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19.09.09 02:54 Age: 8 yrs

Blocked corridors

By: Roger and Megan

The road less travelled - for good reason

(names changed to protect the identities of those concerned)

After being ungraciously deported from Uzbekistan (23/7/09) we faced the challenge of finding a new route from Penjikent to Bishkek. Originally we had planned to go through the Fergana Valley, and to do this during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The Fergana Valley is ancient; a melting pot of cultures and hub for trade on the old Silk Road. Alexander the Great had founded his northenmost post here and Genghis Khan had trashed the place. During Soviet times its fruits and vegetables were dispersed across the entire USSR. In the breakup, arbitrary lines were drawn to separate this critical and rich region into three countries - Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with Uzbekistan getting the biggest chunk (there is no logical justification to these divisions). What was left was Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz communities stranded outside their corresponding states. Mostly, these regions or villages were just left alone, (eg. the Kyrgyz village of Buragen in Tajikistan). However, there were a few exceptions and some Uzbek towns, within the broader region of Kyrgyzstan, got given to Uzbekistan.

Since the Soviets put a huge effort (at the expense of the greater environment, mind you) into irrigation for the Valley, creating, sculpting and detouring various waterways to feed the insatiable agriculture of the Valley, these areas became prime property. Last but not least these areas were more prone to religious extremism than most others in Central Asia, fueling an already volatile security situation.

Within Kyrgyzstan, on the eastern edge of the valley, there are three Uzbekistan enclaves and one Tajikistan enclave. The Sokh (Uzb) enclave harbours the mouth of one of the most important rivers for the Valley. Therefore, its border is closely protected, more so than other Uzbekistan borders (if that is possible!).

The main road between Osh and the secondmost southern outpost of Kyrgyzstan, Batken, crosses in and out of Sokh - the Uzbekistan island in the Kyrgyzstan sea. In all, the road only spends some 6 km within Uzbekistan territory, but without the appropriate (and very hard to get!) documentation, it is a no-go zone - even for almost all Kyrgyzstan passport holders.

One way of transitting through is to live in surrounding villages, for example Khaidarkan. For these people, it is not necessary to hold an Uzbekistan visa to drive through. Another way, apparently, is through bribing the guards. But you need to know the correct protocol before attempting that. Oh, and the price will be higher if you've recently been deported (and thus blacklisted against ever returning to the country again).

Our original plan to get from Penjikent to Osh was to ride the Shakhristan pass to Khojand (Taj), cross at the international frontier to Kokand (Uzb), then ride through the backroads, away from the cities of Andijon and Fergana, all the way through to Osh (Kyr). The first hurdle became apparent in Penjikent. In Samarkand, we had been promised by the kind lady at OVIR that the pretty stamps she was about to smack onto our passports were "not really" deport stamps, but just a friendly memo to show that we made a boo-boo (which we hadn't) and should try not to do anything bad ever again. She assured and re-assured us that if we were to apply for another visa in Dushanbe, this little note would bear no weight in the embassy's decision to grant us the visa (or not). However, when we were discussing our visa situation with the old pro Niyoskol in Penjikent, he had a different story. He told us that for all intents and purposes, it was a deport stamp, and to expect to be rejected should we apply for a new visa in Dushanbe.

Also swaying our decision was that even if we were to succeed in obtaining an Uzbekistan visa and entering Fergana Valley, we had to obey every law to the letter (even though we had tried to before, and failed), lest we be fined exorbitant amounts of US dollars - enough to feed the Samarkand OVIR office and their extended families for at least 10 years. And despite trying for several hours over several days to get a copy of said laws (all we had been told was certain article numbers and sub-sections), we still had not even read what these "laws" entail, further enhancing our probability of breaking them (and feeding everyone)...we presume these "laws" dont actually exist, and the only way of "breaking' them is by not paying enough bribe money... So with all that in mind, we decided to give Uzbekistan a miss.

That left us with our only other option of crossing from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan, direct. There are two (that we know of) international frontiers - one on the infamous Pamir Highway (at 4500 m), and one on the edge of the Fergana valley between Isfara and Batken.

