Tom Bissell,
Chasing the Sea
(Pantheon, 2003; Vintage, 2004)

Tom Bissell, the pride of Escanaba, Mich., a former Peace Corps volunteer, has written a brilliant travel book about a place many of us would never think of visiting: Uzbekistan.

First of all, where is Uzbekistan? A part of the former Soviet Union, which became independent about 1990, Uzbekistan sits in the saddle of central Asia, between India, China, Russia and Iran, along the old silk road once followed by Marco Polo. It contains ancient cities such as Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva. Uzbekistan, according to Bissell, was once ruled by Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane) and has been the fiefdom of a series of brutal despots, both locals and imperialist outsiders.

Bissell travels the country on an indirect trajectory, finally making his way to the salt desert, which was once the Aral Sea, along with his translator-foil, the young Uzbek named Rustam. On the way he meets a number of characters: "westerners," Russians, Uzbeks and Karakalpaks, fictionalizing where necessary to protect the innocent and the not-so-innocent.

Bissell's prose sparkles on the page; his travelogue reads like a novel as he recounts stories of drunken mountain climbers in the Ferghana Valley, a blood-curdling police roadblock near Samarkand and brutal poverty in Karakalpakistan, the autonomous area bordering the Aral Sea.

In a memorable scene near the end of the book, Bissell sees two brothers in Karakalpakistan with their dog. The older brother gives the younger brother a wallop, the younger boy throws a rock at the dog and the dog comes over and bites Bissell. This is just one example of Bissell's quirky observations of this unusual country. The story ends with the author among the stranded fishing boats at Moynak, formerly on the Aral.

But Chasing the Sea is far from gloomy. This story, full of central Asian history and lore, presents an emerging nation with all its blemishes. It's also, in the end, a cautionary tale about ecological mismanagement. I'm not sure it made me want to visit Uzbekistan -- but whether or not you have any interest in traveling in central Asia, this one merits a read.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 20 March 2004

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