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.

Family Journal: March 11, 2022 “Personal Project Exhibition”

Oliver at this Personal Project Display

The culmination of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme for students in grade 10 is the Personal Project. This is a year-long passion project that they work on independently from their regular school work. Oliver has always loved fantasy and gaming and his project was to create three new Pokemon characters. The big skill that he learned was working with the software, Adobe Illustrator. Nadia was a superstar mom, supporting Oliver through this as accompanying the project, the IB requires a reflective journal. I was proud of him and watching him interact with the public during the exhibition on Wednesday evening was a highlight of my week.

Oliver points out his learning to elementary students

Oliver’s three characters were Olov (Uzbek for fire), Elderwing (taken from Norse mythology) and Torrtega. Pokemon characters “evolve” and he designed all three evolutions for the three characters for a total of 9 illustrations. The elementary students loved his projects and his cards quickly were scooped up by the enthusiastic kids.

We’ve had an incredible amount of rain this week. Every day it has rained most of the day and night. It will continue to rain all next week too, with 100% chance on Monday and Tuesday and 80% chance the rest of the week until Saturday. We took advantage of the rain to plant 41 trees on our campus. At every school I’ve worked, I always plant trees and TIS is no exception. Our school is known for our park-like setting and I want to build on that strength. The maintenance crew, led by landscaper David Jacobs and Facilities Manager Rashid Suleymanov, purchased and planted some larger trees to put on the side of campus without many trees. The Tashkent summers are long and hot and the trees will cool that side of the school. I also believe big trees calm people and create a better learning environment. One challenge of so many trees is the upkeep, however. Strong winds came in on Wednesday afternoon and a big branch as you see below, cracked when the tree was twisted. The maintenance crew quickly sealed off the area and on Friday, the area was cleared of branches.

Family Journal: March 8, 2022

International Women’s Day, March 8 is a big deal in the former Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe. It is a national holiday in many countries including Uzbekistan. The socialist government made a big deal of promoting women in the workforce, one of the good aspects of the USSR. The goal was for women to contribute to the good of society outside of their homes and in factories and the front lines, during World War II and beyond. The day is still recognized, although it has more of a Mother’s Day feel to it with all female employees receiving chocolates and flowers from the company. There are many luncheons and parties held in their honor.

I took Ocean this morning to the Compass Mall to meet a friend to watch Uncharted. She was excited to see Tom Holland star and spend time with her friends. We arrived early and had some time to kill so we posed by the Women’s Day displays in the mall. Later on in the day, handsome male models with red bow ties were available to take photos with any women wanting to do so. Ocean also said there was an entertainment show in the parking lot featuring weight lifting and magic with lots of audience participation.

In the afternoon I interviewed a possible chemistry teacher, helped Oliver set up for the Personal Project and coached basketball practice. Our teams have our season-ending tournament this week so I’ll be blogging about some good old March Madness. Sadly international teams will not be visiting, but we will have teams from the city competing. Overall, a good day mixing family and work!

I saw these cool photos in the Gazette.uz today showing the International Women’s Day celebrations through the years in Uzbekistan.

Family Journal: March 7, 2022

Said and Oliver prep for the Model United Nations

My friend shared a photo of Oliver during this past weekend’s Model United Nations hosted by the British School of Tashkent. Due to COVID restrictions, spectators were not allowed to attend. I’ll be posting about Oliver Personal Project during his exhibition tomorrow night.

The apricot and cherry trees around the city are in full bloom. The air was full of sweetness as I walked Obi around our neighborhood the past couple of days. The weather has been warm and sunny in the first week of March, but has turned rainy this week. It is still above freezing so it the fruits should be OK as they develop during this month.

Sunday is shopping day and Nadia and I usually go to the Mirabad Bazaar to buy fruits and vegetables. There is a wider selection than what you get in the supermarket and it feels good to support the individuals and small businesses. Every vendor specializes and I wonder what it would be like to sell eggs, or spices, or greens everyday for years. They always seem to have a smile on their faces, so it must be a decent living.

Family Journal: March 5, 2022

Cocurricular events are back at our school as the Omicron variant wave slowly leaves the city. Oliver had a Model United Nations Conference yesterday at the British School of Tashkent and I was not allowed to enter. It was fun helping him with putting on his suit and tie and prepping him for the topics they would be discussing. One of the issues was HIV in the developing world and having lived through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, I could give him perspective and context.

