Carrefour Opens in Tashkent

Nadia poses in front of the entrance

We wanted to check out the new Carrefour supermarket on our weekly grocery shopping trip yesterday. It is another sign of the economic growth of Uzbekistan and Tashkent that an international chain opened such a large store. Majid Al Futtaim, the Emirati billionaire is behind the project. He opened Carrefour franchises all over the Middle East (over 30 countries). This store is on the ground floor of the former Media Mart complex (an electronics and home appliance store). Media Mart moved to the second floor. I heard there will be other Carrefour outlets opening in the city. Carrefour is originally from France and brought the concept of the “hyper market” / department store under one roof to France in the 1960s. I think it is a slightly more upscale and smaller version of Walmart.

Learning How to Slice Cheese

Nadia loves supermarkets and when we visit countries, one of our mandatory stops is to see what is available in the grocery stores. She found some speciality items that can’t be found in the local supermarkets. We both felt that the local supermarkets, Makro and Korzinka, compare favorably to Carrefour. We will continue to do most of our shopping at the local supermarkets and Mirobad bazaar. Carrefour offers free WiFi and several deli-like venues, such as a cheese-slicing (it is French, of course), crepes, bread and somsas, even a sushi stand. It has a long way to go to reach the level of a Trader Joes, Wegmans or Whole Foods in the USA. However, they do bring some new ideas in retail to the city and an international perspective, which is beneficial to Uzbek culture.

Uzbek, Russian and English languages on the recyclable bags

The young Uzbek employees seemed proud to be working for an international company. We were able to use our international credit card easily and they even gifted us two recyclable Carrefour shopping bags.

Family Journal: January 15, 2021

We completed our Winter Break and started with our Virtual Learning this week. The first few days back from a long holiday are always hectic with lots of people wanting to meet with me and it is the middle of teacher recruiting season. The weather improved this week and during the day, it is quite warm, going up to 10C! The snow returns next week however. In the winter I like to take night walks to get out of the house and beat the winter blues. My favorite neighborhood in Tashkent is around the Opera House so often I drive over there and take my dog Obi for a long walk in that area.

On Thursday we ran into an army division of around 50 soldiers marching through a walking street shopping district. I was wondering why they were singing “Uzbekistan”. After a bit of research, I discovered that January 14 is “Defender of the Fatherland” Day, which is a military holiday. This goes back to when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. It marks the day of the first big draft of the Russian “Red Army” in World War I. It is still celebrated in Russia and several former Soviet republics. Uzbekistan changed the date from February 23 to January 14 to celebrate the establishment of Uzbek military in 1992, shortly after independence. I didn’t notice any large parades or ceremonies, only the men marching and some cars in Temur Square with Uzbek flags.

I noticed Uzbeks and Central Asians in general, like LED colored lights. Many buildings, street posts, trees, restaurants, etc. are covered or outlined in lights. It makes for colorful walks in the evening. Above are some of the major buildings around the Opera House.

On my bike ride last week, I noticed this guy at a car wash (below). He is wearing the classic Central Asian winter gear. The robe and Russian-style fur hat. Most people wear Western-style winter jackets and hats, but there is a significant minority of the robes/fur hat wearers.

Classic Central Asian Winter Wear

Family Journal: January 6, 2021

I was pointing out this summer that our mahalla (neighborhood) did not have a prominent sign. Neighborhood associations in Tashkent are quite prominent and we live next door to our mahalla community center. I noticed today that our mahalla has a new sign. The name of our mahalla is Yangi Zamon (New Era) and Guzari is a place in the neighborhood where people go to relax, socialize and meet. It is nice that they renovated the part of the building and put up a new sign. There still is some more work that needs to be done as most of the community center is quite run down.

Obi and Nadia at the Clinic

Our dog Obi has been receiving treatment at the local veterinary clinic for digestive problems. Nadia has been quite anxious about his health. He is receiving a treatment of injections to help digestive system and other organs. The doctor recommended switching his diet to strictly dog food. The little guy has been a trooper, especially after the injection hurt his leg after the first day. He is feeling much better and was moving around as normal. Obi loves going for walks and despite the cold temperatures (-6C today) he enthusiastically saunters over the sidewalks and streets of Tashkent.

