On a hot, dry night in May 2015, I landed in Tashkent to begin my first diplomatic tour. My iPhone was shuffling through songs and settled on “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News just before the wheels hit the tarmac. My heart was excited and hopeful, and my mind was jumbled full of Russian and consular don’t-forgets. Over 105 weeks later, hours from flying away for good, I’m grateful for the best parts of being here, and even the tough parts. Five figure visa interviews. Eleven new countries…and one old. Road trips. Illnesses and injuries. New friends and colleagues. Probably way too many plates of plov cooked in sheep fat. And an inestimable amount of gratitude and hope for what comes next.
During Soviet times, Tashkent had a functioning aircraft production plant called the Chkalov Aircraft Factory, previously also known as the Tashkent Aviation Production Organization (TAPO). The factory was named after famous Soviet pilot Valeriy Chkalov. Although the factory still boasts some contracts and foreign projects, by and large its glory days have passed. I don’t know whether or not the compound is open to the public, but a group of us from the embassy were lucky enough last week to be invited there to check out the museum and some of the planes still on display.
I strolled slowly downhill through the gravel and broken pavement towards the Aral Sea as raindrops began to fall. The Land Cruiser rolled up slowly on my right, and M called out through the open window, “Hey lady, want a ride?” Looking skeptically over my shoulder, I replied, “I don’t usually take rides from strangers. But you guys look all right.” I laughed at myself as I clumsily climbed in and we rolled the remaining few hundred yards down to the seaport.
[This is a companion piece to my prior post about traveling to the Aral Sea earlier this month. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
The Aral Sea is located in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, in the far northwestern part of Uzbekistan. While once the fourth largest lake in the world, over the last several decades it has lost 90 percent of its water, mostly due to irresponsible Soviet agricultural practices. Scientists have long considered the Aral Sea to be one of the greatest environmental disasters in human history. I saw a National Geographic article featuring the impending destruction of the sea around twenty years ago, and a small seed of fascination was planted. It has been without a doubt my biggest bucket list item during my tour in Uzbekistan. We were fortunate to finally make our visit happen two weeks ago – one of the most sad and contemplative, yet amazing and mysterious trips I’ve ever taken.
Last spring, I took a road trip through the Fergana Valley with some of my embassy colleagues and friends. Unfortunately, it happened during a time when my husband was in London and couldn’t attend. So this year when the trip was announced again, we signed up, and a couple of our friends said they’d roll with us, too. More than a dozen diplomatic-plated vehicles caravaning through the valley drew a lot of amazed stares and sometimes even a wave. Two days and in excess of a dozen hours in the car led us to beautiful Uzbek silk, hand-painted ceramic pottery, and the palace of the former khan. How could we say no to our second-to-last Uzbek road trip?
The weekend before last, my husband and I made our fifth and final trip to Kazakhstan. It seemed only fitting that we should bid farewell to Shymkent now that spring has bloomed, and we have less than six weeks remaining here.