Who owns all the oranges? by Oran Burke

Who owns all the oranges?

Uzbekistan, August 2005

I’d travelled from Istanbul to Iran with an old friend who then left to meet his girlfriend in Dubai. We arranged to meet up in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, ten days later to continue our journey along parts of the Silk Road, the network of ancient intercontinental trade routes that once linked Asia, Africa and Europe. The first thing that became apparent when we started out in Turkey was the bureaucracy that the Central Asian states would inflict on us. Having been created in Stalin’s time, effectively as provinces run by Moscow and part of the USSR until its dissolution, the paperwork needed to enter them didn’t seem to have changed since that era. I’d gotten my Uzbek visa in Ankara on the second attempt, as an error in the embassy took two weeks to uncover. I needed a letter of invitation, a puzzling system which involves somebody in a travel agency, who doesn’t know you, writing a letter inviting you to come to the country. You never see any of the paperwork, but it results in the embassy realising that you should, after all, be given a visa.

This was the beginning of the most unknown part of the trip, a long haul through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and a little bit of Kazakhstan (it’s very big). The police in this region had a reputation for hassling foreign visitors for bribes, although rumours at the time indicated this wasn’t as severe a problem as it had once been. Some countries had opened up to tourism, while others had developed their oil and gas industries, so the authorities were becoming more used to outsiders. Having travelled through Iran, where any preconceptions we had were dismantled by the engaging warmth we encountered, it was easy to see how the day to day realities of a country could be misrepresented by concentrating solely on the actions of a government. In the month we were there – captivated by a unique culture, sweltering in the humidity of the Persian Gulf or awestruck by the lunar-like landscape of the eastern desert – we slowly and unavoidably readjusted our views of a place that made the news for all the wrong reasons. I hoped the affectionately named “Stans” of Central Asia would be the same.

Travelling over the mountain range that separated Iran from Turkmenistan, I was in a cheery, mildly anxious mood. The country was known for having a North Korean style of government where President Sapurmarat Niyazov, the former leader of the Turkmen Communist Party, had stayed in power and adapted the country to his needs following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Among many other things, he rewrote the nation’s history to include himself as Turkmenbashi, Leader of all Turkmen, renamed the months of the year and built huge marble ministries while much of the population survived on a few dollars a day. A seventy metre column in the capital Ashgabat was topped by a gold statue of him, arms outstretched and inviting praise, which rotated to face the sun during the day.

This cult of personality was everywhere you went, but it was less than fifteen years since the country had defaulted into independence, and the generation who’d grown up before his omnipotence didn’t seem so keen on his version of events. A tour of a museum one day reinforced this, as all the exhibits included a section on the self-proclaimed President for Life which my guide, a well educated historian, passed over without comment.

It was mandatory to buy a guided tour to visit the country to ensure you were chaperoned from one government approved place to another, but there was a loophole. A transit visa allowed you to travel unaccompanied along a roughly predefined route, your options limited by the fact that there were only three or four main roads crossing the country. You had to declare your entry and exit points and get from A to B in the time you’d been allocated. It had all the qualities of a somewhat surreal reality TV show, in which you had to spot as many peculiarities as you could while racing to exit the country before the propaganda grappled you to the ground. I chose to enter near Ashgabat and leave from Turkmenabat and was given five days, enough for an afternoon in the capital, two nights in the central town of Mary exploring the nearby ruins of the Silk Road city of Merv, and travel time to get me to the border before my visa ran out. It turned out to be a great way to negotiate the country, journeying from the capital across the gritty Karakum desert to the green north-eastern edges.

I travelled in minibuses, which allowed me more contact with the constantly friendly Turkmens. My phrasebook was permanently to hand, even if most conversations involved pointing rather than speaking. At the regular checkpoints a window would often be slid open from the outside, and an official-looking hand would appear to which a pile of passports would be offered. My fellow passengers would often stop me giving mine when I didn’t need to. When there was contact with the police, usually at isolated provincial borders where registration was compulsory, the driver always came with me, making sure everything was reported correctly. I can’t say if all this protected me from the attentions of the police or not, but it certainly made me trust the Turkmen people.

The morning I left for Uzbekistan I was relaxed. The helpful minibus driver that had taken me from Mary to Turkmenabat the day before had pointed out where to get shared taxis to the border. These were a common mode of transport in Central Asia where you turned up, agreed a price with the driver and waited for the other seats in the car to fill. This could take ten minutes or three hours and you might share with three large men or a little old lady, the difference between comfort and half-hourly exercises in shifting your arse, legs and feet by the miniscule amounts needed to avoid numbness.

