One of the most common topics of discussion with fellow travellers is food, though when I casually mention that I continue to uphold my meat-free lifestyle even when travelling, I get a mixed reaction. From time to time I cross paths with someone who disapproves, passive-aggressively inferring that I am rude for rejecting local food. There are of course also those that understand how important it is for me, or anyone else, to hold onto principles regardless of the culture in which we find yourselves. I would not eat meat at a stranger’s house in Mongolia, just as a I wouldn’t eat it when going to a carnivorous friend or colleague’s house in England. I have found people to be understanding wherever I find myself in the world, once I explain my reasons (that is, once I get past the language barrier). That said, there are some places where it is far more difficult to get by as a vegetarian or vegan–not because people are less open to the idea–but because the culture has historically not practiced agriculture and fewer vegetables are consumed.
The easiest places in the world to be a vegetarian or vegan are undoubtedly those regions with a long history of settlements and civilisation. The Indus Valley was one of the earliest civilisations of the old world, an area covering northeast Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India; the Harappans diet contained many pulses including peas, chickpeas, lentils and green gram, and their staple grains were wheat and barley. Today, around 31-40% of Indians are vegetarian and many more refrain from consuming meat for religious purposes. If we look to other regions with a long history of civilisation, North Africa, Greece and Italy are renowned for their inventive use of vegetables, pulses and legumes. In Greece during classical antiquity vegetarianism was called abstinence from beings with a soul (ἀποχὴ ἐμψύχων). By the 5th century the philosopher, mathematician and religious leader Pythagorus was already disseminating his ideas about abstaining from animal flesh in what was then a Greek-colonised area in Southern Italy. He was not alone in his convictions.
Early Christianisation of the Roman Empire brought with it ideas of human supremacy over all living things, vegetarianism consequentially almost disappeared in Europe between the 4-6th centuries, remerging as a philosophical concept during the Renaissance. Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the better known advocates of vegetarianism. Moving forward to the 18th century and England was the country in Europe where vegetarian ideas were most prevalent; especially in urbanised areas.
It is easy to be go animal-free in contemporary Europe. Even in countries where food products are often not labelled as suitable, most European cuisines offer many naturally vegetarian dishes with a focus on the vegetable, including grains. It is even easier to be a vegetarian in parts of South-East Asia, India, Vietnam, China, Japan and Korea where little meat is consumed and many still adhere to taoist, Hindu, or more contemporary Buddhist ideas about practising minimal harm.
Inevitably, the hardest places to keep hold of your convictions are in countries with little history of settlement–and consequentially little history of agriculture. Kazakhs, for example, were herders for hundreds of years who relied on their animals for transportation, clothing and food. Their nomadic culture was not too dissimilar to that found in Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. There is only one fully vegetarian restaurant in the country, part of the Hare Krishna international chain Govinda’s in the capital city of Almaty.
As you might imagine, Kazakhstan was one of the most difficult countries I have traveled to diet-wise. While the capital offered many international cuisines (I often found myself eating Italian and Korean food), in rural areas, small towns and the homes of local people I soon learnt that this was one cuisine I would be unable to sample in any shape or form. Kazakh cuisine is traditionally heavy in boiled meat, particularly mutton and horse. Milk is also an important aspect is the diet, which tends to come from sheep, Bactrian camels and horses and is often fermented–in the past preservation was necessary to survive long journeys, now it is an acquired taste across the nation. ‘Besmarmak’ is the most popular dish in Kazakhstan and consists of boiled mutton or horse meat. Outside the international cities of Almaty and Astana, this is truly a vegan’s worst nightmare.
Upon arriving in the small town of Ushtobe with my partner who was working on a long-term documentary project, I was excited to see the market where there were plenty of fresh vegetables. My excitement however was short-lived; upon returning to our rented flat, we discovered that all the vegetables were old and found ourselves discarding half our entire shop. We scoured every small shop we could find looking for things we could eat, and in the end found ourselves eating a very penurious meal of rice and red kidney beans with a splash of oil, or rice and sweetcorn.
After two weeks of this diet I would have felt extremely malnourished had I not packed a few precautionary bags of Huel. In case you’re wondering what Huel is and haven’t followed the link through, it’s a complete food alternative that is similar to Joylent and Soylent but more natural, and entirely plant-based. According to the website, one serving contains all the proteins, fats, carbohydrates and essential vitamins and minerals that you need. I bought it initially as a backup meal for those days that my partner and I just have no energy to cook after an assignment, though for this trip I packed it “just in case”–little did I know it would become my lifeline. Every morning before heading out with my partner I made myself a flask of the liquid to replace lunch, if need be. Sometimes I had it for breakfast too. The taste is not unpleasant, quite akin to a watered down bowl of oatmeal. One night I was starving and made it thicker with hot water and it filled the hole.
With our language barrier, most communication with our hosts in various places was achieved through a combination of body language, gesturing, pigeon Russian and Google Translate–yes, most people in the world have 3g and smart phones nowadays. When possible, I warned hosts prior to visits that I was a strict vegetarian, and everyone did their best to accommodate this. One Koryo-Saram lady was concerned and gave me a very basic cucumber salad with dill and some bread at the wake of her grandfather, but the following day invited us to her aunt’s house where we were well-looked after. When Koreans arrived in Kazakhstan, they brought with them agriculture. Though the harsh terrain and climate does not support much plant life, this 90 year old Koryo-Saram lady had done with her garden what she could, and her living room floor was covered in dried vegetables. She hurried to cook us a simple but delicious potato dish–on the table there were gherkins and pickled tomatoes which made for the heartiest meal we ate in Ushtobe. Another lady brought out bread, homemade jam and tea sweetened with jam, a Russian tradition that has remained in Kazakhstan since the fall of the USSR. No one expressed any resentment for my lifestyle choices, at most a few people we met seemed concerned that they didn’t know what to feed me.
Though Kazakhstan was an interesting country, I felt relieved upon crossing the border into neighbouring Uzbekistan which has a long history of settlement, the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand being major cities along the Ancient Silk Road trade route. Suddenly I was able to eat salads, vegetable pastries and dumpling, delicious pumpkin and pomegranate, good bread, nuts and dried fruits.
Having experienced being a herbivore in what is arguably one of the most carnivorous countries on the planet, every ‘next time’ I planned better. When visiting countries or regions which might not be the best places in the world for vegetarians and vegans I now always pack Huel (along with its packaging and instructions, so the white foil bag does not get mistaken for drugs at customs), vegetable stock cubes (bouillon), emergency snacks such as cookies and cereal bars, and occasionally a jar of peanut butter for that necessary fat-protein fix.
Regardless of where you go in the world, Happy Cow is your friend. A quick search tells me that even Mongolia is a better option for vegetarians than Kazakhstan with an ample choice of meat-free zones including seven Loving Huts (an international Vegan chance which was established in Vietnam), a Govinda’s and the local vegetarian eatery Luna Blanca.
In my experience traveling around the globe from a young age, I have always found that the majority of those I meet are understanding of vegetarianism or veganism; especially once I explain my reasoning. Sometimes it’s not easy to explain things, and in countries such as China it can be difficult to get by without understanding Chinese characters. People elsewhere are not too different from those within our own countries once we find a way to communicate. And there have always been and still are vegetarians everywhere, even if we’re still the minority. Rather than avoiding countries where this morally motivated lifestyle choice is less common than it is back home, I advocate being a part of that progressive wave and participating in respectful discussions. Through conversation we can break down a few prejudices on both sides and better understand the other.