A literate, elegiac account of travels in the outback of Uzbekistan, tracing the origins and consequences of one of the world’s most devastating ecological disasters.
Debut author Bissell’s wanderings in Central Asia begin in an ancient outpost of civilization: the old stone city of Tashkent, to which the author had first come in the mid-1990s as a Peace Corps volunteer but had abruptly fled in the midst of an odd personal crisis (“My reasons for leaving were emotional and complicated. In other words, I lost my mind”). But, deeply affected by the place and its people, Bissell braved a return to document the death of the Aral Sea, now little more than a salty puddle between two great deserts. What caused its demise is complicated, too, but much can be explained by the Soviet-era reliance on cotton and rice cultivation and on damming every free-flowing river in sight. And the sea is well and truly dead, Bissell writes by way of conclusion: “The sea was not coming back, nothing would improve . . . until, one day, the Aral Sea would be spoken of in the doomed, sepulchral tones of Gomorrah, Pompeii, or one of The Tempest’s ‘still-vexed Bermudas.’ ” But Bissell offers much more than a chronicle of ecocide; he delivers a travelogue as well, with a lively portrait of a part of the world that few Americans (but, oddly enough, planeloads of Germans) come to visit. Along the way, with nods to classical English and Russian literature and to pop culture, he explores the history of a nation now struggling to overcome a legacy of totalitarian rule—and in the bargain delivers a stinging critique of contemporary clash-of-civilizations writer Robert Kaplan’s account of Uzbekistan, marked by “an almost perverse freedom to pinion entire cultures based upon how his morning has gone.”
First-rate in every regard: to be put alongside such classics on the region as Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand and The Road to Oxiana.