Covid-19 Journal #11: Ride to Kazakhstan and a Broken Toe

The start of the border crossing between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

I finally made the ride from my home to the Kazakhstan border this morning. It is about 26 kilometers (15 miles) from my door to the border as a straight ride north through the city of Tashkent to the border. The outline of the borders of Uzbekistan looks a bit like the boot of Italy but flipped and turned sideways. The capital city of Tashkent is located near the toes, with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan on the top (north) and bottom (south) of the foot and Krygyzstan surrounding the toes. Tashkent is the capital because when the Russians conquered the area in the 1800s, they made it the capital because the major cities at the time (Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva) were under the control of Emirs and they wanted a place to call their own. That is why it is not in the center of the country. You could ride the four countries in one day if they had open borders like within the EU. However, border crossings are cumbersome and often impossible.

Map of Central Asia (courtesy of Wikipedia)

They were a product of late-Tsarist and early-Soviet census data, ethnographic and orientalist scholarship, and also in part of the process of raionirovanie – identifying supposedly rational and viable economic units, and ensuring that each new state met minimum criteria for becoming a full-blown Soviet Socialist Republic: these included a population of at least a million, and a capital city connected by rail.

 Inevitably, the process of drawing national boundaries in a region where these borders had never existed before, where bilingualism and multi-layered identities were common, and where divisions of language and ethnicity often fell along the rural/urban divide, created many anomalies. Among the sedentary population, a wide range of older identities – Sart, Khwarazmi, Ferghani, Samarqandi, Bukharan – were subsumed under the label of “Uzbek,” which, before 1921, had only referred to particular tribal groups. Tashkent and Shymkent were both cities with a mixed population of Europeans and Uzbeks, surrounded by a hinterland populated largely by Kazakhs. The former ended up in Uzbekistan, the latter in Kazakhstan. Tajik-speaking Bukhara and Samarkand were surrounded by Turkic-speaking countryside and ended up in Uzbekistan, a decision which rankles with Tajikistan to this day.

Morrison, Alexander “Stalin’s Giant Pencil: Debunking a Myth About Central Asia’s Borders, Eurasianet.org (February 13, 2017)

During the quarantine I’ve been able to ride freely throughout the city before the police begin manning the checkpoints at 8:00 AM. As it is loosening, I am able to ride past 8:00 AM, although there are more cars on the roads. However, there is much less traffic now than before which has the benefits of cleaner air quality and easier bike riding. In some ways, I’ll miss the days of quarantine which might be coming to an end this month.

The spread of Covid-19 in Tashkent, if the Ministry of Health and World Health Organization figures are accurate has been kept in check. There are 630 confirmed cases in the city with 9 deaths in the entire country. Uzbekistan being double landlocked and not in tourist season, was never a major hotspot for the disease. The government took strong measures starting in mid to late March to physical distance the city. Now that it is May, they are slowly loosening restrictions with cars now being able to move from 7:00 – 10:00 AM and 5:00 – 8:00 PM. There is less of a police presence i the neighborhoods, although they are outside my house today. They are friendly and we have a good relationship with the mahalla (neighborhood) leaders and they let us come and go as we please.

Livestock on the roads and gas pipelines are two common sights of cycling in Uzbekistan
The Mazhid Mosque is located on highway M39 on the way to Kazakhstan

I broke my toe a couple of weeks ago. I was annoyed at having to clean the kitchen after dinner and was stuffing Tupperware and things in the refrigerator. A large, glass Tupperware full of leftover chicken fell out of the fridge from shoulder height and landed right on the end of my middle toe. The last bone of the middle toe was had a thin crack at the end. I have been taping it to the adjacent toe as there is nothing much else you can really do with it. Thanks to the Coronavirus Cycling Opportunity I’ve been able to continue to exercise through cycling while my toe is healing.

Happy Birthday Oliver!

Oliver’s Covid-19 Birthday Zoom Party – April 30, 2020

Nadia was a superstar mother to organize a meaningful birthday for our son Oliver. He turned 15 on April 30 and due to the quarantine, we could not invite friends over or go on an outing with friends. Instead, Naida contacted the mothers of Oliver’s friends around the world and they had a Zoom party. Oliver had friends from his time in Serbia, Japan and Uzbekistan online. He was so happy! Oliver is an extrovert and lives for his friendships and connections to others. Besides gaming, hanging out with friends is his favorite thing to do. The expression on his face and mood during and after the Zoom call was priceless. I was so proud of Nadia for providing such a thoughtful event for her son.

