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Uzbek cuisine: anyone for plov?

Uzbek cuisine: anyone for plov?

Plov is more appetising than it sounds; a Central Asian version of fried rice, it is Uzbekistan’s national dish. There’s a whole lot more to Uzbek cuisine than just plov, but plov is so ubiquitous it could be a post all on its own.

Uzbek plov (Image: Utilisateur:Atilin, Wikimedia Commons)

“Plov” is in fact the Uzbek name for what is known as pulao in India and Pakistan, polo in Iran, and pilaf in Greece. Think rice, vegetables and meat (lamb, goat, chicken, beef or even horse) cooked in a deep dish, slathered in oil (sometimes vegetable oil, often salted butter). It’s a stodgy delight that has kept the Uzbek folk going through their harsh winters and scorching summers for centuries.

My plov recipe, coming soon!

Being less mountainous and more arid than neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, there’s less emphasis on berries and dairy products, and more on grains; bread is a seriously big deal in Uzbekistan. Bread is called “non” (a word related to the Indo-Pakistani “naan“), and it comes in a zillion varieties depending on thickness, ingredients, place of origin and intended meal time.

“Non” baking in a “tanur” (a wood fire oven) in Samarkand (Image: Ji-Elle, Wikimedia Commons)

Uzbek non (Image: Shuhrataxmedov, Wikimedia Commons)

Uzbeks use their bread to eat the various kebab varieties. “Kebab” in Uzbekistan doesn’t mean the slimy things which are served up by roadside trucks, but instead spit-roasted meat served with condiments like yogurt or sumac.

Kebab stall in Bukhara

There’s a lot of fruit in Uzbekistan too, with the emphasis on watermelons, oranges and grapes, reflecting the hotter, Mediterranean-like climate. Super-sweet, these are often served up as dessert along with green tea without milk or sugar. Grapes are sometimes made into wine; although 96% Muslim, alcohol is widely consumed.

Samarkand fruit market

Samarkand fruit market

A few weeks from now I’ll post my recipe for plov, so stay tuned!

If you’re interested in trying some more Central Asian dishes, check out my cookbook Recipes for Ramadan, featuring five recipes from Uzbekistan and nearby, plus 60 more from around the world!

What’s your favourite rice dish? Is it easy to make? Comment below!

Crossing into Turkmenistan at Farab

Crossing into Turkmenistan at Farab

Secrets "part of" logoFarab is the name of the small town near the Turkmenistan – Uzbekistan border, and gives its name to the border post on the road. Because the area is subject to such high security, I have only one picture of the border crossing itself (sourced from Wikimedia Commons), so I’ll try and paint a picture with words.

(Image: Google)

(Image: Google)

The visa

Turkmenistan is not an easy country to get a visa for; everyone requires a visa, and a visa is only issued if the visitor has booked a tour in the country. The only exception to this is a transit visa, which is issued for travellers who can prove they must travel through Turkmenistan by land (flight or hotel bookings in neighbouring countries, for example). Transit visas are often denied (“Why don’t you just fly?”) and if they’re issued are usually only for three or five days. Turkmenistan doesn’t have embassies in a lot of countries, including Australia, so you could either courier your passport to the embassy which deals with your country, or you could book the tour then pick up the visa at an embassy elsewhere (like I did, in Tashkent). I went through Advantour, and have nothing but positive things to say about them.

Turkmenistan neighbouring countries (Image: Google)

Turkmenistan neighbouring countries (Image: Google)

The border

Leaving Bukhara, it’s about 100 kilometres to the Uzbek border post – take a long-distance shared taxi for about 18,000 Uzbek Som (around US$5). The border opens and closes each day; standard hours are 8am – 6pm, but check locally as these have been known to change. Your taxi will drop you off near the passport office. This is a rather shabby building where you are required to present your passport. Be prepared to fight your way to the front of a crowd of truck drivers; unless the guards are patrolling the queue, it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Getting stamped out of Uzbekistan took me between one and two hours – I can’t remember exactly how long, but it was a long time standing out there in the Uzbek desert in the mid-morning sun.

This is just over the border in Turkmenistan, but typical of the scenery near the Farab border

This is just over the border in Turkmenistan, but typical of the scenery near the Farab border

Once you get stamped out of Uzbekistan, you can walk out of the complex and follow the highway towards the Turkmen border post, about two kilometres south. You might have the option of taking a taxi or a shared van this distance, but that really depends on if someone is heading your way – it’s no-man’s-land, after all. You’ll also see a lot of trucks queueing up to cross the Turkmen border – don’t bother getting a lift with them, unless the queue is moving – it’s often at a standstill. Hot though it may be, you might still be better to walk.

