Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan

I finished reading Joanna Lillis’s book, “Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan”. It is an excellent introduction to the country with a bit of history, a section on the government and stories about individual Kazakhs. Her writing style is engaging and she definitely knows the country well.

It makes me want to visit our neighboring country soon. I didn’t realize that Kazakhstan was so large, almost the same size as Argentina. Like Uzbekistan, it was a former Soviet Republic, but sharing such a long border with Russia, it is more influenced by it. When independence came in the early 90s, Kazakhs were a minority. This has changed over the nearly 30 years as a country. Joanna really knows the country well and there are a lot of perspectives in the book. I loved the story about the villagers living near an old uranium mine. It is unfortunate that the world knows Kazakhstan more for the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen than anything else.

Lillis is now a sanctioned journalist in Uzbekistan and I’ll be following her reporting. I highly recommend the book for those interested in Central Asia.

Weekend Journal: September 15, 2019 – Tashkent City

Mid-September weather in Tashkent has been perfect with temperatures in the 70s F and nights cooling down to the low 60s. We had a nice weekend with the highlight being Oliver’s soccer game. Today Nadia and I went shopping down to the massive Chorsu Bazaar. It always makes me laugh that the vendors are curious about where we are from and how we like Tashkent. Tourists are still new here and we are a novelty. A refreshing change from other parts of the world. Nadia was on a mission for raspberries to make jam. She loves making jam and giving them as gifts. The cost of living is very low here, she bought 4 kilograms of raspberries for $USD 7.

Ocean enjoyed the trampoline park, iFly.

Nadia and I checked out the TIS faculty bands on Saturday night. They were playing at The Temple Pub. Lots of talent on staff and we had a good time with friends.

We were also reminded about the most dangerous part of living in Tashkent, the crazy drivers. We saw the aftermath of a crash around 3:00 PM in the afternoon. There were a lot of police and bystanders at an intersection. There are some drivers here that move at a dangerously high speed, especially through intersections. I would love to get some statistics of the locations and frequency of crashes here.

Finally, I got a nice bicycle ride in on Sunday morning with Matt. I am working on becoming a better cyclist, focusing on technique and cadence. I really love cycling – I could go out for a ride everyday!

Cruising by the Tashkent Tower

Oliver’s TIS Owl Soccer Debut

Oliver was a stalwart defenseman in his first game as an Owl

Oliver played his first game at the Tashkent International School (TIS) this morning. The TIS Owls lost 0-2 to the British School of Tashkent (BST) in a hard fought game. Oliver came in just as the second half began and while playing defense, his team did not allow a goal. The boys played with much effort and they have a promising season ahead.

Intensity and Physical Play Define Ollie’s Game

Oliver loves soccer and the camaraderie that comes with team sport. He was so excited this morning to put on the Owl uniform for the first time. The junior varsity team has players in grades 8-10 and they play in the Central Asian Sports Conference.

Both the boys and girls varsity and junior varsity teams played today, as well as middle school girls volleyball so there were plenty of sports action on campus today. There were quite a few parents and students in attendance and Athletic Director Branden Tobin leads a professional program. I enjoyed soaking up the athletic atmosphere and talking with community members.

Oliver displays good sportsmanship

A Hearty Breakfast

Ready to Eat!

Weddings (nikokh-tui in Uzbek) are extravagant affairs in Uzbekistan, with lavish parties and events for two days. They are so expensive that last year the government urged people to limit their spending on weddings. Weddings begin with a morning breakfast plov (pilaf) hosted by the bride’s father.

My driver Ahat invited me to a friend’s morning plov on Friday. This was my second time attending one of these events. It is such an unusual way to start one’s day and I can’t think of an equivalent in America or Europe. I was grateful for the invitation and the opportunity to experience this classic Uzbek experience. This breakfast is only attended by men and the guest list includes relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors and in my case, friends of friends. Attendees were on the older side, which makes sense with a 7:00 AM start traditionally after morning prayers.

Guests listen to the imam’s speech amongst flowers, arches and silk, mainstays of Uzbek luxury decorative finishings

Older Uzbek gentlemen often wear the traditional square hat. I noticed three basic types, black with white spiral embroidery, black and blue. They are most often worn on special occasions, but I do see them on a daily basis around the city. I think it is a cool look and Nadia bought the blue style for me at the Chorsu Bazaar yesterday.

Navro’z is one of numerous reception halls in Tashkent

There are many reception halls that cater these events around the city. I estimated about 250 men were in attendance on Friday. Upon arrival, the table is covered with fruits, cucumber/tomatoes, pistachios, the ubiquitous Uzbek bread, sweets, etc. It is easy to get full before the main dish arrives, while drinking tea and snacking. An imam gives a sermon, or speech. Ahat said his 10-minute talk was about marriage. After the speech, relatives of the married couple form lines and pass plates of plov to each of the tables. A dish is shared between two people and spoons are used. Guests passed around the cucumbers and tomatoes to add some healthy veggies to the plov. This plov included horse sausage, which I’ve had a couple of times. It is good, but a bit too salty for my taste. The plov was delicious and Ahat and I finished our plate.