Nadia walking Obi in our neighborhood.

I am trying to keep fit and lose some weight I’ve gained over the holiday season. I ran 10 kilometers yesterday, barely. My calf was hurting and left knee a bit sore, but I finished. The canal is always peaceful and is exactly 5 kilometers in length so running from the starting parking lot to the Minor Mosque and back, is a nice 10 kilometer run.

Hydroelectric Dam on the Ankhor Canal

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan Slaght

Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Bubo blakistoni)

During the holidays I read “Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl” by Jonathan Slaght. The University of Minnesota scientist describes his doctoral research of Blakiston’s Fish Owl in far eastern Russia. When I was living in Japan I became interested in Kamchatka, Sakhalin Island and the region north of Vladivostok. Slaght spent 3 winters capturing and tracking fish owls in the Primoye province of Russia.

Blakiston’s Fish Owl as the title states, is the world’s largest owl species. They are found along rivers in northern Japan, Russia and perhaps in China as well. Due to logging and overfishing, they are endangered in Russia and the goal of Slaght’s research was to understand their needs and to preserve their habitat. It is quite difficult to study these birds. They are nocturnal and can only be captured during the winter when there is limited river hunting areas. The deep snow, cold temperatures, lack of infrastructure and generally hard culture of far eastern Russia made for gripping reading. Slaght endured a lot of get the information he needed. Slaght and his team of local researchers find the owls through listening for a low tone duet call between male and female owls around sunset. The owls need old growth, hollow trees near a river to nest so they would first scout suitable areas. They were quite ingenious in figuring out how to find and catch and release these secretive owls.

They discovered fish owls are most likely to be found in valley forests close to multi-channeled rivers and they stayed near areas where rivers didn’t freeze year-round. Their average home range was about 15 square kilometers. In the winter, they stayed close to these ice-free areas (7 square kilometers) and in the autumn, they would follow the migrating fish and expanded their range to 25 square kilometers.

Protecting their habitat is the big challenge to overcome to protect them. The 800 or so pairs of fish owls in Russia live in the flat, river valleys where logging companies, fishermen and hunters build roads. It was good to hear that Slaght was able to work with logging companies to limit the amount of roads and bridges they made. I would love someday to visit the Sikohte-Alin Biosphere Reserve where much of his research was focused.

The contrast of the fate of the fish owls in Japan and Russia was also interesting. In the early 1980s Japan, the fish owls were reduced to less than 100 birds, down from 500 breeding pairs in 1900 due to logging and hydroelectric dams stopping salmon migration up rivers. The government stepped in to protect them, including artificially feeding them in stocked ponds. Because of the small population and Soviet inertia, the fish owl was not threatened in Russia until much more recently. Hopefully, Slaght’s research will help preserve them in Russia.

I highly recommend this book. It took me away from Tashkent and reading of Slaght’s adventures during cold, winter evenings brought me much pleasure.

New Year Cycling

Horse Transport

As with many people, I am trying to get outdoors and exercise more as one of my New Year’s resolutions. The first two days of 2021 I did manage to get out on my bike and ride. It is one of the most pleasurable things I do and hope to continue during the winter. Global Cycling Network has many inspirational and informative videos to support people cycling. I find them encouraging on these cold winter days that it is easier to stay warm and cozy indoors. Uzbekistan in the winter, especially if you are not in the mountains, can be dreary. There is a lot of fog/smog and mud and with no leaves on the trees to hide unsightly, dilapidated buildings, the scenery can be a bit depressing. However, getting out is good for my mood and energy and I always see interesting sights like the horses being transported in the photo above. I was on the backside of the international airport under construction and notice three trucks filled with horses. I am not sure where they were going. They were dressed and with feed bags so I guess they were not going to the slaughterhouse. The Uzbeks do eat horsemeat.

There are many Great Patriotic War (World War II in the West) Memorials in Tashkent

I also discover areas of the city on my rides. For example, I never noticed the Palace of Arts “Turkiston” before. The former president Islam Karimov initiated the construction of this performing arts venue to celebrate the 1-year anniversary of Uzbekistan independence. The indoor theatre has a capacity of 900 and an outdoor amphitheater seats 3200. I have not been attending any public events because of COVID and I hope to see inside many of the buildings in Tashkent when this thing is done.

