By my first tour in mid-May, I’d seen a good deal of Uzbekistan, some of it twice. First, on a tour led by Mario, and again when we took another guide around, squeezing in an eye-opening side trip to what remains of the Aral Sea. Mario and I also visited the Ferghana Valley, where my tours would sometimes take me.
He introduced me to Sasha, his favorite local guide, and insisted we visit Shakhimardan, a beautiful patch of Uzbek territory nestled into Kyrgyzstan. It was previously off-limits to almost everyone, but he was fixated on going because he thought it a great future excursion for the tourists and that if he wanted it open, it could be open. He cleverly squeezed us into the back of a little Daewoo Damas that transported locals, where we were hidden from border guards.
When we got out near our destination we were immediately stopped and taken into a militsia compound, where we were held for an unnerving period of time.
The Damas, above, is more affectionately referred to by locals as ‘bread loaf’. It’s a tiny thing, resting on the axle of a little Tico. It comes up to, in height, my chin. Maybe.
Then they transported us to another compound and questioned us. There were lots of large guns about, carried by very young, aggravated boy-men. Eventually the warden took us out to the street, marshaled a citizen minding his daily business, and commanded him to drive us back to Ferghana City in Uzbekistan, a few hours away. He followed in his military hybrid jeep-truck and when we finally reached our hotel, he first went in to see that we were truly legitimate, registered guests. Surprisingly, we were.
It all seemed harmless enough at the time. Being stopped and harassed by the DAN, the Uzbek traffic police, was a daily occurrence and could cause all sorts of travel disruptions. The border issues and the military did add a bit of intensity, but it all seemed friendly enough. I could only guess, as we didn’t understand a word of what was said. Only later did I understand why Shakhimardan was closed, which Mario knew full well at the time. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a violent guerilla-style Islamic separatist group that controls drug trafficking in Central Asia, was active in the area and six months earlier took four Japanese geologists hostage for two months in the neighboring Kyrgyz mountains. The Japanese government reportedly paid the IMU a few tons of flour and five million USD in ransom for their safe return. The Japanese government denies it, because they, of course, do not support terrorism in any form. In response, the Uzbek military mined the area. None of this troubled Mario, who dragged me into the closed territory without mention of the situation. A few months later, the IMU abducted and terrorized four American mountain climbers who ultimately escaped the six-day nightmare by pushing their keeper over a cliff.
Yes, chivalry seemed more desirable by the day.