The Pamir Highway climbs and curls from Dushanbe, then 700 km of 4000+ m and passes to get into Kyrgystan - all of which we would have had to do on the edge of winter. It was a very difficult route and one that would take us to the limits of our "summer" batch of gear (we will receive winter gear in Bishkek).

On the other hand, the Isfara-Batken option took us through what was geographically still classified as the Fergana Valley. Also, it was a shorter route allowing us to take our time a bit more, which we do like to do. And we'd already been told of the famous apricots in Isfara, so that sealed the deal.

It was after we'd departed Khojand, and were on our way to Isfara (5/9/09), where the penny finally dropped and we realised that it may not be that simple. Looking at all the maps we had available to us, we could not find a continuous road that stretched from Batken to the northern parts of Kyrgyzstan (Osh, or Jalalabad etc.) and thus, Bishkek. Whether there are roads or not is usually not of importance to us and our off-road vehicle. However, we've read numerous warnings regarding this particular rim of the Valley, including hazards such as landmines and unscrupulous border protectors shooting on sight (if you hadn't been blown up by a landmine already).

Once we arrived in Isfara we began scouring everywhere for travel accounts, blogs, maps, anything, that could give an indication of which road(s) we needed to find for safe passage between Batken and Osh, and started asking anyone and everyone for advice. Even though our town host, Froddo, had many friends in the KGB and customs, he seemingly had little advice to offer us regarding our journey.

However, in our last hour in Isfara, just as we were tying down the straps to ride off into the unknown, Froddo pulled up in his car with a man in dark glasses named Gimli. He introduced him as someone high up in the Batken Oblast KGB who would ensure our safe passage through to Osh. He also gave us the number of his friend Tolkein, who lived within the Sokh enclave. He gave us the instruction to call Gimli the next day in Batken, and do whatever he said.

With that, we rode off fairly confident that we'd found our passageway through the pesky enclaves. We took our time riding through the apricot orchards to the border post, and then even stopped to take a few snapshots of the sculptures just outside of Batken township. We hadn't had much of a feed that day, but were looking forward to whatever Batken could offer us.

As we were moseying through to the town centre at around 6 pm, a smooth black Mercedes (a new black S-class mercedes with darkly tinted windows) pulled up alongside us, wound down the window and inside was Gimli and another man. Gimli asked us - "do you have Tom's phone number?", pointing at the man in the passenger seat. It didn't sound like the same name Froddo had previously told us, so we asked that he write it down for us. He then ordered us to NOT stay in Batken town that night, but to instead continue on for another "20 km or so" to Tom's house and stay there. The reason, he said, was that Batken was not a safe place to stay. Many drunks. Many criminals. But riding on would be a problem for us, we said. It was the end of the day, we were hungry and tired, it was almost dark, we ride at only 10 km per hour normally, but since the direction he was pointing was uphill, make that 5 km per hour. Thus, we would need to ride on for a further 4 hours in the dark, which was unsafe in itself! In response to this, Gimli instructed us to wait there and a different car would come back to collect us, and then he quickly sped off.

We really didn't know what to do at that point. This man that held the key to the road to Osh was not really the type we wanted to make dealings with, but our only other option was to stay in Batken that night, which we'd just been informed by the KGB of that Oblast to be a not-very-nice place at night (we assume they had other reasons and these ones weren't actually the truth). We'd only just had enough time to gather our thoughts and realise our crappy situation when a different car - a little Daewoo mini transporter, pulled up next to us. In the passenger seat was Tom, and he instructed us to load our Quike onto the tray, and fast as we needed to go ASAP. And we spotted the black Mercedes across the road too, and worked out that yes, this was Gimli's doing. When the KGB tells you to do something, you do it!

So we loaded poor old Quikey onto the tray. All the while we had Gimli hassling us to hurry up (we didn't know why he was such in a panicked rush, but presumed there was something more to it...), so we had only enough time to tie on two ropes and cross our fingers before we were shovelled into the Mercedes and whisked away.

