Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, by Tom Bissell. Pantheon Books. $25.95
By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2003).
A COLOURFUL WORLD ATLAS, produced in association with Britain's Royal Geographical Society in 2000, still shows the Aral Sea as a pale blue teardrop, perhaps a hundred miles across, between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in what was once the far-flung hinterland of the Soviet Union. As writer Tom Bissell shows, it is a misleading colour. Once a vast inland sea, today the Aral Sea represents one of the modern world's worst ecological disasters. Poisoned and destroyed in less than a generation, it has shrunk by 75% of its volume and half of its surface area since 1960. Soon it will have dried up and disappeared.
Bissell first went to Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s with the American Peace Corps, but a mix of culture shock and home-sickness led to his "early termination of service." In April 2001, he returned, hoping to catalogue the disaster and come to grips with his failure to stick it out the first time. In Moynaq, once the seaside home of fishermen who contributed a tenth of the Soviet Union's total catch, he discovered the title for his book. "For years after the sea abandoned Moynaq's shoreline," he writes, "some of the town's more desperate fishermen dug canals out to meet it . . . 'Chasing the sea,' they called it."
The dust storms, and the poisoning of the land can be traced directly to the Soviets' forced march toward modernization, though Bissell suggests the groundwork for the destruction was put in place by Tsarist Russia. The weapon was cotton. Soviet planners in the 1950s decided to drain the Aral Sea to increase the country's cotton yield, ushering in five decades of abuse that pumped pesticides into the water table at the same time that its diluting volume was reduced, and replaced soil-saving vegetation with ever-growing cotton fields. The results were nothing short of disastrous.
Bissell's descriptions of the region surrounding the sea are harrowing. In Nukus, a town that is home to a few hundred thousand, he experiences what is called a "small" dust storm, now too commonplace to be monitored. "Dust gathered in the gutters of my leaky eyes. I could barely see the sun, though through the dusty brown-out I could discern a weak, urine-coloured glow." This is nothing. At least five times a year Nukus is struck by a "cloud of howling sand" that carries off the area's "poisonous dust" to as far away west as Georgia and the Black Sea.
Residents of the Aral Sea region suffer from one of the world's highest rates of tuberculosis. Anaemia rates are among the highest in the world. The infant mortality rate is startling, and respiratory infections are the main cause of death among children. Kidney disease linked to the high salinity of the water is widespread.
Though Bissell's avowed purpose is to investigate the Aral Sea disaster and his visit to the region makes for a powerful and informed portrait of this ecological nightmare, he aspires to a greater canvas. Chasing the Sea is a travel narrative that, like its inevitable model, Robert Byron's 1937 classic Road to Oxiana, seeks to capture the historical grandeur of Samarkand and Tashkent, as well as what life is like in Uzbekistan today. In this effort Bissell is less successful, sometimes losing the thread as he tries to bring together ancient history, modern politics, his exorcism of his personal demon of "failure" and a kind of rogue's journey across the country. He pins long historical digressions onto visits to famous monuments with clumsy and sometimes hackneyed devices. A visit to the site of the execution of two British spies by the tyrant Nasrullah Khan in the 19th century, for example, prompts him to express a corny "kinship": "They were travellers. They had toiled in these vicinities of suffering, bled upon this soil . . . This was hallowed ground."
A first-time author must be excused a fit of enthusiasm now and again. But banal summations also mar some of Bissell's more analytical passages. When his "breath was nearly taken away" by the sight of a woman and her daughter dressed in purdah, he indulges in some, one supposes, admirable cultural relativism, concluding: "I also knew that body-conscious American girls were gagging themselves and barfing over toilets from sea to shining sea. Muslim culture was not alone in having its dark edges." This simple-minded observation is a mere substitute for the more complex conclusion needed to complete a train of thought.
These flaws, like off-key notes in a well-played piece of music, are frustrating because the book holds such promise. Overall, Bissell offers a sensitive and erudite picture of this fascinating country, ambitiously engaging a broad sweep of history that encompasses Genghis Khan in the 13th century, Timur in the 14th century, and the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. If his authorial voice sometimes seems callow, his earnestness nevertheless achieves an engaging honesty. And this absence of posturing and performance is, in the end, enough to excuse him.