Farab border (Image: Google)

Farab border (Image: Google)

The road snakes to the left, then the right through the bleak, hot desert. You cross a small canal/river before approaching the Turkmenistan immigration building.

Turkmenistan border post (Image: Popo le Chien, Wikimedia Commons)

Turkmenistan border post (Image: Popo le Chien, Wikimedia Commons)

Once you arrive make yourself known to the passport officers. If you are on a tour, your guide will be informed as soon as you have arrived, and will walk through to meet you and smooth over the entry process. Your bags will be checked (immigration procedures and security are tight), you can change some money if you want, and then your tour of Turkmenistan will begin!

If you are on a transit visa you will be processed in due course and sent on your way towards Turkmenabat, the nearest big city in Turkmenistan. A shared taxi will cost about 30 Turkmen Manat – you can change some money at the border.

Have you ever been to Turkmenistan? Would you like to go? Comment below!

Spellbinding Bukhara on the silk road

Secrets "part of" logoBukhara, Uzbekistan

Bukhara is one of my favourite places in Central Asia. Many travellers prefer Samarkand with it’s arches and minarets, but my imagination was simply taken by Bukhara‘s winding lanes, backstreet communities and facades which glimmer like a mirage in the desert.

The Ark of Bukhara, an 1500-year old fortress in the centre of the city

The Ark of Bukhara, a 1500-year old fortress in the centre of the city

It wasn’t always this way. Bukhara is the holiest and the most historic city in Central Asia. It changed hands from empire to empire up to 1218, when the Muslims were in power. They are now remembered as the unfortunate men left holding the red cape when the angry bull was released. Mongolian military commander Jenghiz Khan (Genghis Khan as he is known is the west) sent out a diplomat to make a business deal with the Muslim ruler of Bukhara. The Bukharan leader, fearing a spy, made the unwise move of assassinating that diplomat. Within a year, the enraged Jenghiz Khan and his army had rampaged across Central Asia, ransacking what is now Kyrgyzstan and finally turned up at the gates of Bukhara. The terrified Bukharans fled to the city’s main mosque and started praying for salvation. Jenghiz Khan himself is said to have climbed to the pulpit and delivered a sermon; “I am God’s punishment for your sins.”

Streets of Bukhara

Streets of Bukhara

By the time Khan was finished with Bukhara the city was obliterated, the population decimated, and the few survivors devastated. Nearly 800 years later Bukhara bears little scars of it’s previous battles (due in part to the fact that most of the city had to be rebuilt after Khan’s arrival).

Bukhara's central square

Bukhara’s central square

Resembling something from a Spanish village, the town centre is a small piazza, set around a large square pond and framed by huge shady trees and classy traditional restaurants dining al fresco. It’s like something out of a storybook. My hotel, the charming Amelia Luxury Boutique Hotel was right nearby – perfect!

Bukhara's Lyabi Hauz precinct

Bukhara’s central Lyabi Hauz precinct

Waking on Thursday morning I started wandering around Bukhara‘s old rambling alleys and was soon ‘adopted’ by Fairouz, a young police recruit who had just finished his shift. He showed me around some of the sights, before leaving me at one of two synagogues in Bukhara‘s Jewish quarter.

 

Synagogue of Bukhara

Synagogue of Bukhara

Inside the Synagogue of Bukhara

Inside the Synagogue of Bukhara

Inside the Synagogue of Bukhara

Inside the Synagogue of Bukhara

The kind caretaker of the synagogue personally showed me around the building and explained the history of Bukhara‘s 250-strong Jewish community, and said he had never had any issues whatsoever with the town’s Muslim majority.

Kalon Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and the place where Genghis Khan delivered his terrifying sermon

Kalon Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and the place where Genghis Khan delivered his terrifying sermon

Kalon Mosque

Kalon Mosque

Kalon Mosque, Bukhara, viewed from the top of its minaret (yes, you can climb it!)

Mir-i-Arab Madrassa, Bukhara, viewed from the top of the Kalon Mosque’s minaret (yes, you can climb it!)

After spending the rest of the day getting lost in countless lanes and bazaars (I even visited the pulpit where Jenghiz Khan gave his speech), I happened across a jewelery seller who had a small, silver Islamic charm; the likes of which I have been searching for in every country I have travelled since 2005. He quoted me $10 for the coin – probably a rip-off, but I didn’t care; it was mine, whatever the price.

