Adventures in Border Crossing: Into Uzbekistan

Border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan at Dostyk, on Saturday, October 18, 2014.

I had been told that the crossing from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan would take a long time with crowded, so I decided to try and beat the rush. After a rice porridge breakfast at the Biy Ordo Guesthouse with a couple of dudes who’ve been bicycling through the Stan’s for six months, I took a taxi for the 15-minute ride to the border. It’s not nearly as crowded as I thought; it’s only just before 9am. Only me and an Uzbekistani woman walk to through the first gate.

 

We walk to the next little building, the exit office for Kyrgyzstan. Formalities are easy even with three other people in front of us. Then we walk across No Man’s Land, go through another gate, and wait for the next gate to open. I’m ninth in line to enter Uzbekistan for the day, and am feeling confident this will be a breeze.

About twenty minutes go by; they’re only letting 2-3 in at a time, like a bouncer at a pretentious club. One officer in a military uniform (who looks Vietnamese to me) calls me out as a tourist and has me come up to him. He speaks some Russian and very little English but we manage to communicate. “Russian?” he asks, skimming through my passport pages.

“No. Nyet.”

“Uzbek?”

“Uh, nyet. I have a book.”

“Ihavabuk?” he repeats to me with no comprehension. I show him the phrasebook in my pocket. “Ah.” He continues his interview. “American. What city?”

“New York.”

“Ah, Manhattan.”

“Yes, Manhattan. But I live in Brooklyn.”

“Manhattan. Very expensive.”

“Ha, yes.” I contemplated telling him how Brooklyn got expensive too, but given that most of our simple conversation is only an exchange of 3–5 words each, that would have been way too hard. He’s still stuck on Manhattan anyway.

“Manhattan. Cake Boss!”

I laugh. “Yes, Cake Boss.”

We exchange smiles and he hands me my passport.

“Welcome to Uzbekistan.”

That first interview was a breeze, but the next one wouldn’t be so easy…



I wait in a queue for a few minutes and hand over my passport to the officer at the entry booth. Formalities are still easy, and I’m stamped into Uzbekistan since the visa I acquired in New York is legit. I wonder what all the fuss about this border crossing was — until I enter the big customs room.

It took me about 40 minutes of customs form filling and waiting in line to turn it in, only to be told I have to fill out a duplicate form and wait in line again.

“Two. One for you, one for me,” an officer says to me. (Everyone else just has one sheet.) Fortunately, there is an English translation of the form taped to a table partition so I’m not lost in the Cyrillic.

I get my bag and wait in the x-ray queue. They are only letting two people in at a time, about every 8 minutes. I wait again, thankful that I don’t have to pee or anything. Meanwhile, on the other side, I see people being led into small rooms for body searches or frisks behind closed doors.

I jump in at the x-ray belt as a third person to a father/son pair since I thought they counted as one because they shared bags. An officer scolds me in Russian, but realizes I’m a tourist and eases up.

Next, I’m asked to open my bags for a search, just as everyone else had been doing. The officer assigned to me speaks very little English and is not as friendly as that Cake Boss fan.

I open the bag, and all the compartments, and everything is acceptable. “Medicine?” he asks.

I was afraid of this; my friend @iorganizer (whom had been in this area) told me this crossing was known for drug trafficking, hence the strict searches. I show them my toiletries bag since it has some medicine in it, plus a bunch of vitamin supplements I take. He’s suspicious of the big fish oil tablets, wondering if they’re narcotics.

“No, it’s oil. Uh, for cholesterol.”

“Oil?” he wonders. He calls two other officers over, one male, one female. They have a discussion I can’t understand. Then the woman asks me, “Medicine, for stomach?”

“No. For the heart. Blood. You know blood?” I try and make body language. Heart is easy but blood, not so much. The irony is, these fish oil pills are going to give me a heart attack if I get sent to Uzbekistani jail on possession of narcotics! But I look innocent (and am) and we move on.

The first officer asks to see my electronic devices. I show him my iPhone and Nexus 7 mini tablet. “Pornograph?”

Fuck. I forgot I was going to a Muslim country where that is forbidden.

Shit.

My mind races, wondering if I had any. I mean, I’m pretty conscious of my finite amount of hard drive space on my devices, so I’d cleared them for photos. (Besides, as any guy knows — or anyone who’s seen Avenue Q — the Internet is for porn. All you need is a wifi connection to get your rocks off.)

Nervous, I kept second guessing myself — were my devices really clear of porn? — as one officer inspected my iPhone while another checked out my Nexus 7 mini tablet. I was amazed how quick they were, knowing their way around iOS and Android. Soon, both of them are looking through my private files. My crazy life in photos appears before their eyes, many that have appeared on Instagram. The iPhone officer goes to my videos and scrolls around. Then he fixates on a few questionable videos: the topless women of the Himba tribe in Namibia who dance with their breasts flopping all over (which I posted on Instagram a few months ago when I was there).

Crap. The Himbas.

