The Central Asian Tea Line

By Rob Packer

I’ve had a strange hot drink experience in Central Asia. It’s been the first time in almost ten years that I’ve gone more than one or two days without coffee: I now have been coffee-free for eleven weeks, apart from one afternoon cup of Nescafe in Balykchy that ended in a sleepless night. The reason is that good coffee is hard to find and normally means instant, and by the time I worked out that there was coffee in the kitchen at work, I’d gone so far that any of the acute headaches I normally got from not having coffee had been lost in a fog of jetlag. It could also have been the tea.

This is a land of tea and in each republic it makes a strong case for being the national drink. If only because, it’s really the only drink; apart from the blunder with a cup of coffee and a small bottle of the water at the beginning of the week, it was the only liquid I drank. There was one day at work when all the tea had been used up and there was no bread (another Central Asian necessity): I thought we were about to see a fight or a tantrum. The tea addiction in Central Asia is so strong that in Samarkand, a Bangladeshi tourist and I started to wonder if people didn’t end up with liver or kidney problems from not drinking water.

Central Asia is also split by a food dividing line, like the point where grits become acceptable in the US or the Röstigraben of Switzerland. In Central Asia, the general rule is that on the north of the Tian Shan people drink black tea, to the south tea is green. The divide is surprisingly strong and I’ve seen people in Bishkek refuse green tea and someone in Balykchy order a pot of green tea like it was contraband. I’m much less loyal in my tea habits and will drink black or green depending on my mood, hunger levels and the weather. In Uzbekistan, where the Tea Line runs between Tashkent and Samarkand, my fickle ways were considered so strange in Samarkand that, although I was asked “green or black?” each time I was offered a pot at the excellent Antica near Guri Emir Mausoleum, I was given green without fail: my first pot had been green, so I was a green tea drinker. Why complain when the cultural experience is much more interesting?

I’m probably taking some Central Asian tea habits away with me. I love how tea in Central Asia is served in a small bowl, and I’ve already written about how I’m a big fan of adding jam to any kind of tea (apricot and raspberry are favourites). One habit I’m not sure that people in Europe will react all that well to is the reuse of teabags. I think this is related to samovar culture where strong tea from a pot is mixed with warm water from the samovar and the way that teabags are dipped into hot water, rather than hot water being poured onto the teabag. It was a shock to walk into the kitchen at work the first time and see a plate of used teabags in the middle, but the simple answer is that it’s just not used up after one dip.

Although I’ve fully embraced Central Asian tea culture, despite my fickle ways, I’m not sure how my Central Asian habits will work out in Colombia: famous for its coffee, less for its tea.

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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