OTRWJ Istanbul-Uzbekistan Part3: Post-Soviet Uzbek Life


So, I’m writing this 3 days into the Uzbekistan portion of my trip. My head is spinning and I’m trying to organize all I’ve learned into something that makes some kind of sense–to you and to me. My brain is a jumble of changing governments, changing presidents, frequently changing laws/rules/ approaches to things like agriculture, teaching, and definitely the role and the control of religion.

Perhaps the best place to start is that our adage of “a new broom sweeps clean” has a local version which is at the heart of everything. Things changed after the Soviet era and things changed again with the second president (5 years ago), and things are still changing.

Secondly, guides frequently use the phrase “there is a plan….” I’ve learned that they are saying some combination of “it may or may not happen,” “I’m trying to tell you I don’t believe this,” or “we are making important strides.”

The opening photo of a tiled minaret in old Khiva is to show you what first attracted me to this country.  But I’ll save Khiva’s history (back before Genghis Khan) and it’s role on the Silk Road for another post.

Uzbekistan was the first country in Central Asia to leave the Soviet Union. (Not really much choice, eh?) Actually, they initially voted “no,” not wanting to jump the gun if things didn’t turn out.

The Russians built much of the infrastructure throughout today’s UZB: major roads (“this road from the airport to town is a good one because the dignitaries use it.”), railroads (and the towns near the railroads so they could control them), and the canal system of irrigation (which ultimately drained the Aral, the world’s 4th largest lake, the planet’s largest manmade environmental disaster.  Today, there are only salt flats blowing salt across the desert into fields and killing crops.).

Today’s Tashkent, the capital, is modern, clean and bright. This is primarily due to a major earthquake in the ‘60s that destroyed most of the city and ancient buildings.  The city was re-built by the Soviets:  big wide boulevards, landscaping, yes- a fair amount of square concrete buildings, a beautiful park (originally Lenin Square, now Independence Park).

The “Monument of Courage” sculpture was designed by the Soviets as tribute to what the Uzbeks endured that early morning (note the man with no shirt like getting out of bed) of the quake. Interesting to me, he wears a traditional Uzbek tubeteika hat, but his features seem Russian.

During reconstruction, the Soviets built a gorgeous metro and it is immaculately maintained.

They also rebuilt a bazaar on the spot of the ancient Chorsu bazaar, which is enormous.


It is filled with gorgeous dried fruit, nuts from across Central Asia, and also horse meat and fat from the back of sheep. I’m thinking the latter is the Uzbek version of southern fatback?

My first day at the market the concept of “tanish billish” was explained to me. I asked how you choose which butcher of the dozens to do business with, none with any branding or signage. Essentially, it was about forming a relationship, exchanging favors. Perhaps if you always buy your meat from him, he’ll order special cuts or he’ll steer (ha! No pun) you away from less fresh cuts. And then, perhaps, he’ll ask you for a favor one day. You cultivate these as life long relationships. Seems pretty innocuous. But I heard it explained again and again: how some people get jobs, how you “get things done.”

I realized I “got it” when we were discussing wedding customs. There is typically a giant party, easily 500 people. “Recently,” the government has tried to stop that tradition as it makes it difficult/embarrassing for those who can’t throw such a big party. Apparently it was always a rule but no one paid attention. Now, the government fines the wedding party venue for the oversized party. I listened, then asked, “Well, then can’t the wedding party just pay the venue the money to cover the fine?”  Instantly both driver and guide nodded vigorously. That’s “getting it done.”

Side comment on Uzbek weddings: there is no bride price here. What is unique is that the groom’s family pays for the wedding and all the parties. The bride’s family buys furniture for the couple’s first home. And the wedding party with 500+ guests: they all bring gifts. My guide said he had to return 15 rugs after their wedding, either because they couldn’t use or just “not good.” Of course, in a crowd of 500, no one knows everyone and apparently wedding crashers are common.

We left the main bazaar and wandered out through a maze of little shops selling clothes, purses, prayer rugs, whatever. “These are not part of the bazaar. The government closes one eye….(pause)… but the police come through periodically and shut them down.” And then they just come back?  “Yes.” Sometimes rules are rules and sometimes they’re not.

Side note about the bazaar: there was a rather large section of Korean food being sold by what appeared to be Koreans. The response when I inquired about it: “Yes, Stalin moved Koreans from the border to Uzbekistan in the 1930s.” Eventually, having lost their language and their connection to their culture, they remained.

What I knew would be a trip highlight was today’s visit to a family home outside Khiva, a short plane ride from Tashkent. Uzbeks take great pride in their culture of hospitality. They will welcome anyone, and serve not just tea but lay out a full spread! And it is quite rude to not accept, at least a bite, of everything offered. Unfortunately I only took a picture of the initial munchies…which I thought was going to be the whole thing!

Before we ate, the ladies demonstrated bread baking in their outdoor oven (you see these everywhere). Bread is to EVERY Uzbek meal like, umm, collards on New Year’s Day. When I arrived, there were balls of dough all ready.

After the dough is rolled out, it is then “stamped” with a design  Apparently the stamp is somewhat unique…but any bread you see anywhere at any restaurant or market vendor, has some kind of unique stamp. Given the thinness of the bread, I’m guessing this is equivalent to us pricking dough with a fork to keep the bubbles out. The stamp pattern shows up in the design after the bread is baked.

