2005 nonfiction finalist

Tom Bissell | Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia

Photo of authorAbout the author
Tom Bissell was born in 1974 in Escanaba, Michigan. His work has appeared in Harper's, McSweeney’s, Esquire, The Believer, and Best American Travel Writing 2003, among other publications. Previously, he worked for several years as a book editor. He lives in New York City.

About the book
Uzbekistan is a strange and complicated place, writes Tom Bissell. On the one hand, it has Islamic traditions dating back to the origins of the religion; on the other, it is extremely secular. On the one hand, it is very Asian; on the other, it’s particularly Russian. This bilingual, bi-traditional reality makes for one of the most interesting countries in the world; and one that most Americans know nothing about. Tom Bissell sets out to change this with Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia.

In the mid-1990s, Bissell served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan, but after a few miserable months, he returned home. Haunted by his “failure,” Bissell decided in 2001 to revisit Uzbekistan—this time to investigate the devastating Aral Sea whose rivers were diverted and drained to fertilize the Central Asian desert in order to grow cotton. What he found was astonishing. The world’s fourth largest lake in 1960, the Aral Sea is quite possibly the worst man-made ecological catastrophe today. Recently The Economist highlighted how “it is modern engineering that has made possible irrigation disasters on a massive scale. The saddest is the tale of the Aral Sea.” As American environmental protections are eased and discarded here in the States, Bissell uncovers some extremely troubling evidence on the other side of the globe that ecologies are finite and fragile when forced to withstand economic expansion.

En route to the Aral Sea, Bissell journeys through the ancient cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara with his young guide and translator—a hilarious Uzbek named Rustam. Slipping more than once through the clutches of the Uzbek police, the two become close friends and confidants as they travel around Rustam’s homeland viewing the mosques and the squares, secretly transporting money to the wife on an imprisoned journalist, attending a funeral in the mountains, and being mistaken for heroin smugglers. Bissell describes the people of Uzbekistan with depth and empathy, and his intelligent meditations on the area’s often violent history brings to life historical figures such as Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Sir Alexander Burnes, as well as the modern-day terrorist Juma Namangani.

Bissell’s narrative unfolds in vividly observant, self-deprecating, and often humorous prose, shaped by his passionate interest in the Uzbeks—their region’s history of invasion and violence, their vibrant and varied culture, and the ever-increasing, tragic hole at the heart of their land.

Critics / Reviews
"If you don’t think you want to read a book about Uzbekistan, think again. Line by line, Chasing the Sea is as smart and funny and entertaining a travel book as you’ll find anywhere. Give yourself a treat and read him."  —Jonathan Franzen

"Bissell seamlessly weaves in historical insights and cultural references, making his tale a well-rounded snapshot of Uzbekistan, seen from western eyes…. A fine and elaborate mosaic in the purest of Central Asian traditions."  —The Economist

"First-rate in every regard."  —Kirkus Reviews

"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."  —Publishers Weekly