Family Journal: May 20, 2022

We had a fantastic night out yesterday. It is so nice to have my eldest son Owen back home to complete our family. We dropped off Ocean for a birthday party and sleepover with friends. Then Nadia, Oliver, Owen, and I went to a new driving range in Tashkent. It is a Korean business and modeled after what you see in East Asia. It is a netted range about 200 yards in length and probably about 50 yards wide. There are two levels people can tee off from. There is a Korean BBQ restaurant on the second floor and a little nicer Korean restaurant and garden on the third floor. Lots of cold beer and it makes for a good night out! The Koreans also have an 18-hole golf course in Tashkent, developed by the former president Karimov and the South Korean government years ago. I am not a big golfer, but Owen likes going to driving ranges and it gets us to spend time as a family. Prices are reasonable with 1 hour of unlimited balls for $6.30 USD. It is located out of the city on the way to Parkent. The city is developing out towards that area. It offers views of the mountains, the new airport is being developed out there and lots of flat lands.

After the golf range, we had a really good dinner at Roni’s Pizza Napoletana restaurant. Perfect spring weather and lots of people out! Tashkent is really turning into an exciting, pleasant city to live in as both Roni’s and the driving range were not here when we first arrived.

Nadia took the boys out for haircuts earlier this week.

Oliver Medals at the TIS Owls Track & Field Meet

It was an exciting athletics meet last Saturday at Pakhtakor Stadium. The school was able to hold its first track meet since the spring of 2019. Oliver’s main spring sport is volleyball, but one of the coaches convinced him to participate in the athletics meet. I think he surprised himself with a silver medal in the 800 meters and a bronze medal as part of the 4 x 100 relay. He was a bit reluctant to participate, but Oliver has a can-do attitude and threw himself into the event and did quite well. I think with a bit of training, he can even be a stronger runner. He is good at both the longer distances and sprints, but I think his forte is the middle distance. 

I also forgot how much I love athletics and the rhythm of a meet. I remember my Dad used to be the Public Address Announcer for the meets West Iron County High School hosted at Nelson Field in Stambaugh. The schools had their encampments in different areas of the infield and cheers would go up around the stadium depending on what field event or race was finishing throughout the day. It was special for me to have Oliver participate in the meet and I hope Ocean joins him next year. 

800 meters medal ceremony “Silver for Ollie!”

Family Journal: May 1, 2022

Oliver (#9 in center) had teammates from Oman, South Africa, Netherlands, Uzbekistan, USA, and Mexico

Oliver’s team finished in second place in the tournament we hosted this weekend. It was three years since we last hosted a volleyball tournament and had a high school volleyball season, thanks to COVID. Oliver was one of the captains of the team and played every minute of every game. He is the best setter at making difficult saving hits to keep a ball alive. He is also developing his spikes. One area of growth is his jump serve, but once he gets that down, he’ll be an awesome, all-around player. He has two more years of eligibility and I can’t wait to see him play over the next two years. Oliver’s team, the Tashkent International School Owls won 8 sets and lost 5 sets over the three days. They scored 297 points and allowed 235 points. They lost all four sets they played against the champions, школа 166 by an average of 4 points per game. They lost one set 24-26. I think with less missed serves, they could have won two of those sets. They did have a tough season with a COVID outbreak earlier this month, halting practices and games for two weeks.

Oliver’s Highlights from the final day of the tournament

It was a beautiful Sunday with temperatures in the mid-30s (90s). Oliver had his friends sleep over after the volleyball tournament and they had a great time, eating fast food, swimming in the pool and watching movies/gaming. They went to bed early because I think they were exhausted from the full day of competition. I played doubles tennis at the Olympic Tennis Club with my usual friends, Dan, Steve and Matt. We played on the clay for the first time this spring and it is nice to get back to that surface. We also hosted a “birthday” party for our dog Obi. We invited friends with dogs to the school for them to interact. Nadia made “doggie bags” and cupcakes for all of the attendees.

A valiant attempt at a group photo!