He looks at me as if I’m lying about my lack of porn, but I keep calm and just say, “Uh, it’s from Africa.” I’m hoping he sees that’s not far-fetched with all the stamps in my passport.

“Africa?”

He calls the other officers over and shows them the half naked women. Suddenly they’re having a discussion on whether or not it constitutes as pornography. The woman looks at me with a glare. I tell her, “It’s from Africa,” and give her a reassuring smile.

They tell me to put the iPhone away and I think the coast is clear, but my Nexus 7 is still being searched. The officer navigates around and finds no porn, but the collection of science-inspired travel videos I’ve done for Discovery and @NatGeoTravel’s Intelligent Travel. I worry that they’ll accuse me of being a journalist sneaking into the country; I’ve had that problem before with other countries, even when I declare myself as a tourist. The guy watches three whole videos, seeing me host, cut cheese at CERN, and wear a blonde wig for Amsterdam.

“Uh, it’s a project for school,” I tell him, hoping my young looks will make him believe I’m a student.

He doesn’t understand me though. He continues skimming through some more videos, looking for porn, but I’m clean.

Whew!

“Okay, finish,” he tells me.

“Finish. Goodbye,” the other officer says.

After a two-hour ordeal, I walk away from the customs building and into Uzbekistan, thankful I didn’t have to go through the body search, or whatever happens behind those closed doors I’d seen.



I walk back in time as I step into Uzbekistan, not just because it’s one hour back in time zones, but because the area by the border doesn’t seem as developed as Kyrgyzstan — probably by about ten years. I look for black market money exchange booths like there were at the Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan border, but find none. Meanwhile, the taxi touts start honing in on me with offers for “Taksi?” Or “Tashkent?” They really start swarming when I can’t reply in a local language too well and realize I’m not Kyrgyz but a tourist.

There is no public transportation from the border and I do want a taxi to the capital of Tashkent, about five hours away by car — but play hard to get. I need cash first. I wander around the area until the very end of the border zone and find nothing. One of the touts I declined before realizes I’m out of options.

“Taxi?… Tashkent?” is all I make out. There are about five taxi drivers hounding me, all with their cell phones in the air with fares typed in for me to read. Most tell me $25 USD and I try to at least bargain them down to $20 since I’m told it should be $15. They won’t budge lower than $25. Tired, I just pick a guy to follow, figuring I can pay him in US dollars at least. On the way to his Daewoo car in the parking area, he types in 75 and then 60 on his phone while trying to explain something, and I stay at $25 and he says, “Ok, 25.”

At the car already is an old Muslim woman, the first person of the shared taxi. “Tashkent?” she asks me.

“Tashkent.” I feel I am in good company, and we wait for others to cross the border so we can fill the car with at least two more. It’s about half an hour before two arrive — the father and son I’d gone to the x-ray queue with — and we’re on our way. But before we depart, the old woman leads us in a quick Muslim prayer for a safe journey. I follow suit and bow my head with my hands up and then inwards together by my face. For me, it’s like imitating others’ motions in a yoga class when I don’t know what to do.



It’s a 5.5-hour drive from the border to the Uzbekistan capital city of Tashkent, and I don’t think we could have made it any sooner. That’s because my taxi driver is a speed demon that drives like this is a rally race, weaving in and out of cars and trucks. On two lane roads — regardless of it being one way or two way — he’d cut in the middle and speed in between cars. He is so focused on moving forward that he never looks back. In fact he doesn’t even use the rear view mirror as a mirror; it tilted all the way down so it could serve as a shelf to prop up his radar detector.

We ride through the countryside, from green farmland to gritty areas of construction, making a few gas and stretch stops on the way. There seemed to be a lot of air pollution from all the machinery still developing the highway up and over the Chatkal mountains. At one section on highway where it’s four lanes, there’s a big checkpoint that looks like a toll plaza. We had been through many of these and a flash of our IDs to the police got us waved through. However, at this particular checkpoint, where the highway hugs the border with Tajikistan, I’m asked to get out of the car with my US passport to register myself with the authorities. I reckon they just need to confirm there are no illegals coming from the other side of the fence.

The traffic was moving fairly fast and my car had no choice but to go on ahead without me. I feared that they could have just left me, stranded in the mountains. I didn’t even have my phone on me since it was recharging off an external battery in my bag — I was asked to step out so unexpectedly that I didn’t have time to think to even take it with me.

At the registration booth, there were three Tajik women (I noticed their passports), and one of them was sobbing after being denied something. But for me, the formality didn’t take too long and thankfully I found the others quickly on the other side waiting for me.

Once we get into the city if Tashkent, I make a call to a local, a friend of @gldncrl that I would soon meet in person after weeks of Facebook messaging. He gives the driver directions to his building.

 


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This dispatch is one of over 70 travel dispatches from the trip grouped and titled, "The Global Trip: 'Stan By Me." It's an archived compilation of Instagram and Facebook posts which chronicled a trip through three countries in Central Asia: Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

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