Last year, a friend and I drove a car purchased in Europe over 10,000 miles east through most of Central Asia. In late September, we lingered at the eastern edge of Fergana Valley.
I chose to curate a slideshow about this region, because news coverage of recent events have made place names like Osh, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Fergana Valley, Andijan and Uzbekistan, familiar.
The territory between Andijan and Osh is the focus of the photographs presented here.
Click on photos to see slide show. Use left right arrow keys to explore.
By September the watermelons and the long yellow melons of Central Asia were ripe, abundant and selling at fire sale prices.
Fergana Valley belongs to Uzbekistan and forms a large and fertile protrusion into Kyrgyzstan. Snowmelt from the mountains enclosing the valley on three sides irrigates the crops. At Fergana’s eastern edge the cities of Andijan, Uzbekistan and Osh, Kyrgystan face off across the border. It wasn’t long ago that the people who live in these lands knew no restrictions on movement. In the time of the Soviet Union it was all part of one contiguous Red block. Now, it is an international hotspot. Within 200 miles there are borders with Tajikistan, China, and Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan is a lone and fledgeling democracy with an American Airforce Base and dictators for neighbors.
Uzbeks treat rice as gourmet cuisine, pairing it with specific fruits, meats and butter in large cauldrons. Each town, and probably each family, has its own regional plov recipe carried down for generations. (Imagine doing GIS for recipes!)
Silk worm cocoons are brought to a boil in a cauldron. Each cocoon contains almost 2 miles worth of silk strand. It takes 13 strands to make one silk thread.
Young girl operates a silk loom at the Yodgorlik Silk Factory in Margilan, Uzbekistan.
The pattern card above the vertical loom guides the weaver. Carpet weavers tie several hundred knots (pixels) a day for a few dollars of pay.
Rustan (on the right) grew up in an orphanage in Uzbekistan. His father is North African and mother is Russian. He is currently studying English. The ethnic mix in the region includes Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but also Russians, Tajiks, Chechens, Uighurs, Dungans, “Soviet Koreans”, and Turks. (I also met a red headed Kyrgyz.)
Men are notably absent, and women staff their positions, as if it were war time. Most of the capable men are working in Russia. They send articles of clothing to their beloved mothers, wives and daughters for their birthdays and money for the household year round.
Central Asia is to Russia as Central America is to the US, a cheap source of labor.
Of the men that remain, many find themselves in the mosque. According to the Uzbek government Andijan is a stronghold of an Islamist militant group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. At least this reasoning was used to justify a 2005 military operation that turned deadly for the people gathered in Andijan’s Babur Sq. There is still palpable resentment over the governments actions in conversations about that incident. The consequences were severe: the local radio was immediately shut down, international news organizations were soon forbidden to operate in this area; the Peace Corps folded its operations; many western NGOs left the country; and, the US Airforce base was closed in Uzbekistan.
The border was closed for the religious occasion, and our hosts in Andijan convinced us to stay the night. We wanted to camp by the road near the border, but one of them said, “you don’t want to do that.”
When I asked why, the other answered, “It’s hard to explain, but you just don’t. Believe me. I don’t want it to be that way, but it is.” He had an apologetic look on his face. “Common, we’ll take you to the mosque and you can see for yourself.”
One of our hosts exhibited his agility…
… while the second served us water.
Tristan and I pulled over to get a closer look at the cotton fields. We walked around and took pictures. When we were about to leave, an Uzbek man who seemed like he was in charge of the operation approached us rapidly. Initially it seemed like he was going to reprimand us for trespassing, but it immediately became clear that he was the one in fear of a reprimand. “Dear sirs! Are you inspectors? Which Agency are you from?” I had passed for a local before, but it was the first time I was taken for a government agent. He was relieved when we told him we were inostrantsi (foreigners) and invited us for some tea in a field kitchen.
Uzbekistan is the world’s second largest exporter of cotton. Wal-Mart has removed Uzbek cotton from its supply chain, due to labor practices resembling slavery. (But what Wal-Mart will not buy, China will, and sell it back to them.)
The marijuhana grows but few pay it any attention. Everyone knows the real drug problem is the heroin snaking up from Afganistan through the Pamir region of Tajikistan. From here it winds north under the cover of snow capped mountain ranges and steppe and eventually enters Russia around Western Siberia and my hometown. The northern Silk road traversed the Fergana pass between Kashgar and Osh because it was accessible to camels. Ironically, the Heroin Route takes advantage of the porous borders and the cover of mountains which are impractical to patrol. Organized cime groups in Osh squable for control of this leg of transit.
To make an analogy to something closer to home, what Afghan heroin is to Russia, Columbian cocaine is to the United States; and the Heroin Route is like the speed boats in the Caribbean.