Modari-Khan Madrasa, Bukhara

Modari-Khan Madrasa, Bukhara

Hoja Zayniddin Mosque

Hoja Zayniddin Mosque

Back in the town centre I had dinner in one of the quaint piazza restaurants and reflected on a day that had left me spellbound. It’s not often that a city leaves you completely enchanted; hassled, amazed, thrilled and excited yes, but Bukhara left an indelible mark on my conscience, the feeling that fairytale cities do really exist.

Stay tuned – this Saturday you can take a walk through Bukhara with my beautiful photo gallery of this enthralling city.

Have you ever been left completely enchanted by a city? Which one? Comment below!

Do a day in Doha! How to spend a Qatar stopover

Doha, Qatar stopover

So you’ve booked that trip to Europe, Asia or Africa, and enroute you’re spending a day or two in a country you can hardly pronounce, let alone navigate.

(Image: Francisco Angola)

(Image: Francisco Angola)

“Qatar” rhymes with ‘cutter’, but first sound is more guttural and throaty (like “gh”). Its capital is Doha, and while the obvious comparison to make is with nearby Dubai, but you might be surprised with what you find. While Dubai is aiming for the title of the “Las Vegas of the Middle East”, Doha seems to be aiming more for Frankfurt or Hong Kong – less glitz and glamour, more corporate and commerce. The result is surprising; once known as “the dullest place in the Gulf” it’s now a metropolis to explore for a day or two.

(Image: Google)

(Image: Google)

Fast facts

Population: 2.5 million (of which 1.5 million live in Doha – about the same as Auckland or Barcelona)

Language: Arabic, but English and Urdu are widely spoken or understood

Religion: Islam, mostly of the austere Salafi Sunni variety, similar to that which is practiced in Saudi Arabia.

Climate: Warm dry winters, sweltering dry summers.

Cultural sensitivity: Alcohol is available, but only in hotels and bars frequented by foreigners – public drunkenness is taboo. No bikinis at beaches, swimsuits only, and no short-shorts or crop tops walking around the city centre either. No pork, porn, proselytising or PDA (public displays of affection).

Katana Mosque (Image: Minas Stratigos)

Katana Mosque (Image: Minas Stratigos)

What to do?

Doha Corniche (Image: Haakon S Krohn)

Doha Corniche (Image: Haakon S Krohn)

Take a walk along the Corniche: The Corniche is Doha’s pedestrianised waterfront, and if it’s not stiflingly hot then it makes a great place to walk along, take in the city skyline and lick an ice cream.

(Image: Mohammed Attar)

(Image: Mohammed Attar)

Be amazed by the Museum of Islamic Art: This museum is arguably one of the best places to learn about the history of the world’s second biggest religion (by number of adherents).

Souq Waqif (Image: Diego Delso delsophoto License CC-BY-SAJPG)

Souq Waqif (Image: Diego Delso delsophoto License CC-BY-SAJPG)

Go shopping in Souq Waqif and the Falconry Souq: Falconry is the national sport, and even if you’re not in the market for a falcon, this market is an interesting peek into the traditional Qatari pastime. Next door is Souq Waqif, a wonderfully restored marketplace selling silk, spice and all things exotic and nice.

Dhow (Image: Steven Byles)

Dhow (Image: Steven Byles)

Take a jaunt on a dhow: Qatar is nearly surrounded by water, so its not surprising that dhows (traditional boats) are a big deal. Organise through an agent, through your hotel, or via a local contact to go out on the calm Gulf waters for a sail at sunset.

Ok, so this bedouin tent is in Syria, but you get the idea! (Image: yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau)

Ok, so this bedouin tent is in Syria, but you get the idea! (Image: yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau)

Go on a desert safari: Get your adrenaline pumping by going dune-bashing on a 4WD tour, opt for an atmospheric dinner in a bedouin tent.

Al Jazeera's Arabic and English channels are based in Doha (Image: Paul Keller)

Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English channels are based in Doha (Image: Paul Keller)

Experience the Al Jazeera Media Cafe: Apart from oil, the Al Jazeera news channel might be Qatar’s most famous export. Tight security means that studio tours aren’t an option, so the channel have opened an interactive cafe where you can chow down on dessert while presenting your own mock news bulletin.

Makboos (Image: miansari66)

Makboos (Image: miansari66)

Eat makboos, drink kahwah and smoke sheesha: There are countless places to eat the national dish, a lightly-spiced lamb and rice affair. Kahwah is the local coffee, served strong, sugary, infused with cardamom but without milk. And if you’re into it, grab an apple-flavoured sheesha and while the hours away.

The Oasis at the Mall of Qatar (Image: Mall of Qatar)

The Oasis at the Mall of Qatar (Image: Mall of Qatar)

Shop till you drop: Shopping might have replaced falconry as the national sport; go to the Mall of Qatar, the Gulf Mall, the City Centre Mall and the uber-exclusive Alhazm Mall for all your top-end duty-free shopping.

