Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia – Tom Bissell
Let’s start with a question: What do you know about Uzbekistan?
When I started this book, I didn’t know much. I didn’t even really know where it was. (Interestingly enough, it borders Afghanistan, which was the last book I read.) The main thing I could tell you about Uzbekistan was a story about a prospective student I met at a Georgetown government event. That’s about it. (If any of you MAAGies are reading this, you know the story.) That’s why when I came across this book, which was recommended by various sites, I was excited to learn more.
Chasing the Sea is the story of a former peace corps member, Tom Bissell, who returns to Uzbekistan to write. At first, it seems like he is focusing on the Aral Sea, which he terms as perhaps the worst ecological disaster of all time. To be honest, I thought he’d get to the Aral Sea quicker. (When he does though, he writes one of the most haunting scenes describing the abandoned boats.) His story is much more than this though. It’s about his journey through Uzbekistan, the people he encounters, the things he sees, the way he feels, (his foggy descriptions of the power of vodka makes me nauseous just thinking about it) and how it all comes together. There are so many different stories, tangents, and tidbits I could include, but I’ll leave you with this rather vague description.
I won’t lie, this book can be challenging to get through at times. It can be a bit wordy and there’s a lot of time spent explaining parts of Russian-Soviet-Uzbek history. This bogged me down because I tried to fully understand what was going on. (I’ll credit fours year of being a history major for this.) Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t recommend this book, because I think it has a lot to offer to someone who wants to explore really dive in. My piece of advice if you chose to pick up a copy is to skim through these parts. Oh, also print out a map. I feel like not knowing the general generic geography of this country made me not understand his movements. This brings me to another point: One of my favorite aspects of this book is that you get a full circle view of Uzbekistan. Bissell isn’t locked in any one city, but instead travels all throughout. So many books lack this full country view. This is most spectacular!
While I’m reading these books, I’m taking notes. (Once again, thank you history and poli sci profsessors.) They range from quotes, to connections, to memories, to contemporary relations, to whatever. Usually at the end of the book, after I try to digest what I read, I look up a million things I noted during the book. (My list for Uzbekistan was extra long because I literally know nothing about this country.) Anyways, I actually looked up the author of this book. I felt like I didn’t connect with him when it came to the general essence of traveling. (Don’t get me wrong, there were things I totally connected with concerning economic relativity and the harder parts of traveling that are overlooked.) Nonetheless, I read that after Uzbekistan, he actually traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan as a journalist. I’d really love to read his experiences here and see how his tone has changed. I’m also curious if his heart belongs to Uzbekistan.
To wrap up: Does this book make me want to visit? Yeah maybe. I would say I definitely want to learn more. (For example, this book is nearly 20 years old, so everything could be different.) Would I recommend this book? To the right person, yes. And by that, someone who enjoys books that have tangents, side stories, and length. But, If you’re looking for a quick, easy read, I’d suggest turning to a different book.
My last note: I also included websites on the “links page” to pictures of the subway in Uzbekistan’s capital city of Tashkent. I read in the book each subway station has a special theme and that they’re so beautiful. I had to check, and damn he was right. So if anyone sees me looking miserable at the metro tomorrow, know I’m thinking of these photos. Or maybe there is a delay on the yellow line. 😉
My last last note (I swear!): If anyone has any recommendations, PLEASE send them my way. I’d love to read what some of you have read and maybe even chat about it. (I’ll make sure to throw you a shout out too!) (Maybe someone has a suggestion about Russia…?) Otherwise, we’re off to Scotland next!
♦♦ Culture Bit: RusUz Restaurant ♦♦