Osh, Kyrgyzstan

If you threw three buckets of colored paint at a map you could easily end up with boundaries as clear and rational as the current Uzbek/Tajik/Kyrgyz border in the Fergana valley. As contiguity seems not to have been important to the early Soviets, there are frequent “islands” of Tajikstan within Uzbek territory, even though they contain nothing but tiny villages with no road access whatsoever. What do the Tajiks want with this inconvenient little piece of territory? There are similar isolated pieces of Kyrgyzstan within Tajikstan; I can’t visit them because I don’t have a Tajik visa. Since the Uzbek border snakes around Kyrgyzstan, when traveling between two Kyrgyz towns just 15 kilometers away from each other you must transit through Uzbekistan. It was formerly all the Soviet Union, so the roads were built without any regard for visas and customs, now creating constant headaches for the valley’s inhabitants (and a handful of tourists) and a cash cow for the corrupt border officials.

The reason for the boundary absurdity date back many years. For centuries the Fergana Valley has been the bread basket of Central Asia, with a perfect climate and fertile soil. The possibilities drew an incredibly diverse ethnic mixture of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs. The inhabitants also tended to be the most conservative, and it’s been one of Central Asia’s centers of dissent, at first uniting to revolt against the Russians and later fighting amongst each other. It continues today, and at some point over the last 10 years nearly every corner of the vast valley has revolted against one government or another.

The valley had proven such a handful to the Bolsheviks that Stalin carved it up, dividing ethnic groups among 3 provinces, and later Soviet Republics, separating families and friends. Just prior to the splintering off of the ‘stans from the Soviet Union, there was talk of making the borders a bit more “sensible” and consistent with the ethnicity of the inhabitants of the Fergana Valley’s cities. But there just wasn’t any political capital for this, and the valley remains divided between Tajikstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, seemingly at random. For example, the Kyrgyz (politcally) city of Osh is located 2 kilometers from Uzbekistan and 50 kilometers from Tajikstan, and the inhabitants are 75% Uzbek, 5% Tajik, and 20% Kyrgyz.

For whatever reason, there are no buses into the Fergana Valley. The only transport option was a “Share Taxi,” also called a “Collective Taxi.” Groups of taxi drivers stand milling about on a designated Tashkent streetcorner waiting to take 4 passengers at a designated price. From the moment we left the cameraderie between the passengers made it feel more like a family outing than public transport. First there was the “english” sugary sweet dance music which they played, apparently to make me happy. Then there was a feast for lunch at the invitation of the man in the back seat on the left, who was wearing a hat with the New Zealand flag on it which said “Greenland” in big blue letters. Upon arrival in the valley, I had dinner invitations and a departure present: a brand new handkerchief, probably since I had been sneezing from hay fever.

I still had (and continue to have) the borders to deal with. When I entered Uzbekistan 2 weeks ago, the border guard did not stamp my Uzbek visa, stamping another page instead. Thinking it odd, I pointed at the Uzbek visa and asked if it needed a stamp. An adamant no, was the reply, the guard insisting that the visa page must remain pristine. Fine. Of course, leaving Uzbekistan, the border guards seized upon this, and asked why they had not stamped my visa. “You must return to Hojeli to obtain a stamp on your visa. Then you can proceed to Kyrgyzstan” he said with a stone cold straight face. Hojeli is now 1,300 kilometers away, near Nukus. There was nothing I could do but laugh.

“No,” I shook my head smiling. “I asked the border guard about this in Hojeli. He said that it must be here on the other page. He was border police just like you.” I pointed to his uniform.

“I am very sorry, but the entry stamp must be on the visa.” I put my backpack down on the ground and sat down and just shook my head, making sure to push a smile through all of my frustration. Another 10 minutes passed, and I could feel their desperation for me to reach for my wallet mounting. But the guard gave a sly smile and said “OK, next time.” He took out his massive customs stamp, smacked the visa with it, and scribbled a little question mark in my passport. I now have a question mark on my Uzbek visa. What wonderful new reaction will I get to this tonight when I transit through Uzbekistan once again?