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

3.84 of 5 stars 3.84  ·  rating details  ·  452 ratings  ·  62 reviews
In 1996, Tom Bissell went to Uzbekistan as a na•ve Peace Corps volunteer. Though he lasted only a few months before illness and personal crisis forced him home, Bissell found himself entranced by this remote land. Five years later he returned to explore the shrinking Aral Sea, destroyed by Soviet irrigation policies. Joining up with an exuberant translator named Rustam, Bi ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published October 12th 2004 by Vintage (first published 2003)
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The Places in Between by Rory StewartThe Great Game by Peter HopkirkThree Cups of Tea by Greg MortensonThe Empire of the Steppes by René GroussetMoron to Moron by Tom  Doig
Central Asia
20th out of 144 books — 30 voters
The Kite Runner by Khaled HosseiniA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled HosseiniThree Cups of Tea by Greg MortensonKim by Rudyard KiplingSikander by M. Salahuddin Khan
Books Set in the -stan Countries
45th out of 123 books — 86 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,010)
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Now that more and more writers in my age bracket are getting published, I’ve noticed something unsettling: reading their books is a bit like listening to my own voice on tape and has the same cringe-inducing effect. I realize every generation has its own jargon, its in-jokes and iPod playlists, but experiencing it from the inside is different. And demoralizing. It makes you appreciate how hard it is to rise above the idle chatter and say something halfway original.

At any rate, Chasing the Sea s
Vanessa Baldwin
I lived in Central Asia for over a year as a Peace Corps volunteer and I feel a kinship with this author. I, like him, didn't know anything about the history of the region before I served there, and didn't make much of an effort to dig deep either. It is only now, ten years later, that I have made an effort, as did the author for his second trip. His research is enlightening, but reading this book did not change my perspective about my experience there. Instead, it felt as if all of my intuition ...more
One of those books that I found myself reading to the exclusion of my usual habits. I did not want to put the book down, and I did not want it to end. That this is Bissell's first book is astonishing, and it speaks to just how deeply ingrained his experiences were. It felt to me as if I was traveling with him, feeling the heat, struggling to understand the culture, excited by the quest, daunted by the distance to be covered. But more than that, I also felt the history unfold around me as Bissell ...more
Sometimes I like to imagine this "Freaky Friday" moment where I become Tom Bissell and he becomes me. It's not that I want to have written this book so much I want to have lived it. Reading his writing (any of it, honestly) is like being cracked over the head with the idea that books are really nowhere near as crazy and as awesome as real life. Can you remember the last time a book did that to you?
Jim Coughenour
A few years ago I read Tom Bissell's book of short stories – God Lives in St. Petersburg – and greatly enjoyed its ultra-dark comedy, but it didn't prepare me for Chasing the Sea, Bissell's account of his 2001 journey through Uzbekistan in the company of Rustam, his handsome, hip and silently desperate translator. Bissell's ostensible reason for his visit was to document the apocalyptic deterioration of the Aral Sea, but in fact it seems to be a private pilgrimage, an exorcism of past failure (h ...more
The "Stans" were nothing but a blank space on my mind map of the world before reading this book. Bissell infuses warm and witty, honest travel experiences with stories of the brutal forces that have torn through Uzbekistan over the centuries, the most recent being the cotton industry that continues to destroy the Aral Sea and the people who used to live by its fishing industry. I couldn't help feeling at the end that the Aral Sea, the salty former seabed of which Bissell describes as appearing " ...more
Entertaining, informative, alternately heartbreaking and funny, Tom Bissell's Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia takes us all over Uzbekistan, where few care about going. That is, save MSF and some hardy Peace Corps volunteers, of which, Bissell informs us, he wasn't, having washed out of Uzbekistan after only seven months of his own PC stint there. This book made me long for bedtime every night and coffee every morning, just to spend time trawling through the form ...more
Mar 07, 2015 Zach rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Zach by: Wendy Heise
A good read by a young novice author. He writes in a humorous, self-deprecating manner, and has a lot of poignent anecodates about his previous time in Central Asia. I really loved his brief historical pages whenever he would reach a new area, and talk about a 600 year old warlord that had conquered the area, or more modern dictators like the Soviets and the current president - drawing comparisons where they were actually required, and not just with a broad brush.