Ocean’s junior varsity (grade 8 and 9) team played a local school team in our gym. I could see the girls’ fitness levels have been impacted by the pandemic. Ocean needed to take breaks during the game. The school cafeteria has an excellent expresso coffee machine and it was just so nice to connect with other parents again in person. The city dropped all COVID risk mitigation measures and at school, we are lowering some of them as well. Often I give a short video for the community instead of a letter because people find it more entertaining and memorable. Much of my time this week at school was getting the building construction started.

Obi continues to bring us joy and entertainment. We all love having a dog and Obi connects us with each other. Yesterday he fell asleep on Nadia’s lap and it was so funny!

Obi on his throne

Nadia and I had a really nice social weekend. It started with a Shabbat dinner with our Israeli friends. We laughed a lot and even sang karaoke after a delicious meal! On Saturday we had a glass of wine with one of our Dutch friends. That is one of the nicest aspects of international expatriate life is we make friends with people all over the world.

Family Journal: February 27, 2022

I pose in front of campus

I visited Akfa University, a new private institution of higher learning in Tashkent last week. Akfa is a large manufacturing company here in Uzbekistan and they produce a wide range of products from building materials to heating, pharmaceuticals and cooling systems. Taking a tour of their massive campus located across from the future international airport, it is obvious they have lots of funding. They are starting with 1,000 students and all programs are in English. They have a school of medicine, business, etc. and most importantly for me and why I was visiting, was their College of Education. They have a bachelor’s degree program in English Language Teaching. I was most surprised that all of the classes are in English which is an indication of the future of Uzbekistan, joining the world economy and leaving the Russian sphere of influence. Their goal is 10,000 students and they are already recruiting internationally and have dormitories. This is one of several universities that are expanding in the city including Webster, Westminster, Amity, etc. I hope there are jobs and careers waiting for these young people upon graduation and that will be the challenge of the government.

It was a gorgeous day with warm temperatures and blue skies on Saturday. I walked Obi in the morning and made a point to check out the Ukrainian Embassy in Tashkent. The embassy is located near others so I am not sure if there was an increased police presence or not, but on a Saturday morning, it was pretty quiet. I furtively snapped a couple of photos. It is an uneasy time in Eastern Europe because of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Uzbekistan is a long way from the fighting but as a former Soviet Republic, it is in the news here. Most Uzbeks are generally pro-Russian and they connect Russia with quality, whether it is in schools, consumer products and services. This is much different than the rest of the world. Russian is still the main language in Tashkent, at least for now. The Uzbek government has a good relationship with Russia but they do not share a border and are not as connected as Kazakhstan with Russia.

Ukrainian Embassy – Tashkent

Latest Reading: Red Roulette & Killing Floor

I think China is a fascinating country and culture. With 1 billion people and going back centuries, Chinese culture has shaped Asia and the world. I have visited Macao, Hong Kong, Beijing and Xian on three trips to the country. Earlier this month I finished reading Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Vengeance in Today’s China by Desmond Shum. It was recommended by The Economist as one of its top books of 2021.

I had two big takeaways from the book. The first is it is staggering to think of the amount of money that was made when China moved from a socialist, government-owned economy to a capitalist one. Shum became wildly rich during this era. This is similar to what happened in Serbia and Russia when state-owned assets were privatized. There is a lot of opportunity for corruption and nepotism in these situations. The second takeaway is the American government experts, led by Bill Clinton at the time thought that facilitating China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and capitalism would lead to a more pluralistic, free-market and eventually even a democracy. They were dead wrong and instead, it was a way for an almost bankrupt Communist Party to strengthen its grip on power and the lives of its citizens.

The author Shum was born in Shanghai and grew up in Hong Kong. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin, so has a good understanding of both Chinese and Western cultures. He walks us through his education and through his wife, of the aristocracy the party. The aristocracy are the descendants of the founding fathers of the Chinese Communist party and current high-ranking party officials. They live a separate life from ordinary Chinese and it was amazing to read of the money they made through their government connections.

I always thought the Chinese were ruthless and Shum thinks that comes from the Communist system. “Chinese are pitted against one another in a rat race and told that only the strong survive. We’re not taught to cooperate.” He also describes the rise of Xi Jinping, who cleared a path to the top by launching thousands of corruption investigations and jailing or firing rivals. I never understand how one man can accumulate so much power. They need everyone around him to believe he is powerful, including the police and military.

