Robin O’Brien writes: It was pitch dark and minus 10 when we left Murghab, Tajikistan for Osh, Kyrgyzstan. It dropped to minus 16 within a few minutes of leaving town. The car’s heating was broken so we had to keep the air con on high to stop the windscreen freezing up. It was a right hand drive car converted to a left. The process had broken the air vent controls, so it was freezing air on the windscreen, face and feet until the sun got hot enough, which took four hours.
Crossing the border was easy on the Tajik side. Bored 18-year-old conscripts threw sticks for their alsatian while someone woke the bloke who could speak Angliski up to ask: “Did you buy drugs in Tajikistan?” and glance in my bag briefly enough to demonstrate how easily the Afghans must be moving their opium up the road.
The Kyrgyz border boss wanted money. Not from me — I might call an embassy or something, but our Tajik driver’s passport had expired a week earlier and it was going to cost him. Tourists are good collateral for blackmailing drivers: as in, “You pay up or I pour all your passengers’ stuff out on the ground.” This time it was, “You pay up or I’ll have you arrested for travelling on false documents and your passengers will be stranded on the border.”
He was threatening in Russian, the international language in Central Asia, and the greatest language of all for intimidation. I pretended I couldn’t understand a word — no point making life easier for him.
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It cost 2000 Kyrgyz Som — about $45 — to get us through. And the subordinate soldiers walking around smoking cigs and swinging Kalashnikovs gave the driver the filament for their water heater and told him he’d better get it repaired or replaced and bring it back if he wanted to return to Tajikistan the next day.
Within 100kms of the border the traffic cops started spotting the Tajik number plates and pulling us over for ‘discussions’. “Looks like there could be a problem with your car….” It cost around 5 Tajik Somoni –$1.20 — each time they stopped us.
Eventually the driver had had enough. He wasn’t willing to drive into central Osh, it’d cost too much in bribes and the threats were destroying his nerves.
We parked and the driver and his brother asked around for a cab. In most of Central Asia any private car will double as a cab for the right price. Five of us jammed into a two-door hatch with a happy local punter driving.
I was in the front so I started pulling a seatbelt on, but the driver stopped me.
“There is no need.” He showed me his police ID and pointed to the uniform hat on the dashboard. “You are with me now.” A gold-toothed grin.
“This week I caught seven men wanted for a murder. No one else could catch them. I am an excellent investigator and this was a big success for me so I am a little….” He tapped his throat with his index and middle fingers, Russian sign language for pissed. “You know I am only 35 and already they are promoting me.”
I’m a good guest — he got all sorts of considered grimaces and comments of validation. I laughed when he swerved into the oncoming traffic to scare the drivers then pressed his siren-horn at any of them who dared gesture at him.
We started passing burnt-out houses, some with tarps covering rooves, some with UNHCR tents pitched in their back yards. The burn-outs were very specific — one house burnt, then 10 untouched; a shop burnt out and its competitor next door or across the road still trading away.
The driver saw me looking at the burn-outs and laughed.
“We were shooting Uzbeks in the street here a few months ago!” He grinned at me from one side of his mouth, like men do when they discuss forbidden pleasures.
I laughed. Fuck, he was a cop, it was his car, we were in his town and that day had been my only illustration of Kyrgyz officialdom. I wasn’t arguing.
He appreciated the laughter so much he swerved to the side of road to get a better view of the footpath and lined up Uzbek pedestrians over the steering wheel and shot them with his imaginary machine gun. We all laughed.
“Now where is this hotel you want?”
We had no idea, so he pulled up to ask some hotties on the footpath for directions. They were sceptical, but helped us. He thanked them with, “Uzbek whores! I’ll be back for you!” I kept laughing.
“The Uzbeks are all no good — but they’ll be gone soon. Some of their bitches are good enough though.”
We ran through a red light; cars swerved and honked.
“There are no red lights for me!” He had his police ID out again and was showing it at the window to silence complaining drivers.
We turned left from the far right hand lane, across peak hour traffic coming in both directions. Lada tyres squealed and left rubber all over the road. His siren-horn was sounded, the drivers’ complaints were quelled and we were at the hotel.
We all crawled out and he was lighting a smoke and jabbing me in the ribs to “look at these bitches.”
He was pleased with his foreigner experience. Clearly he’d received the respect due to a man of his standing in the community.
He shook my hand and grinned, leaned in close and breathed vodka and smoke at me. “My name is Ruslan — remember it and take my number. I can solve any problem you have in this town.” When he turned to our original driver and his brother he wasn’t grinning. “Now, Tajiks — give me real money and not that Tajik shit.”
*Osh is actually a lovely, interesting and friendly town with a huge kick-arse bazaar, and the rest of Kyrgyzstan is gorgeous and hospitable. You should visit. The cops are fine.