Happy Birthday Oliver

Maqom Restaurant Tashkent Uzbekistan

It was a special evening celebrating my son Oliver’s 17th birthday! We watched him play volleyball in the TIS tournament and then took him to Maqom (“Status” in English) Restaurant. It was a lovely spring evening and the outdoor terrace overlooking the park was a relaxing setting. We like Maqom because of the delicious food and excellent drink menu. Oliver is so charming and sociable and he made us laugh for most of the dinner. He is maturing into a handsome and kind man and we are so proud of him.

Ollie excels at volleyball which is his best sport. Unfortunately, he inherited my height but he is still taller than me! He is totally locked in on every point and his intensity is infectious to his teammates. Oliver is the team’s best setter, is developing a deadly jump-serve and rarely makes mistakes. He is only in grade 10 and so has two more years of eligibility. His team easily defeated the Westminster International School of Tashkent yesterday in one of the round-robin games in the three-day tournament our school is hosting. The finals are today, Saturday, his actual birthday.

Ocean, Oliver and Dad

We love you Ollie! Congratulations on reaching your 17th birthday.

Thinking about Ukraine

Taras Shevchenko Statue in Tashkent

Uzbekistan is a former republic in the USSR and the Russia’s attempted takeover of Ukraine is big news here. Our school also has close ties to the international schools in Kyiv through our regional schools association. I wanted to read a bit more about the history of Ukraine and purchased Anna Reid’s “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine“. She was the Economist correspondent in Ukraine shortly after independence from 1993-1994. Her book is a bit dated and the second half was written around the time Russia took over Crimea but it all applies today. The book had the perfect amount of depth for me, focusing on the most compelling stories from Ukraine’s long history combined with her own experiences and conversations with Ukrainians. I knew of the sad and tragic recent history of Ukraine in the 20th century. I am surprised there are still Ukrainians left after the Jewish pogroms, Stalin’s forced famine, the purges of the USSR, and the Nazi invasion of WWII. I was also looking for a sense of how much much the Ukrainians differed from the Russians.

I have never travelled to Ukraine but know many people who lived there. Some of my ancestry I discovered through 23 & Me is from western Ukraine near the Polish and Slovak borders.

I didn’t know much about how Kyiv started. It was a port city on the banks of the Dnieper River over 1000 years ago. Scandinavian tribes were the first to conquer and provide structure to Kyiv in the 800s. Their DNA can still be seen in the region in the physical features of many Ukrainians. It was fascinating to learn the patron king of both the Ukrainians and Russians (Vladimir/Volodymyr) actually chose the Orthodox Church as the state religion in the late 900s. He sampled Islam (can’t drink), Catholic/Judiasm (nice ceremonies, but just not doing it) and settled on the Greek Orthodox. He thought the splendor and awe of Hagia Sophia in Constaninople is what he was after. Hence today, the Ukrainians and Russians are Orthodox. I always thought that the world would be more interesting if Islam and Christianity had not swepted through big portions of the world. It would be cool to have Eastern European people today worshiping the Slavic god Perun or the other forest-based systems and have a more diverse religious environment globally.

The courage demonstrated by the Ukrainian people has caught the imagination of the world. I wonder how this will support the country in both the short-term and long-term future.

There were lots of interesting tidbits in the book that helped me understand Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. I put some of them below for my future reference. I recommend reading the book if you want to know more about Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians settled in my biological hometown of Freeland, Pennsylvania and I always wondered about St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church. The Byzantine and Catholic churches split when Rome and Constantinople became two separate empires. The Byzantine/Catholic church came about when the Poles were running Ukraine in 1596 and a group of Orthodox bishops blended their church with the Pope in Rome, and that was the start of the Greek-Catholic or Uniate Church.

I am never surprised at the evil of the Nazis. Reid quotes Erich Koch, the head of the Nazi occupation in WWII-era Ukraine that Ukrainians were “the n-word” and fit only for vodka and the whip. War criminal Herman Goring’s solution was to kill all males over the age of 15 and and “send in the SS stallions”.