Then the dough is laid on a baking mound: a board with twigs piled on it and then wrapped in a fabric, almost like an oil cloth. The wall of the hot oven is sprinkled with water and then the woman, with her hand on the flat backside of the mound, kinda throws the dough against the wall of the oven. I think the oven probably held about 4-5 breads at a time. In the picture of the table top spread above, you can see the finished product piled in the center of the table. The breads are about the size of a medium pizza. To flavor the bread, they add lamb fat (actually really good) or bits of tomato and vegetables.

After we sat and chatted and enjoyed the fruit from their garden, the bread, peanuts, almonds, and sugar coated peanuts, I helped the women make beef dumplings (they look like tortellini) and meat-filled samsa, sorta like an empanada. No measuring spoons. No fancy pasta making equipment. No tool to make a pretty edge on the empanada. And every piece was IDENTICAL. No piece of dough was bigger than the next. And they did most of it sitting on the floor! Like women everywhere, we shared stories  of our home and our families as we worked.

The samsas are cooked in cotton seed oil. This may not be the healthiest option, but Uzbekistan is the world’s 6th largest exporter of cotton and they use every bit of the plant!  The boll for fabric; the seed for oil; the branches for firewood.

The dumplings were served in a warm yogurt or milk broth along with homemade yogurt, more fruit (WHITE pomegranate!) more bread, tomatoes with garlic and dill, and tea. At the end of the meal, a Muslim grace is said.

A 9-year-old boy joined us for the meal. He would not leave for school until 1:30 because, due to a lack of schools -and  teachers, the kids go in 2 or 3 shifts. Uzbekistan is a demographically young country and people tend to have many children and the country has not been able to keep up with building schools. Also, teachers were paid $200/month. In the last couple years, under the new president, it is up to $1000.

Also, until just recently, there was compulsory “work” for most people in Uzbekistan, including teachers. This meant when jobs need to be done and there weren’t enough people to do them, people were pulled from their regular job and sent to do something else. My guide said he has seen teachers scrubbing the tile walkways in the main square in Tashkent before visiting dignitaries arrived. Until just a couple years ago, this included child labor in the cotton fields. UZB has been criticized by many human rights organizations for this practice which has supposedly stopped.

Our host, Roma, and his wife have been married 41 years. He is 61. He built the house himself 30 years ago. No plumbers or electricians. He did it all. It was built on land he was given free by the Soviets. Today, under this government, he owns the land his house is on.

Agricultural land is not owned by the farmers. It is essentially leased for 30 years. However, it can be confiscated by the local mayor (who is appointed by the president) and given to someone else to farm. (Remember my comment on tanish bilish?) This means farmers obviously do not want to invest in their farms, e.g. sprinkler irrigation instead of flooding fields. The risk is they’ll lose their investment. During the Soviet era, farmers were told the price they would receive for their crop at the beginning of the season. They were given a quota. If they did not meet the quota, their farm would be “confiscated” and given to another farmer. I was told this has improved, with fewer confiscations under the new president. “Of course, he can’t be involved with every single matter.” Roma and his wife have 5 children under 16 in the house plus two daughters-in-law. One daughter and two sons are working in Russia. This is very common and a topic unto itself.

Many Uzbeks go to Russia to make more money. They go for a purpose: buy a car, money for children’s education, pay for wedding. It is estimated that the money sent back home from Russia accounts for 12% of UZB GDP. Roma was in Moscow for 5 years as a construction supervisor; his sons are also in construction in Russia. While in Russia, they do not assimilate. Russian politicians blame the “dirty” Uzbek “migrants” (apparently there is a more derogatory word) for many of the country’s problems: unemployment, crime, etc. etc.  Everyone tacitly knows nothing will change because Russia needs the Uzbeks to do the low paying jobs that Russians will not do. However, the devaluation of the ruble after sanctions has complicated all this.

There are also Russians working in Uzbekistan. Many are employed by LUKOIL, Russia’s largest company. Since the Ukraine “recent developments/situation,”  because of sanctions in Europe, many Russian businesses have begun to partner with Uzbekistan businesses. Also recently, there has been an increase in Russian tourists to Uzbekistan. Their Visa/Mastercards issued on Russian banks are no longer accepted internationally or for online payments. They fly to UZB to get a card from a UZB bank. Just recently, UZB began requiring credit card applicants to be in the country 15 days before applying.

Last observation on life in UAB:

They have mahallas…like a neighborhood administration, community leadership, intermediary with the central government, or helpful resource. Dating back to the 12th century, they historically had a quasi-religious role, organizing rituals. During the Soviet era, they were used as a way to disseminate communist ideology. The head of the mahalla is the only place Uzbeks have a vote (except now president, where there is no opposition party). However, my guide laughed and said you never know when the vote is happening or who is running until suddenly you’re told there is a new mahalla. It is neighborhood-based, close to the people. I guess in older times, the mahalla would know all the people in his “district.” Today, a mahalla is made up of about 100 to 1500 households.

Today’s mahalla, with an office and staff, is both administrative and a support/social welfare system providing financial assistance to the needy, marriage counseling and signing off on divorces (of which there are few and virtually none if there are children). They coordinate garbage pick-up. They serve as a neighborhood collective to assist with buying a house, job networking, and sort of just looking out for one and other. While the concept is based on community solidarity, it can breed favoritism and nepotism.

Next: back in time to the ancient Silk Road and the World Heritage Sites of the small walled city of Khiva and Bukhara with their colorful painted and mosaic tiles.

OTRWJ Istanbul-Uzbekistan Part3: Post-Soviet Uzbek Life originally posted on by Elegant Island Living magazine.

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