He does an excellent job pointin
Though my urge is to cite all my misgivings about the book (incorrect generalizations about Islam, the often ridiculousness of "adventure journalism", all the Peace Corps crap, the peculiar ending), I actually really liked this book, I could hardly put it down. The author makes Uzbekistan, and Central Asia, sound fascinating (when he's not making it sounds fascinatingly horrifying), and he does a good job of integrating into the narrative just enough history to stay interesting, but not enough t ...more
A terrific book by a former Peace Corps volunteer. It opened my eyes to the genre: travel and expat life by people who lived in one or more foreign countries. Turns out both Paul Theroux and Peter Hessler, favorite writers of mine, were in this category, too.

This also chronicles yet another of the many environmental disasters that the species homo sapiens has wrought. We know, but we know too little, sometimes. Ugh.

I'm guessing at the exact date I finished it.
An odd travelogue through Uzbekistan by a former Peace Corps volunteer, ostensibly to visit the Aral Sea, or what was it - but that's literally the last chapter. It's entertaining but I'm not sure what I got out of it beyond Central Asia has a long, bloody history and the "transition" from Communism to their current totalitarian state is no exception.
One of those books in which I had zero interest in the topic--I leave the "--stans" to my husband--but was curious about the writer, who had been highly recommended. What a terrific read this proved to be. It's a road trip in the old-fashioned sense of the word, where the destination seems to be getting further away with every spontaneous funeral, every debauched night, which Bissell tries valiantly to avoid, an impossible mission in a group of Russians. Learned a tremendous amount about Uzbekis ...more
Bissel tries to understand Uzbekistan without ever actually learning Uzbek--which he was supposed to learn in Uzbekistan with the Peace-Corps 2 years earlier but didn't because he left early because he wimped out.. basically.

Two years later, Bissel is back in Uzbekistan to gather material to write a book about the Uzbekistan experience he never had: Enter Rustam, his wild and currazy Uzbek translator who might... have something to hide? Lots of semi-interesting mildly buddy-comedy-esque stuff e
Uzbekistan has always been a place that I've wanted to visit - to view the architectural wonders of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva and to glimpse the Aral Sea before it finally vanishes. Bissell's book isn't a travel guide, nor a history book nor a cultural introduction to one of Central Asia's most iconic nations. On an area of the world with so little readable and engaging literature, Bissell takes the reader on his journey of personal exploration and discovery of a land where he had served as a ...more
I read this book because I wanted to learn more about Uzbekistan and Central Asia after reading about the Ottoman Empire.
Tom Bissell put a personal spin on Uzbekistan for me.
I want to understand what is happening in Central Asia today.
Here are my problems with "Chasing the Sea." Had it not been for these issues, I would have given this book an easy five stars.

