Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the Worlds Greatest Nuclear Disaster (Latest Reading)

Over the holiday break I finished Adam Higginbotham’s book on the Chernobyl accident of 1986. Higginbotham is a journalist who writes for prestigious publications such as the Telegraph, New York Times, etc. The book made the New York Times Top 10 Books of 2019 list. His writing is clear and he puts suspense into every chapter and so it was a difficult book to put down. I am now watching HBO’s Chernobyl series to compliment my understanding the accident.

I have been generally pro-nuclear energy, despite this accident, the Fukushima accident in Japan (where I lived for five years) and starting my teaching career in Nevada, where the US federal government was trying to put a nuclear waste storage facility under Yucca Mountain. I am fascinated with nuclear energy and always try to read about or visit nuclear energy plants when the opportunity arises. I like that it is a source of energy that does not contribute to global warming and is so far, the biggest alternative to traditional fossil fuels.

The cause of the accident at Chernobyl was the Soviet government. They did things as cheap as possible and had an unquestioning bureaucratic structure that did not promote a culture of excellence. I felt sorry for the plant workers having to deal with the flimsy and antique equipment and control systems. I am surprised more accidents didn’t happen in the ex-Soviet Union. Doing things on the cheap, especially when it comes to something as large and deadly as a nuclear reactor, is not a good idea.

The book and the HBO series vividly portray the invisible power of radiation. The tragic and horrible consequences of high dosages of radiation on humans and the environment are shocking. It is odd the delay in the effects of radiation and it would be more helpful to avoid it if one could see the deadly rays emitted by radioactive substances.

The delays in evacuation and stopping the exposed core are due to the Soviet system. There seemed to be a lot of fear, resignation and no challenging of authority. I see some of that living here in Uzbekistan, an ex-Soviet republic. It will take a long time for these countries to move past the effects of living under the Soviet system for such a long time. I read recently where with the help of Russia, Uzbekistan will be building a nuclear energy plant in the Navoi region (between Samarkand and Bukhara). I hope they have learned from the mistakes of Chernobyl.

Samarkand

Nadia and Alejandra are dwarfed by a madrassa on the Registan

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?

Courtyard

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.

Photo Opportunity at the Registan

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.

Taking a break on the ruins of Afrosiab

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.

Walking Around the Renovated Tourist Area of Samarkand

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.

Black Star Burger

The boys love to go to Black Star Burger, an American-style hamburger chain owned by Russian Hip-Hop artist, Timati and businessman Yuri Levitas. It has a cool vibe and some distinctive features that make it worth a night out. With every meal comes a pair of disposable black rubber gloves. The burgers are very juicy and it is convenient at the end of the meal to peel off the gloves and leave the table with dry hands.

The decor is similar to Shake Shack, with an attractive font for the signs. Another interesting feature are the tattoo-sleeves servers wear under their black t-shirts. Timati looks like Drake, but he is not African. His parents ar Tartar (Turkish ethnic group) and Jewish and he grew up in Moscow. Politically, he supported Vladimir Putin in two elections and came under some criticism for the pro-Putin music video he starred in. I’ve listened to his music and definitely not my style. The restaurant market in Russia has room for different kinds of food and they seem to be successful. I see they are selling franchises in other parts of Russia besides Moscow.

Fresh Haircuts

It was a quiet day. I dropped the kids off at Ice City. Nadia made carrot-cake cream cookies, pan de jamon and a beef stir fry. She was busy in the kitchen. It is nice to have family here for Christmas! The boys got a haircut from Oleg, who comes to the house. He always does a nice job.

Winter Holidays in Tashkent Journal

Ocean asked me to go with her to Ice City, a new winter sports amusement center in Tashkent. We made Oliver go with us and we had a lot of laughs. I especially liked the speed skating ring. They even had an indoor bunny hill for skiers. I just love spending time with my family during the holidays.

A cold evening at the Tashkent International Airport

Last night and again this afternoon, we went to the airport to pick up Nadia’s father and her sister and nephew. The Tashkent International Airport is unusual in that people must wait outside the arrivals terminal and cannot enter the building. With temperatures hovering around zero, we were uncomfortable. I really enjoyed it however, just spending time with my family, joking around and waiting with anticipation for our relatives to exit the terminal.

Still cold during the day

I had a headache today and took it easy most of the day. Yesterday however, I did get out for a ride along the canals. It was quite refreshing and I hope to ride more often during the break.

Ankhor Canal

Tashkent Family Journal: Christmas Break Begins

The city is putting up Christmas trees in many parks in the city, including Odo Park.

I will be getting back to my regular blogging during the Christmas break. This weekend Nadia and I had a Hyatt Day, working out in the gym, taking a water aerobics class, hitting the sauna, culminating with a nice dinner in the rooftop Italian restaurant. I went for a walk while she was getting her nails done and noticed all of the Christmas decorations going up in the city. These were some massive artificial trees being lit up in Odo Park, near the hotel. This is new for Uzbekistan because the first president did not allow for Christmas decorations. I am looking forward to walking around the city at night this week to see all of the lights.

Nadia purchased several suzanis which are Central Asian embroidered, decorative textiles. The word suzan is Persian for “needle”. The Persians ruled most of Central Asia for a long time before the Turks and Mongolian tribes ousted them. They make beautiful tapestries or table covers. A lot of time and effort goes into making them. Nadia will be giving them as Christmas gifts.

Nadia and Brittany

We played tennis on Sunday morning at the indoor courts of the Olympic Tennis School. It is a great way to exercise during cold and wet weather we’ve been experiencing so far this break in Tashkent. I will try to play more tennis at NBU Yoshlik Center this week.

Owen works on this shooting

I’ve been working on recruiting as well this week and trying to balance family time with work. Owen and I went to the school gym to work out. I am trying to get the family out and about more and off their devices. We’ll see how that goes.

Uzbek Weddings

Lots of flowers, gold and of course, the wedding video and photo crew.

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.

Happy Thanksgiving

(I am catching up on my blogging this week.)

We hosted 22 people for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and it was such a delightful evening. Our school gave scheduled only a half-day of classes so we (I mean, Nadia and Deliya) could start cooking the turkey. We had an extremely large Butterball turkey delivered from Ramstein Air Base in Germany (thanks US Embassy commissary!) Nadia had a masterful performance and after 20 years of cooking turkeys, she has become a top chef and the turkey is always moist and delicious!

Ocean is getting into the Thanksgiving spirit!

Thanksgiving is an uniquely American holiday and we are lucky to be able to share it with friends from all over the world. It was funny that our Israeli friends reflected on their first Thanksgiving that it was the opposite of Yon Kippur, a day of fasting and saying sorry, while Thanksgiving is a day to eat until you are uncomfortably full and be thankful for all the good things in your life.

Deserts!