An unfortunate reality of travel in many of the former Soviet states is the frequency of run-ins with the police. They may be corrupt cops looking for a bribe to supplement their meagre salaries, business-like officers going about their byzantine bureaucratic duties, or just bored souls interested in talking to a foreigner. The year that I spent living in Ukraine introduced me to the unfortunate reality of police bribery, so I was expecting more of the same during my three months in Central Asia. However, I found the reality more complex than I’d envisioned.
-Dushanbe was my entry point to Central Asia. My flight got in at an ungodly 3 a.m., and I hadn’t booked accommodation in advance. While looking up accommodation options in my Lonely Planet book, I got into one of those ubiquitous dodgy airport cabs and set off. Downtown Dushanbe was a lot quieter than I’d expected, even for the middle of the night; I thought we were going down some random street, but eventually realized that it was the main thoroughfare of the city. While driving down this street looking for a hotel, a cop waved down the cab with his little red baton
[Aside: Corrupt traffic cops would become a very familiar sight in Central Asia. Their only function as far as I could tell was to flag down random cars and demand a bribe before letting them drive off. Good work if you can get it...]
I started cursing under my breath, sure that the cop would try to hit me up for a bribe on the pretense of me not wearing my seatbelt or something. But the guy just hopped in the backseat and chatted away to the cab driver, who drove the cop a ways up the street and then let him out. Just a little free taxi service for him.
-The following afternoon I woke up and started walking down the main street of the city, toward the center. On the way I was stopped by two different groups of officers. Both groups picked me out as a foreigner, but of course not American (both asked if I was Iranian). I was expecting to get hit up for a bribe, but both groups just checked my passport and said, “Oh, America…America good!” and let me go.
I got to a main plaza and was looking at a huge statue when a lone cop approached me and asked to see my passport. After looking at it, he said that I could take a picture of the statue. From my travels in Egypt, I recognized this as an obvious trap for a bribe, “permission money” to take a picture of a free public item. I politely declined. He asked me to take a little walk with him (also generally a pre-bribe action), and when we were on the other side of the statue he stepped in close.
“Listen,” he said, “You know it is Ramadan now, it is a very important holiday for us, a time of giving. Maybe you could give me 10 som.”
I was completely taken aback. Here was this police officer, looking every bit the part of the stereotypical tough-guy Soviet cop, wearing the uniform that was so often used to illegally extract money from helpless citizens and tourists, and he was essentially begging me for money. He may as well have been wearing rags and holding a dirty paper cup. It was honestly a sad sight.
He must have recognized this pity in my eyes, for he suddenly straightened up, resumed a domineering police attitude, and commanded me to leave.
-As I was exiting Tajikistan at the Tajik-Uzbek border, one of the higher-up border guards called me into his office for a chat. He started saying that I needed some kind of registration permit that I hadn’t obtained. I knew this was bullshit, and a probable set-up for a bribe. I started to argue with him, but he insisted that I needed this non-existent permit, so I pulled out my Lonely Planet book to double-check the visa section. He asked to see the book, and he started flipping through the pictures in the Tajikistan section and nodding approvingly. I dropped some words in Tajik, which seemed to make him happy. He let me leave the office without mentioning the “registration” again.
-When I crossed the border to the Uzbek side, there were two guards in the customs room, a man and a woman. They were actually much friendlier than I’d expected, and the woman helped me fill out the confusing and thorough customs declaration. She was middle-aged and was married with three children, but she was extremely flirtatious. At one point she asked, “You think Uzbek girls are beautiful, no?” while batting her eyes at me. (This theme of attractive, flirtatious, yet married women would serve as a constant source of frustration for me throughout my Central Asia trip.)
At one point the guy asked me how much money I made. Originally I would have thought this question was the prelude to a bribe, but I had already learned in Tajikistan that in Central Asia this was not at all an offensive question to ask someone upon first meeting them. Usually it was the third question asked after “Where are you from?” and “What is your job?”
I drastically lowballed my answer, saying a number that was about a quarter of what I had made monthly at my last job. Unsurprisingly, that number was still far higher than the salary of an Uzbek border guard.
The two were about to clear me through customs when the guy found my rather large travel companion, “The Complete Works of Isaac Babel.” His mood got suddenly cold, and he asked me, “Christian? Christian?” Puzzled, I attempted to explain that Babel was a famous Soviet writer, but the guard snatched up the book and left the room. I sweated it out, thinking I’d inadvertently tried to bring in a banned book, while the female guard continued nonchalantly flirting with me. However, the guard returned soon and cleared me through.
A few moments after leaving the room I cracked up laughing, as I realized that he’d mistaken “Babel” for “Bible”, presumably suspecting I was some kind of undercover Christian missionary.
