My family and I watched the partial solar eclipse yesterday in Tashkent. We watched several videos and talked about what was happening. Ocean and I agreed to meet in Osaka in 2034 for a predicted full solar eclipse. We made a simple pinhole (two pieces of paper) to see the eclipse and I magnified and brightened the images as you can see in the gallery above. I couldn’t tell with my naked eye that we were having an eclipse. We also talked about the summer solstice, so it was a full morning of astronomy for the family.
I always say that any day I am outdoors more than indoors, it is a good day. We really enjoyed a day at the new Amirsoy Resort. We didn’t have school yesterday and it was not a national holiday so it was the perfect day to go skiing. With no waiting times for the chair life and gondola, we had the slopes almost to ourselves.
Owen is getting better as a snowboarder. He switched to snowboarding on a school trip last year in Japan and continues to develop his skills. I was a bit out of sorts yesterday, being a little slow thinking and lethargic, but as the day progressed, I felt more comfortable. After lunch, a heavy snow softened the hard edges and it was pure pleasure to swoosh lightly through the deep powder. It was snowing and blowing so heavily at the top of the mountain that the resort closed the highest slopes in the afternoon.
It would be nice for the school to develop ways to integrate winter sports into our physical education curriculum. With lift tickets/rental under $35 per person and the resort only a 90-minute drive, it is possible. I hope to come back a couple more times this winter.
It was a grand day last Saturday with Owen, Oliver and Ocean all playing in basketball games. Owen is a junior and a starter on the Tashkent International School varsity boys high school team. Grade 8 Oliver is on the junior varsity team and Grade 6 Ocean is on the middle school girls team. The joy of watching our children participate in interscholastic team sports was tinged with a bit of sadness. I wish my parents were alive to see them play. My mom and dad were avid supporters of youth sports and loved nothing better than to watch their children play sports. They would have been beaming with love and pride to see their grandchildren on the basketball floor.
Ocean was the hero of the day! She has played a lot growing up with two brothers and it showed on the court. At another game this week, she made the winning basket (see YouTube video above).
I love watching Oliver play. He plays with reckless abandon and loves to be physical. His happy-go-lucky attitude in life shows on the court and he truly enjoys the competition and camaraderie of being on a team. He has a big frame and uses it to his advantage.
Owen has a passion for sport and is an outstanding ball handler and rebounder. It is strange to have a left-handed son but I get so much pleasure from being around the team as an assistant coach and interacting with Owen and his teammates. I try to teach them the fundamentals of basketball and give them insights into how to win more games.
Interscholastic sports at international schools have not become intense like US public and private schools. It is a bit old-fashioned with practices 3 times per week and 10-15 games per season. I just want for my children to get the experience of playing on a team, learning the sport, deal with winning and losing and be active.
They have culminating Central Asia and Tashkent tournaments coming up next month and I will be blogging more and include highlights of Owen’s games.
I was pleasantly surprised attending the Humo Tashkent hockey game last night. The boys and I watched the game between Humo and Metallurg Novokuznetsk. The home team, Humo, won an exciting game 7 goals to 5! The two teams are part of the Supreme Hockey League (VHL). The VHL is the second highest level of professional hockey in Russia. There are 34 teams in the league, with teams joining from Kazakhstan, China and Uzbekistan this year.
Novokuznetsk is a small city north of Kazakshstan in central Siberia. They are currently in 10th place and Humo is in 16th place. (now 15th place after the victory) “Humo” is a mythical bird from Persian mythology and part of the Uzbekistan emblem. Humo Arena seats 12,500 and is the largest stadium in the league. It is new and modern with a great sound system, comfortable seats, cheerleaders, etc. It was a very entertaining evening. We had great seats for $7.
It is definitely a good night out and I am sure we’ll be going to a few more games this season.
I took the kids yesterday to the new ski resort near Tashkent, Amirsoy. An international ski management company from Andorra, Pas Grau International (PGI), is managing the facility. It opened with great fanfare last month. There were many people at the resort due to January 2 being a national holiday here in Uzbekistan. However, most of the crowds were non-skiers, which was really strange. Hundreds of locals bought a ticket for a ride up the gondola to the top of the mountain. It was surreal for skiers, which thankfully had a different line, to get off the gondola and weave their way through sightseers at the top of the run. Skiing is new here and most Uzbeks do not know how to ski. It is also expensive, considering the average monthly salary here is around $300. I hope with the economy improving here, more locals will be able to use the resort.
During the day, several English-speaking Uzbeks saw that I was a foreigner and pulled me aside to talk about the resort. I sensed the disbelief and pride in their voices that an international standard ski resort was now operating in the Chimgan Mountains of Uzbekistan. Here is a video introducing Amirsoy (link).
We had a really nice day, despite some confusion in getting our ski passes and equipment rental in the morning. As with most things here, it is inexpensive with an all-day ski pass costing $26 and rental equipment around $15. It is an affordable day out for me and three children. It is not a big resort, with six major routes. From the top, one can ski over 3,500 meters to the bottom which is really enjoyable and tiring. There were a couple of patches dirt lower down the mountain. PGI is building more snow-making machines to cover those areas. However, on the top, the snow was fine, although some of the runs are a bit narrow for beginners. There are three red routes (Europe classification suitable for intermediates) and one blue route. They have the main gondola for 8 people with two stops and a side chair lift for 4 people on a good intermediate run.
They have chalets for rent and it would be nice to stay for a couple of days. There are not enough slopes to make it worth a full week, but 3 days of skiing would be perfect. It is about a 1 hour and 20-minute drive from our home. We left at 7:45 AM to arrive when it opened at 9:00 AM. Due to the large crowds, they ran out of food at the restaurant near the chair lift. This is part of the growing pains of a new resort.
The Chimgan Mountains are high enough to attract and keep enough snow, even in this time of global warming. With the addition of some snow-making equipment, they could extend the season and make it work. I hope PGI will make it work with Amirsoy.
It makes sense that before extensive maritime transportation that Eurasia, with its massive landmass, would be where the longest trade routes were located. Trade between China, Rome, Persia, India and others peaked before the start of ocean-going long haul ships. Samarkand, a two-hour high-speed train from Tashkent, was one of the most important trading cities in the silk road network.
I was in awe standing at night in the Registan and thinking of all of the great names in history who had come through Samarkand. Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Timur (Tamerlane) all spent much time in the city. They would not have had the view we did that evening because of course at that time, there was not electricity. I wonder what they would have thought to stand there with us in 2019?
The Registan (Persian language meaning sandy place or desert) was the central plaza, the heart of the city and back in the day, probably a busy market. Today, the main bazaar moved down the street and the Soviets and Uzbeks have created a clear space on the Registan so people can admire the three madrassas that form the borders of the clearing. The architecture, colors, designs and size of the madrassas are truly breathtaking and I see why it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The muqarnas, or vaulted arches with the tiled designs of different blues, made me want to paint them. The different hues of blue tiles with intricate designs blend perfectly with the beige bricks and brown sand and mountains that surround the city. I hope to learn more about Islamic architecture during my time in Uzbekistan.
Samarkand today is Uzbekistan’s second city with a population around 1 million people in the metro area. The little over 300 kilometer distance takes 2-hours on a high-speed train. It is quite convenient for us because the train station is close to our house. My only complaint was half of the seats in the train face backwards on every journey. I wish they had the reversible seats like or turn the trains around in the station. It is better than the 4-hour+ drive. Samarkand was originally a Persian city and the majority of the population speaks Tajik, which is an Iranian language. Many Iranians almost moved to Samarkand in the 1800s. Walking around the city, I noticed the the Tajiks/Iranians have a bit darker skin and have slighter builds than Uzbeks.
We spent the second day wandering around the hills and ruins of the ancient city of Marakanda. This was the original Samarkand, when it was controlled by the Sogdians, an Iranian/Persian tribe that had a huge empire starting around 500 BC. It is a huge archeological site (500 acres+) just north of the city and has been preserved by the Soviets and the current Uzbek government. It was an ancient walled city. The Sogdians survived Alexander the Great taking the city in 329 BC, the Arabs in 712 AD and finally, dwindled away after Ghengis Khan wrecked Marakanda in 1220. It wasn’t until Timur conquered the area and made his capital in present day Samarkand in the 1300s.
It made for a nice afternoon for me and the boys. Much better than trailing my wife and her sister through the markets and tourist shops. The area is large and I wonder how much is still underneath. We visited the museum and learned there are three areas, including a citadel. It is called Afrasiyab settlement and can be reached on foot from the Registan. You can kind of make out where they are with faint foundations and hills. We found some cool earthen caves on the sides of hills, which are probably used by herders tending their sheep as they graze over the area. We looked for some ancient pottery and threw a lot of rocks. We did a big loop around the grounds and checked out the most interesting areas. It was nice to have free reign over the area and not signs or guides prohibiting exploration.
I was not enthused to attend a wedding on a Tuesday evening. My driver invited me and Nadia to one of the groundskeeper’s wedding last month. Weddings are big here in Uzbekistan! They are quite extravagant and the government even had to make a law limiting the size and cost of the parties. Families save up for years to spend lavishly on food, entertainment, decorations, etc. It is a big industry in Tashkent, with wedding halls located all over the city. I think there is cultural pressure to hold large weddings to show off one’s ability to do so. However, I haven’t been here long enough to definitely say this is true.
Little did I know what I was getting into. Nadia of course declined, so I went with my driver. Upon arrival, we were guided to a table with the rest of the TIS employees who were in attendance. The wedding couple invites family, friends, acquaintances, employers, friends of friends, etc. There were at least 250 – 300 people in attendance. Quickly, I was eating the national dish of plov and drinking tea, in between shots of vodka. Later in the evening, our table was invited into the center of the dance floor where a MC asked me to make a short speech. I wished the couple happiness on their marriage and praised the groom for his dedication to the school.
I was asked to dance with the groom in the center of the circle. Later, one of the aunts was giving 5,000 So’m bills to people to stuff in the groom’s coat pockets while dancing. I think this was for good luck. Uzbeks have a hybrid culture of Islam and influence from the Soviets. Women and men mostly danced separately, but there is often lots of alcohol consumed at weddings.
