Thank you Soviets!

Nukus Street, Tashkent

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.

First Week in Tashkent

First week in Tashkent - July 22-28, 2019
Nadia posing in one of the many parks in the center of Tashkent

We are settling in to our new lives and are enjoying the school and our new home after 1 week in the city! The weather has been very hot, with day time temperatures over 100 F everyday. This is normal for this time of the year. The low humidity makes is nicer and having a pool at our home is an easy way to cool off.

The first few days we spent at the Hotel Sharq (sharq means “north” in Uzbek language). The hotel, like the city has a cool vibe with a really nice swimming pool and courtyard and a decent breakfast. We moved into a smaller room due to the air conditioners and after figuring out how to cool the fridge, we were comfortable with our stay. As in the Trip Advisor reviews, the desk and lobby workers were not the most attentive employees I have ever seen. I think it may be the long hours they work. They were nice and after a few days of practicing my Russian with them, they warmed up to our family. There is also a nice fitness center in the basement.

First week in Tashkent - July 22-28, 2019
One of the many canals flowing through the city

Nadia and I went for several walks and runs along the canals and in the many parks in the center of the city. It is quite beautiful in the mornings for exercise. Unfortunately, our house is located in a different neighborhood and it is a bit more difficult to find parks and areas to exercise. When we get a car and learn the city landscape a bit better, it will be easier. I laughed at watching local guys swimming in the canals every morning. I am tempted to try it myself!

First week in Tashkent - July 22-28, 2019
The Thursday portion of plov at Dunyo Family Restaurant

The restaurants are numerous and of high quality. We had several really good meals including L’Opera, an Italian restaurant located in a park near the hotel. I also went for the Uzbek national dish, plov. It is basically rice with carrots and onions, slow-cooked with either beef, mutton, or lamb in huge vats. It is a common dish all through Central Asia and the national dish of Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks take great pride in plov and there are many different varieties. The restaurant Dunyo (“World” in Uzbek) served a style from southern Uzbekistan and featured cow ligaments and tendons. This is the second time I’ve had it and luckily, I enjoy it. My friend Muhktor said Thursdays are plov day.

Most of my time has been spent at school or unpacking. The movers came on Wednesday. The shipment made it to Tashkent from Osaka in about 40 days! We have another shipment coming from the USA later. It is a new home and is missing things like a door bell and curtains, but we are very comfortable and the school is taking good care of us.

First week in Tashkent - July 22-28, 2019
Our 141 boxes from Japan arrived this week!

The Uzbeks and Russians we have met so far have been incredible kind and easy-going. The city and culture have a very positive and relaxed feel and I think we will enjoy living here.

Istanbul’s New Airport

I was curious to see new Istanbul Airport yesterday. We had a two-hour layover coming from Boston and going to Tashkent. The airport is typical of President Erdogan’s tenure in office, an absolutely massive infrastructure project. The airport superlatives are as follows:

  • projected to be the world’s busiest airport by its completion in 2027; the 200 million annual passengers will surpass Atlanta’s 160 million
  • 76.5 kilometers in area with 6 runways and 4 terminals
  • cost of 7.5 billion dollars and the deaths of 27 construction workers during the building of the airport
  • 1.5 million trees were cut down on the southern shores of the Black Sea to make room for the airport

From our brief time there, it was impressive. The high ceilings of airports outside the USA make them more impressive looking. There were numerous, high quality and inexpensive priced shops, bars and restaurants. We had a nice meal at one of the food courts. I had a lentil soup and quinoa salad and the boys had a home-made pizza. I did notice there were some empty spaces and areas under construction still, both inside and outside the terminal. It has the largest and nicest smoking terrace I’ve ever seen. I remember Ataturk Airport being extremely crowded and the new airport is quite spacious.

I was disappointed to hear that the forests and marshlands were taken out for the airport. I am an avid bird watcher and nature lover and hate to see prime habitat loss. Below is a gallery of photos of the airport.

Blueberries and Golf

We had a classic mid-July summer day in “the valley”. We drove north down the mountain towards the Susquehanna River to Nescopeck. The area consists of beautiful farms, forested hills, gigantic homes with finely manicured lawns, dilapidated barns and even a nuclear plant. It was a picture-perfect day with bright sun, blue skies and low humidity. Nadia loved our stop at Stemmrich Blueberry Farm. We picked three buckets full of blueberries for under $20.

Blueberries are from the Heath Family and the Vaccinium genus are berry-producing shrubs like cranberries and lingonberries. They thrive in acidic soils. Blueberries are produced commercially in several US states including Washington, Oregon, Michigan, New Jersey, etc.

To placate the kids, we had a round of mini-golf and a bit of lunch. I won with 47 (3 under par), Owen had 50, Ocean 51, and Nadia/Oliver 68.

Nadia tees off

I am pro-nuclear power because it does not add to climate change by emitting carbons. However, the visual aspect of the cooling towers and long-term storage of spent fuel rods would concern me. We drove closer to the river so I could get a better look at the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station. It began producing electricity back in 1983 and employs over 1,000 people.

