UZBEKISTAN: Central Asia by Adeeb Khalid

Central Asia as a whole, not just Uzbekistan, is a huge blind spot for me in terms of history and politics, so I wanted a good look at the whole region – especially since it’s all so intertwined. Adeeb Khalid is a Pakistani-born academic and expert on the region, and Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present is intended to give a comprehensive understanding. It’s quite the tome, at 500 pages hardcover, and is extremely up to date – it was just published earlier this year.

Khalid looks at the territory that would become the five “Stan” countries, as well as Xinjiang, starting in the mid-18th century and leading up to the present day. He looks at how the region was split between Russian and Chinese influence, the internal power struggles and the colonial nature of Tsarist and Qing rule, replaced eventually by new governments in Moscow and Beijing. The bulk of the book focuses on the Soviet era in the “Stans” – how the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was seen from Central Asia, how it affected local ideas of governance, nation, religion, and culture, followed by the damage to all these ideas by Stalin’s purges and the reforging of Soviet life during and after WWII.

Khalid delves deep into how national identity was established – the idea of Uzbekistan with a majority Uzbek population and power structure but incorporated into the USSR was very different from older ideas of empire and governance. The book touches on the comparative flourishing of economy and identity (including as Soviet citizens) in the Brezhnev era, then the collapse of the Soviet Union (which was not wholly welcomed in places like Uzbekistan), and the recent post-Soviet history of the five countries.

Khalid also intersperses the Soviet story with what was happening in parallel in Xinjiang – how Chinese control was only nominal until the Communist Revolution and how Xinjiang has been dealt a very different fate as part of the PRC. Instead of a level of autonomy and identity as a nation under a larger whole, as in the USSR, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang became a small ethnic minority in a united China, wholly governed by and part of the Han-majority nation, and subject to Sinicization (as well as the human rights abuses we see today).

I’d definitely recommend Central Asia as a great primer for the region – it’s helped me understand the larger scope and scale of the history of the region, and Khalid makes a point to show how the “Stans” are not a homogeneous whole. I’ve also learned the weight that Uzbekistan carries throughout the region – the large population, the value of its economy, but most importantly, the intellectual, religious, and political movements that have come out of cities like Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent.

UZBEKISTAN: Qurt and shur-donak

I ordered in two very distinctive snacks from Privet Store on Ebay, a Russian-based supplier who sells snacks from Uzbekistan, as well as other former Soviet countries. Very fast shipping, and given the contents, I’m actually surprised it wasn’t held up by Canadian customs.

Qurt (also known as Kashk) is a salted and fermented cheese that’s rolled into balls and dried. It has a super long shelf life – it can be stored for years. It has a long history as a portable food for nomadic people, warriors, and travellers across Central Asia.

The cheese balls are pungent, like limburger cheese or stinky tofu. The texture is like chalk, it’s salty with blue cheese notes and a kind of barnyard flavour – the taste grows on you. If you like strong cheese, this is for you. Qurt can be eaten straight or it can be crumbled into dishes for texture and flavour. (I wonder how adding a bit to mac and cheese would go?)

Qurt (left) and shur-donak

Shur-donak is probably the wildest thing I’ve tried so far with this site. It’s apricot kernels, salted and roasted in ashes. That all sounds pretty nice, except that apricot kernels have a chemical that converts to cyanide when eaten. Yes. Cyanide.

Now, your body can process a small amount of cyanide, so eating one or two apricot kernels will not kill you, but the general suggested adult daily limit for apricot kernels is very low – both the EU and Health Canada don’t recommend eating more than 3. Around 50 kernels is has reportedly caused fatalities, with serious effects from fewer than that, and there is no safe amount for children. Perversely, the cyanide compound in apricot kernels has been marketed as “Vitamin B17” at health food stores, though here in Canada, that marketing is illegal and there are limits to concentrations for apricot kernels sold in stores here.

That being said, shur-donak has been eaten for centuries in Uzbekistan without people keeling over in the streets – so I’m going to have just one kernel. If I stop posting, you’ll know what happened.

The outer hull is a bit hard to crack, but the inside kernel is nicely salty, with the texture of an almond and a smokey roasted flavour. The white coating of ash gets everywhere. It was actually really delicious – I wonder if there’s a way to replicate this snack without the risk of, you know, cyanide poisoning.

Addendum: I’m still alive, and further research, including asking r/uzbekistan, seems to imply shur-donak is largely eaten with impunity – or at least in moderation. There are mentions that soaking then cooking can lower the danger in apricot kernels (shur-donak is soaked in brine then roasted), and that some varieties of apricot are naturally low in the cyanide compounds, but I’m going to go slow on these just in case.