Have you been to Qatar? What would you recommend? Comment below!

The fabled silk road city of Samarkand

Secrets "part of" logoThe fabled silk road city of Samarkand

Samarkand is home to Uzbekistan’s greatest architectural monument, the Registan, once the centre of power for one of history’s most bloodthirsty tyrants. The secrets of Central Asia, it seems, are dark and forbidding.

Before finding the Registan, however, I needed to find my hotel, the Mini Inn Shakhname. When the taxi driver and my fellow passengers couldn’t find a hotel I started frantically reading my guidebook in the moving car, and ended up finding the hotel just in time to empty my stomach in the gutter. Quickly recovering (thanks to the kind hotelier and her green tea), it was time to discover what culinary delights this city had in store. The hotel owner’s son, Rajab, drove me to a nearby beer garden where I found a delicious dinner.

Waking the next morning I went out to visit the Registan and the city’s other mosques and shrines. My first stop was the Gur Emir Shrine, an interesting mud-brick construction from the outside, but housing a glittering, bejewelled ceiling on the inside. It marks the final resting place of Timur, also known as Tamerlane, one of the most powerful leaders in Muslim history, and indeed world history.

Gur Emir Mausoleum

Entrance to the Gur Emir Mausoleum

Gur Emir Mausoleum

Gur Emir Mausoleum

A self-styled latter-day Genghis Khan, Timur led one of the most fearsome armies to victory in Central Asia. He ruled from Samarkand with an iron fist from 1370 to 1405 when he died. It is estimated 17 million people, or about 5% of the world’s population at the time, were killed during his grab for power and subsequent reign. Walking around his grave site inspired a sense of awe, and reminded me that no matter how grand a life we think we live, in the end we all return to the earth one sense or another.

Inside the Gur Emir Mausoleum

Inside the Gur Emir Mausoleum

Nearby, the Registan was being visited by a foreign delegation, so was sealed off to the outside by the militant Uzbek police for the morning. Further afield was the city’s biggest mosque, with soaring arches and blue tiled frescoes. Arriving back at the Registan, I waited another hour for the gates to open, during which time I was told off by the whistle-toting Uzbek police for sitting on a patch of grass; “you look like a poor person!”. Well, that wasn’t too far from the truth, actually!

Sherdar Madrassa at the Registan

Sherdar Madrassa at the Registan

Approaching the Registan

Approaching the Registan

The Registan (the ‘g’ is like the g in ‘reggae’) is actually a large public square where public gatherings and executions were once held; it’s hemmed in on three sides my madrassas, or theological schools. Unfortunately, because of the delegation, the square was partially obscured by a podium, but I found this lovely picture online;

The Registan (Image: Ekrem Canli, Wikimedia Commons)

The Registan (Image: Ekrem Canli, Wikimedia Commons)

Easy to see why it is considered one of Uzbekistan’s premier tourist attractions. The Registan was finally opened and I, along with the crowd of ancient, under-dressed Italian tourists who had gathered, were admitted restricted entry, which was enough to appreciate the regal interiors of the buildings.

One of the Madrassas at the Registan

One of the Madrassas at the Registan

Inside one of the madrassas at the Registan

Inside one of the madrassas at the Registan

Inside one of the madrassas at the Registan

Inside one of the madrassas at the Registan

Prayer hall and pulpit inside one of the madrassas at the Registan

Prayer hall and pulpit inside one of the madrassas at the Registan

The Registan was once the centre of Samarkand city under the rule of Timur in the 15th century. From here Timur controlled his empire, which stretched from India to Turkey. Although is remembered by many in those places as a tyrant; he has been adopted by Uzbekistan as a national hero.

Ulugh Beg Madrasah at the Registan

Ulugh Beg Madrasah at the Registan

Registan Samarkand

I spent the rest of the day wandering around the madrassas, gawking at the beautiful architecture, before making my way back to my hotel for the evening.

 

 

What’s the most beautiful public square you have visited? Comment below!

Tashkent, the city that nearly wasn’t

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Secrets "part of" logoTashkent is kind of the capital of Central Asia. Obviously it’s the capital of Uzbekistan, but it’s also the largest city in Central Asia, and is sort of a regional capital. For years Tashkent was the principle crossroads and market town of the silk road. In the Soviet years, Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the USSR (after Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev). But in 1966 the city was levelled by a massive earthquake, and much of its history was consigned to become more secrets of Central Asia.

So besides the fact that all roads lead to Tashkent, what took me there? The answer is simple; I had two days to kill while my Turkmenistan visa was processing. Luckily for me, my hotel (the Hotel Rovshan) was not far from the embassy.