Trip to the Fergana Valley

My wife Nadia is an artist and loves the cultural arts of Uzbekistan. We visited the Fergana Valley on December 28-29 to see the famous ceramics of the village of Rishtan and the ikat textiles in the city of Fergana. Our first stop was in Rishtan, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. It is one of the oldest centers of ceramics in Uzbekistan because of the fine clays found underneath the area. For over 800 years, potters from Rishtan have been using the blue-green glaze called ishtar. The workshop of Alisher Nazirov was recommended to us and it certainly didn’t disappoint. He was not there, but several of his students helped us select some pieces and they even fed us a nice lunch of the ubiquitous plov. Nazirov’s work is displayed all over the world. We were surprised to see a Japanese language school on the premises. I think he must have married a Japanese woman and he studied in Japan and infused his work with a Japanese aesthetic. It was funny, because we didn’t notice until we were leaving and we could have done the transactions in Japanese language, instead of struggling with Uzbek and Russian. Nadia loves pottery and we’ve travelled the world in pursuit of it. She purchased some stunning plates and bowls and I even got a coffee mug.

Kamchik Pass

The drive from Tashkent to the Fergana Valley is about 4 and 1/2 hours. The highlight is going over the Kamchik Pass. It was quite dramatic going from the foggy lowlands up into the sunshine of the high altitudes. I marvelled at the snow fences to help prevent avalanches. I snapped the photo above at a reststop. Most of the drive was boring as driving this time of year in Uzbekistan can be grey, muddy and quite dreary. The drive would be 100 kilometers shorter if we didn’t have to go around Tajikistan. Damn Stalin with his borders! It is a shame that the Central Asia Republics do not have open borders like the EU. It would shorten journeys and improve the economy for all the countries. The Fergana Valley is the “toe” of the shape of the map of Uzbekistan that pushes into Kyrgyzstan. The cities of Kokand, Namangan, Andijon and Fergana sit in the valley. The region does not get the number of tourists that the Silk Road Cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand receive. However, it is a pleasant place to visit. I would like to go back to Kokand the next time I am in the region and perhaps cross the border and visit Osh in Kyrgyzstan.

Avalanche Protection in the Mountain Passes

On the second day we visited the Yodgorlik Silk Factory in the city next to Fergana, Margilon. They had to open it for us and it was not worth the visit. We enjoyed a coffee with the manager, but without silk production taking place and the cold weather, the gift shop did not have a wide selection. We found a beautiful Handcraft Center in another part of the city. It looked like a government effort to support the local artists. There were probably a hundred women weaving carpets and doing the traditional dye (ikat) of textiles. There was a big showroom of crafts. I was joking with them that there was only one rack of robes for men and hundreds of racks of clothes and materials for women. Nadia bought a coat and some material. She is reupholstering furniture in traditional Uzbek culture art patterns. A very cool idea and a little side business for her.

The city of Fergana looks similar to Tashkent. It was never a big silk road city and was mostly developed by the Russians. They built the Fergana Canal that brought agriculture to the valley and today, it is one of the “breadbaskets” of Uzbekistan. I thought there was quite a bit of pollution, perhaps because of people burning coal and its position in a narrow, mountain valley. We had a really nice meal at The Loft and a pleasant stay at the new Grand Fergana Hotel. I noticed the city if not very cosmopolitan as we were looking for a bottle of Georgian wine we like, and they only had domestic wines in the 4 shops we tried. The Palace of Art and the large park in front of it was filled with people admiring the New Year’s tree and lights.

In front of the Palace of Art Park

It was a nice little get-away and it was good to support Nadia in her pursuit of the arts. I was disappointed that none of our kids wanted to go with us, but we had a good time anyway. We connected with three of the new teachers and had a lot of fun in Fergana. I am not enthused about ceramics and textiles, but I do enjoy being part of my wife’s passion for art, color and design.

Yangiobad Bazaar

Nadia was looking for some antique glassware and old furniture to reupholster so we visited the famous flea market, Yangiobad Bazaar. The market is only open on weekends. It is a mix of permanent vendors and people occasionally hawking their wares. It is not designed for tourists but many of the expatriates at the school go often for the antiques. I liked the Soviet propaganda items like pins, Lenin busts, military uniforms, etc. It is a bit depressing to visit because the venue is an abandoned cement slab factory and the adjacent railway yard. Uzbekistan is a poor country, with a GDP of 120th in the world, which puts it above the African nations, but near the bottom of the rest of the world. It is actually very close to Bolivia.