We sang happy birthday, had a homemade chocolate cake, and ate his favorite meal (chicken coconut curry with rice) on the patio by the pool. Without the pandemic, we never would have zoomed in so many people and they would not be available.

Reflections on Living Abroad

An old acquaintance sent me some questions about living internationally for an assignment he is doing for his university study. It gave me a chance to reflect on the choice of me living outside of the USA for most of my life.

  1. Where do you live, or did you live? For how long?
    1. I live in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I arrived in July 2019. I am a long-term expatriate who has lived in Colombia, Bolivia, Australia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Serbia and Japan for over 25 years.
  • What do you do there? Work/type of work or are you a student.
    • I am a director of an international school.
  • What made decide to live abroad?
    • Wanderlust; novel experiences; escape the ordinary life (to me at the time) of rural Michigan
  • What was the process to move like?  Complicated? What sacrifices did you make to move?
    • The schools that I worked for helped with the moving process, which was complicated but once you do it a couple of times, it is much less daunting. You lose extended family and old friends when you move abroad. This is somewhat less so with today’s communication technology, but it is not the same as living near relatives.
  • How long did it take to learn the language or did you already?
    • I do not have a gift for languages so it is always a struggle. Most of my work is in English but through my years working in Latin America, I consider myself fluent in Spanish. My Serbian/Russian is improving and I can get by quite well. I didn’t have enough time to learn much Japanese which I regret.
  • How far did you assimilate into the local culture? Did you live right in with the locals or are you staying close to other English-speaking nationalities? Do you have an immigration status there? Do you use their social programs like healthcare?
    • Living in a foreign country long-term is different than visiting the country. However, working at an international school you are somewhat in the expatriate “bubble” and it takes effort to connect with local culture. Some countries are more difficult than others to connect with. There may be religious, linguistic, economic barriers that make it harder to truly experience a local culture. It is also different today than when I first went overseas in 1992 with the internet. We have our VPN with Netflix, HBO and Sling subscriptions and it feels like we consume the same media as Americans. This was not the case when I first moved to Colombia.
    • I am politically liberal/left I think in big part to seeing health care and higher education in other countries. I think it is a shame that all Americans do not have access to good health care and that university is so expensive. It is making me strongly consider never moving back to the USA, especially in my retirement years.
  • Are you still participating or up to date with what is going on in the United States?
    • Very much so, it is easy to follow the news in the USA. My lifestyle however is significantly different than if I was an educator in the USA. I am a registered voter in my home state of Michigan.
  • Do you have plans to ever live in the United States again.
    • No plans but if the right opportunity came up, I would consider it.
  • If you could sharing a funny or interesting story about something you had to adjust to when you moved there.
    • Every country has its unique characteristics. Uzbekistan is very laid back and the people are gentle and open-minded, not the image that is in the media when you hear about “the ‘Stans”. The Education Minister yesterday in an interview said that they are not going to announce they are canceling final exams for students in grades 5 through 11 in public schools because he didn’t want the students to quit studying. The country is currently in a lockdown and public school teachers are giving lessons over television for the past three weeks.

Covid-19 Journal #10 – April 16, 2020

The government is arranging for mobile mini-markets in neighborhood in Tashkent. This morning, several trucks came with produce and police and neighborhood elders set up tables. My neighbor rang our bell to let us know that the market was ready. I walked over and saw eggs, potatoes, onions, etc. for sale. We have been getting groceries delivered via private taxi and didn’t need any, but it was nice to see the government helping people. The markets are meant to reduce numbers at the larger markets around the city, thus increasing social distancing.

The Ministry of Health reported 1,349 cases of Covid-19 in Uzbekistan. The number of confirmed cases continues to grow with more people being tested. The average daily growth continues to increase, mostly because of increased testing. The Prosecutor General reported 42,782 violations of quarantine regulations. Interestingly, most of them, 39291 were committed by men and only 525 by women. Almost all (40,000) of the violations were not wearing a mask, which is mandatory here if you are out of the house.