-I’d expected to get a lot of trouble from the police in Uzbekistan. There was a very overt police presence in every city that I visited there, but it seemed that the rumors that the government had cracked down on police bribery of tourists may have contained some truth. In my experience there, I found that the Uzbek police force largely consisted of officers that were at best curious and helpful, and at worst apathetic (though I did hear stories from other travelers who had worse experiences there).
One of my first stops was the city of Andijan, in the Fergana Valley, which I toured with an Italian girl I had met. Andijan was the scene of a bloody government crackdown in 2005, and the Lonely Planet book warned that while it was safe to travel there, we should expect to be frequently stopped by police for document checks and questioning.
Andijan proved to be quiet, a bit tense, but overall possessing some of the friendliest people in Uzbekistan. Furthermore, we were not stopped once by the police (not an uncommon departure from guidebook advice/warnings). Our only encounter was when we went to a restaurant for dinner, drawing the usual gawking (not a whole lot of foreigners milling about Andijan). The waitress promptly seated us…right next to two uniformed cops having dinner.
They of course stared at us as we sat down, and I was already reaching for my passport when one cop asked in Russian, “What do you think of Andijan?”
“Uh, it’s good. Very beautiful city,” I replied.
“Really?” he replied incredulously, before he and his companion burst out laughing. We gave a few nervous chuckles. The two cops laughed and joked with each other as they finished their tea, then left without acknowledging us again.
-Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, was a quiet city with a substantial police presence. The Tashkent metro was the only metro system in Central Asia when I traveled there (though I believe Almaty, Kazakhstan has since opened a line). It’s an extremely cool metro, efficient enough in a Soviet style, and with each station having a different artistic motif. As part of anti-terrorist security, there are police officers at the entrance to every station, checking the I.D.s and all bags of would-be passengers.
I was worried about this at first, but soon realized the metro cops didn’t seem to care about hassling foreigners. They would just perform a check of my shoulder bag that ranged from extremely thorough to extremely cursory, and then flip through my passport (I experienced many such checks while staying in Tashkent for five days). A lot of the cops didn’t seem to really care about checking my I.D., but were very interested to peruse a genuine U.S. passport, examining it almost as a novelty.
-The Italian girl and I were at a busy intersection near Amir Timur Square trying to catch a cab. A cop saw us and yelled at us to get back on the sidewalk; apparently we weren’t supposed to stand on the street there. I apologized and told him we were trying to catch a cab. He kept a stern expression, but immediately hailed a cab for us (one stopped rather quicker for a uniformed cop) and sent us on our way.
While Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had seemed to have a more Middle Eastern feel to them, Kazakhstan was unabashedly Russified. I felt a lot of similarities with Ukraine while making my way across the country, yet I was pleasantly surprised to not have a single run-in with the Kazakh police. That is, until I got to the former capital and still largest city in the country, Almaty.
Almaty is the largest and most developed city of Central Asia, with many chic coffee shops and a very European vibe despite being located deep in the Asian heartland. I spent a full week there (a couple days longer than I’d planned, due to a hold-up with my Kyrgyz visa), staying in a cheap apartment that I’d rented near the city center.
My second night in the city I was walking down a dark street toward my apartment, carrying a bag of groceries. Suddenly a cop jumped out of the bushes, shined a flashlight in my face, and barked, “Documents!”
I had experienced the ol’ passport-check-bribe many times while living in Ukraine. Underpaid cops spot tourists and ask to see their passports (of course with accompanying registration cards, a Soviet bureaucratic holdover). If the tourists don’t have their passports and/or registration cards, the cops will say “Big problem, big problem” and threaten a trip to the police station, unless the tourists kindly pay them a small sum.
I’d figured this scam wouldn’t reach me in Central Asia after all, but at last, six weeks or so into the trip, it was upon me. Luckily I was prepared, for since my time in Ukraine, I always made sure to carry both my passport and registration card with me.
I looked warily at the cop and gave him my passport. He snatched it up and started looking through it. He studied my entry stamp and registration card long and hard. I confess that I took a perverse pleasure in watching him scan desperately for something, anything, which he could use as a pretext for demanding a bribe. Unfortunately for him, he found all of my documents perfectly in order. After several minutes of intense examination, he sighed, gave me back my passport, and walked off dejectedly.
The tiny mountain republic of Kyrgyzstan proved to be the site of my most egregious run-in with the police, and on my first day in the country no less.
I had arrived in Bishkek on a chilly mid-October afternoon, and that evening I walked to the downtown area with a couple Israeli girls I’d met at the hostel. While they ducked into an internet cafe to check e-mail, I took a stroll across a main square. As I reached one end of the square, two uniformed policemen approached me. They saluted to me and started speaking in Russian. I knew that a crucial tactic in deterring corrupt cops is to feign ignorance of the local language, and speak solely in English.
