The bad seeds of Kyrgyzstan
A few run-ins with the dark side
We departed Halmion early on the morning of Monday, the 21st of September. Pretty soon we had passed through the town of Kadam Jai and were settling down for lunch of bread, chocolate spread and a big jar of apricots that one of our hosts had donated to our journey. We parked the quike on the side of the road in the shade, then ducked in behind the first row of trees on the roadside to sit and eat lunch, where we could sit in peace from the road traffic yet still see the quike. Over the half hour that we sat there, numerous kids came past to check out us foreigners and the quike, but really, no-one disturbed us for that time. We could even hear the kids in the adjacent field whistling and calling out to each other to come and take a look at us, but all they did was come and look, then leave.
When we were just finishing up, packing up, a man walked up to the quike and upon seeing us behind the trees, motioned us to get up and leave. We thought that maybe we had trespassed on his property (which we couldn't really have as it was the side of the road) so we quickly finished packing up and piled our lunch goods back into the bags. All the while he was talking at us angrily, asking questions such as "who are you?", "what is inside your bags", "give me them" and trying to convince us he was police. Then, when we got on the quike and tried to leave, he grabbed at the quike trying to hold us back, yelling at us to give him some of the things on the quike, and trying to open up some of our bags and take things from us. At that time a car was passing so we frantically hailed them down, yelling to them saying that he was a criminal, and that we are simply tourists eating our lunch. That carload of young people then stopped and got out to talk to the man, and so he went over to talk to them. At that instant, we seized the opportunity and just rode off as far as we could, yelling back thankyous to the car that stopped for us.
We continued pushing hard for some time, and even when we'd clearly gotten away, we just pushed harder and harder to get further away. We kept looking back to check how much distance we'd made on him and kept seeing that he was continuing running after us. We laughed to ourselves thinking that he was foolish to think he could catch us now.
Eventually we'd gotten far enough ahead that we couldn't see him. But then a car pulled up ahead of us, full of conservatively-dressed men and women. They beckoned us to stop and wait for some man that was chasing after us, saying that he wanted to talk to us. We tried to explain to them that he was a bad man, a criminal, trying to take our belongings, but they didn't believe us. In the end we just had to rudely ride away from them. This car reignited our fears about the man, as since we couldn't speak the local language very well (Kyrgyz), he would be able to everyone all sorts of stories about us, even claim that we tried to rob him, and because we were unable to explain ourselves, they would believe him over us. However, as long as we could get far enough away from him he couldn't do much.
Then as we were starting to relax further down the road, still pushing hard to get extra distance on the bad man, we saw a car pull over some 100 metres ahead. One man got out, and then the car drove off. After a minute or so of frantic deliberation, we identified the man as the same bad man, walking toward us. We realised then that our attempt to ride away from him would be futile, as he could just continue leap-frogging ahead of us indefinitely. Our only hope was to frantically wave down whatever cars were passing for help. However, the only one car that passed in that time didn't stop, and so we were left there to face him on our own. The man approached the quike, agressively yellling and grabbing us like he wanted a fight. As he got too close for comfort, Roger quickly stood up to coerce him behind the quike for a chat, away from Megan. But as soon as Roger got up the man lunged at him, grabbing at Roger's pockets and saying "where's your money?" "give me money" over and over. Roger backed up further and further until the two of them were further behind the quike, and then started yelling out to Megan to start pedalling while he distracted him. Megan started to pedal but was not getting anywhere fast, due to it being a bit uphill. In the scuffle Roger managed give the man a tap to the head and he ended up on the ground, so Roger took the opportunity and fled to the slowly moving quike and jumped on.
But unfortunately, when he jumped on he discovered that his chain had slipped off the cog when he'd jumped off before! So then there was a big panicked rush to fix that too, while we were trying to ride away. In the meantime, the man had managed to get up off the ground and was coming after us again, this time throwing egg-sized stones at us as he pursued us. To avoid getting hit we had to duck our heads behind our mountain of luggage on the rear rack as we rode.
Eventually, we'd gained distance on him again but were very unsure of what to do next. We knew he'd just do the same again - hitch a ride ahead of us and then hunt us down again. And this very thing did happen just a kilometre or so down the road. This time, when we saw him get out, we immediately turned around and headed back (faster because it would be downhill) to try to get some people we had seen on the roadside to help us. When we got to them we tried to explain the situation in Russian, and they seemed to understand. The man was walking toward us still, and so we had very limited time until he would be there, telling a different story in Kyrgyz.
Eventually we gave up on them because although they were nice to us, they didn't really believe us and didn't understand that we needed to keep the man away from us. So we rode further back and pulled over another car (who happened to be a nice man we'd met in Kadam Jai), who called the police. But then when he heard that the bad man hadn't actually taken any of our money, he abruptly lost interest. Before leaving, he hailed down a different car (who just happened to be a different man that we'd chatted to for a long time over morning tea!) and this man hailed down a small Porter truck, and we loaded the quike in that to go back to the police a few km's further back on the road. All was a bit futile now as the bad man had disappeared down a road through the fields.
After this we didn't feel very safe on that one road through to Osh. We had no option of taking an alternative parallel road to the left, because that would be in Uzbekistan. And we couldn't take the road to the right as that was the direction the man had gone when he disappeared. So we kindly requested that the police help us get to Osh as quickly as possible where we would be safe. However, the police had a different idea of how to neutralise the situation. Firstly, two of the policemen gave us 50 som each, so that we could buy ice-creams. Then, they ordered the Porter to take us to where we'd last seen the man, and then with them in tow we'd identify him. Their gestures then suggested that what they'd do was beat him in front of us as punishment/entertainment, and after that they would take some of his money - they'd take a "fine" from him and we could have some as compensation.