The fact that heroin production of Afghanistan has only increased since the United States invaded the country, is a sore point in Russia’s US facing policy.
These checkpoints are a joke really, since the actual border is porous. We met an Uzbek, who introduced himself as Frank, on both sides of the border. When he was denied crossing at the checkpoint, he cursed at the guards, assuring them he’d find another way to cross. It tured out as easy as paying a local farmer a few dollars to show you the way though the fields. The bribe suggested by the guard was an order of magnitude larger.
When a rather large Uzbek approached our car and said, “Border is closed, but you can go wave your big American cocks around,” I thought he was being belligerent. But then he changed to a softer tone and said, “Please, go wave your big American dicks around. Maybe they’ll open the border, and I will get to go too… Maybe you can even tell them I am with you, as your translator.”
By the time we arrived, hordes of Uzbeks were amassed at the closed border crossing with Kyrgyzstan. Those who could afford it, would make private side deals with the guards. This accelerated crossing. One girl was protesting, “You know me. I go through here three times a week to attend classes at the Russian University in Osh!”
We, as Americans, were an amusement to them. I asked an older dignified gentleman in a traditional hat about the situation in the region. “We’ve got problems on top of problems. Our border crossings are plagued by shootings and delays. But, we don’t want to tell you about any of that so you won’t make a big deal about it internationally, while misconstruing it to make us seem like we’re trapped in the 13th century.”
“But we are trapped in the 13th century,” interjected a dissenting voice.
“Shut up. Can’t you see we have guests? They’ll spread the news and get us in trouble.” It was good to know Russian as they couldn’t kibitz without me understanding.
Following the guidance of the wise elder, a consensus soon emerged. I should put away my camera and stop talking to them, and instead work on the guard.
The border was opened soon after we drove our car up to the gate. The Uzbek guards were nice to us and offered us cigarettes by way of making friends. They didn’t care that we didn’t have official registrations from local police precincts for each day in Uzbekistan.
On the Kyrgyz side, my camera almost got confiscated. To be completely honest, I was taking photos where the local law so did forbid. But I couldn’t resist. A Kyrgyz guard had wedged an Uzbek girl against the wall with his body and was berating her loudly. Instinct brought the camera to my eye.
Through the viewfinder, I saw him turn and realize I was taking a picture. My hand quivered and the picture came out unacceptably blurry.
He took the camera and led me to his commander, whom he addressed as “Number 1″. But, before he did so, I managed to flip the camera latch open and let the memory card fall out in the car.
Number 1 looked at me and grinned. “So we caught you, eh? Let me see your passport…
“You are an American? And, you speak Russian?” No. 1 was impressed.
“Why were you taking pictures?” he asked.
“Instinct,” I said, “everything here is new, unusual and interesting for me. I appologize for having taken photos at the border and I won’t do it again.”
He checked my camera; froze in thought for a moment; and eventually uttered, “go”. During my drive across a quater of the world, I was pulled over, stopped, detained, arrested, taken to court over two dozen times, and on every single occasion I ended up getting off without having to resort to a bribe. The guard who brought me in sneered, “So he let you go? Lucky bitch! Just let me catch you again. I’ll deal with you myself.”
Uzbeks are the merchant class in Kyrgyzstan. They run a lot of the bazar. It is a historical divide between the settled peoples (Uzbeks) and nomads (Kyrgyz). But until 16 years ago, they lived together as part of one larger Soviet Union without the notion of themselves as nations with a border in between.
It’s hard to generalize about the street experience in Osh. It feels like a rugged place, and in contrast to Uzbekistan you see a large spike in Chinese influence. Buses advertise the fact that they are made possible by a gift from China. The entire bazar is constructed of labyrinthine walkways and pavilions made from stacked shipping containers, also from China.
The streets, a visually powerful experience to the reconnoiterer.
A man plays a Weltmeister accordion in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
“No money, no crisis” reads a young man’s t-shirt on the streets of Osh, Kyrgyzstan where hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks were killed and thousands fled to refugee camps across the border over the past two weeks.
Sometimes the calmest, most hospitable, peaceful situations can transition instantaneously to chaos and violence. Social puppeteers can excite these phase transitions with a slight nudge, like calm water nearing its boiling point.
In the evening we drove north and met the crew of a transport hauler in a Chaikhana (tea house) by the side of the road. They offered to guide us to a camping spot up the road while leading the way in their massive truck. Their one crew seemed to have most of the ethnicities of the area covered. ”We’re all friends.” I heard this phrase uttered too often, and spoken almost defensively.
We skirted the Uzbek border heading around the valley though Jalalabad and then north across at 14,000+ foot pass through the mountains to the capital city of Bishkek. The following day, Osh caught up with us: