Central Asian Family Entertainment

By Rob Packer

One of the perils of travelling alone in Central Asia lies in the way that restaurants, in the Western understanding, aren’t as common as you might think. Sure, there are chaikhanas (teahouses) or cafes, but when these are hard-to-find or just plain dodgy, and when you don’t have a home to cook in, you’ll probably end up in a “restaurant”.

Most restaurants I’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are far from places for a quiet meal; they’re more of a strange hybrid of restaurant (they serve food), club (there’s plenty of dancing and sometimes light shows) and wedding party (the first people dancing are young children and some uncle you hardly ever see). And if it looks like a restaurant at first, wait a bit – the process seems to start about 7pm – you’ll see the tables empty and the dance floor fill. In Kyrgyzstan, the energy shown on the dance floor is normally proportional to the amount of vodka drunk; in more pious Uzbekistan, I wasn’t sure whether the dancing I saw in my first restaurant trip was fuelled by surreptitious alcohol, endless pots of tea or something else.

Food in Central Asia: the hard way to a bowl of lagman (Central Asian noodles).

Although the basic concept is similar between the two countries, from what I’ve seen, the music is different. In Kyrgyzstan, something called zhivaya muzyka is preferred, but you shouldn’t be taken in by a literal translation of the Russian term as live music because this is no live band. In my view, it’s probably best described as “professional karaoke” with a selection of Russian, Soviet and Kyrgyz classics with the odd international song in English thrown into the mix. In Uzbekistan, people seem to prefer traditional Uzbek romantic music with some recent American hits. In both countries the energy levels are quite similar.

Safer is to eat at home like this plov in Bukhara.

What I found strangest about this whole culture of dance restaurants is the age spectrum of patrons and dancers. It really is a full range: I’ve seen a women-only group of twenty aged between 15 and 60 dancing at one in Kyrgyzstan, and the one I visited in Samarkand looked like a wedding party except people didn’t necessarily know each other. This makes for some strange viewing, such as watching a group of ten middle aged women dancing to what seems to be Central Asia’s song of the year, Pitbull’s I Know You Want Me.

Whatever the music, whether it’s zhivaya muzyka, traditional Uzbek chanson or Russian, Romanian or American chart music, you can be sure that right now, somewhere in Central Asia, someone your grandparents’ age is tearing up the dance floor.

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