So what does one do with two days in Tashkent, a city whose remaining visible history dates from the 1960s? Does one search for whatever skerrick of history remains? Or does one simply try and appreciate the city for what has been built since?

Downtown Tashkent (Image: Atilin, Wikimedia Commons)

Downtown Tashkent (Image: Atilin, Wikimedia Commons)

Downtown Tashkent

Downtown Tashkent

I opted for the second, and was rather satisfied with what I got. Despite its lack of obvious historical monuments, Tashkent is 100% Central Asian metropolis. It’s busy, unlike laid-back Bishkek. It’s hot, set out in the plains of Uzbekistan. It’s filled with a fair dose of weirdness, a hangover from being a Soviet backwater. It’s filled with markets, taxis, wide roads and dust. And although nothing is more than 50 years old, the streetscape is infused with enough Muslim sensibility to be recognisable.

Museum of Timurid History, Tashkent

Museum of Timurid History, Tashkent

Tashkent Tower is, by all appearances, one of those Soviet erections whose symbolism was far from subtle. It stands as Tashkent’s most recognisable icon, at the northern end of the city centre.

Tashkent Tower

Tashkent Tower

When the Tashkent was destroyed by the 1966 quake, Soviet engineers with their counterparts from around the eastern bloc redesigned the city. One of the things that the Soviet Union was good at doing was constructing underground railways, and the Tashkent Metro is a handsome example. Chandeliers light up the platforms, and the floors and walls are all marble – no expense was spared, it seems. Unfortunately no photos are allowed in the Tashkent Metro, so the picture below is a rather unimpressive one from Wikimedia Commons.

Tashkent Metro (Image: Elya, Wikimedia Commons)

Tashkent Metro (Image: Elya, Wikimedia Commons)

Out and about, Tashkent is occasionally a pretty city; there are tree-lined boulevards, museums, and parks. But ultimately, I was only there to collect a visa; and late on the second day that’s exactly what I did before leaving.

Have you ever gone somewhere just to collect a visa? How did you entertain yourself? Comment below!

Osh; Kyrgyzstan’s historic, troubled second city

Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Secrets "part of" logoOsh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, is also its most historic, but it finds itself in a fateful knot of borders. It’s no Bishkek – where Bishkek is refined and orderly, infused with something of a European sensibility, Osh is 100% Central Asian metropolis – rough and ready, dusty and loud, with more than a hint of the Middle East. But Osh’s historic ethnic tapestry and friendly market-town vibe have also been responsible for some of Central Asia’s darkest secrets…

When I arrived in Osh I checked into the Taj Mahal Hotel which is run by a half-Kyrgyz, half-Indian woman (go figure). The Taj Mahal was only slightly less palatial than it’s namesake, although my bed creaked loudly enough to wake the dead woman for whom the Taj Mahal was built.

Downtown Osh

Downtown Osh

On my first morning there I walked around the city centre, and spotted some relics of the Soviet era in the form of a Yak-40 (a Russian-built plane) which had been converted into a playground exhibit after its service with Aeroflot.

 

A Yak-40 in a park.

A Yak-40 in a park.

Ever been inside a Yak? I have!

Ever been inside a Yak? I have!

I also met some locals in the park who asked for their photo to be taken, and I spied a building facade painted with Mishka, the adorable mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Osh locals in a park

Osh locals in a park

Misha, or Mishka, in Osh

Misha, or Mishka, in Osh

Osh is an interesting town, suffering from a sort of cultural schizophrenia – it’s the second biggest city in Kyrgyzstan, but it’s nearly half populated by ethnic Uzbeks. In local parlance, this is an important distinction, because apart from having a different language and culture, Uzbeks are more closely identified with the flat-land dwelling folk in Uzbekistan, just 8 kilometres away.

Osh from above

Osh from above

In fact Osh could have been part of Uzbekistan, but Stalin drew up the bizarre jigsaw borders in the 1920s from his cushy pad in Moscow, without considering the cultural realities on the ground. Besides, back then it was all part of the Soviet Union; no-one cared to think that these would one day become national borders. Take a look at the borders in the map below.

(Image: Google Maps)

(Image: Google Maps)

With such a hotchpotch of cultures and the maze of lines, ethnic nationalism rose quickly in the first few weeks before independence from the Soviet Union. In June 1990 groups of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz faced off over the division of resources in the soon-to-be-independent city. Kyrgyzstan had no police force yet, and the Soviet police apparently just stood by, not sure what to do because it almost wasn’t their country anymore. The riots claimed at least 300 lives. Exactly twenty years later violence exploded again, and this time claimed between 400 and 2,000 lives, depending on who you ask. In the intervening years, and in the years since 2010, Osh has remained a rather peaceful city.

