Soaring fuel prices; electricity rationing; early snow -- it's enough to send people scurrying for alternative ways to heat their homes and cook their meals.
In some parts of Central Asia, however, "alternative" doesn't necessarily mean clean burning or eco-friendly. In Uzbekistan, cheap is the operative word, and that means things can get downright, well, earthy.
"Coal is fuel for rich people only," says Eshmurod-Aka, a resident of Uzbekistan's Qashqadaryo province. "Animal manure is the only fuel we use now."
Many Uzbek families now only turn on their power generators when there is a football match on television.
Sadirokhun Sophiyev, a resident of the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, explains that "these hardships have prompted us to find rather unorthodox, alternative ways" to keep the heat going and the stove cooking.
The burning of animal dung for fuel is an age-old practice that had largely faded away. But in the current environment households with livestock once again find themselves slapping manure on barn walls, part of a drying process that will result in dried cakes that can be used for heating.
Sophiyev boasts that he has even found a way to get rid of one of the main detractors of burning dung for fuel -- its smell.
"I make a mixture of sheep manure and coal powder," he says. "Coal powder is very cheap. I put a few kilos of coal powder on the floor of my sheep barn. Their waste eventually gets mixed with the powder and eventually it makes a perfect fuel that burns well and has no smell at all."
This winter is already shaping up to be a long one. The first snowfall came earlier than usual in many parts of Central Asia, in early November, just days after scheduled electricity rationing begun in many provinces across Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
"It's like a whole package of problems that winter brings to us," says Ahmad Ibrohimov, a resident of the southern Tajik town of Kulob.
"The situation is much more difficult this year," he says. "Three pieces of firewood, which is barely enough to boil a kettle, costs 2.3 somonis ($0.48). Diesel costs 7.5 somonis per liter. It's too expensive to use as fuel for home heating and cooking. For this reason, we can no longer use cooking stoves powered by diesel."
In Uzbekistan, a state-sponsored program offered households an affordable price of 71,000 soms ($40) for a ton of coal, enough to get a family of five through the winter. But supplies have run out, and prices have gone up to $300 per ton in some provinces -- roughly equal to the monthly per capita income.
Sophiyev, whose home region, the Ferghana Valley straddles the borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, says the conditions "lead to creativity."
"Even housewives have become like experienced electricians now," Sophiyev explains. "They attach a wire to power lines and connect it to their homes."
Another creation is a home-made siphoning device that increases the flow of natural gas piped into homes.
"It's a common practice because the gas pressure is very low, and people's households don't receive enough gas," a neighbor of Sophiyev's explains to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on condition of anonymity.
In Tajikistan, prices for gasoline and diesel have gone up by some 50 percent since April, following Russia's decision to raise its tariffs on oil exported to the impoverished country.
Kerosene Lamps and Candles
The price means many villagers can no longer easily afford to operate diesel-powered electricity generators that became popular among Tajik households in recent years.
"The generator consumes two liters of fuel every evening to produce electricity, which is barely enough for a television set and lighting a few bulbs," claims Nazirjon Ruziboev, a resident of Ponghoz village in the northern Sughd Province.
"Now I use the power generator only when there is a football match on television," he says. "We get electricity from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. when there are not many good television programs. People mostly watch movies on DVDs during winter."
The shortage of affordable energy and fuel means a complete change of lifestyle for the Ruziboevs. Despite having a sizeable five-room home, the family of six spends the winter mostly in one room.
The room is equipped with a wood-burning stove, which they use both for cooking and heating.
"This is where we eat, watch television and sleep," Ruziboev says. "It's suffocating sometimes, especially when food is being cooked. But it would be too expensive to have more than one stove."
And if more light is needed after electricity is cut off in the evening? Locals again go back to tradition -- in the form of kerosene lamps and candles.
By. Farangis Najibullah
Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.