The book has a section on Taras Shevchenko, who single-handedly turned Ukraine into a literary language (see statue above). He was born in 1814 to a poor serf family south-west of Kyiv. His parents died before he became a teenager and he was raised as a “servant-boy” in the household of a local landowner. He was a natural artist and caught the attention of an art student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kyiv and eventually, his friend bought his freedom from serfdom. He was introduced to Ukrainian free society and became a writer and poet. Because he wrote in Ukrainian, he was largely dismissed by critics and literary elites. He joined a Ukrainian secret society of intellectuals whose goal was the abolish serfdom/monarchy and unite all Slavs with Ukraine in the lead. Of course, the Tsar eventually found about them and jailed/exiled the group. Shevchenko was sentenced to 10 years in exile, but it was disorganized system and because of his connections and talent, the provincial governors allowed him to entertain groups with his singing, dancing, painting and comedy. For two years of his exile he was assigned as the official artist of a military expedition to chart the Aral Sea. He barely survived the journey and I would love to find his sketches from that expedition. I wonder what he thought about Uzbekistan? When Tsar Nicholas died, he was freed from exile, he took up his previous life as a literary celebrity and participated in poetry readings, etc. He died of “dropsy” (today known as a stroke) at the age of 47 and was immediately venerated by the intellectual elite. Today, he is the Shakespeare of Ukrainian and celebrated around the ex-Soviet world as a champion of the common people. The statue here in Tashkent should have a man with a smiling face and positive energy instead of the stern, serious look.

Other points to note:

  • The Russian words for “chain”, “whip” and “money” have Mongolian roots. This comes from when many years the Mongols subjugated the Russians and Ukrainians and laid waste to Kyiv.
  • Muscovites called themselves “Rus” the Greek word for Rossiya while the Ukrainians/Belorussians were referred to as the Rusyny, or “Ruthenians”.
  • The Cossacks are like the cowboys of Ukraine and take a big place in the folklore and founding mythology of the country.
  • Poland lost the Ukraine and its own country to Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1795.
  • By 1989 the last Soviet census, Russians made up 11 million of Ukraine’s 52 million people. I didn’t realize the Ukraine was so big, both in area and population.
  • Growing up on the Sea of Azav in the 1870s, Anton Chekhov saw the wilderness eaten away by windmills, telegraph poles, villages and ploughed fields. The sea of the steppe was lost forever to agriculture, similar to the Great Plains in the USA.
  • I learned about historical fringe religious groups in Ukriane such as the Molokans, who were Orthodox Presbyterians and the Dukhobors, who rejected Orthodox icons and traditions and lived communally.
  • Odessa must be a really nice city to live and probably feels like many of the Mediterranean cities.
  • The Ukrainians are very similar to the Russians, but are kind of the country-cousins that live on the farm. (I am stereotyping.)
  • Lviv was named in 1991 with Ukrainian independence. The Russians called it Lvov (1945) and the Poles called it Lwow before that. The city was not a Ukrainian or Russian city in the 1800s, but a Polish-Austrian-Jewish city. Reid described it as a shabbier Salzburg without Mozart souvenirs.
  • In the 25 years before WWI, more than 2 million Ukrainians and Polish peasants left Galicia. At the Treaty of Versailles, Ukraine was not represented and lost everything.

Visit to the Solar Institute

The 54-meter high concave mirror

After our hike in the morning, we visited the Institue of Materials Science, or as it is commonly known as “The Sun” Heliocomplex. It looks like a villian’s lair from a James Bond film. The complex was built from 1981 to 1987 when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. It is basically a solar concentrator that is able to take the sun’s rays, and focus them to create extreme (3000 C) heat. Scientists positioned 62 south-facing, giant mirrors (heliostats) which focus the sun’s light. Opposite the field is a concave giant (54m x 47m) mirror consisting of 10,700 mirrors that further focuses light to a 1 meter wide, solar furnace. In this furnace, the light of 10,000 suns creates the extremely high temperatures. It was used as an industrial plant to make alloys for military and space industries. It was only used by the Soviets for a short time and after the collapse of the USSR, it is used occasionally today to make heat-resistant ceramics for fuses.

