On the flight to Istanbul last weekend I finished Oleg Steinhauer’s spy novel. The trip gave me over 9 hours of reading time. (5 hours 20 minutes flying west and 3 hours and 40 minutes flying east thanks to the jet stream) I picked up the book in the bargain bin at Barnes & Nobles this summer. Reading novels set in the world of expatriates are always interesting to me; however, spy novels are usually not on my reading table.
The book centers around the wife of the deputy consul at the US Embassy in Budapest. Working in international schools, I’ve spent a lot of time in American embassies around the world. The book is a murder mystery as she tries to find who killed her husband as they were having dinner together in a restaurant. They had recently transferred from Cairo, where most of the action takes place. My former residence of Serbia also is featured in the book. A Serbian spy plays a prominent role in the intricate plot. There are also flashbacks to Serbia on the eve of the start of the Yugoslavian war in the early 90s. The main characters are my age.
It was an entertaining book to read during bouts of insomnia and on the plane. The plot got a little confusing towards the end as there are a lot of characters. My general take away from the lives of spies are there is a lot of deception and lies. It would be tough to live in a world like that, always evaluating information to check for its truthfulness. Some reviews claim he is the next John Le Carre, who was recently criticized by the head of the British Secret Service. My son Owen is considering a career in the foreign service or intelligence. It would be good to have a book that depicts how it is working in the secret service. I would think most of the jobs deal with the analysis of information and not being a spy.
Having lived in Serbia and having spent a lot of time in Vojvodina, I see that he has been to the place. I had to laugh when he mentioned how pleasant the countryside is in the Fruska Gora National Park. We spent many an afternoon having picnics and hikes around one of the monasteries. It was one of our favorite places in Serbia. That is the beauty of Flickr that I can find a photo from those picnics in a couple of clicks. Nadia and Oliver are below – lots of happy memories!
This was my second visit to Turkey, having visited with my family in February of 2014. This time I was here alone on business, for international school meetings. I stayed in the heart of Besiktas, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and many ways, the cultural heart of Istanbul. I loved the proximity to the Bosphorus Strait, the cobblestone streets and the numerous cafes, bars and restaurants. The autumn weather was perfect and I went on a couple of long walks up and down the many hills. Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world, with a metro population of 15 million. It felt busy walking along the Bosphorus, but the stunning views of palaces, parks and water and most interestingly, the daily life of the citizens of this remarkable city were invigorating.
It was probably the neighborhood, but I saw many more secular Turks than conservative Turks, with younger people wearing Western fashion and no headscarves on the women. This friction has always been a defining feature of Turkey. I sense President Erdogan’s popularity may be waning. My taxi driver to the new airport was quite critical of him, calling him “a thief and dangerous, similar to your president Trump”. I was impressed with the infrastructure and commercial activity in the city and think prosperity has grown in the five years I have been away. However, in speaking with the director of the international school there, he said their enrollment is down because of the recession. One negative about Istanbul is that it felt a bit like Manhattan in that you could not get away from people. Solitude is something that you will not get in Istanbul. Even in the parks, there were people everywhere. It wasn’t Asian crowded, but the traffic noise and many people made it feel hectic.
We took a 3-hour boat cruise the last night going north on the Bosphorus Strait, heading towards the Black Sea. The views of the homes and apartments on the hills reminded me of the Mediterranean. The many palaces and forts on the shores were lit up to provide marvelous views. As a former Istanbul resident told me, “The Bosphorus is the main street of the city and to properly see Istanbul, one must see it from the water.”
I noticed this time the numerous cats that roam the streets and parks. Why so many cats? I guess that they keep the rat population down and they are sacred animals in Islam. They looked well taken care of and were passive and almost affectionate as I walked by. I wonder what their impact is on the birds of the city?
Istanbul is such a historic and picturesque city! I was thinking of all the many people and events that have taken place here, from the Romans and Byzantines, to the Ottomans and even today’s political scene with Erdogan trying to keep power. It was a great place to visit but a bit too much traffic and people for me to want to live. To visit though, a marvelous city with spectacular views, great restaurants, entertaining people watching, etc.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
Some of the nice things about living in an ex-Soviet Union Republic are the wide streets and huge areas of public space. In a capitalist society that values individuals, there is more privately owned land in cities than in socialist societies. For a cyclist, the extra traffic lanes and large sidewalks provide safer cycling paths. This morning I went for my second extended ride and got in about 20 kilometers. The traffic before 7:00 AM is light and on Saturday, you get an extra hour to cycle before it becomes unsafe. Although there are sections where the sidewalks are uneven, a cyclist can get around pretty well around the city. There are also many parks in the city that provide cyclist protection as well.
Another legacy of the Soviets are the unusual architecture gems around the city.
Mention the term ‘Soviet architecture’ and instantly enormous concrete buildings come to mind. The term ‘Brutalist’, from the French ‘beton brut’ (raw concrete), flourished in the 1950s -1970s, inspired by the works of Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. As an architectural style it was also associated with social, utopian ideology.
After the devastating Tashkent earthquake of 1966, many large-scale apartment blocks were quickly built to house the homeless. Later, several grand buildings were constructed as well as the marvellous metro system.
The massive Hotel Uzbekistan, centrally located at Amir Timur square, Tashkent, is a classic example of Soviet 1970’s modernist architectural style. In its heyday celebrities such as Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni and Raj Kapoor stayed there, as well as the power brokers of the USSR.Uzbek Journeys website September 19, 2011
One of my favorites so far is the Hotel Uzbekistan. The hotel was build in 1974 and has been renovated several times, the last being in 2010. The government was trying to sell its 80% ownership from what I last read. I plan on going inside and checking it out soon.