

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.

Cherries

Apricots

Watermelon for sale

Dried fruit and nuts

Cars of Central Asia

One area in which the Soviet era has left a very visible mark on Central Asia is its cars. There are many vehicles in Central Asia that are not often seen in the West, and I thought it would be fun to do this post. As I do not know much about cars, not much commentary.

A Lada Classic

A Lada Niva, the most basic 4WD transportation

Russian UAZ Minibus, a durable 4WD and used all over Tajikistan as public transit

Russian UAZ Jeep. We were amazed by the maneuverability of this car over impossibly rough terrain.

Russian Moskovitch

A few newer (non-Russian) cars, revealing recent trends in each of the Stans that we visited.

This Russian-Turkmen team in Turkmenistan was driving a new Nissan SUV from the Turkmen-Iranian to the Turkmen-Uzbek border, one step in a car import route from Dubai to Kazakhstan. All the newfound wealth in Kazakhstan (as well as Turkmenistan) must mean many new automobile imports–the trouble of going through the additional borders on this route must preferred to the additional land distance of the routes through Russia or China.

Almost all cars in Uzbekistan are Korean, the result of a partnership called Uz-Daewoo that I believe operates a factory in Uzbekistan. The small cars are all Ticos, the sedans all Nexias and the minibuses all Damases. [Korean interests have established quite an outpost in Uzbekistan–post on Korea’s footprint in Central Asia likely to come.]

While Korean economic and cultural imports into Central Asia are significant, it is China that hopes to establish itself as a dominant power in the region, along with Russia and the U.S. We’ve seen dealerships for Chinese automobiles in various countries but Tajikistan is the first country other than China in which we’ve seen a significant volume of Chinese cars on the road. Driving on the main roads of Tajikistan, one often sees huge convoys of Chinese minibuses, sometimes filled with other Chinese goods. These cars, which we were told cost as little as USD4000 in China, are driven over the Qolma Pass and the Pamir Highway into Tajikistan. We were told that the influx of these vehicles is having a very positive effect on the availability of shared transportation in the country, with people able to establish minibus businesses for themselves with relatively little capital investment. [post on Chinese exports to come]

For some reason, Kyrgyzstan has one of the highest concentrations of German cars in the world. The most common are Audis (almost every other or third car is an Audi, it seems), but there is a fair number of Benzes as well, especially considering the relative poverty of the country. It is not uncommon to see imported used cars from car-producing countries, which often incentivize people at home into changing cars frequently, but in Asia we have been more accustomed to seeing used Japanese and Korean cars. If someone knows the historical or economic reason for these German cars in Kyrgyzstan, please let me know!

What Things Cost in Central Asia

All in U.S. dollar equivalents, to facilitate comparisons. Central Asia will never be on a list of good value travel destinations.

Visas and Permits (for U.S. Citizens)

Transit visa, Turkmenistan – $31
Tourist visa, Uzbekistan – $131
Tourist visa, Tajikistan – $80
GBAO permit, Tajikistan – $50
Tourist visa, Kyrgyzstan – $100 ($150 on a rush basis)

Lodging for Two

Rundown Soviet hotel, at extortionate official foreigner rates, Turkmenistan – $40 (compared to local rate of a few dollars)
Upscale bed & breakfast, Uzbekistan – $50
Yurtstay, not including meals, Tajikistan – $8-16
Homestay, not including meals, Tajikistan – $10-12
Rundown Soviet hotel, Kyrgyzstan – $15-25
Home- or yurtstay, including breakfast, Kyrgyzstan – $20-25

Food

Basic meal in restaurant, Uzbekistan – $2
Huge bucket of apricots on the road, Tajikistan – $1
Basic meal in restaurant, Tajikistan – $1-2
Basic meal in restaurant, Kyrgyzstan – $1
Meal at home- or yurstay, Kyrgyzstan – $3-4
Liter of fermented mare’s milk (kymyz), Kyrgyzstan – $0.25
Liter of cow’s milk, Kyrgyzstan – $0.15
Bread, anywhere – $0.25-0.50

Transportation

Overnight sleeper train (pretty nice!), Turkmenistan – $4
One hour flight, Uzbekistan – $70
Five hour share taxi, per seat, Uzbekistan – $20
Four hour train, Uzbekistan – $5
Seven hour share taxi, per seat, Tajikistan – $35
Car hire, Tajikistan – $0.45-0.65 / km
Car hire, Kyrgyzstan – $0.30 / km
Fuel, anywhere – $1 per liter

Others

Ticket for going 120 km/h in a 60 km/h zone, Uzbekistan – $7
Bribe to police to avoid getting ticket for going 120 km/h in a 60 km/h zone, Uzbekistan – $3.50
Bribe to Kyrgyz border officials simply for crossing the border – 1.5 liters fuel, siphoned from our jeep
Yak, Tajikistan – $225
New Chinese minibus – $4000 in China, $6000 in Dushanbe