So off we drove again to find the man, but as we expected, he was not to be seen. While we were there a detective car pulled up next to us and after realising that it would be difficult to find the man, ordered the Porter to drive us to Kyzyl-Kia down the road, where some other police would hail down a truck to order them to take us to Osh as we had requested.
In Kyzyl-Kia we sat with half a dozen detectives for about an hour, talking about kangaroos, Kostya Tzu and football while we waited. After hearing our story of the bad man, they said that Roger should have kicked the man on the ground, and asked why he hadn't, and that they would instead. At the start they appeared very helpful (they said they would catch the man and bash him up, explicity showing us how they would punch him in the head) since they thought we had been robbed. But upon hearing that he had not actually taken any of our money in the end, they completely interest, saying never mind, it was nothing, and decided that they didn't need to punish him after all since no money was taken. After that they just left us on the roadside, and went to have vodka shots on the roadside shashlik cafe instead.
After about an hour of sitting around there, the GAY police (traffic police; we have no idea what this is an acronym for, but it is what they call themselves) came and immediately hailed down a big truck to take us to Osh, ordering the poor driver to drive us all the way to Osh, against his will. So once again, we found ourselves in a police-induced truck instead of riding. However, although our episode with that bad man had come to a close, it was not the last time we'd face trouble in Kyrgyzstan.
After leaving Osh we had to take the big detour road (yet another around Uzbekistan) through Uzgen to Jelalabad. As the end of the day was approaching we started looking out for places to camp, but found that this road was too highly populated and heavily used. So instead, we decided to head out to the back-fields of the towns to camp there, away from the main road. On our first attempt at the back roads, we met a nice elderly lady outside her house. She asked where we were going and upon hearing that we were heading to Jelalabad, directed us back to the main road. We said that we wanted to camp somewhere that evening, but she said "oh no, not down this road, it is not safe, many drunks, many criminals, many hooligans". This surprised us, as usually we've found that people don't speak too badly of their own towns. For example, in Pakhtakor (Uzb), we took the advice of the man there and left our quike virtually unattended outside his restaurant because he said it would be very safe there. That ended up with our watch being stolen! But the point there is that in many other towns throughout Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, people had always overestimated how safe and secure their own town was, and even gotten annoyed at times when we insisted to lock up our quike!
However, here in this Kyrgyz village, this lady was insisting that her village was not safe and that we should not even go there, let alone sleep there! And then some young teenage girls (about 13-15 years old) came along and backed up her story. They told us over and over that it was not safe and that we should go back to the main road. They would not let us pass them and continue along the street to even just see the village! We asked them where they lived and where they were going, and they pointed back to the street we were not allowed through, and when we said "see you are not bad people so it can't be a bad area", they just replied that yes it was, everyone back there was bad and would rob us or mug us. They were very kind to us too, so their attitude was not just because they didn't like the look of us!
So left with no option, we continued down the main road toward Jelalabad. About 200 m later we tried another small street and came across a young boy and girl. They too insisted that it was not safe and we were to not continue down this small road. We figured that maybe it was just a bad village so we accepted this and turned back down the main road.
The next village we saw we could see from the main road that it had some good camping fields adjacent to it. So we again turned down the side street, where again the same thing happened - the people said that their village (with perhaps a few hundred people) was unsafe, as was their street (with perhaps 10 families), and that we should just keep riding on the main road to Uzgen. Since it was already getting late and dark (and thus unsafe to ride, as this is the time most criminal activity happens here) we kindly asked if there was somewhere, anywhere at all safe we could camp. Reluctantly one of the ladies let us come and sleep on her floor, just so we would be safe. She even showed us where she kept the big stick to fend off the robbers, in case we needed it.
The next episode for us occurred in Kazarman, in the main street, only 50 m from the Mayor's office and police station, respectively, and in broad daylight. It was about midday and we were riding slowly down the road, and a man approached us from the middle of the road. We could see from about 10 metres away that he was drunk, for sure, so Roger steered the quike to ensure he would be confronting the man instead of Megan. The drunk man beckoned us to come over to him but we really didn't want to, so he came to us. As we were almost past him he lunged out at us and grabbed at Roger's arm, twisting it up behind his back, forcing Roger off the bike onto the road. Again, Roger yelled at Megan to pedal away as quickly as she could while the man was occupied with him, whilst another scuffle broke out (he was trying to take money again). All the while Roger was making a scene and yelling out to the other people on the street but they all just did nothing. Soon enough Roger managed to break free, and catch up to the quike and Megan and we frantically pedalled away. None of the people that witnessed this did anything, despite the calls for help.
So after these couple of episodes riding the streets of Kyrgyzstan, we started taking a bit more caution with where we ride and camp. Many of the locals continue to warn us about the drunks and criminals on the street, and now we know why! And we believe that the way the police address this issue is not going to ever fix the problem. We hope this update serves as a good warning to other potential travellers in the area, however don't let that scare you off. For those following the more trodden routes we understand there are tourism facilities and guesthouses to keep you off the streets at dark. It is an amazingly beautiful country, with easily negotiable visa entry rules, and very tourist-friendly registration regulations (unlike eg. Uzbekistan). Also, touring through Kyrgyzstan will allow you to see a huge variety of different lifestyles, from mountain pastures to the Fergana valley, all on the one visa. And a fit traveller can almost always out-run a middle-aged drunk man!
Kyrgyzstan is a great place to visit, with a crime rate prehaps lower than that of Australia. Of the thousands of people we have met and interacted with here most (nearly all) of them have been extremely friendly, welcoming, and helpful, only an ever so small handful of them have tried to harm us. In fact, there's probably less crime here than there is in Australia, its just that we have met and interacted with so many people here (we don't do that back home) that we have met a few bad seeds - it's bound to happen wherever you are!