Solomon's Throne, seen from central Osh

Solomon’s Throne, seen from central Osh

Osh city is older than Rome, and in the year 2000 celebrated its 3000th birthday. Today Osh is a pleasant place, although its only main attraction is Soloman’s Throne, a huge rocky outcrop which rises up out of the city centre. It is said that the Prophet Muhammed ﷺ once prayed here, making it an important place of pilgrimage for some Muslims.

The "Prophet's Mosque" on Soloman's Throne

The “Prophet’s Mosque” on Soloman’s Throne

On Solomon's Throne

On Solomon’s Throne

The mount is also said to look like a woman giving birth from some positions; this makes it popular with women who who have trouble conceiving, hoping that the prophet’s prayer room will also bless them with a child. Up on the rock I saw lots of babushkas (not the Kate Bush song, but Russian for “old woman”) praying, picking flowers to hang in their homes and tying strips of material from their headscarves to the trees in the hope of grandchildren.

Women sliding along the rock at Solomon's Throne

Women sliding along the rock at Solomon’s Throne

Solomon's Throne

Solomon’s Throne

Have you ever been to a city or country with a drastic ethnic divide? What was it like? Comment below!

Kyrgyz cuisine: not for the faint hearted

Kyrgyz cuisine: not for the faint hearted

Secrets "part of" logoAnyone for fermented mare’s milk? It’s probably not something you’ve thought about drinking, but what about eating it? It’s actually possible…

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Kyrgyz cuisine, a culinary tradition that has developed out of centuries of deprivation, freezing mountain winters and time-honoured nomadic hospitality.

It’s not the Kyrgyz are wholly a deprived lot; in fact there is no shortage of dairy and meat products out on the jailoo (moors) of Central Asia. However being so far-flung in the centre of Asia, hemmed in by gigantic mountain ranges, and punished annually by winter temperatures which plunge well below zero, there isn’t an abundance of tropical fruit and spices to work with (Fun fact: the coldest recorded temperature in Kyrgyzstan was in a mountain valley, at a numbing -53 Celsius).

Paloo (Image: Firespeaker, Wikimedia Commons)

Paloo (Image: Firespeaker, Wikimedia Commons)

That explains the overall lack of spices in staple dishes like paloo (fried rice, related to the Greek pilaf or Indian pulao). A huge pot of rice with shredded carrots, onions, garlic and beef or lamb/mutton, paloo isn’t meant to be tantalisingly exotic, it’s supposed to fill bellies. Likewise manti, medium to large steamed dumplings, are won’t set your mouth on fire – they’ll warm your soul in the driving wind and rain.

Manti (from Recipes for Ramadan)

Manti (from Recipes for Ramadan)

Shashlik is another such staple; skewered chunks of lightly spiced beef, mutton/lamb or goat are served with a mountain of bread. The Kyrgyz love their bread, and it comes in a varieties resembling either the Indian/Pakistani naan, or heavier Russian-style loaves. It’s normally served with tea – black or green, without milk.

Bread in a market in Osh (Image: © A.Savin Wikimedia Commons)

Bread in a market in Osh (Image: © A.Savin Wikimedia Commons)

The Kyrgyz also love their jams, which are made from a variety of mountain fruits such as cherry, apple, apricot, strawberry and quince. A perfect Kyrgyz snack is some fresh, warm bread, dipped in homemade jam and served with a steaming cup of aromatic green tea.

Breakfast at the Shepherd's Life homestay in Kochkor. A vegetable omelette, savoury rice, freshly churned butter, homemade bread with apricot jam and a pot of green tea.

Breakfast at the Shepherd’s Life homestay in Kochkor. A vegetable omelette, savoury rice, freshly churned butter, homemade bread with apricot jam and lemon butter, some biscuits and chocolates and a pot of either green tea or instant coffee.

And then there’s the weird stuff. Nomadic tradition dictates that if a guest has just arrived in your yurt after a long journey across the treacherous ranges, you ought to lay on a spread. And by “a spread”, I mean a whole horse or sheep, slaughtered and cooked up in rice, with the animal’s cooked head sitting atop to be presented to the honoured guest. Don’t worry, you don’t have to eat the sheep’s whole head – it’s the guest’s job to carve it up for the host and their family! (Seriously, however, this might not happen to you – most modern Kyrgyz don’t have a sheep just hanging around waiting to be eaten).