I am amazed at the variety of items available, ranging from engine parts to cigars, old tubas to second-hand Android phones and everything in between. Much of the stuff for sale would go into landfills in more developed countries. The humble dress and goods, combined with ugly environs, makes me feel sorry for the poor here. The grey, snowy morning didn’t help the ambiance. We were treated nicely and it felt good to contribute to their livelihood. I picked up a Russian language version of the Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night” album LP for Owen for $1.50 and a metal hammer/sickle and for Oliver. I should have bought an old gas mask for my daughter, but I couldn’t find the stall where I first saw it. Maybe next time.I see online that it is also called the “tizzykafka” market. I am not sure what that means.

Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live

I heard several interviews of Nicholas Christakis, the Yale physician and sociologist on various podcasts. So when his book came out, I decided to pick it up. Christakis wrote 8 hours a day this summer to publish it while the pandemic is still going strong. I enjoyed the book, especially the first part that covered the medical and science part of the pandemic. I was less enthused reading the sociological impact of the virus. He is qualified to write on both aspects and that may appeal to readers.

He puts in many fascinating facts about the disease and its spread.

  • Pharmaceutical companies and university laboratories were able to produce a vaccine in the fastest time in history because of today’s gene technology. The genome of 29,903 letters was sequenced from a sample taken from a Huanan market vendor. Fudan University of Shanghai released the sequence to the public on January 11, 2020. Laboratories were able to quickly develop diagnostic tests and less than a year later, several vaccines are on the market.
  • This coronavirus (SARS-2) is 96.2% identical to a coronavirus found in a bat in a cave in Yunnan, China several years ago. This confirms that the SARS-2 originated in bats.
  • The Re number is the “effective reproductive rate” and measures the average number of people does an individual infect. The Re differs from the Ro because human actions (environment) determines the rate of spread along with the “capacity of the pathogen to start an outbreak” (R0). With ubiquitous testing, contact tracing and quarantine/isolation protocols, a system can reduce the Re greatly.
  • Christakis refers to studies showing a case is MOST infectious 1-2 days BEFORE symptoms appear and they are possibly most contagious during this time frame. In one study in Wuhan, 73% of secondary cases were infected before symptoms.
  • Christakis estimates between 40-60% of the world will be infected by the end of the pandemic.
  • Historically, vaccines and medications played a small role in the stopping of most infectious diseases. Measles, TB, typhoid, diphtheria were already nearing the bottom of their infection curves when vaccines were developed. This is known as the McKeown Hypothesis.
  • Masks are effective not only in reducing propulsion of exhalation particles, but they also reduce people touching their face. People touch their face roughly once every 4 minutes. Masks also signal to others to keep their distance from the wearer. A Yale study analyzed mask use in 46 countries around the world. Countries where mask use had always been the norm had many fewer deaths than those where it was not.
  • Many quack remedies were sent around social media and one study of 200 million tweets from January – May 2020 showed 62% of the top 1000 retweeters were bots.
  • Children are less likely to become infected. Early studies in China showed children under 9 living with an infected family member have a 7.4% attack rate while adults ages 60-69 had a 15.4% rate. The mortality rate for people under 20 was low, between 1-3 people out of 10,000 dying. For patients in their late 50s, 1 of 100 and for patients above 80, 1 in 5.
  • He does not think contact tracing apps work. His lab at Yale developed an app, Hunala, to estimate one’s risk with doing certain activities. I need to explore this app and perhaps introduce it to our school community.
  • Christakis points out correctly in discussing American university education that “huge investments in residential facilities (student centers and dorms with fancy amenities) and lots of midlevel deans and administrators contributing to higher tuitions and alarming debt loads”
  • Young doctors in training during the pandemic will view their profession as a calling more than an occupation due to the crisis.
  • The pandemic of 1889, the last flu epidemic of the 19th century, was first reported in Bukhara, Uzbekistan and killed over 1 million people. It was known as the Russian or Asiatic Flu.
  • COVID-19 patients with blood type A are 50% more likely to need oxygen therapy than patients with other blood types.