Despite becoming fabulously wealthy, Shum’s story is a tragic and sad one. The book opened my eyes to the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party and how much the West, misunderstands China.

Some of the useful Chinese terms I learned from the book are as follows:

  • moutai – The national drink of China, fermented from sorghum and then distilled.
  • mishu – powerful personal assistants that control access to their bosses, shape agendas and sway decisions
  • guanxi – relationships built over time that people use to increase their business

I also read Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher detective novel, Killing Floor (1997). I often like to read a murder-mystery light book in the evenings to take my mind off of issues at school. It soothes me to read a chapter or two and then think through what happened and speculate on what is coming up in the plot. This was a pretty good book, but nothing spectacular. One of the streaming services made a television series on Jack Reacher, the 6’5″, ex-military policeman, a drifter that in this book, is a freelance detective trying to avenge the death of his brother. It is set in the fictional town south of Atlanta called Margrave, Georgia and by an unbelievable coincidence, Reacher is accused of murder. I don’t want to give too much of the plot but I will tell you it is set around a counterfeit ring. I did learn a bit about how mints print currency.

There was one good quote, “Then we’d grown up together all over the world inside that tight isolated transience that service families create for themselves.” Reacher is describing his army brat childhood where the family moved all over the world. I experience this with my global nomad family. The nuclear family grows tighter when the extended family is far away.

There are 20+ Jack Reacher detective novels that I probably won’t read. They would be a good airplane read, simple, lots of action and a mystery to solve. For this particular one, I got a little tired towards the end.

Family Journal: February 20, 2022

Liz and Nadia as we embark on the hike.

I am really starting to fall in love with the Amirsoy Resort. Well, maybe not in love, but at least a warm fondness. They now offer snowshoeing and that was my opportunity to get Nadia out in the fresh mountain air. Yesterday, we hired a guide from the resort to show us the best trails and it was a glorious day. Our friend Liz who is a strong hiker helped Nadia through the steep parts. That is one aspect of mountain hiking, there are a lot of inclines and declines. This is much different from my home in Michigan, with its relatively flat landscapes, thick forests with the occasional hill. We walked up to over 1700 meters above sea level while the highest point in Michigan is just over 500 meters. We stayed on the resort’s property which extends several kilometers to the west of the groomed ski runs. It is an area free of livestock grazing so there are more trees than in other sections of the mountain range. After watching the Olympic Nordic skiing star Ivo Niskenan and the rest of the field go all out in the races, I was inspired to push through the snow. I miss cross country skiing and snowshoeing is the closest thing I’ve found. I would definitely do this again and might even buy a pair of shoes for next winter. We had a nice hot tea after the 4-hour, 8-kilometer walk while waiting for the kids to get off the slopes. It was an ideal day with the family and going to Amirsoy feels like you are on holiday.

Relaxing after a day of winter sport!

Sunday was shopping day and Nadia and I went to the various markets and supermarkets around the city. I also had to take Oliver to his dentist appointment and then cook and tidy up the house. A highlight was making breakfast for Oliver and his friends after they slept over on Saturday night.

Badger Fat

I love the Russian influence on Tashkent and spotted bottles of European Badger fat/oil in the Olay market. It is an old Siberian tradition to massage the oil to heal aching muscles, etc. On the box, it claimed to cure bronchitis, pulmonary tuberculosis, lung inflammation, atherosclerosis, colds, some types of asthma , gastric and duodenal ulcers, and total exhaustion of the body. Wow! I am surprised it didn’t mention COVID. I didn’t buy any but am curious about the smell.

Soviet-era Apartment

I end this blog post with a of an apartment building of the Soviet-era architecture you find in Tashkent. This one is quite nice, much better than the pre-fabricated Khrushchyovka blocks you often see. You don’t often see cylindrical-shaped apartment buildings in the west. I would love to go inside these apartments to see what it is like to live in them.

