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Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia Hardcover – September 23, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Bissell's first journey to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996 was cut short by heartache and illness. Memories of that failure dog his return in 2001 to write about the rapidly deteriorating ecosystem of the Aral Sea. Once the size of Lake Michigan, the sea has already lost most of its water and will likely disappear by the middle of the next decade, leaving thousands of square kilometers of salty desert. Journalist Bissell examines that story, but also ponders broader questions about Uzbekistan and its people. Hooking up with Rustam, a young interpreter, he sets off on a road trip across the country. The format of the ensuing travelogue-cum-history lesson resembles that of itinerant political commentators like Robert Kaplan, right down to the repulsively exotic cuisine (e.g., boiled lamb's head) and digressionary mini-essays on the history of European imperialism in Central Asia. But Bissell rails against the way other authors "pinion entire cultures based upon how [their] morning has gone," aiming for a more accurate and balanced portrayal. An ongoing dialogue with Rustam over the region's history and culture, and the extent to which both were shaped by the Soviets, adds a personal dimension. The account doesn't flinch from portraying the region's corruption-crooked cops appear regularly on the scene-but despite the frequent bouts of despair, for both the region and himself, Bissell refuses to give up on the Uzbeks entirely. The humor and poignancy in this blend of memoir, reportage and history mark the author as a front-runner in the next generation of travel writers.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

The title of this erratic but enthralling travelogue refers to the attempts of fishermen in Central Asia to pursue the receding waters of the Aral Sea, which has shrunk, since 1960, to less than a third of its original size. In 2001, the author, a self-described "adventure journalist" and failed Peace Corps volunteer, arrives in Uzbekistan to investigate this ecological disaster. Bissell doesn't so much chase the sea as meander toward it, and nine-tenths of the book concerns his detours—to Samarkand, Bukhara, and the guerrilla-infested mountains of Kyrgyzstan—and his run-ins with suspicious local police forces. Bissell shines as a raconteur, if not as an analyst, and his ebullient narrative harks back to the travel classics of the nineteenth century, when the journey was an end in itself.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (September 23, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375421300
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375421303
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,639,092 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on May 10, 2005
Format: Paperback
I came to this book as someone who enjoys a good travelogue and has a long-standing general interest in Central Asia (I've read all the Hopkirk books). I have to say that despite Bissell's cautionary notice at the beginning that he is not attempting history or reportage or travel writing, but that the book is "a personal, idiosyncratic account of a place and a people and the problems and conflicts they share," this is one of the best modern travelogues I've encountered. Like all the best in the genre, it is outstanding precisely because it is such a personal work. Those interested in just the logistics of getting around and seeing the sights of Uzbekistan can always just pick up a good guidebook or three, and those interested in pure history have plenty of works to pick from. What Bissell brings is sparkling prose and a refreshingly open-hearted approach that admits his own limitations.

Bissell's relationship with Uzbekistan began with an ignominious Peace Corps stint in the 1996, which saw him leaving after less than a year due to a mental breakdown. He returned in 2001, ostensibly to research and write an article about the decline of the Aral Sea, but in a large part, to confront his demons from that earlier experience. As the title foreshadows, he spends most of his trip bouncing around the country in an attempt to come to grips with it (indeed, it isn't until the final 50 pages that he gets to the Aral and discusses its plight). Bissell isn't on any particular itinerary so much as he wants to see the high points and take care of a few tasks (like smuggling money to someone). Because his Uzbek is shaky and his Russian is almost non-existent, he hires a 20-something Uzbek translator named Rustam.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By William J. Feuer on May 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Part travelogue, part history, part reportage, part editorial, this is the best book of its kind that I've ever read. It is an un-patronizing portrait of people making the best of difficult circumstances that most of us can't imagine well. One thing that distinguishes "Chasing the Sea" from, say, Colin Thubron's "The lost heart of Asia" is its persistent up-beat tone. Just because the facts are sad doesn't mean that reading about them has to be depressing. Besides, you have to love an author who takes the trouble to place a sub-title at the top of every other page and who, in non-fiction, is so candid about his own weaknesses (e.g. his abortive Peace Corps service, his inability to deliver money to one promised recipient).


This book could not have succeeded in its current form if Bissell had not hooked up with Rustam, his young, proud, intelligent, opinionated, endearing translator and advisor. The tension between Bissell's typically Politically Correct American views and Rustam's practical Uzbek views on the country's history, politics, and future (not to mention women) makes a lot of the book work.

Yes, early in his book, Bissell gives a description of the Aral Sea situation uncannily similar to that in "Ecoside in the USSR" by Feshbach, et al. (I own that book also). He credits "Ecoside" in his bibliography. I suppose that if this were an academic work, he'd have to have appropriate footnotes, but the important thing is that more people will find out about the eco-problems of Central Asia by reading "Chasing the Sea" than will work their way through Feshbach.

Bissell has stones.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Tim F. Martin on July 18, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
_Chasing the Sea_ is one of the finer travel books I have read in some time. Author Tom Bissell set out originally to cover the tragic disappearance of the Aral Sea, a once large inland body of water shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that has been slowly choked to death since the 19th century by diversion of the water to grow cotton. Through the course of the book though he not only covers the Aral Sea but also relates his previous personal experiences with Uzbekistan - he served for a time as a Peace Corps volunteer - as well as his current travels. Though he left the Peace Corps, his love for this Central Asian nation didn't leave him and he felt compelled to return, not only to his host family but to the country in general.
We learn that Uzbekistan is the second largest exporter of cotton in the world; though this achievement has not come without considerable cost (also amazingly enough they grow rice too). That this desert nation relies so heavily economically on such a thirsty plant is unusual, but Bissell details how the American Civil War cut off the supply of cotton, encouraging tsarist Russia to look for a new source. Demand for cotton only escalated during the Cold War. To grow the cotton, the Amu Darya River (known in antiquity as the Oxus) was diverted. This river, which forms part of Uzbekistan's southern border and the primary source of the Aral Sea's water, now no longer feeds into it at all. The formerly vast river, which once formed a huge inland delta, is now a mere creek at best as it reaches the receding shores of the Aral.
The Aral Sea's certain demise sometime in the first few decades of the 21st century will have ugly consequences.
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