UZBEKISTAN: Planting trees in the Aral Sea

When I was a kid in the 90s, I was fascinated by maps showing the decline of the Aral Sea (which still existed back then) – it still stuns me how quickly a whole lake can just vanish over a lifetime. The above video goes into good detail about the history and the present of the sea. It also touches on how Kazakhstan has been able to stabilize and partially regrow what’s left of the north part of the sea, but the half in Uzbekistan has largely been left to dry up completely.

Source: Britannica

The dust storms caused by this drying up have been described as “cataclysmic“, especially in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region covering the far west of Uzbekistan. Unsurprisingly, increased drought from climate change isn’t making anything better. However, Uzbekistan is caught in a bind – it is still the major cotton producing region that it was in Soviet times (it’s the 5th biggest exporter in the world), and while you make improvements to water consumption, there’s no easy way to reverse this completely without dismantling one of the country’s most important industries.

Uzbekistan has essentially given up on rebuilding the Sea, and instead is looking at ways to stop the toxic dust. The government, with UN and World Bank backing, is planting saxaul trees – which are drought and salt resistant – to stabilize the soil on the lakebed. However, it is a slow process, and it won’t create an economy that can replace the lost fishing industry – but it is something.

UZBEKISTAN: Koryo Saram / Koreyscha sabzili salat

There are about 500,000 ethnic Koreans living in the countries of the former Soviet Union, with the largest community in Uzbekistan, as well as Kazakhstan and Russia. This community is called Koryo Saram, and it is different from the Sakhalin Korean community on the Russian east coast.

The Koryo Saram are the descendants of Koreans who had fled to Russia during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Most had initially settled the the Russian Far East, but in 1937, as tensions worsened between the USSR and Japan with the start of the Sino-Japanese War, Stalin ordered ethnic Koreans to be forcibly relocated to Central Asia. The survivors (about 1/3 died in the deportation) settled in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and eventually built new lives.

Here’s a great interview with Victoria Kim, who grew up in Uzbekistan, on her studies into the Korean diaspora in Central Asia and her own family’s history – her grandfather survived the 1937 deportation as a little boy. She covers both the experience in Uzbekistan, and the further history of Koreans in the Soviet Union – including the Korean War.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Koryo Saram returned to Korea. Below is an interesting interview with a young man who is 4th generation Koryo Saram – he was born in Uzbekistan and Russian is his first language, but his family moved to South Korea when he was 14 and he’s caught in both a cultural and legal limbo. Koryo Saram who wish to return to Korea are only considered Korean to the 3rd generation, meaning his parents count as Korean, but legally he is a foreigner.

While many Koryo Saram don’t speak Korean and are largely integrated into Uzbek society, one of their very notable influences on Uzbekistan is the big culinary influence. Kimchi is immensely popular in Uzbekistan, and many Korean dishes are on the menu – often adapted to the ingredients and spices available in Central Asia.

I figured I’d make a Koryo Saram recipe – called koreyscha sabzili salat (Korean carrot salad) in Uzbek. It’s also called morkovcha (“morkov” is Russian for carrot and “cha” from a Korean suffix for salads). It’s eaten all through the former Soviet Union, but this recipe at Zen Kimchi comes from Uzbekistan.

This recipe uses some typically Korean ingredients – hot peppers, sesame seeds, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar – but the base of carrots and the leading place of coriander as the main seasoning makes it much more more Central Asian. Letting it sit overnight really brings the flavours together. It’s spicy and garlicky – it’s a nice side dish and a good way to dress carrots.

UZBEKISTAN: More podcasts / Googoosha

Amir Timur Museum, Tashkent – Source

CSIS: Of Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan – A recent podcast from an American think tank, looking at Mirziyoyev’s reforms since he came to power in 2016. They focus that while the reforms have not transformed the country overnight, they have been significant – especially economic and politically. They look at how Mirziyoyev’s reforms are being balanced with the need to keep the country and existing power structure stable, how these reforms are seen in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing, and how Uzbekistan fits in the current situation with neighbouring countries, especially Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Al Jazeera – Uzbekistan reforms: Activists demand more changes – A bit more colour on reforms in Uzbekistan, reporting by Al Jazeera on both the recent progress (foreign journalists were rarely allowed in before 2016) and on places where reform has stalled or has only been incremental – especially for dissidents. Recent elections have not had genuine opposition parties, and the pandemic has set back much economic growth – so it will be seen in future years if the reforms continue.