Bottled kumis. In the summer months it's fresh, but bottled varieties are popular during the winter. (Image: Kumys-bottle © ASavin Wikimedia Commons)

Bottled kumis. In the summer months it’s fresh, but bottled varieties are popular during the winter. (Image: Kumys-bottle © ASavin Wikimedia Commons)

Kyrgyzstan’s location in the mountains of Central Asia also means the horse and yak have a special place in the country’s culinary soul. Yak’s milk is an interesting experience, but is not nearly as popular as kumis, fermented mare’s milk. I’ve never tried the fresh milk from a young female horse, so I don’t know what the base ingredient tastes like, but if you can imagine sour cream dissolved in soda water, then you’d be close to the taste of kumis. It’s said to be refreshing when served ice-cold in summer – I didn’t think so. It’s also slightly alcoholic, and although Kyrgyzstan is 86% Muslim, the Kyrgyz gulp down kumis with abandon – I guess the alcohol content isn’t as strong as the nation’s love of their traditional drink.

Qurut with some jam (Image: Agilight, Wikimedia Commons)

Qurut with some berry jam (Image: Agilight, Wikimedia Commons)

But nothing quite compares to qurut. These dried balls of cheesy yogurt smell just like you’d expect them to – old dried cheesy yogurt. They’re a popular grab-and-go snack in Kyrgyzstan, so much so that one of my fellow passengers in a cross-country taxi decided to pick up a bag of them to suck on while travelling.

If you’re interested in trying some (tamer) Central Asian dishes, check out my cookbook Recipes for Ramadan, featuring five recipes from Kyrgyzstan and nearby, plus 60 more from around the world!

Have you ever eaten dried yogurt? What about horse meat? If no, then would you? Comment below!

Dodgy dealings on the road from Bishkek to Osh

The road from Bishkek to Osh

Secrets "part of" logoWe left early, heading from Bishkek to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city, and culturally quite different from the capital. Leaving from Bishkek’s muddy long-distance taxi stand, I shared the car with a weedy Russian guy who was wearing a denim shirt over denim jeans, a beefy old Russian guy, a Kyrgyz teenager and our selectively-friendly driver. The 650 kilometre journey takes 12 hours; the road is in great condition, but traffic slows down as it switchbacks over passes higher than 3000 metres.

driving from bishkek to osh

 

The initial drive through farmland wasn’t too inspiring, but I was assured by my fellow passengers that the road would get more interesting. In case you were wondering how I got that from a bunch of non-English speakers, lets just say that gestures go a long way.

Canyon kyrgyz

And it did; on the drive to Osh I witnessed some of the most breathtaking natural scenery I have ever seen, the car ducking between gorges and canyons for the first half of the journey.

A tunnel through the top of the Tian Shan

A tunnel through the top of the Tian Shan range

Yak goals

The car wove its way through the western portion of the Tian Shan range, leaving the population centres of northern Kyrgyzstan behind. We stopped for lunch somewhere in the mountains I may never know exactly where we were, but they served lamb kebabs, hot naan and green tea and nothing else.

Lunch stop

Lunch

Somewhere in the second half of the journey we rounded a corner and spotted the huge Toktogul Reservoir. Built in the 1960s by Soviet engineers, this mammoth dam continues to supply water and electricity to much of Kyrgyzstan. Past the lake we began to climb again, as did the temperature; the rest of the journey was spent sweltering as we taxi descended through the lunar landscape that is the Fergana Range.

lower tian shan

toktogul lake reservoir

The Fergana Range skirts the northern edge of the Fergana Valley, a wide, flat and hot plain which nowadays is mostly in Uzbekistan. It’s a cultural watershed; north of the Fergana Range lie largely Kyrgyz and Russian-populated areas (like Bishkek and Issyk-Kul), whereas south of the range the people identify as a mishmash of Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Turkish, Russian and Tajik. Because of the Soviet Union’s gerrymandering, the twisted national borders force the Kyrgyz highway into a wide detour before reaching Osh – see the map below.

(Image: Google)

(Image: Google)

After speeding between fields of watermelons and lakes in the unlikeliest of locations, we reached the outskirts of Osh. One of the passengers in the car asked to be dropped off in the suburbs of the city. The driver kindly obliged and we drove off into the unpaved backstreets of Osh. We pulled up outside a ramshackle cottage surrounded by a high cornfield, and the passenger, a teenage Kyrgyz boy, told the driver to come inside with him so he could pay him the fare. Both the driver and the boy disappeared for a good 10 minutes. While I was sitting there I started to feel a little uncomfortable, realising that the garden patch in front of the cottage was home to several marijuana plants. the denim-clad Russian went looking for the driver and the young boy, but he didn’t return either. I was left in the car with the other remaining passenger, the old Russian beefcake.