1. I did not like the author's use of the word "whores" in reference to sex workers in Uzbekistan. This passage came only a few pages after Bissell makes a big show of lecturing his Uzbek guide about how it is wrong to call women "bitches."
2. While Bissell does a good job of exploring his own failures, he also wants the reader to know how generous he was to his Uzbek hos
Tim Feldhausen
Very interesting work if you are interested in life in Central Asia through the eyes of a former Peace Corp volunteer. Not a lot about the shrinking of the Aral Sea, but it remains central to the story.
I really truly contemplated giving this book 5 stars. Like the work of a depressed Bill Bryson, the first half at least has the feel of the best kind of travel books - at once funny, insightful, historical, all pulled together in just the right way. The second half foundered through a little too much Uzbek history for me (and I like that sort of thing) and Tom Bissell's seemingly insatiable need to use words that I've never encountered got to the point where they made me actually understand less ...more
Despite the struggle with the first hundred pages or so, I'm really glad a persevered. Most of the stuff that annoyed me at the beginning either stopped annoying me or got better, and I learned a huge amount about Central Asian history and culture, and am now dying to visit Uzbekistan, not something I ever thought I'd say. I highly recommend reading this (and sticking it through the often annoying parts of the first 150 or so pages) if you're interested in learning more about people and places y ...more
This book was okay. Although I feel like Bissell did an exellent job in discussing the culture present in Uzbekistan, I feel that his discussion of the Aral Sea was severely lacking. After all, throughout the entire book he tells people that he is writing about the Aral Sea, but the only spends about 20 pages talking about the sea itself. Quite frustrating. That being said, I found that I had a new understanding of the culture and society that is Uzbekistan. Definitly worth reading if you want t ...more
Jun 04, 2007 Sam rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in Central Asia/Peace Corps
This is a great book filled with information about a variety of organizations. A good concise history of Central Asia, and a tale of Modern day Central Asia. Maybe its because I am going into the Peace Corps, or because I want to do so in Central Asia, but this book hit literally so many notes with me, that I can not even begin to describe why I like this book. This may change in about 3 years, but whose to say. All I can tell you is currently, this is a book I will reread, and I dont do that of ...more
I loved the combination of Bissell's humor, thorough journalism, and personal accounts. He showed a deep respect for the Uzbek culture and people, while maintaining the critical eye of an outsider. My thoughts while reading the book were that this writing lacked much discussion about the historical or cultural importance of the Aral Sea and especially its future, but I then realized that the open end of the book is exactly reflective of the inevitable fate of the Aral Sea and those who depend on ...more
Ryno Sauerman
A surprisingly well-written travel book about Central Asia, perhaps even a must-read for anyone interested in the region. The author returned to Uzbekistan after a failed stint as a Peace Corps volunteer. With his friend and translator, he goes on a road trip to Samarkand, Tashkent, Bokhara and other places and describes current and previous experiences. Though not quite in the league of Colin Thubron's "The Lost heart of Asia", it's still a great read.
I knew very little about uzbekistan going into this, so I did learn some things from the read.
For a book ostensibly about the Aral Sea, I felt there wasn't much Aral Sea information in it.

I also felt the author was a bit whiny and hyper-critical of everyone else who wrote about Uzbekistan in the past, but perhaps that was justified.
I was left wondering whatever happened to Rustam
The sytle of Bissell's writing was fresh, young and sassy. He was the first person I had ever read to give Robert Kaplan a criticism. I was thrilled. I am not sure if it was a shattering criticism- I don't know much about what really goes on in Uzbek government to say. He might be right. Maybe I'll have to go there to find out myself!

A good travel tale. Not the best, but a unique one.
Not finished yet....never thought so much about Karkalpakistan and the Aral Sea as I have been lately. Wait let me add to that last sentence. I have never before in my life ever thought about Karkalpakistan or the Aral Sea before. The book is funny and insightful about an event that has been called by some the worst man made environmental disaster in history. So far so good...more later.
When the essay that was to become the last chapter of this book originally appeared in Harper's I talked constantly to everyone about how this short essay about Uzbekistan could evoke so much emotion. I don't think I got anyone to read the original essay or the book even but since that pivotal first read, I've enjoyed Mr. Bissell's writing immensely. Thanks Tom.
An interesting read by an ex-Peace Corps volunteer who returns to Central Asia to revisit what might have been. The disappearance of the Aral Sea (Russia needs the water) is just one reason to get fired up about this book. It's another case of environmental travesty that needs world attention . . . no, it needs world action! But, where to start?
I wanted to learn more about Uzbekistan and Central Asia, and this book was a great introduction. On one page you are traveling through the country with Tom Bissell. On the next you are learning about the history of the region. This is Bissell's first book and I'm impressed and will be looking for more from him. He is honest and well researched.

If you're looking to learn more about Uzbekistan (and who isn't?) this book is an excellent start. I confess to having purchased it in a process of elimination at KramerBooks in Dupont - which of their selection of 5 books related to Central Asia seems least boring? Lo and behold, it was a great read that powered me through several flights and layovers.
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Tom Bissell (born 1974) is a journalist, critic, and fiction writer.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.
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