My husband and I woke for the final time in Tashkent last Thursday around 02:00, showered, dressed, ate the last random food in our fridge, and lugged our suitcases out to the expediter vehicle. I’d felt a moment of sadness as I walked through the empty rooms of our house, and said goodbye to each room individually. After the baggage was loaded, I stood in the front yard for a moment trying to be present. I gazed at what had been my home for just over two years, and said my goodbyes and thanks.
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.
You know that PCS (Permanent Change of Station) season is right around the corner when everyone is crossing those last regional destinations off their bucket lists. Or at the very least, indulging in a road trip to enjoy time with departing friends! The packing and organizing will get done one way or another.
A few months ago, my husband and I looked ahead to the last for-sure three day weekend of our Tashkent tour. We wanted to take advantage of the time for a trip that wouldn’t require taking a day off. As the President’s Day weekend fell between Valentine’s Day and my husband’s birthday, I suggested visiting either Dubai in the United Arab Emirates or Almaty, Kazakhstan for a romantic getaway. Since we already have Kazakh visas, Almaty is closer and the flights are cheaper, and the main reason to go to Dubai is shopping – which holds less and less allure as we near our packout in May – we chose Almaty.
The baggage carousel jerked to life, and the second bag that trundled up the belt was mine. “Right out of the gate, that never happens!” I exclaimed to the man next to me. “Well, all right,” he responded with a smile. I had landed in San Francisco on a Saturday mid-morning after a fairly comfortable 11.5 hour flight from Seoul. However, I hadn’t slept for two nights in a row, and I still had a three hour drive ahead of me.
Two Friday nights ago after work, I flew so far to the east that I ended up west, jumping four time zones ahead between Tashkent and Seoul, and then 17 more time zones backwards as I continued in the same direction towards San Francisco. I was en route door to door for about 36 hours. Unfortunately for me I only slept about 90 minutes cumulatively during the two overnights I transited. Because I was chasing the sun and then fleeing the sun, I ended up with possibly the longest Saturday of my life.
Dozens of Russian diplomats posted to the United States declared persona non grata and sent home. Thousands of American troops marching into Poland in the largest U.S. military reinforcement of Europe in decades. An entire world on the edge of its seat awaiting the inauguration of a new U.S. head of state. It was in this dramatic and turbulent political climate earlier this month that one hopeful American diplomat went on holiday to the Russian Federation.
I admit it: 2016 was not my favorite year. It was professionally and personally challenging. It felt like I was battling one problem after another in a difficult environment, in disintegrating health, and with my main support network of family and friends a dozen time zones away. In 2016 many things were lacking in my life: good health, human respect in civil discourse, and tacos. I noticed these deficiencies, got pissed off and disappointed and sad over them, and tried to move on. However, 2016 was awesome for my passport, the blog, and my ability to adapt and learn new skills.
Several weeks ago, the land crossing at the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan opened to vehicular traffic for the first time since I’ve been here. It takes about fifteen minutes from our house in Tashkent to drive past the ring road and up the M-39 to the crossing itself. After going through immigration and customs on both the Uzbek and Kazakh sides, it’s about another 90 minutes (depending on weather and road conditions) to the Kazakh city of Shymkent (Шымкент). Oh Shymkent – where have you been all my Tashkent tour?
The weekend before Thanksgiving, I boarded a two-thirds empty flight out of Tashkent as the snow flurries began to fall. As the doors closed and everyone raced to the middle rows to lie down, I reseated myself in an empty and quiet emergency exit row. As is typical, the plane’s interior was overheated to the point where I felt ill. “It’s cold near the door,” a flight attendant chastised me in Russian. “Super,” I replied, also in Russian, “Because it is very hot in here for me.”
Purpose of travel: Urgent dental work. Destination: Bangkok.
A little more than a year ago, one of my former colleagues spent the last weekend before his packout from Tashkent hopping a domestic flight with his family. He told me that he couldn’t believe his two year tour had passed by without him ever making it to Khiva, an Uzbek city in the far west of the country. He told me, “If you get a chance to go to Khiva, take it. Don’t wait until the last minute when you need to pack and have a million other things to do.” So when the embassy’s Community Liasison Office (CLO) organized a trip last month to Khiva, my husband and I were among the first to sign up.
During the first week of October, I was fortunate enough to travel to Hyderabad, India to attend a work-related conference. The conference was hosted by U.S. Consulate Hyderabad and our regional South and Central Asia bureau, and specifically targeted at first and second tour (FAST) officers, meaning new diplomats on their first or second overseas tour. I went with one of my Embassy Tashkent colleagues, K, and as we flew over Iranian air space between Tashkent and Dubai, I thought how nice it always is to change the scenery.