A portion of the plov is saved and sent to the bride and groom’s families. (plastic container on the table)

Almost immediately after the food is eaten, there is a quick prayer and everyone heads out. Eating and running is acceptable here! I skipped lunch on Friday and had an extra cup of coffee to prevent me from going back to sleep on a full stomach. Thanks to Ahat for the invitation and his friend’s family for showing me hospitality and welcoming me, a stranger, to participate in their big day

Hiking in the Chatkal Mountains

Hunter’s Peak in the background

I finally got out of Tashkent for a day in the beautiful Western Tian Shan mountains, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Chatkal Mountains are only 65 km (40 miles) east of the city. It is so nice that they are so close to the city and readers of my blog will be hearing a lot about them.

The steepest part of the hike on Big Chimgan (1950 meters – 6,300 feet)

The hike was led by a retired engineer named Boris. For years he has led hikes for foreigners living in Tashkent. Yesterday’s trek started in the village of Chimgan and headed up towards the Bolshoy Chigan, the central peak of range in Uzbekistan. We climbed over the fine open tops of Big Chimgan and Small Chimgan, walking along ridges. We descended to the Chorvok Reservoir where the van picked us up. Boris is quite the character and we had a good time trekking with his grandson and partner, Vladimir and a couple of fellow expats.

Horses on the descent of Small Chimgan

Most of the hike was following trails through grazing areas. We saw horses, sheep and cows during the day. As in the American West, I wish there were no livestock grazing on such beautiful lands because of the environmental damage they wreak upon the natural flora and fauna. I always wonder what the place would look like without livestock. It makes me want to be a vegetarian. Despite this, the views were striking and this gave me a taste of what more there is to explore. There were a few steep sections on the top of Chimgan peaks (1950m and 1850m) and I slowly and safely scrambled over the rocks.

There are many gorges to explore in the Chatkal Mountains

We had lunch overlooking the Chorvok Reservoir. The lake had a weekend-getaway feel with lots of “dachas”, Soviet-era hotels and Tashkenters driving up for the views. Fortunately, it was peaceful far up above them, but we saw a lot of people on the way back. It is a three-day weekend in Uzbekistan to celebrate 28 years of independence from the USSR.

The ridge between Big and Small Chimgan Peaks

The Chatkal Mountains are the far west of the Tian Shan Mountain Range that goes all the way to western China. The peaks are not as high as in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but they are much more accessible and close to the city. The far east of Uzbekistan is a finger between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and we could see the mountains go on across the border. I am looking forward to exploring more of these mountains in the Chimgan Ugam-Chatkal National Park.

The View over Chorvok

Cycling in Tashkent

There is a growing cycling community in Uzbekistan as the country is opening up to international influences. Last April the Asian Road Cycling Championships were held here and last March, a cycle marathon to the Kazakhstan border took place.

Velo Market – “the” bicycle repair shop in town

My friend Matthew took us out on a 40 kilometer social loop around the city yesterday morning. We stopped at the bike shop the expats go to for repairs and service. It was funny to see Chinese city bike-share cycles among the selection of bikes for sale. I read where last spring there was an overproduction of bike share programs in Chinese cities. Two of them ended up in Tashkent.

Despite some reckless driving and underdeveloped asphalt road system, the cycling is quite good here. The wide avenues from the Soviet years and vast public spaces make cycling in the city center quite pleasant. There are also many routes outside the city that I am anxious to explore.

Kralovec Family Journal: August 24, 2019

Papa & Ocean

It was our first full week of classes. One of my highlights was the morning cross country running practice with Ocean. She is now a middle schooler, and is out for her first sport, cross country running. The team has practices in the morning before school. She wants to qualify for the CEESA event in Kiev, Ukraine. I hope she continues running!

Farewell Dinner – Afonsa Restaurant – August 23

We said goodbye to my Uncle Jack. He was a godsend for helping us settle into our new home. Our house looks absolutely fabulous thanks to his efforts in organizing the kitchen, hanging paintings, prepping the gardens, etc, etc, etc. It has been so nice to have a father figure in my life again and he has given our family some stability. He really cares about our family and we are so happy to have him in our life. Thank you Uncle Jack, we love you!

I am enjoying working with the principals at the school. Jan and Angelika are so helpful, easy to get along with , work hard and know their educational practices. I think we are making a good team and I look forward to more good times ahead. We attended a US Embassy reception on Wednesday evening.

Amir Temur Station

I finally got to see a couple of the subway stations in the city. The metro was modeled after Moscow’s underground. We only sampled two of the stations, but the marble, lighting and archways were impressive. The system is old, but well kempt.

We set up our basketball hoop in the street in front of our house. It has been very popular with the neighborhood children. Owen and Oliver got into a game of two-on-two last night.

Mirabad Scenes

Finally, I rode my bicycle around the neighborhood this morning. I love the bright sunshine and the Soviet era apartment buildings and narrow streets near our house.