8 Observations on Uzbekistan culture and society

Street in Bukhara - Uzbek men, Uzbekistan - header

Travelling, couchsurfing and hitchhiking across Uzbekistan for one month was a highlight of our Long Way Home adventure and during that time we tried our best to observe the culture and society of this diverse land. It is Central Asia’s most populous country and life there is a rich tapestry of sometimes confusing, other times awe-inspiring peoples. We must highlight however that these are just our subjective observations and we would love to hear what you think. Have we misunderstood anything? Do you have any observations to share yourselves?

Uzbekistan culture and society

Uzbekistan culture and society

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The first thing we had to get to grips with in Uzbekistan was the sheer diversity of ethnicities and peoples in this double land-locked country. Apart from the Uzbek majority there are plenty of Kazakhs, Russians, Tajiks, Krygyz, Turkmen, Tatars and Koreans to keep things interesting. This is not even mentioning the huge autonomous region of Karakalpakstan and its Karakalpak inhabitants that reside in the whole western part of the country. The thing that we found most strange was how important ethnicity was in the country. People define themselves and each other by the ethnic group they belong to. Russians who had never visited Russia were still Russians, Koreans who don’t speak a word of Korean were still Koreans. Even their passports have a section defining their ethnicity. The very idea would be considered at worst racist and at best dangerous in the West. I would never feel comfortable identifying myself as white or Anglo-Saxon above being British as it would have the unenviable connotation that if you are not the majority then you don’t belong to the country.

Jon and Uzbek men in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

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Dictatorships are becoming a speciality of ours and Uzbekistan was right up there with the most efficient. President Karimov, 15 years and counting, narrowly won another landslide election while we were in Uzbekistan, capturing 90% of the votes. Unsurprisingly, called a ‘sham election’ by the Human Rights Watch, the dear president was unanimously supported by his rivals who, to a man, declared him the best candidate for the job. The interesting thing, though, is that Karimov is actually very popular in the country and received almost universal support by all the people that we dared to raise politics with. Most people compared the relative peace in the country with the civil war in Tajikistan and claimed this was due to having the steady hand of Karimov on the tiller. People were scared that if they had a different leader it would be a leap into the unknown and that sometimes it is better the devil you know. Of course, this fear was stoked by the government-controlled media and the occasional crackdown on ‘militant Islamists’ only helped to stir the apprehension more.

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The biggest delight for us in Uzbekistan was the completely unexpected glory of its cuisine. We hadn’t heard anything about it before coming and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the food was some of the best we have eaten anywhere in the world. Perhaps it is a result of all the different ethnic groups but we found the food to be varied, rich and above all delicious. Lagman, a meal of Uygur root, was our personal favourite and it is a flat noodle dish served in a thick meaty stew with vegetables. Other tasty dishes include the near ubiquitous plov (typically made with rice, pieces of mutton, grated carrots and onions), the filling shurpa (a soup stuffed with  large pieces of fatty meat – usually mutton) and one of the oldest Uzbek dishes, tuhum barak, which we learnt how to prepare, but that is to name but three. Uzbekistan also has the best bread in Central Asia with a plethora of different varieties to suit every taste. Just thinking about the food now makes me salivate!

Khanum - Xanom  - Uzbek cuisine

Khanum (Xanom) – Steamed mince meat and potatoes rolled inside pasta sheets with tomato and dill topping

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Uzbeks on the whole are not big drinkers, being Muslim and all, but that isn’t to say that they don’t drink at all. Vodka, a relic of the Soviet times, is still quite popular and it was our pleasure to once be invited to drink with the patriarch of a family. The thing that struck us as strange, however, was that despite his son being there (he must have been in his 40s), it was only us and the grandfather that drank. We later learnt it would have been disrespectful for the man to drink in front of his father, as it would have shown a lack of respect for his authority in the family.

Uzbek men at Bbi Khanum Mosque, Samarkand, Uzbekistan 2

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Sticking with family life – the importance of children and having as many as you possibly can. In Europe, family planning is a serious business, factoring in economic capacity and the means with which to support your offspring. In Uzbekistan, having lots of children was a sign of prestige and many times our drivers would proudly proclaim that they had 5+ children. The just simply couldn’t understand why we don’t have children yet despite being in our 30s. It seemed that everybody in Uzbekistan has kids as early as their late teens, and keep going until the brood is big enough. It wasn’t uncommon for us to meet people with 7+ children and I did wonder how they manage to remember all their names.

PE class in Bukhara old town, Uzbekistan

PE class in Bukhara old town

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An endearing action, and one that you can’t help but copy very quickly, is how people greet each other in Uzbekistan. Men shake hands but only with other men. With women, men put one hand across their chest and make a small bow. Women greet women much more affectionately, with a little hug or kiss on the cheeks. All these gestures were a bit alien to us at the beginning, and I myself caused many an awkward moment when going in for a Spanish style hug only for the women to tense up like I was a huge spider. On the reverse of this we sometimes found it a little insulting that men would not even acknowledge Ania‘s existence despite her sitting on the same table.

Uzbek girls, Uzbek fashion, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

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The issue of forced labour was something that we just couldn’t get our heads around. In Uzbekistan, depending on the region you live, children and adults alike are forced into the fields to pick cotton come harvest time. The national economy is dependent on it and kids are dragged out of school for up to 3 month in a year and sent to the fields to do the back-breaking work. Some of the younger Uzbeks we spoke to enjoyed it (well, they would, wouldn’t they? Out of school and in the open air with friends). Whilst the adults were more divided in their opinions. Some saw it for what it was – an extreme infringement on human rights, others saw it as their duty and more still were ambivalent, not seeing the practice as strange as they had known no different.

People digging the streets in Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan

Regular people (even some in medical uniforms) digging the streets in Shahrisabz

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Uzbekistan is a land of some pretty strange customs. The belief that putting bread upside down brought bad luck was quite weird. Also, the custom of naming the year after a social theme, for instance:

‘The Year of…’ 1997 – Everyone’s interests, 1998 – Family, 1999 – Women, 2000 – Healthy generation, 2001 – Mother and child, 2002 – Interests of the older generation, 2003 – Mahalla (an urban committee regulated by the government), 2004 – Kindness and mercy, 2005 – Health, 2006 – Charity and medical workers, 2007 – Social protection, 2008 – Youth, 2009 – Rural Development and Well-being, 2010 – Harmonically Developed Generation, 2011 – Small Business and Private Enterprise, 2012 – Family, 2013 – Well-being and Prosperity, 2014 – Healthy child, 2015 – Attention and Care for the Older Generation.

Not too harmful, but a bit irregular none-the-less. When do you think they will have a year of free and fair elections?

Street in Bukhara - Uzbek men, Uzbekistan

written by: Jon

Have you been there? What are your impressions on Uzbekistan culture and society? What else would you add? We would love to hear your opinion!

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