I was particularly interested in his take on school closures. He writes “the evidence is mixed, and it is very difficult to be sure”. He continues “An even more difficult issue relates to the usual utilitarian calculus of public health – whether the lives saved by closing the schools are, in fact, worth the short-term and long-term cost to children and to society.”

Apollo’s Arrow – Nicholas Christakis

Christakis does go on detail his take on school closures. He thinks school should be closed BEFORE the first case appears in a school, when the disease cases begin to appear in the community or in nearby areas. The proactive closure is more controversial, but research shows it is one of the most beneficial interventions that can be employed to reduce the pandemic. The rationale is a school will have to close when the disease becomes more prevalent in the community, so with a proactive closure, everyone will be inconvenienced by the school closure, but many cases will be averted because of the early closure. Much of the benefits of school closures come from the parents also staying at home. In a study of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, earlier and longer school closures saved a lot of lives.

In reflecting what we did at TIS, we shut down when the first official case was reported in March, 2020 and stayed closed/virtual until October, 2020. That is an early and long school closure that probably saved some lives. Upon reopening the campus, we put in many measures to reduce transmission (outdoor learning, hand-washing, ventilation, masks, limit parents/visitors, etc.) and as in retrospect a public service, offered families the choice of virtual learning.

Apollo’s Arrow was a valuable read and I would like to thank Dr. Christakis for helping me understand the pandemic more. I also learned about the Greek god Apollo’s affiliation as bringer of plagues, hence the title.

An Amirsoy Holiday

Blue Skies – White Snow

We got back today from the Amirsoy Resort in the Tian Shan mountains. It was so refreshing to see the blue skies and lots of snow on the ground. My highlight was just spending time with Oliver and Ocean. They both developed into stronger skiers after 4 days and I saw much more confidence on the last day this morning. Both of them can now go all the way to the highest point of the resort (2,200 meters / 7,500 feet) and they did every slope except for #7 Bravo. I loved staying in the chalets, much for the convenience. We could drive the 500 meters to the Alpine Restaurant parking lot in the chalet village, put on the skis, and head down toward the chair lift to start our day. We rented the equipment and ski passes for 4 days so it was great to skip the lines in the equipment rental and cashier desk. I also loved going to the chalet at lunch to take a short nap and refresh myself for the afternoon. When you just go for the day, you are there the entire day on the slopes are in the restaurant.

Owen

The kids are getting to an age where they prefer to spend time with their friends over their parents. Owen, Oliver and Ocean spent much of the time skiing with their friends, rather than with me. 😦 Such is life. I made the best of it and did a couple mornings and an afternoon with Oliver and Ocean. Being outside all day, being active and with my children makes for a delightful time. In the evenings we had fun with some TIS friends that were also staying at the resort. We hosted dinners for each other.

Ocean and Oliver

Family Journal: December 21, 2020

Family Road Trip!

I love the family road trips we take and as Owen is a senior this year, we are counting everyone as our possibly last as a complete family. We packed up the car and headed to the Amirsoy Resort for some skiing and family time. We arrived in the afternoon and after we sorted the equipment and lift tickets, Ocean, Owen and I were on the slopes. Ocean is developing her skills and said she loved skiing. I am trying to instil in the kids a love of outdoor activities. Hurray, a win there, perhaps. Today I will be concentrating on Oliver. Owen was snowboarding and is quite good and he loves the sport.

Owen and Ocean in the gondola

Because it is so hard to travel, much of the TIS community is spending their Christmas break at the resort. The kids are enjoying the company of other faculty children and their fellow TIS students. They made s’mores last night while Nadia and I watched High Fidelity and enjoyed a bottle of Georgian wine. I didn’t really like the movie, it has not aged well and John Cusak spends a lot of time talking to the camera. The guy is immature and trying to find his way in life.

The View from our Chalet

It is amazing what a bit of elevation and about 60 kilometers does for one’s mood. We have left behind the grey skies and brown/wet streets of Tashkent for the sunny, winter wonderland of the Ugam-Chatkal National Park! It is absolutely beautiful up here with a fresh snowfall on Sunday.