farm kyrgyzstan

Thinking back over the day I had spent, actually, a lot of things hadn’t added up; I had been given a free lunch at a restaurant, no-one in the car spoke even one word of English (an odd thing in today’s world), Mr Denim and the driver were acting like best friends even though they had just met… and now this deserted marijuana-and-corn farm. I had also just read in my guidebook that this area was home to many militants in the early 1990s. It was at that point I was concerned for my life, for the first time in all of my travels, and I convinced myself if I didn’t go in looking for the driver and the other passengers, they would come out and drag me in. After several anxious minutes, the driver and Denim Boy returned, yelling out what I can only guess was Kyrgyz for “The little bastard ran away!”. That’s right, we were all duped by a cunning little kid who got a free taxi ride. All the other things that didn’t add up were just part of the eccentricities of the region. The driver jumped back in the car in a huff and drove us into the centre of Osh, with me frowning and shaking my head to show sympathy to the driver, and on the inside laughing nervously at my paranoia.

Have you ever experienced a slightly-terrifying misunderstanding abroad? Comment below! 

Lunch in a yurt at Lake Song-Kol

Lunch in a yurt at Lake Song-Kol

Secrets "part of" logoLake SongKol is nestled high in the mountains in the foothills of the Kyrgyz Tian Shan, fed by the glaciers that scrape down their jagged peaks. At an elevation of 3000 metres, it’s frozen for much of the year, and when the ice melts it becomes a haven for nomads from the lower pastures and trekkers from abroad. In August the jailoo (moors) around Lake Song-Kol are filled with yurts and their residents herding sheep, yaks, donkeys and horses around.

29 kilometres long, Lake Song-Kol is the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan after the sea-like Issyk-Kul.

Boat by lake Lake Song-Kol

 

 

 

The two-hour drive on mostly unsealed road was bumpy and wet, rounding rugged, green, knots of hills as we drove up into the clouds. The road from Kochkor to Lake Song-Kol passes the 4000 metre mark, and I was warned about altitude sickness. Although I didn’t experience any serious trouble, for the first hour at the lake I couldn’t even look at the food which the locals offered me.

Up the mountain to Lake Song-Kol

 

At the lake I spent a few hours strolling, taking pictures and enjoying something I had not heard for a long time; silence. The water was almost calm, gently lapping at the stones which marked the shoreline. It was cold, misty (actually in the clouds) and mysterious.

Horses on road Lake Song-Kol

 

At midday I was met by Urmat, the friendly coordinator of Shepherd’s Life in Kochkor. He was a wealth of knowledge and had arranged for me to have lunch in a yurt with a local family near the lake.

 

 

family Lake Song-Kol

family Lake Song-Kol

Family Lake Song-Kol

I saw the meal made from start to finish; my hosts were in the process of turning a whole sheep into chopped lamb when I wandered behind the tent. I assume they were used to squeamish westerners who think meat comes from a supermarket fridge, because they tried to turn me away, but I told them it didn’t bother me. Once it was all in pieces I watched as the mother of the family turned those fresh morsels into a hot, hearty stew to be had with freshly baked bread. I also tried kumys, the local drink, which is actually tangy fermented mare’s milk (brave, I know!).

Yurt Lake Song-Kol

 

We had barely finished lunch and it was time to move – “the weather is closing in”, I was told, and we had a long and potentially slippery drive back to Kochkor. I was tempted to stay the night in the yurt – I had been extended an invitation, and the only thing warmer than the carpets and cushions inside the yurt was the hospitality.

Weather Lake Song-Kol

 

However it was time for me to leave, and as a parting gift my hosts gave me a small carpet they had made, and a few pieces of kurut, dried yogurt balls which Kyrgyz people traditionally eat as snacks, especially when travelling.

Inside yurt Lake Song-Kol

family 4 Lake Song-Kol

On the way back I got speaking with one of my fellow passengers, a trader who was heading back to Kochkor after a day working at the lake. Translating through my driver, he described life in Kyrgyzstan and how things had changed since the end of the Soviet Union. “They used to hear helicopters at night and panic” he said, referring to his elder relatives. “Sometimes people would get picked up in the middle of the night, and they wouldn’t come back. They’d just disappear. They always hoped that the helicopters wouldn’t land near their house.”

 

 

back down Lake Song-Kol

Urmat Lake Song-Kol

Evidently life had changed in the cities and towns of Kyrgyzstan since the fall of communism. But my mind was still stuck back at the lake, where I felt that life and the time-honoured hospitality in that yurt had hardly changed in centuries.

Have you ever seen the inside of a yurt? What was it like? Comment below!