Though the nation of Uzbekistan is relatively new, gaining independence only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, their culture is one of the most ancient and refined in Central Asia. One particulary distinctive and well-developed aspect of Uzbek culture is their cuisine. Unlike their nomadic neighbors, the Uzbeks have had a settled civilization for centuries. Between the deserts and mountains, in the oasis and fertile valleys, they cultivated grain and domesticated livestock. The resulting abundance of produce allowed them to express their strong tradition of hospitality, which in turn enriched their cuisine.
The seasons, specifically winter and summer, greatly influence the composition of the basic menu. In the summer, fruits, vegetables, and nuts are ubiquitous. Fruits grow in abundance in Uzbekistan - grapes, melons, apricots, pears, apples, cherries, pomegranates, lemons, figs, dates. Vegetables are no less plentiful, including some lesser known species such as green radishes, yellow carrots, dozens of pumpkin and squash varieties, in addition to the usual eggplants, peppers, turnips, cucumbers and luscious tomatos.
Greetings from Samarkand, Uzbekistan. 1 week into my Central Asian journey. I'm getting by w/the tiny bit of Russian i studied before I left and whatever English and sign language I can share w/people.
Having a wonderful time, but what did you expect?
Started the trip in Turkmenistan. Ashgabat, the capital, is a spotless, sterile city full of grand, beautiful white marble buildings, spectacular water fountains, and monuments to president Turkmenbasy. The country has lots of natural gas (petrol is .02/liter) - that, combined w/a large gift from the Saudis, has spawned a building frenzy in the capital. You can eat off the streets they're so clean. And there's no smoking outside in public. I guess the president went on a health kick after he had heart surgery or some such thing. The odd part is the streets are fairly empty. Not many people around. There's not much life here, but it looks good.
My mission was to ride the Akhal-Teke horse, indigenous to Turkmenistan and known for its endurance. It's also one of the country's national symbols, found on the money and government seal. I rode a nice horse at a stable outside of Ashgabat, run by a true animal lover. The horses are thin and wiry, with smallish heads and large, wide-set eyes like an Arabian. Good for seeing long distances in the desert. We also visited the gorgeous new hippodrome, or race track, nicer than any track i've ever seen. Beautiful, clean barns with large stalls. It's spring time, so the broodmares had lots of foals in a large enclosure. I was able to play with the babies as well as commune with the beautiful race horses in the barn.
We spent a few hours in the ancient city of Merv viewing the ruins. It takes some imagination to picture the city it once was, occupied over the years by many civilizations.
After many checkpoints along the road, we crossed the border at Farab and walked across to Uzbekistan. (note for co-workers, Turkmen police at exit were using HP computers!)
We shared a taxi with some locals for the 2-hour drive to Bukhara, arriving tired and after dark. We found a lovely bed and breakfast run by Fatima, right in the old city. Lovely, clean rooms w/modern bathroom (the water was off in the city for a day, but they brought us bottles of warm water for washing). Breakfast was a feast of tea, yogurt, two types of bread, cheeses, salami, buckwheat, and jam. Delicious!
I paid a visit to an old synogogue. Bukhara has always had a community of Jews, though there are fewer than 1,000 left. They tend to be jewelers and merchants and are well-educated and fairly prosperous. I also visited a couple of the younger grade levels at the Jewish school, where the students stood up to greet me. I was touched to be honored in such a way.
We met a local woman who spoke decent English. She and her brother, a young doctor, took us around to the historic sites outside of the city yesterday. Mosques, the palace of the Emir from before the turn of the century, and a mausoleum. Afterward, we had a delicious lunch at their home, prepared by the brother: fried egg, potatoes, carrot and cabbage salad, tea (lots of delicious black tea everywhere), and vodka (Nadia, my travel mate, is sampling the alcohol, while i'm in charge of eating all the food).
Today we shared a taxi for a 3-hour ride to Samarkand, another Silk Road city. Many of the historic buildings are attributed to Tamerlane aka Timur the Great. These old Silk Road cities were great centers of learning, with libraries, medressas (schools), and even an observatory to see the stars.
I am enjoying myself immensely in the markets where there is no end to subjects for my passionate people photography.
We are staying at a small family-run B&B here - several rooms surrounding a central courtyard, right in the old city. The owner's wife is a fabulous cook and made a huge dinner - stuffed dumplings, onion & tomato salad, yogurt, bread, fruit, tea - way too much food, but it would be impolite not to eat what is offered!
Until next time, sheryl
Sheryl Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer based in Boulder, CO.