The Cooling Towers of the Power Plant

Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough

I was considering reading British author Oliver Bullough’s latest book, Moneyland, about tax havens and where corrupt people hide their money, but instead read an older book by him. Last Man in Russia traces the life of Orthodox priest, Dmitry Dudko while elaborating on the history and current state of Russia, circa 2013.

Perm #36 Gulag (courtesy of Ilya Buyanovskiy)

I am taking away a better sense of the “Gulag” or Siberian prison system during Soviet times, which continued all the way through the 1980s. I thought it ended with Stalin. Bullough travels to some of these outposts in both summer and winter. It must have been really tough going to be in a labor camp in those conditions.

He also portrays Russia as a pretty grim place. Rampant alcoholism, declining birth rate, depopulation of rural towns, mistrust in the government, etc. From the Russians I know in Japan, they admire Putin and I thought he was popular, but Bullough talks with a lot of dissidents and people unsatisfied with the country.

Reverend Dudko had an interesting life and a surprising turn which I won’t spoil for readers. I wonder why he picked such an obscure character. He describes going to the important places of Dudko’s life and tracing his steps from a young dissident priest to dying in 2004. His life mirrors the Soviet Union and serves as a metaphor for that form of government.

I am really interested in all things Russia right now due to my moving to Uzbekistan later this month.

New York Times review

Telegraph review

Knoebels Amusement Resort

IMG_0429

The kids had a pleasant day at Knoebels (pronounced kuh-no-belz) Amusement Resort in nearby Elysburg, Pennsylvania yesterday. It is the oldest free admission family-owned amusement park in the USA. After our Universal Studios Japan (USJ) experiences, it was a much more relaxed, enjoyable and cheaper than the expensive and over-crowded USJ.

It gave the kids a taste of Americana culture. The park is set in a beautiful wooded valley and with free parking and admission and tickets for rides ranging from $1.50 – $3.00, there was a wide socio-economic variety of people. It felt like a bit of old-fashioned Americana. Ocean went on 20 rides and Owen went on 18 rides. In the afternoon, the wait times for rides was very short (5-10 minutes). I even did a roller coaster, The Twister. There are three big roller coasters, many smaller rides, a water park with log ride, games, food, entertainment, etc. It felt like a much bigger Iron County Fair that I used to go to as a kid growing up in Michigan, but maintaining that intimate, travelling carnival-like atmosphere.

Stratos Fear Ride
Stratos Fear

We passed some beautiful scenery on the way there and back. The Pennsylvania forested mountains being cut by rivers in the back ground and beautiful Pennsylvania Dutch farms in the foreground. The weather was almost perfect with lots of sunshine and not too hot.

A couple of observations about life here that really stand out coming from Japan. The conditions of the roads are much worse than the gold standards of Japan. There are many potholes, cracks, and uncared for shoulders. The USA really needs to invest in infrastructure projects. I also notice the size of people here. We were guessing the percentage of obesity and put it at between 1/3 and 1/2 of Pennsylvanian citizens. In looking up the official rate, I see Pennsylvania is ranked #24 with a 31.6 obesity rate. In Japan it is rare to see someone overweight, so it is a bit shocking coming here. It makes me concerned about the future of American health care, as the rate is increasing. A national exercise and healthy eating campaign should be started immediately. Supporting ways for people to eat less, eat healthier and exercise more needs to be a priority. I was surprised to see rentals of motorized wheelchairs for non-handicapped, non-elderly adults so common. They even had a shuttle taking people the 500 meters or so to the parking lot.

Ocean

Ricketts Glen Waterfalls Hike

Ocean near Ganoga Falls

My exploration of the Appalachians continued yesterday by a gorgeous hike through Ricketts Glen. In this part of Pennsylvania, a ravine is known as a glen. The hike mostly followed Kitchen Creek, a river that flows down the Allegheny Front (the divide that separates the Mississippi and Chesapeake Bay water sheds) through 23 named waterfalls. I have hike to many waterfalls before in my home state of Michigan and I have never seen so many falls in such close proximity. The approximately 4 mile loop of the Falls Trail and Highland Trail was a good length for a family, with some members not very interested in hiking.

Oliver and Owen climbing above Mohawk Falls

The area is named Civil War colonel R. Bruce Ricketts. He made a fortune as a huge land owner through lumber, clear-cutting much of the area except the area around the ravines. There are many old-growth trees along the hike. Old trees are sacred to me and seeing the 300-year old behemoths is awesome. Ricketts’ ancestors gradually sold pieces of his properties to the Pennsylvania State Games Lands. Eventually conservations became involved after World War II and it became the Ricketts Glen State Park. Ricketts also put in three dams and today swimmers and boaters enjoy Lake Jean, named after one of his daughters.

The king of the waterfalls is 94-foot high Ganoga Falls. Many of the falls on the trail are named after Native American tribes, but the origin of Ganoga is unknown. The second highest falls are “only” 61 feet high, so Ganoga stands out. All of the waterfalls are beautiful in their own right and all of them would be enough to make a hike worth seeing. Walking by so many of them is incredible and I recommend the trail. I see why it is so popular.

Nadia posing in front of Ganoga Falls