Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

In southern Kyrgyzstan I quickly learned to fear the police and my heart would skip a beat each time we spotted one of the many roadside police checkpoints. Through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the infamous former Soviet police forces have caused hardly any problems. Though policemen constantly pump locals and tourists alike for bribes, it’s hardly been intimidating and sometimes even been conducted in a strangely friendly manner, with a smile, a laugh, or just a wink. It’s been very easy to get beyond any initial shock of a policeman looking for a bribe, and summon up some sympathy for those who are seldom paid, and when paid at all, paid very little. In southern Kyrgyzstan it’s changed for the worse.

Perhaps the particularly unruly police force is a result of the regional unrest. Southern Kyrgyzstan is isolated from the north, and in some respects shares more in common with Tajikstan. It also said to be a favorite hiding spot of the Islamic Militia of Uzbekistan, rumored to be supported by Osama bin Laden and responsible for recent troubles in the Fergana Valley. After a recent spate of kidnappings, the areas south of Osh are considered unsafe for tourists.

Whatever the reason, I was hassled more by the police in southern Kyrgyzstan than anywhere else I’ve ever been. One short (at least in terms of distance) taxi ride featured three thrilling encounters with the police which I could have done without. Every couple of kilometers, the police stand in pairs in front of their parked cars at the side of the road, twirling batons with the look of severe boredom. As your car passes, if you’re chosen they stop twirling the baton and with a stylish flourish they point it straight at the driver, the signal to pull over for a random check. Check for what? For anything that could possibly result in a “fine.”

The first time we were stopped was the mildest, and at least somewhat legitimate: the taxi driver didn’t have fully functional brake lights. But what car in Krygyzstan has brake lights? That cost the driver $0.10, a pretty standard amount, as these things go, and we moved on.

The second checkpoint became a bit worse. As usual I had been keeping a low profile in the passenger seat hoping the policemen wouldn’t notice me. If they see me they see the potential for dollars. But the driver returned to the car and the other policeman followed him and saw me sitting there. He opened my door, pointed at my backpack and barked at me, “Narcotic?”

Did he really expect me to confess? “No, no narcotics” I replied, shaking my head. So he turned to the driver and muttered something in Kyrgyz. He was accusing the driver of lacking the necessary papers to transport foreigners, though no such requirement has existed in Kyrgyzstan for several years. After much discussion, the driver paid $1, which would eventually be asked from me at the end of the journey.

The third checkpoint was the worst. A big burly and particularly nasty looking Kyrgyz policeman spotted me right away, and asked for my passport. As the driver was also showing his license and passport, I stepped out of the car to have a better look at the theatrics. The policeman handed the papers back to the driver and walked towards me and pointed at the seat belt, and I took it that he was accusing me of not wearing my seat belt. Of course I had been, but now I was standing outside the car and the policeman said that he’d seen I wasn’t; it was simply my word against his. $5, he scribbled with his finger in the dust on the trunk of the car, a 20 year old Russian Lada. Naturally, I was infuriated, and just shook my head and said that I had been wearing the seat belt, so I wouldn’t pay. He was still holding my passport while he steadily stepped-up his tone of voice; he actually began to shout something at me about the seat belt. It culminated in him standing right up next to me, the tip of his index finger pressed into my heart, finishing off his monologue with a shove. Though not a hard shove at all, it was more than enough to make me feel very intimidated, and in the following seconds all sorts of absurd scenarios raced through my mind. Did I have time to get out my phrasebook and look up the word embassy? I imagined armies of lawyers, journalists, and Colin Powell all flocking to my prison cell while thousands protested across western cities demanding my release.

My conditioned reaction in such a situation is to bury my intimidation and keep a stone cold face and cool manner. I wouldn’t know if I managed this, but I replied just as firmly back but in a much more restrained voice, that I didn’t understand what the problem was and that I wouldn’t pay. Perhaps I was getting a bit too cocky having crossed Central Asia without having paid a penny in bribes — I’m sure the taxi driver thought that I was crazy. This is just the way that it is here and who am I to be able to buck a system to which they submit every day? The driver walked over, peeled off $5 worth of notes, and the policeman walked off, still in a bit of a huff. It turned out to be a ridiculously expensive taxi ride. Next time perhaps I will temper my stuborness and just try to bargain it down some.

Kyrgyzstan aspires to develop a tourist industry along the lines of Nepal. The tourism ministry is doing all that it can to let the rest of the world know of the magnificence of the Tien-Shan, the second highest mountain range in the world. But it’s hard to imagine the tourist trade growing beyond today’s trickle of individual backpackers and serious mountaineering expeditions if tourists are treated like this. The “novelty” of police corruption to the Westerner, what little interest there can possibly be in it, wears thin here and it becomes only unpleasant. I told this to a woman at a Bishkek tourist information desk and she said, not surprisingly, “We know all about this. Believe me, we’re very aware of this problem.”