The Plague – Albert Camus

Police are posted on all streets to enforce the quarantine. Tashkent, April 11, 2020

Of course I had to re-read Albert Camus’s The Plague during quarantine. It is a timely read and I wanted to get a different historical perspective on this pandemic through literature. The novel was first published in 1947 and it is a classic pandemic story. I could see parallels to what is happening today to the progress of the disease in the novel. The story is set in Oran, a coastal city in French Algeria, where the Nobel laureate author was born, experiences an outbreak of bubonic plague. Like today, government officials ignore or take lightly early warning signs and act too late to stop the spread. Slowly as numbers increase restrictions are put in place until the entire city is locked down and no one can leave.

The School of Life gives an excellent analysis of the book

Camus looks at the pandemic through a variety of characters including a priest, a fugitive criminal, a visitor to the city, etc. which allows him to explore religion, relationships, meaning, etc. The main character is a physician Bernard Rieux, who is on the front lines of caring for the sick and is the hero of the story. This plague is much more deadly than what we are experiencing now, but there were ideas to think about. I liked Rieux’s focus on “common decency” and treating others humanely, even in such a horrible crisis. There was another part of the story where city officials were looking for people to dig mass graves and help bury to hundreds of dead. They thought that it would be difficult to fill these positions but “poverty showed itself a stronger stimulus than fear”. That idea is sticking with me as we are looking to when and how our lockdown will end. One of my main takeaways from the book is to reinforce the idea that life if fragile and no matter how important we think we are or our actions, in the end, what matters is treating others humanely and enjoying the ephemeral pleasures life brings.

Coincidently, I found this dead mouse in the lot next to our house. In The Plague, the first sign of the disease is massive deaths of mice and rats of the city.

The book also made me think of what Algeria was like before the Algerian War and independence. It is inconceivable today to have a large population of French people living in Algeria. The country is closed off to most of the world.

I was listening to a podcast describing Korea, Taiwan and Singapore’s mobile phone tracking system to control the spread of the virus. Uzbekistan is doing a low-tech version of this by posting police and military on every street and are requiring pedestrians to register with them as they leave their home and when they come back. (see photo above from my street)

Covid-19 Journal #9 April 11, 2020

This is my 13th day of strict quarantine and our fourth week of reduced movement. I walked to the corner of my street, two houses away, once in these 13 days. Other than that, all of us have been on lockdown inside our home.

Ollie and I are bonding through table tennis

I am going a bit stir crazy not being able to ride my bicycle! However, the extra time we are spending as a family is such a great gift. Yesterday we enjoyed a virtual dinner with our good friends in Romania, Claudiu and Vesna. We were best friends when we lived in Belgrade and we spent many a weekend afternoon and evening hanging out with each other. This quarantine has rekindled our friendship. During dinner, Owen and their son Marc had a Rubix Cube competition (see video above) and Owen afterwards, in true Kralovec form, entertained us by jumping into our pool twice. This is after heavy snows on Wednesday night! As I write this, it is 64 F / 18C with a cool breeze and rain forecasted for this evening. Oliver and I am bonding over daily games of table tennis. He is growing every day and is now much larger than me. Ocean and I had a nice talk in bed last night after her and Nadia watched the movie, Little Women. I woke up after the movie ended and we talked and talked in bed. She is such a good person!

City officials are setting up mini-markets in mahallas around the Tashkent. (Asa L. photo)

The number of confirmed cases continues to rise to 639 (see my chart below) with over 70,000 people tested. The WHO and Uzbek Ministry of Health have been working closely together and I am generally impressed with the measures the government is taking. Tashkent is almost on a total lockdown with severe restriction on cars, bicycles and pedestrians. There is a police desk on my street that checks everyone walking by. We are all waiting for the next government announcement as this current set of restrictions is in force until April 20. Many people expect it to continue. One of the challenges here as in many places in the world is the lack of testing. Uzbekistan has a population of over 32 million, means less than 1% of the country’s population has been tested so far (70,000). They are rightly focusing on people with symptoms and contacts of those people. Only 3 deaths have been reported. I notice more people are now thinking about how to go back to normal social conditions. A good sign!

