Country Focus: Uzbekistan (O’zbekiston in Uzbek)
Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia
By Tom Bissell
Published by Pantheon Books, 2003.
About the author: Bissell has written about topics as disparate as the Vietnam War and the world’s worst movie. He’s also an ardent gamer who’s scripted video games, including the award-winning The Vanishing of Ethan Carver. Bissell’s next book, Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve, will publish in 2016.
Tom Bissell first arrived in Uzbekistan in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer. He didn’t stay long; a girl back home and acute gastric distress got the better of him and he skipped out early. Upon returning home, the girl got away and the diarrhea stopped. However, Bissell’s failure to live up to his service commitment nagged at him. Five years later, he received a story assignment which would give him a second chance at Uzbekistan: the doomed Aral Sea.
In 1960 the Aral Sea was the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world. Ill-schemed irrigation by the Soviets shrunk it to a whisper of its former self. Split into eastern and western lobes at the time of Bissell’s travels, the Sea’s eastern portion ran completely dry in October 2015.
Chasing the Sea describes way more than this disturbing environmental catastrophe. After arriving in the capital city of Tashkent, Bissell pairs up with an Uzbeki translator named Rustam and they set out on the road for Uzbekistan’s most historically renowned cities, Samarkand and Bukhara. Part buddy road trip narrative, part Uzbeki historical and cultural information center, and part ecological disaster story, Chasing the Sea is both exhaustive in its breadth and entertaining in its construction. An utterly satisfying read.
Rustam head-shakingly regarded me. “What do you have against the Soviets? Don’t you realize that without the Soviets I would have never been educated? That I would never have gone to America? Everything Uzbekistan has is because of the Soviets, dude. Uzbeks are simple people. The Soviets made us modern. Look at Afghanistan. The Soviets lost the war, right? But maybe if they had won, it would not be so unhappy there. Maybe the Taliban would not exist, and maybe all those fucking Muslims would not feel so free to kill and destroy.”
“It’s complicated. I admit that.”
“Actually,” he said, “It’s not complicated. I have just explained it to you.”