As the sun was setting we headed out from Batken into the steppe. Where to, we had no idea, except that it was about 20 km away. After a while we gathered the courage to speak to the man himself, and we learned that Tom and Tolkein were one and the same (Tom is the Uzbek form of the Tajik name Tolkein). This meant, however, that we were now being taken straight into the mouth of the dragon - the Uzbekistan enclave of Sokh. In a panicked state, we informed Gimli that which we thought he already knew, that not only did we not have an Uzbekistan visa, but we had recently been deported. But he calmly stated to us that he did already know this, and it would be no problem.

With no other apparent option, we just sat in the back of the speeding Mercedes and laughed to ourselves. What else could we do?

About 30 km past Batken town (not 20 km as previously estimated) we spotted a collection of men in army attire at a well armed barricade, which we assumed to be the border post. We were very anxious as we approached, but Gimli seemed to take it all in his stride. At the post he simply got out of the car, exchanged a few handshakes, hugs and laughs with the border officials, and then just drove us straight through. He then declared to us that "now we are in Uzbekistan". Great.

A few short kilometres down the road we turned into the driveway of Tom/Tolkein, and were instructed to unload the quike as we were to stay there that night. Again, we just did as we were told and eventually found ourselves in the familiar position of chai with our new host. He gave us a bit of background information about the town, telling us that all its inhabitants were actually Tajik, even though this was within the territory of Uzbekistan, in an enclave girt by Kyrgyzstan. We shared a few laughs with him, a few stories of our time in Tajikistan with his good friend Froddo, and then started talking about our plans for the next day. We casually asked him, "so how are we going to get through the exit border without a visa?", and his face turned to surprise. "You don't have an Uzbekistan visa?!". The fact that he was surprised surprised us too, as he was supposed to be in the loop about the whole visa situation.

We went on to explain to him what happened last time we were in Uzbekistan, and our amusing deportation story (which he empathised with, due to the corrupt officials and dislike of journalists), and he started to look quite concerned. We asked him "will this be a problem?". After a pause to think, he rambled a few quick words in Tajik, and then finished by saying "No visa - this is a problem. But I will try to help you tomorrow." We were glad to hear that he would "try".

That evening we watched the video of his son's recent circumcision party held at that very house - he had invited 1000 people and the entertainment was provided by singers from Tajikistan and Iran. Seeing this boosted our confidence - he must be fairly influential if he could smuggle that many foreigners into Sokh! We slept rather soundly that night - what else could we do? We couldn't load our bags and run anywhere, we feared even stepping outside the front gate without a chaperone!

Early the next morning we had our bags packed and were ready for our new adventure to slide through Sokh unnoticed. By the sounds of the phone conversations, it seemed to us that Tom had worded up a few of the border guards for us, and had sorted our plan for the day. He told us to ride to the next police post 3 km away, kindly tell them, "we just want to transit through" (making it sound like they would be expecting us) and that we were guests of his. Then, Gimli would meet us in Khaidarkan (Kyr) on the other side and help us get through the final stretch. We quizzed him a few times on this, as to us, this seemed a plan with low probability of success. But over and over he confirmed, that was what we were to do. If we encountered any problems, get them to call him and Gimli and they'd set them straight.

So we headed off in the general direction of where he pointed. Soon enough we found ourselves climbing up and up a mountain pass, and so we stopped for a snack, drink, and check of the GPS. Here, we discovered that we were in fact in the border region between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Also, our two barometers were giving altitude estimates of 1800 m disparity, making our navigation a bit suspicious. At that point, we were in the rather amusing situation of being halfway up a hill somewhere in either Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, unsure of which town (or country) we were headed to next.

Again, with not much option, we continued on down the road another kilometre or so and found ourselves at what was clearly a post of Uzbekistan's doing. The guard let us into the control zone and stood in front of the quike and asked where we were from. When we replied with "Australia" he burst into laughter, almost falling to the ground. We didn't see the funny side, but it seemed appropriate that we join in too, so we did. Then they asked for our passports, which we handed over without question. They looked inside, saw that our previous Uzbekistan visa had finished, and told us that we could not cross into the next region without an Uzbekistan visa. When we tried to politely explain to them that we were simply tourists wanting to transit through, they would have none of it.

