San Francisco Glacier in Chile

Monday, October 12, 2015

Big Adventures with Uncle Jim!


Above is the video of this trip. To make it easy to view, I am providing a guide with some cues.

2:55 Beethoven statue, Germany
6:22 Cologne Cathedral
11:22 descending into a snowy Moscow!
27:34 Orthodox Cathedral, Almaty, Kazakhstan
35:20 Uncle Jim skiing, Kazakh mountains
40:28 breakfast at Ulugbek's and tour of his family home
1:01:09 dinner and toasting at Timour's family home
1:11:34 ancient Uzbek cities, Bukhara and Samarkand
1:21:12 Tomb of Tamerlane
1:24:15 Uncle Jim receiving a gift at an Uzbek home
1:32:00 Registan Mosque and madrasas, Samarkand
1:35:00 birthday party for Uncle Jim....and our Farewell party
1:53:00 Red Square, Moscow

How did this trip come about?

During my Jan-term at Samford University, Uncle Jim (Dr. James W. Vann of Headland, AL) and I traveled to Central Asia, specifically Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan.  This was not long at all after the breakup of the USSR.  What led to this adventure was my befriending two Uzbek exchange students at Samford University, Ulugbek and Timour.  In fact, during that year the USSR collapsed, they were college students in the USA.  Over the course of that year, Ulugbek and Timour came down to South Alabama with me several times.  They spoke at the Headland Kiwanis Club and the First Baptist Church.  They spent Christmas with us.  During these visits to Headland, they got to know many family members and they got to see first-hand what life was like for me, in my home area.  One person they met and just connected with instantly was Uncle Jim!  And who wouldn't?!?!?  He's generous, worldly and curious about others.  And he's known to be a pretty spirited conversationalist!  What I recall is that at the Kiwanis Club presentation - one I arranged for Ulugbek and Timour to give - during the Q&A, a question came from the floor:  "Do y'all have cars over there?"  As my Uzbek friends laughed, Uncle Jim piped up, "I'm sure they do. If they put all those rockets into space and send people into orbit, they certainly can manufacture a car."  It was something to that effect, and it changed the dynamic in the room.   

Only later on, when I also lived overseas - and thinking back also on my summer in Alberta, Canada in 1991- did I actually put things together a bit.  In those moments overseas, when I was out of my element, I too gravitated towards types like that - the Uncle Jims of the world.  They were people that expressed the most interest in me and were happy that I was there enjoying their culture.  And the best part:  They were so intent on making sure I had an even better time in their country, they took me to some intriguing places, and I got to see more than the average traveler.  Uncle Jim was that way to my Uzbek friends.  I remember the four of us taking a trip to Orlando, where we went to Disney World, Sea World and even bungee jumping.  What fun!  That whole year Ulugbek and Timour were in the USA, it was a time of fabulous experiences - for them, for me and for Uncle Jim too!  So, that's the context behind our trip to Uzbekistan.

Our itinerary was intended to be simple:  Fly to Germany, change planes at the airport.  Fly to Moscow, get our Uzbekistan visas.  Then fly to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.  Ulugbek and Timour, as soon as we arrived in Russia, were to have contacts for us, and get us where we needed to go.

Turns out it wasn't so simple!!!  Before reaching our destination (Tashkent), we encountered a glitch or two, putting it mildly.  The biggest one is that we simply didn't have the proper paperwork to pass through Russia!  To rectify this matter, we had to stay in Germany for at least a week to process a visa at the Russian Embassy.  We made the best of it!  We actually went inside the home where Beethoven was born!  How 'bout that?!?!?  Once our Russia visa got settled, our journey into the former USSR officially began.   We ended up flying to Moscow, then on to Tashkent.  From there, we went snow skiing in the mountains of Kazakhstan, outside the then-capital, Almaty.  Then, back in Uzbekistan, we saw all the sights, we ate all the food and we absorbed as much culture as we could!  We even took some amazing side trips to ancient Silk Road cities, Samarkand and Bukhara.  We saw Tamerlane's tomb and observed some fascinating Islamic architecture.  Just when we thought all this had ended, we were back in Moscow, walking down Arbat Street, riding the stunningly beautiful subway, walking out onto Red Square and observing the Changing of the Guard in front of Lenin's Mausoleum.  A lot to take in for a young guy from Headland, Alabama...and for a 67 year old great-uncle!!!!

Once I got back to Samford, I had a semester to go.  My first class back, a professor that I grew to respect and admire, called me up to the front of a rather large class of students and asked me to tell them what I had experienced on that Jan Term trip.  I did my best! 

Back in Headland, Uncle Jim spoke to the Kiwanis Club and other groups.

The whole trip was humbling in a ways. I knew so little about the places I visited, and truly knew so little about myself.  I was in college, yes, but I was growing and learning.  Still am!  Thank goodness for the video editing button!  I called tapestry, "carpet on a wall." I pronounced weaponry, weaponTRY.  I referred to Muslim clerics as "rabbis."   And anytime I had the chance, I would say to people, complete strangers, sometimes in obnoxious ways, "Say hi to America!!" 

One important thing that trip did, though, it triggered a real interest to learn more.  The Uzbek Jewish family in Birmingham and I got tighter.  I also picked up a library book that explained the last days of the USSR and the failed coup d'├ętat that tried to save it.  I bought Boris Yeltsin's biography and started reading it.  And because Uncle Jim and I had spent time in Germany, the Holocaust and WWII became fascinating subjects to me, remaining so to this day.

An interesting tidbit:  No one in my family mentioned that Granddad Major had gone on a trip to the USSR in 1959.  I even went and lived in Uzbekistan a year and had not been told this.  Shocking!  Only when I discovered an article in a trunk of family documents and photos - a trunk that Dad had incidentally - did I learn of Granddad Major's trip.  How did that get dropped?!?!?!   I say all this in a humorous and loving fashion...but with a certain seriousness.  Truly, had Auburn played a football game in Russia or Central Asia, it would have been posted all over Headland! 

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