Deep Fried: Uzbek Kimchi – A Dubai-based food podcast that goes into the culinary connections between Uzbek and Korean cuisine. They go to local restaurants and compare the Korean and Uzbek versions of kimchi and kuksi (a summertime noodle soup served chilled), and also touch a bit on why there is so much Korean influence on Uzbek cuisine. There is a surprisingly large Korean population in Uzbekistan – many Koreans who fled the Japanese occupation into Russia were resettled by the government to Uzbekistan.

A rare snowy day in Tashkent – Source

BBC – Uzbekistan: Searching for Googoosha – A slightly breathless BBC investigation from 2014 about Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of then-President Islam Karimov. Karimova has been a fascinating figure – immensely powerful, she controlled huge assets and state companies during her father’s life, was very public on the international NGO scene, but also acquired great wealth through graft and was connected to violent repression of critics. She also had a career as a pop star in Uzbekistan, under the stage name Googoosha. Her star began to dim as international corruption investigations started circling, and as of 2014, she was falling from grace as part of an internal power struggle within her own family and others positioning themselves to succeed the ailing Karimov.

BBC – Unravelling an Uzbek Mystery – If you listen to the above podcast, you’ll want this as a part 2. This episode is from 2016, shortly after Karimov’s death and Mirziyoyev coming into power. Karimova made global headlines at that time – she had disappeared, and rumours circled that she had been killed. The BBC’s Uzbek journalists had made contact with her son, and got the scoop that she was alive, but being held under house arrest. It’s clear that she had lost the succession struggle and the new government needed her out of the public eye.

This was all only five years ago – so where is Gulnara Karimova now? In 2017, Uzbek courts convicted her of corruption, extortion, and money laundering – both due to genuine crimes but also likely as a convenient scapegoat for corruption in the Karimov era. She was sentenced to jail, commuted to house arrest, but in 2019 she was returned to jail – where is where she currently is.

Much was made over her pop career – I’m reasonably sure that this was the music video mentioned in the 2014 podcast.

UZBEKISTAN: Elparvar (2019)

At first blush, Elparvar (roughly “born from the ashes”) is a big historical action-drama. It’s set during the late Khwarazmian Empire, with the imminent invasion of the Mongols. It follows a young man from a family torn between settled urban life and the life of a warrior on horseback. His village is destroyed and his family killed or taken captive by a Mongol attack on the night of his wedding, leading him to seek revenge. It’s high production value, with some beautiful shots, and alternates being gory and gritty with cheesy moments. It’s really fun and at first glance doesn’t seem that deep – the plot may snake around a bit, but you know how it’s going to go.

But now that I’ve had a chance to learn about the reforms going on in Uzbekistan and ideas of Uzbek identity, there’s more to it. The movie works in a lot of the values that Uzbekistan is looking to see in itself today (I’d argue in the same way an MCU movie does with American values). It reflects a country often caught between greater powers, but with an independent underdog identity. There’s a lot of language about fighting for freedom and liberty. There’s also lot of talk of what is masculinity (especially between fighting, learning, and leading), and while they do rely on the damsel in distress trope, she is a defiant one.

With the recent return of religion to everyday life in Uzbekistan, and the government’s support of moderate Islam as a way to break with the anti-religious past and undermine present problems of extremism, it was interesting to see the subtle placements of the Quran on a stand as a visual shorthand that a character was learned and wise.

The whole movie is available on Youtube, with English subtitles.

UZBEKISTAN: Registan Square

Source: Odyssey Traveller

Registan Square in Samarkand is one of the most iconic locations in Uzbekistan – three huge madrassas, with exquisite ornamentation and tile work, form a large public square. The oldest one madrassa is from the 1400s, the two others from the 1600s, and were built at the time that Samarkand was the heart of the Timurid Empire, and the site of Islamic revival and learning in Central Asia – artisans and scholars came (or were brought) from all over the Empire.

Registan had fallen into disrepair by the start of the 20th century, but went under major restoration during the Soviet era. It’s now a huge tourist draw, and for good reason. Apart from being historically and culturally important, it is absolutely stunning – it’s considered a gems of medieval Islamic architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are many incredible pictures of Registan – I cam across a collection by photographer Jan Willem van Hofwegen that shows the incredible details inside. Here’s a sample of what the interiors look like – take a look at his full collection here.

There’s also great videos out there that give you a sense of the scale and detail of Registan:

Interestingly, the front of the Sher-Dor (“Lion-Bearing”) Madrasah is notable for showing living things, normally prohibited in Islamic art. Most notable are the lions (also called tigers) with a glowing sun-face inside them. The faces have been claimed to be the emir at the time of construction, but it’s likely that these were influenced by older Persian and Zoroastrian traditions.

There are also cool light shows held at Registan!