View of the Heliostat Field from the Top of the Structure

The solar complex is located on a hill 1,050 meters that receives sunshine 270 to 290 days per year. It is just outside of Parkent, a city of 35,000 near the foothills of the Chatkal Mountain Range. The Soviets build housing for the engineers and workers and named the town Kuyosh, Uzbek for sun. It is only about a 90-minute drive from Tashkent and definitely worth the visit.

One of the scientists working at the plant took us on a tour. In the lobby is this magnificent glass artwork of a sun hanging from the ceiling. It must weigh tons and it has a diameter of 10 meters. From there we walked over the field of heliostat mirrors. They set up a miniature version on the side and had a tea kettle hanging over it to demonstrate how the mirrors can generate high temperatures quickly. We also walked up a windy, metal staircase 11 floors to the top of the concave mirror. The views of the mountains, surrounding countryside and solar plant are spectacular. It would be fun to make a movie on the premises. I can see Bond flying away while the plant is exploding and the villain’s plot to destroy the world is ruined. It would also make an interesting field trip for students combined with a walk in the countryside.

Family Journal: March 20, 2022

Sumalak for Sale at Mirabad Bazaar

It was a quiet Sunday with most of the day taken up with errands. People often litter in Uzbekistan and it is the duty of everyone to keep the front of their home facing the street tidy. I swept the street and sidewalk in front of our home and took out the garbage. I watched some of the NCAA basketball tournament and then Nadia and I went shopping. We stopped at the Mirabad and Alay Bazaars as well as the supermarket Korzinka. The evening was spent unpacking groceries and I also had a Zoom call for an upcoming accreditation visit I am leading in two weeks.

There were some celebrations around the city to mark the start of the Navruz holiday. Mahalla centers and shopping malls had entertainment and festive decorations. At the local Korzinka, they were making sumalak in the parking lot for customers. Sumalak is a traditional holiday dish made from wheat grains. It takes a lot of cooking and stirring to get the sweet-tasting pudding. We made sumalak last March on our trip to Karakalpakstan. This year, I purchased the finished product from the local bazaar and we’ll have some this evening.

Stoking the fire under the vat of sumalak at Korzinka

The city was also giving out free staple foods like rice, flour and vegetable oil. There were long lines at the market all day long at the market. They must do this for Navruz. Nadia also pointed out while we were at Korzinka that there were Roshen chocolates on the shelves. Roshen is a Ukrainian chocolate company. We like the Roshen wafer creme cookies.

Family Journal: March 19, 2022

I woke up on Friday, March 18 to falling snowflakes shining under the streetlight outside the window. The snow melted by the afternoon, but it was nice to see the white snow on the trees at school. It was a weak winter here in Tashkent over 2021-2022. It snowed in the city on only 3 occasions that I can recall. I don’t think it snowed in January and February! Snow came once in early November, once on Boxing Day and once on Friday. It made for a short ski season at the Amirsoy Resort. According to historical averages I find, it usually snows 30 times from November to March. I sense from what my friends tell me is that global warming is causing a drier, hotter climate in Tashkent and Uzbekistan.

March is historically the month in Tashkent with the most rainfall and this year is exceptional. It has been raining daily for two weeks now. To the point where last week when we had a couple hours of sunshine, the parks were full of dog walkers because everyone has been stuck in their homes. As you can see in the first photos above, water levels in the canals in the city are high and the water displays a brown color from erosion. It feels more like the UK than the sunshine and dryness of our Mediterranean climate. Our Spring Break started with cold, overcast skies this weekend.

Illy Cafe Will be Opening Soon

Construction and development in the city continue unabated with a dizzyingly amount of projects taking place. Our neighborhood is no exception with the Onix Group building an office/retail building on Sarikol Street with an apartment complex behind. The good news for us is the first store to open will be a nice coffee shop. Illy Coffee, headquartered in Trieste, Italy, brews an excellent cup of coffee. The founder, Francesco Illy, invented an expresso machine in the 1930s and they continue to have cafes and sell coffee equipment all over the world. There is a bit of animosity between Illy and Starbucks. I prefer Illy coffee to Starbucks regarding coffee quality. We visited Trieste in 2011 and I remember the beauty of the seaside port city.