Apparently, where we'd stayed the previous night, at Tom's house, was not quite Uzbekistan, but in fact the border/customs control region. Officially, it was Uzbekistan, but you need not a visa to enter, especially if you have the right contacts or money. What we were now trying to enter was bona fide Uzbekistan, thus we definitely needed a visa (or lots of money) to enter there. The smooth transaction conducted at the post last night with Gimli was actually us leaving Kyrgyzstan, but we had not quite entered Uzbekistan. So as it turned out, he'd only gotten us halfway into Uzbekistan, which was perhaps worse than either in or out. Now we were worried whether we'd used up one of our 2 entry/exits on our Kyrgyzstan visa already - in one day!

So it was on to Plan B. We got out our phone book and waved Tom's number in front of their face. They knew who he was all right, but that didn't seem to make a difference. After fumbling around for a few minutes they eventually located a mobile phone that used the same service provider as Tom, and asked his opinion on the matter. He told them the same story as us, that we just wanted to transit through (he was trying very hard), but again they didn't take any notice.

Plan C: Gimli. His phone was yet another service provider and we had to borrow the phone of a bus driver who was crossing the border. Gimli seemed to have a well known reputation to the guards, as they called over their boss as soon as we mentioned his name. Eventually we spoke to him and he spoke to the senior border guard (the one with the biggest rifle). After a few minutes we were told to go back and wait outside the border control zone. Gimli was coming to meet us.

So we sat and waited and laughed and ate and sat and waited outside, just next to the barrier. After about an hour, the senior border guard came out to tell us that maybe Gimli wasn't coming afterall. We didn't know whether to believe him, so we continued to wait in vain hope of the coming of our KGB saviour. Half an hour later, we said bugger it and just started riding from the direction we'd come, with the idea of dropping in on Tom to ask advice on our next movements.

Only another kilometre or so down the road, some Kyrgyzstan border police pulled over to talk to us. This was a worrisome for us because, as noted before, we weren't sure that on our own (ie. without our KGB chaperone) we were supposed to be wandering around in this not-quite-Kyrgyzstan region. But thankfully, they were kind hearted souls and were just trying to find out whether we needed any help... and how much we were willing to pay for it.

Realising that we had not many other viable options, we agreed to follow them back to the Kyrgyzstan exit post and discuss the matter further. There, they checked through our passports and visas and gave us a quote of all the Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan currency we had on us (about $40 worth) plus 1000 extra Kyrgyzstan Sum (~$25) to load us into one of their Army vehicles and take us through the 6 km slice of Uzbekistan. All of these negotiations were carried out hidden in the back of a car, with them anxious not to be seen dealing with money. Considering the tight budget we're on, and how absurd this price was, we politely declined. Seeing that we were clearly unable to bargain up, they called a more senior officer to ask advice on the price. The instruction relayed to us was to follow the officers to the army base, and talk to them in person over lunch.

Two kilometres and 30 minutes later, over some bread and watermelon, we resumed the negotiations with the bigger boss (this was the first time we have dined in an army base). He told us that the plan had changed. Since we had a big fat deport stamp in our passports, the drive-through was no longer an option. Instead, they could pile us into a different Kyrgyzstan Army truck and take us via the Kyrgyzstan-only backroad detour ("cherez abyezd") to Osh, for the same price. This did not suit us either, as we generally prefer to take the backroads anyway, as long as we can find them. And so with that, we turned around and headed on our way back to Batken to try to locate this magical backroad to Osh.

After all that, not even our seemingly high-up friends could get us through those elusive 6 km of Uzbekistan land, and we ended up a few days' behind for trying. So we learned the same lesson we've learned before (and maybe we'll need to learn it again): don't mess with Uzbekistan.