ANYONE FOR SOME FERMENTED MARE'S MILK? Travel Journal - 1996: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus

Tuesday June 25, 1996: Andijon, Uzbekistan: Upon arrival at the Andijon airport Dr. Erkin Djumabaev was there to pick us up. I had met Dr. Erkin, a very prominent doctor, on a previous trip to Uzbekistan. He had insisted that should I ever return to Andijon I would stay at his personal home. I had agreed. So, from the airport Anna Marie and I proceeded to Dr. Erkin’s home. His wife is also a doctor—a cardiology specialist. But she was away with their two daughters visiting her mother. So, Dr. Erkin was a little shorthanded trying to handle company from America all by himself for the first time. However, as is customary in Central Asia, the typically constructed Uzbek’s home is a high-walled compound that houses not only the parents but also the children and their families. Dr. Erkin is one of two children. His sister is married and lives elsewhere, but Dr. Erkin lives in the same compound with his parents and will look after them until they die.

Their home was quite spacious and very comfortable even though it was very traditionally Uzbek in style. All the buildings were constructed around a center courtyard. Usually families plant a garden in the middle courtyard. Dr. Erkin had planted grass. He said that it is the only home in Andijon with grass. He wanted it to look American. He had seen lawns on television.

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Uzbek families also typically keep their pigs, chickens, sheep, and a cow or two inside the compound with them. Dr. Erkin had none of those. Instead, he owned a giant male Great Dane dog that stood almost tall enough to look Anna Marie straight in the eyes.

As Dr. Erkin was showing us to our rooms, he stopped by the bathroom to show us how to use the pump system. However, when he turned on the switch for the pump, nothing happened. There was no running water.

In Aktau, there was only some cold water … and it was brown from the rusty iron pipes in the city. In Dzhambul, we had no hot water and had cold water only part of the time—usually none when we needed to take a shower. But in Andijon, there was no water at all … none. Dr. Erkin’s maid found some water somewhere and filled the plastic tub in the bathroom. While we stayed there, we dipped the water out of the plastic tub, leaned our heads over the bathtub, and poured water on our hair to wash out the shampoo.

We met Dr. Erkin’s mother and father. Both are extremely well positioned in the city. His mother graduated from medical school in Moscow in 1957. She is a Jew, so they sort of banished her to the remote republic of Uzbekistan to practice her profession. There she met Erkin’s father, who had just begun to practice surgery. They fell in love and married, and it had never been widely published that she is Jewish or that Erkin is half Jewish. She was very interested that Project C.U.R.E. sent three containers of medical goods to Tel Aviv last year.

Wednesday, June 26

After a breakfast of bread, sausage, and cucumbers, plus green tea, we went to Ted Elder’s office. The Andijon government had allowed him to rent for a very reasonable price, a street-level suite of offices on the city’s main street in a very important building. All Ted’s team are there on visas to teach English and computer skills to the locals and to conduct humanitarian and health programs for the people. If they don’t perform those functions in a measurable way, they are out of the country. They have also taken up helping the locals fill out forms to get grants of monetary aid to help them start new business enterprises.

At that meeting I received some exciting news. The two containers we shipped have arrived and are being cleared through customs. They will be in Andijon in time for us to make formal presentations on Friday.

It must be understood that this was a miracle. There is no human way possible to control the timing of a container’s arrival at a destination. It takes a minimum of six weeks to ship a container to a destination, but it can take up to several months for delivery under poor circumstances. Andijon, Uzbekistan, is considered to be “poor circumstances.” The container was shipped from a port in the USA to Riga, Latvia, and then put on a slow train to the end of the old Soviet line … Andijon. You can plan and coordinate a date for a formal presentation of a container, but it takes a miracle, plus a little, to have that container arrive on that specific date.

I had gone through all that when the people in Ethiopia had planned to make a formal presentation to the St. Mary’s Hospital in Axum, Ethiopia, on a certain Wednesday. I told them that there was no way we could plan for a presentation on a certain date, because a thousand things on the water or on the land could easily alter the arrival date of a container. And even if the load landed in Eritrea, Africa, in good time, it still had to be trucked across Ethiopia to Axum on roads that had not existed three years prior. Well, guess what! We were scheduled to make the presentation in Axum, Ethiopia, on a Wednesday morning at 10:00. Late on Tuesday the big truck came chugging into town, and on Wednesday morning it was positioned in front of the hospital at precisely 10:00 for the presentation.

That certainly couldn’t happen twice within sixty days, halfway around the other side of the world. And yet it looks very much like a repeat heavenly performance is taking shape. Ted got busy and notified the local Russian newspaper, the Uzbek newspaper, the television stations, the officials at the health ministry, and every other dignitary he could think of. Friday will be the day of the presentation.

Following my meeting with Ted, I was scheduled to meet with Turdaliev Kozimjon, head of what could be called a “new business incubator.” His job is to support new entrepreneurial efforts and encourage bringing in joint-venture partners, especially from the West, to help build the economy of Uzbekistan. He had many questions and suggestions or opportunities for people to start a business in Andijon. We discussed everything from cotton-textile opportunities to importing gas camp stoves from Iran. I want to stay in touch with Mr. Kozimjon. Young Christian business students from, perhaps, Colorado Christian University or other schools would find a ready spot to work out of that man’s office. 

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At 1:00 we all went to Dr. Issif Yadgarov’s office at the medical institute. He had invited us to lunch at his office before touring his facilities. Compared to anything in the US, the neurology department was really sad. That facility should have been the finest possible, because it is the training institution for all other doctors in that field. But it was scary.

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Dr. Issif followed me all the way out to the car with his doctor son Deemus translating. He once again begged us to help his children get out of Uzbekistan and get situated in America. Both Dr. Issif and his wife are Russian Jews and are fearful of the future for their children.

In the evening we were invited to Dr. Don and Sylvia Ellsworth’s house for dinner, but I could not eat a bite of food there. I had gotten hold of some very bad mutton in the rice pilaf at Dr. Issif’s office at noon. The very thought of food made my liver quiver.

Back at Dr. Erkin’s home, I spent a miserable night … extremely hot, no water. Just miserable.

Thursday, June 27

In the morning I was feeling better, but I was still a little queasy. Dr. Erkin had gone all out for breakfast. In addition to bread cakes filled with mutton meat and fat, onions, and whatever else, we had fruit, tea, and something very special. Dr. Erkin had also gone to great lengths to procure for us a very special kind of milk. He said it is known for being very clear and will keep during travels for a very long time. He wanted us to try the special milk he had gotten for us. I took a sip of it. It was the worst-tasting stuff I have ever had in my mouth—even worse than stale camel milk and tea!

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When I asked him what it was, he couldn’t answer me because he was swigging his glass down to the very last drop. Finally, he explained that it was fermented mare’s milk. It is a delicacy, and it will last a long time without spoiling. As far as I was concerned, it was already badly spoiled. It was twice as sour and bitter as buttermilk, and extremely yeasty tasting. I had visions of a whole barn full of a herd of dairy brood mares lined up with milking machines that had been altered to fit a horse. Then I envisioned a more realistic picture of a grubby old Uzbek farm woman having patience stripping out an old mare that didn’t even care if she were being milked. I was not sure what all went on in the process of fermenting the milk, but I did know that when several of Dr. Erkin’s doctor friends came over after breakfast to meet us, they went directly to the porcelain bucket, took the dipper, and with great enthusiasm dipped and drank the white brew until it was all gone. I even think I noticed some of them licking their lips.

Next Week: On Behalf of all Women in Uzbekistan