I always wondered why this line of buses was parked along a road near our house. The mystery was solved by a colleague who used to work at the assembly plant behind the buses. He used to be the head of purchasing for Artel, an appliance manufacturer here in Uzbekistan. The buses are for the plant workers. The factory is located on the site of a former trolley yard and our neighborhood in Mirabad, is close to the city center. Artel buses in employees from outside of Tashkent because people living in the city won’t work for the wages they offer. It is cheaper for the company to bus in people from villages surrounding the city rather than pay higher wages to Tashkenters.

Museum of Victims of Political Repression

I am using this break to get more active and increase my physical fitness. It is difficult for me to exercise as much as I want in the winter due to the cold weather, darkness and busy school and family life. I cycled along the canal and by the Tashkent TV tower yesterday (23 kilometers) and took the photo of the museum above. I am getting tired of the cold weather as with low temperatures hovering close to OC.

Oliver and Ocean Compete in Sports

Ocean completed her basketball season which was interrupted by the Omicron variant wave. The girls played a game before Christmas break but then when we got back, cocurricular activities and then school was canceled for two weeks by the government. We were able to come back in early March to finish the truncated season. The school arranged a local tournament last week and Ocean’s team finished third. They were competing against local public schools, some specializing in basketball and sport. Women’s sports in Uzbekistan are not developed as much as in the USA.

I was just happy for her to get a team sports experience and compete against other schools. She is not fanatical about sports as I was, but she is naturally a good athlete. I will continue to encourage her to play. I think she can develop into a strong player and hopefully, she’ll take up my coaching offers to improve her fundamentals. Thanks to Coach Doel for his work with the team. The girls learned a lot.

Oliver is starting his volleyball season and in tryouts this week, he made the “A” Varsity Team. He is really good at volleyball as it is popular in Japanese middle schools. He played on the Sabers team in Osaka. There was also an anime show about a volleyball team that he watched as well. He is a good setter and is fundamentally sound. I can’t wait for the games!

A Night at the Opera

Last Saturday Nadia, Ocean and I finally attended a performance in the Alisher Navoi State Academic Bolshoi Theatre (Navoi Theater). Concerts, plays, lectures, exhibitions, etc. are coming back after COVID caused a limited schedule. Things are back in full swing and probably around 25% of the people were wearing masks. As with most things in Uzbekistan, opera here is so affordable with tickets costing 50,000 UZS ($4.50) each and free parking along the side of the theatre. To my amateur eyes and ears, I thought it was an excellent performance with strong voices, colorful costumes, detailed sets, etc. The only difference from a North American or European performance was all the songs were in Russian.

The theatre is one of the iconic landmarks of Tashkent and I really wanted to see it from the inside. The building was constructed in the aftermath of World War II, starting in 1942 and opening to the public in November 1947. The Soviets named the theatre after the Turkic poet and linguist, Alisher Navoi (1441-1501). They were trying to build up the idea of Uzbek culture and identity while bringing European theatre to Central Asia. I wonder what Navoi, a proponent of Turkic language over the dominant Persian language and culture at the time would think of a building named after him holding Russian language performances. The government included Japanese Prisoners of War in the construction of the theatre and there is a monument to their contribution. It seats 1,400 and it was about 2/3 full on this night. The crowd is definitely laid back and it was easy to take video and photos of the performance. I think that is the way to go in modern times to promote opera with the next generation.

I chose Carmen because it is one of the big three most popular operas. We stayed for the end of the second act to listen to the “hits” Habanero and El Toreador arias. I am not a big fan of opera but for a night out once in a while, it was a pleasurable evening. There is something about seeing a live performance and listening to a live orchestra that cannot be replicated at home. Attending classical music events is like time travel. In the late 19th century, this was their NetFlix and it is fascinating to think that we can experience it today. The plot is a bit cheesy, a soldier leaves the military and drops his girlfriend for Carmen, a “gypsy” woman. The music and costumes make up for it and I was thoroughly entertained.