I set off before seven as I was due in Tashkent that night and it was still six hundred kilometres, several modes of transport and a border crossing away. The taxi stop was across from my hotel so I wandered over to find a lift to the frontier, a forty five minute drive away. I arrived at the same time as an army officer and four young soldiers, who didn’t appear to take much notice of me. The officer was short and stout, dressed smartly in a cream uniform with a peaked cap. The soldiers, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, were marginally less well clad, wearing brown sackcloth-style uniforms and no hats. A family piling into a car invited me to join them. It would have been a squeeze but they looked like good company for the journey, so I started to walk towards them until there was a slight change of atmosphere. The driver was avoiding eye contact and everyone else looked unsure. I couldn’t understand what was going on as they left without me, and another man grabbed my arm and dragged me towards his cab.

Confused by the early hour and what had just happened I accepted his price, a little more than I should have paid, threw my backpack in the boot and jumped in the passenger seat. The four soldiers then occupied the back seat of the car. The driver must have seen the look of alarm on my face as he attempted to indicate, through smiles and hand gestures, that all of this was fine and normal. The officer wanted a free lift for his troops, and I was the one chosen to pay. There wasn’t much I could do about it, so I settled in and answered their questions about where I was from and what I was doing there. For some unknown reason, they chose not to speak directly to me, instead channelling their questions through the driver, who didn’t speak any English either. He would then answer them with the words I spoke, which would be met with wise nods and mild exclamations.

They got out at a checkpoint about fifteen minutes later, and we carried on, passing through vast fields of surprisingly scratchy looking cotton plants, irrigated by one of Central Asia’s once mighty rivers, the Amu Darya, historically called the Oxus. Soon after, we crept across this wide, lazy waterway on a trembling pontoon bridge; a few weeks later I saw it again as it trickled towards the desert that used to be the southern Aral Sea, heavily depleted by the thirsty crops upstream.

When we arrived at the end of the road, the remote, calmly chaotic border was still closed. There were people ten deep in front of a wood frame and barbed wire gate, waiting patiently to leave. I hung around at the back and passed the time chatting to some English guys who were doing the Mongol Rally, an annual race from London to Mongolia in a small car of your choice. I also changed some money into Uzbek Som and worked out that I would probably have enough to get to Bukhara, the nearest town on the other side; from there I would hop in a shared taxi to Tashkent, theoretically leaving me with enough small change to get the Metro close to the hotel where I’d agreed to meet my friend. I also had an emergency twenty dollar note in a hidden pocket, should this perfect plan fail.

Eventually two Turkmen soldiers appeared and surveyed the crowd. One of them spotted the English guys and me, indicating we should come forward. The blockade parted and we advanced to the gate. It opened, our documents were checked and we were moved on to the small immigration post. This special treatment obviously went against my European standards of fair play, but in the interests of diplomacy I kept my complaints to myself. Having answered a couple of gentle questions about where I’d stayed and the route I’d taken, I walked on alone while the rally team sorted out their paperwork.

Uzbekistan was one of the countries that had needed a backup plan. In May the security services had opened fire on a group of protesters in the eastern town of Andijan. The estimated death toll was generally considered to have been significantly higher than the official government figure of 187. Islam Karimov, the president since independence from Russia in the early 1990s, responded to international condemnation by ignoring it. Since then there had been no other trouble that we knew of, but there was no reason to be complacent. We’d kept a watchful eye on news reports, ready to bypass it if necessary.

The Uzbek side of the frontier consisted of a couple of small prefabricated huts and a bigger structure that looked like a school gym. As I passed the door of the first cabin, a slim well dressed man in civilian clothes glanced at me and said, “Tourist? Come here, medical check”. Once inside, he informed me that he was the doctor, took my passport and wrote the details in a ledger. He then turned to me and, with a casual sweeping movement of his hand in my direction, said, “Everything ok?” Answering yes was all that was needed for the precious medical stamp on my passport, something I was never asked to show again. Interestingly, I never met anyone else who had to go through this intense, invasive examination either.

I walked on, bemused, to where a soldier stood behind a table surrounded by people. Having been first through the gate and only spent about a minute in the doctor’s office, I couldn’t understand where they’d all come from. I stopped and he handed me two copies of a form. I’d filled out many of these customs declarations over the years and had found that they were normally taken from you, put in a pile and rarely looked at. I filled them in without paying too much attention to detail, partly because it was written in Cyrillic so I couldn’t understand much of it. The only obvious part was the money section as it had a dollar sign beside it, and it was here I made the decision that was to drag my day down not once, but twice.

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© Oran Burke 2014. All rights reserved.

Travels with Checkpoints by Oran Burke

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