Family Journal: February 13, 2022

The highlight of the weekend was Oliver and I going skiing on Saturday. Rain was in the forecast for Tashkent so I thought it would be snowing up at the resort. It certainly was and as we pulled out of our driveway at 6:45 AM, a light rain was coming down. When we started the climb to Amirsoy, it turned to snow and it was a challenge to make it to the resort. I grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and am used to winter driving so we made it with no problems. There was sand from a truck the night before and it kept patches of the road clear, especially on the steep inclines. We were the first day visitors to the resorts and at that time in the morning, it probably had snowed about 4 inches. The snow continued until about 11:00 AM. I would guess between 6 and 8 inches fell. It was wet, dense snow and not the dry powder that skiers dream of. It made it difficult, technical skiing. Each run felt like moguls with piles of thick snow interspersed with trails of skiers and snowboarders.

Oliver was ready for his last run as the fog lifted in the late afternoon.

It got better as more people panked down the snow and I actually got to practice my form and turns instead of just trying to stay up. I stayed on the lower runs, only going up to the middle station of the gondola. The combination of steepness and bumps would have risked injury for me. It was also a thick fog that cut down vision which further complicated things. I made it through the day with only falling three times. Oliver is a much better skier than me, but the fog and deep snow slowed him and his friends down enough so we could spend most of the day together! He is turning into a mature young man and I am very proud of him. We had a good laugh on the way up with the snowy roads. It was also good to have lunch with friends Simon and Luc.

On Sunday morning I played doubles tennis with the usual gang. I then played Kralovec family Yandex taxi taking Oliver to the dentist and then to a friend’s party. I had to do some chores around the house and then started preparing for a busy week of school in the evening.

Olympic gold medalist Nick Baumgartner speaking with his family

Saturday was also an exciting day for my hometown of Iron River, Michigan. Nick Baumgartner and his partner won Olympic gold in the Snowboard Cross Mixed Doubles. The race was so exciting as he surprisingly won the finals for the men and then Lindsey Jacobellis came through and won the women’s final. It is so nice for him to win his first gold at age 40 after a long, successful career. We were screaming as snowboard cross is such a crazy sport! I loved the conversation with his family back in Iron River after the victory. He is “bringing gold back to Iron River and the Upper Peninsula” and he gave a shout-out to our high school, West Iron County Wykons! NBC Olympic host Mike Tirico had to explain that the Wykon is our school mascot.

Paltua Canyon Hike

Paltua Waterfall – January 2022

On Sunday I went on a Boris-led hike up to the Paltua waterfall in the Chatkal Mountains. The bright, blue skies and the massive walls of snow and rock were so awesome and the day outdoors lifted my spirits. The hike begins from the far end of the road that circumnavigates Charvak Reservoir. We took a dirt road (covered in ice and snow) to an Uzbek military checkpoint and guard post to present our passports to the soldiers. The source of the Paltua River is near the border with Kyrgyzstan and so everyone who visits the waterfall and the valley must get approval from authorities. The waterfall is 4 kilometers from Kyrgyzstan. Stalin created odd borders and the line goes along the top of the Koksuy range. It would have made more sense geographically to put the border on flat ground.

The mountains resemble “The Wall” from the HBO series Game of Thrones

There was a strong wind blowing when we pulled up to the guard post early Sunday. There is a gap in the mountain range that winds howl through where the guard post is located. I felt bad for those soldiers and we were all a bit worried that it was going to be a long, cold walk. However, as soon as we got up the side of the first hillside and into the protected valley, the wind died down and the warm sun made it a delightful day. There were two small buses of local hikers, which is rare in the Ugam-Chatkal National Park. We had a pleasant conversation with them at the waterfall where we had lunch. Our guide Boris Kasimov is a legendary mountain hiker and they were taking selfies with the grand old man of Chimgan!

The view from the Obi Rakhmat Grotto

There are two interesting sites before reaching the falls. “Pulat-tau” means Iron Mountain as the area was historically an iron mine. There is an abandoned horizontal shaft into the side of one of the canyons along the river. You can walk safely to the end of the tunnel, about 20 meters inside the rock. Another highlight of the hike is the Obi Rakhmat grotto which is an archaeological site and was the home to people 50,000 years ago. About 500 stone items and human remains have been found in the cave. It is a natural shelter and I see why humans long ago sought protection there. From the back of the cave, looking out at the mountains I thought about what the landscape must have looked like for them and what type of flora and fauna was there.

Liz and Boris on top of the Paltua Valley

The 38-meter high waterfall was the goal of the hike. It was mostly ice but there was still liquid water coming down and the stream was flowing under a layer of ice and snow. There were beautiful icicles along the rock walls lining the waterfall. After lunch, we hiked back down to the guard post alongside the river.