The Zarafshan Welcome Sign

In Uzbekistan, they celebrated several different new year events. I wish I’d been warned about one in particular. I was at the apartment alone one night, when there was a knock on the door. A group of kids were there. They said something, and threw rice into the house. I thought it was a stupid prank, so I closed the door. Moments later, another knock. More kids. This time it sounded like they were chanting something. A rhythmic chant. I picked out the words “happy new year” (in Russian, of course). More rice. They were holding bags, with something inside. I decided it was like trick-or-treat. I searched for anything to give them. I had several small boxes of raisins. There you go, kids. B’bye. Before I closed the door, more kids, more rice. More treats. I’m running out. I’m looking for more treats. I have some American coins. There you go, kids. Darn, all out of coins. I have a tall stack of very small notes in the local currency. There are 10,000 Sums to the dollar. Here you go, kid. If you had 99 more of these, you’d have yourself a penny. The kids would not stop coming. Finally, a huge group of kids showed up (“Hey everybody, there’s some nut over there giving money away!” I could almost hear them say), and started to become forceful. I actually had to use all of my might to close the door, to keep them out. No more. Done for the night kids. The next day, I mentioned to a translator that he should have warned me. I could have loaded up on raisins.

We ate our meals at a local restaurant, called The Mushroom. Every meal, every day, until the caterer was ready for us. Actually, the restaurant wasn’t bad. They knew how to use the locally available foods. I recall many meals included sausage that was removed from its casing, and squeezed into another form. Once the caterer was ready, we were pretty excited. Unfortunately, the train cars of the good food were constantly two weeks out. There was, however, an endless supply of Vienna sausage (which got turned into a salad, sort of like tuna salad), and lots Spam. That’s what we packed for our lunches. Cold Spam, right out of the can. Day after day after day. But there was a bakery that made amazing bread, which helped with the Spam toleration. That bakery also had hand-made candy. The shopkeeper tried to steer me away from one tasty looking candy, gesturing that it would give me a stomach ache. But I was determined to try it. And it was really good (and no tummy ache). My translator later told me that it was made from goat’s blood. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. But it was good.

In the apartment next to me were three or four young children. They were cute, and fun to speak with. At one point I was trying to write my name, using Cyrillic letters. I was having a difficult time, because there would be two ways to spell it. One is by using the “backwards” R. In Russian, that letter makes a “ya” sound, and I could imagine its use in Bryan. So, I asked the kids which way my name was supposed to be spelled. They gave me the most perplexed looks, and never responded to me. I suppose they thought it was pretty strange that a grownup would not know how to spell their own name.

At one point, a family invited my roommate and me for dinner, and we accepted. They invited us by sending their young son to our apartment. He could speak English pretty well. I have no idea how they every “found” us. But we went. It was actually two families, but no husbands. The husbands had wandered back to their traditional homelands (Stalin had mixed people around in the USSR in an attempt to lessen the chance of uprisings against the government, and when the iron curtain fell, many people went back “home”). Anyway, dinner was fun/fine, with the young boy acting as translator. Eventually, they asked to hear a joke. The only jokes I can ever remember are either filthy or puns. I described a pun to them, but I said that it probably wouldn’t translate. They insisted. So I told them, “A mushroom walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender said that he wouldn’t serve him, and the mushroom replies, why not, I’m a fungi?” Even after explaining that in painful detail, nobody got it. Then, after the longest time, somebody burst out in laughter, saying that they just got it. They explained it. No, they did not get it. But I let it go.

My day-to-day job at the project had very little to do with what I was supposed to be there for. I helped to build the man-camp, laying sewer line, for example. I also helped pour several concrete floors for some of the buildings that we needed, including for the laboratory I would be using. I also helped to build that building. It was all very interesting, but not really why I was supposed to be there.

We would sometimes have a meeting at my apartment with one of the local construction leaders. Each time he arrived, I’d ask if he wanted a beer. He said yes, as long as it isn’t cold. I’d put a pan in the sink and run very hot water over it for a few minutes. He always drank it without a complaint. Weird. Speaking of water, as a way of conserving water, the only time of day you had cold water was in the morning, I think it was for 2 hours. The rest of the time, it was piping hot water that came from a central boiler. It didn’t have to let it warm up, it was hot as soon as you opened the tap. So, you couldn’t wash your hands or flush a toilet. Gross. Fun fact of the day: we never had a mirror in my apartment.

When construction began, we were still missing the large compaction equipment we would need for compacting earthfill, but we wanted to get started. We agreed with a local concrete provider that we would use their “lean concrete” so we wouldn’t need to compact earthfill. Lean concrete is a mix where the amount of cement is lower than the amount of water. For regular concrete, the proportions are the other way around. So, day one of the lean concrete delivery, and I’m the inspector. Here comes the first truck. It’s a dump truck, not a concrete mix truck. Great. The truck comes to a halt. I climb up on the back tire, and stick a shovel handle in. There is four inches of water on top of the mixture. The mix had segregated during the drive. I discussed this with others who were there, and we decided that we could not accept this product. I told the driver to take it away. Seven more trucks, just like this. I turned them all away. The drivers were getting furious. Then, I was asked to go for a ride. I was taken to a police station, and placed in a room by myself. No translator. There was a lot of laughter coming from another room, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. This went on for several hours. Then I got a ride back. I was told that the material would be accepted, and the contractor would remix the concrete once it was poured. What a nice day!

Finally, the day for my departure came. March 22nd. I remember that, because so many people asked me about my departure date. One of the crane operators just HAD to have my Oakley sunglasses. I accepted his offer. He was a really nice guy. The man-camp was not completed when I left, and the caterers were not up to full speed, I never completed any material testing for the project, but I did have a lab tech who had done a little testing by the time I left.

The flight back to London was uneventful. Except for the fact that they played non-stop videos of ABBA the entire way (except for one video of Genesis that somehow snuck in). It was good to be home, but I also really missed all the many good friends that I had met there.


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Comments (3)

  1. Steve

    August 13, 2019 at 4:41 pm

    Christmas…and I thought I missed out on a lot!! I did not get to attend a single Christmas show at the school…does that count. We do give up a lot on this business, but we get to see a lot!! I would have never got to travel to the places I’ve been or met the people I did without mining. The article that Hugh Miller wrote this month in the SME magazine did strike a nerve….that’s just the way we rolled. I’m trying to figure out Millennials, not a trivial task – and how to deal with them in the workplace. Hard workers, super smart, but they have their own schedules. Give them the task and then forget about it until the due date (ok the day before, old habits die hard!!).

    • Bryan Ulrich

      August 14, 2019 at 9:34 am

      You’re right, my friend, and so is Hugh. Heck, after I left the Bureau, we had the general rule that you’d never leave before the boss, and at least give it 10 minutes in case the boss forgot his briefcase and had to come back for it.
      Earlier in my career, when I was requested to go somewhere, I went. I didn’t even think it was being offered as an option. I’ve spent entire summers away from home, and months away on field jobs. 100 days in a row in Uzbekistan. Now, it seems like you have to walk on eggshells when you need some field work done.

  2. Yuriy

    September 5, 2019 at 5:21 pm

    Very interesting read! Thank you!

Comments are closed.