Covid-19 Journal #8 – April 3, 2020

A military transport comes by my house

The number of cases jumped to 221 with I believe 3 deaths. The city remains on quarantine with stay-at-home orders. Military trucks were going through the city block-by-block encouraging people to stay in their homes. The chief state sanitary inspector Nurmat Atabekov, the Dr. Joe Fauci of Uzbekistan, was complaining that people are still violating the quarantine rules and not taking this seriously enough. I see much less people out and about in my neighborhood, but there are always a some people walking here and there.

Covid-19 Journal #7 (April 1, 2020)

One of the frustrating characteristics of this crisis is the uncertainty. I read of death rates ranging from 9.9% (Italy) to 0.5% (Germany). From the information I am gathering, I still believe the highest risks are for elderly and people with pre-existing conditions, but then you read of younger people being admitted to hospitals. Some experts are saying it is similar to influenza and that the overall number of deaths world-wide has not increased because of Covid-19 and it is similar to a regular influenza season. But then why are hospitals in some areas being overrun with cases? This article “How deadly is the coronavirus? It’s still far from clear. by retired UK pathologist Dr. John Lee in The Spectator captures my doubts about what we are experiencing.

As you can see from the video above, Uzbekistan is putting a lot of resources into combating the spread of the virus. They also are building quarantine shelters and makeshift hospitals. We are sheltering-in-place and not allowed to drive cars and only leave the house with a mask if obtaining food or medicine/medical care. This morning I looked out my block and saw a city bus come by and pick up a woman and she went in to the crowded bus. I still hear cars but much less traffic than normal. We sent everyone home from the school and only have a skeletal crew watching the campus.

There are 158 confirmed cases in Uzbekistan with I believe 2 deaths. I do not know the number of testing kits here. I imagine the only people getting tested are those with symptoms and/or with known direct contact with people with the disease.

This sitting around the house is getting old. I am yearning for a long bicycle ride!

Covid-19 Journal #6 (March 30, 2020)

Everyday the government is taking stronger measures to combat the spread of this new coronavirus. Yesterday they announced that as of this morning, private transportation is prohibited until April 20. That means no one can drive except for those with permits, which would entities like fire trucks, hospitals, food delivery trucks, etc. Thankfully the city is not like an American city and people live within walking distance to grocery stores and markets.

Police Car Warning My Neighborhood to Social Distance

I was watching CNN and New York state governor Andrew Cuomo was talking about how President Trump’s idea of putting a quarantine on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut was illegal. Not here, where the president has stopped all incoming and outgoing flights, blocked travel between regions and now is stopping vehicle traffic in the city. It is against the law to go out without a mask and to gather in groups of more than 3 people.

I am in favor of these drastic measures because the sooner we can stop the spread of the virus, the sooner we can get back to normalcy. Being in a foreign country when these things are taking place does bring a bit more unease to expatriates, but after over 25 years living abroad, I am taking these actions in stride. I am concerned about getting to school although I live a short distance from the campus. However, the law is clear that people are only to leave their home for food or medicine/medical care.

We will see if these measures stop the number of cases and limit deaths. The Ministry of Health announced 29 new confirmed cases of Covid-19, the single biggest daily increase since the first case was detected on March 15. I think in part because of increased number of testing kits in the country.

Covid-19 Journal #5 – March 28, 2020

Ocean demonstrating her pizza-making skills

The government is taking stronger measures everyday to enforce social distancing. They are tightening controls of movement and limiting groups to under 3 people. Some of the guards at the school couldn’t make it across the city to work today and another teaching couple got stopped by police while walking their dogs.

I managed to go on a bike ride this morning along the canals. There were a few people exercising and a lot more police. There was a lot less traffic and so made it very nice for a cyclist. I hope I can continue to cycle everyday. No one stopped me and I tried to keep my social distance from others. The afternoon was my nap on the topchan and then some school work.

Riding Along the Canal is a Source of Solace for Me

Disasters always have a silver lining and with Covid-19, I am spending more time with my family. Ocean and I made pizzas last night and Oliver and I have played a lot of table tennis. That is a funny sport. It is basically a toy version of tennis. Is there another sport like that?