Uzbek music is growing on me. I like the rhythm and exotic, Turkish sound mixed with a danceable beat. It reminds me of Balkan pop music. The Uzbeks love a party and I actually ended up having a good time.
This past Sunday, Owen, Oliver and I went hiking in the Ugam-Chatkal National Park. This was my second visit to the park and we were led by the famous guide Boris. The Chatkal Range, part of the western Tian Shan Mountains, covers “the finger” in far Eastern Uzbekistan. It is only about a 90-minute drive from Tashkent.
We climbed a steep ridge running parallel to the Beldersoy Ski Resort to begin the hike. The ski piste and hotel was below as we scrambled over rocky outcrops. Boris is known for not using trails, instead going for more difficult routes and he didn’t disappoint. We made it to the top (2,000 meters / 6,500 feet) of Beldersoy and had gorgeous views of the Beldersoy River valley and several peaks. After a rest, we walked through the Urttakumbel Pass down to the Marble River. We had lunch along the river and surveyed a 30-meter waterfall in the narrow canyon.
Walking back up a side trail we saw hundreds of fossilized cockle shells. It is awesome to think about geological time scales. Those shells were once living mollusks living on the bottom of a sea and today they are found on a mountain in the middle of a double-landlocked desert nation of Uzbekistan. I collected a bunch of nice specimens to display in my office.
We finished the hike by going over to a “solar glade” an open pasture on the way back to our car. The glade reminded me of a desert Sound of Music mountain meadow. It would also have been a great place for a medieval battle scene. Oliver is reading Game of Thrones and is re-watching some of the later episodes. It would be a perfect spot for filming.
Of course the best part of any hike for me is spending time with my family. Being able to talk and explore with my sons gives me so much pleasure. They are two really good guys and we enjoyed each other’s company, despite the early start on a Sunday morning.
The one aspect of hiking in the park that bothers me is the ubiquitous livestock grazing. We didn’t see any horses, cows, sheep or goats on this walk, but we did see plenty of evidence (feces) of ruminants. I wonder what the mountains would look like without the pressure of grazing? I know people have to make a living, but it makes me want to forgo meat all together when I see the impact of livestock on the environment.
I am looking forward to seeing the mountains change as the seasons change. My two hikes so far were during the driest part of the year.
Weddings (nikokh-tui in Uzbek) are extravagant affairs in Uzbekistan, with lavish parties and events for two days. They are so expensive that last year the government urged people to limit their spending on weddings. Weddings begin with a morning breakfast plov (pilaf) hosted by the bride’s father.
My driver Ahat invited me to a friend’s morning plov on Friday. This was my second time attending one of these events. It is such an unusual way to start one’s day and I can’t think of an equivalent in America or Europe. I was grateful for the invitation and the opportunity to experience this classic Uzbek experience. This breakfast is only attended by men and the guest list includes relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors and in my case, friends of friends. Attendees were on the older side, which makes sense with a 7:00 AM start traditionally after morning prayers.
Older Uzbek gentlemen often wear the traditional square hat. I noticed three basic types, black with white spiral embroidery, black and blue. They are most often worn on special occasions, but I do see them on a daily basis around the city. I think it is a cool look and Nadia bought the blue style for me at the Chorsu Bazaar yesterday.
There are many reception halls that cater these events around the city. I estimated about 250 men were in attendance on Friday. Upon arrival, the table is covered with fruits, cucumber/tomatoes, pistachios, the ubiquitous Uzbek bread, sweets, etc. It is easy to get full before the main dish arrives, while drinking tea and snacking. An imam gives a sermon, or speech. Ahat said his 10-minute talk was about marriage. After the speech, relatives of the married couple form lines and pass plates of plov to each of the tables. A dish is shared between two people and spoons are used. Guests passed around the cucumbers and tomatoes to add some healthy veggies to the plov. This plov included horse sausage, which I’ve had a couple of times. It is good, but a bit too salty for my taste. The plov was delicious and Ahat and I finished our plate.
Almost immediately after the food is eaten, there is a quick prayer and everyone heads out. Eating and running is acceptable here! I skipped lunch on Friday and had an extra cup of coffee to prevent me from going back to sleep on a full stomach. Thanks to Ahat for the invitation and his friend’s family for showing me hospitality and welcoming me, a stranger, to participate in their big day
There is a growing cycling community in Uzbekistan as the country is opening up to international influences. Last April the Asian Road Cycling Championships were held here and last March, a cycle marathon to the Kazakhstan border took place.
My friend Matthew took us out on a 40 kilometer social loop around the city yesterday morning. We stopped at the bike shop the expats go to for repairs and service. It was funny to see Chinese city bike-share cycles among the selection of bikes for sale. I read where last spring there was an overproduction of bike share programs in Chinese cities. Two of them ended up in Tashkent.
Despite some reckless driving and underdeveloped asphalt road system, the cycling is quite good here. The wide avenues from the Soviet years and vast public spaces make cycling in the city center quite pleasant. There are also many routes outside the city that I am anxious to explore.