I began answering their questions using this “dumb foreigner” schtick, but I quickly slipped up and uttered some Russian words. They looked intrigued, and said, “Oh, you speak Russian!” Then, (I couldn’t believe it, but my mind was so mixed-up with languages by this point), I shifted to Turkish. They looked even more surprised and said, “Oh, you speak Turkish!” So in less than a minute I’d transitioned from dumb-foreigner schtick to suspicious-possible-spy schtick. Awesome.
I had read about the danger of showing documents to guys claiming to be plainclothes officers, but these were fully uniformed cops. They asked me to follow them; as noted earlier, standard pre-bribe procedure. Even in a country where everyone knows the cops are corrupt, the cops still try to keep some air of respectability (or whatever). I followed them across the square, knowing that I didn’t have to, as they had no legitimate reason to be pulling me aside, but being kind of curious where they were leading me. I was prepared to pull the plug on the little adventure as soon as they demanded money, or tried to lead me somewhere totally isolated or highly suspect.
We reached the other end of the square, and they led me into a…restaurant. We entered a brightly lit, small cafe. The waitresses and the patrons briefly, uneasily, looked at us as we entered and took a table near the back. Not the isolation I was expecting for a bribe; there were people eating at the tables next to us and in front of us. One cop sat next to me, and the other directly across.
They asked me a few more questions about the purpose of my visit to Kyrgyzstan, where I was going, where I was staying, etc., all while flipping through my passport. Then the chubbier cop sitting next to me told me to empty my pockets.
Ah, so that was the game. They were employing the same basic tactic as the frightening Transdnistrian border guards with whom I’d had a run-in several years earlier. Basic Steps: Make foreigner empty his pockets on a flimsy pretext. Check his wallet for how much cash he has on him. Calibrate bribe accordingly. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I balked, and asked why they needed me to empty my pockets. The chubby cop said I might have guns or narcotics. I rolled my eyes, but was already getting a bit worked-up. Despite my rational knowledge of their game, being interrogated by uniformed cops still put me on compliance autopilot to a degree. Before I knew it, I found myself pulling out bits of paper, mints, and other random items from my pockets. It didn’t escape Chubby Cop’s attention that I’d failed to empty the pocket containing my wallet.
“What’s in that one?” he asked, pointing to one of my pants pockets.
“Just my wallet,” I said, pulling it out slightly so that he could see it, and then putting it back in again.
“Take it out, I need to see it,” he said sternly.
“Why?” I asked.
“You might have narcotics in there,” he said, deadpan.
Finally I lost my patience. The game had gone on long enough, and there was no way I would be showing my wallet to Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb.
“What narcotics?” I said, my voice rising sharply. “I don’t have guns, I don’t have narcotics, why do you want to see my wallet? Why? Why?”
As I continued my rant, mostly just repeating the Russian word for “why”, the other patrons at the restaurant started looking at us. As I mentioned before, corrupt cops hate a spotlight, which is why I’m still unsure as to why they took me to a restaurant in the first place.
The cop across from me quickly said, “Vincent, Vincent, it’s ok. Ok. Here.” He handed me back my passport and said that I was free to go. Flustered, I refilled my pockets and left the restaurant.
-My final border crossing of the trip was when I entered the Xinjiang region of China via Kyrgyzstan. I exited the Kyrgyz side rather uneventfully. Crossing into China proved to be slightly more exciting.
While in line at passport control, a lanky Chinese soldier of clearly Uyghur descent approached me and started asking me questions in Uyghur. I said that I didn’t speak Uyghur, and he looked shocked. Tajik? No. Arab? Nope. He asked in English to see my passport and kept looking at me as he flipped through it.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve long been mistaken for a variety of different ethnicities. Being “American” or “from the U.S.” doesn’t suffice for people in most countries (Australia being an exception), and I’m usually asked to explain my ethnic background. This certainly happened about five hundred times during my Central Asia trip, where I was most commonly mistaken for Uzbek, Tajik, Turkish, Iranian, Arab, or Pakistani.
The Uyghur soldier finished examining my passport, and said, “I have seen many American travelers pass through here. You do not look like an American.” He indicated my clothes and bag. I was wearing a black Kyrgyz cap and a nondescript jacket, pants, and ankle boots, and my lone bag was small and squat. I could at least understand that I didn’t look like the average Western backpacker parading through with a huge colorful backpack, North Face polar fleece, and bulky hiking boots. My attire, coupled with my Turkic-looking face, was out of the ordinary. Despite clearly possessing a U.S. passport and a native fluency in English, Chinese border security was not prepared to clear me quickly.
The guy told a passing female soldier that I was American, and she looked at me, raised an eyebrow, and almost cracked a smile. He then called another, seemingly more senior guard over, who also examined my passport and asked me the same questions while the first guy translated. Eventually the two of them left, and I figured they’d had their fun.
But after a few more minutes in line, the two guys called me over toward an office. A third guy, seemingly even more higher-up, sat behind a large wooden desk. The office wasn’t a bare interrogation room, but was rather tastefully decorated and business-like. They shut the door, and Guy 3 (the apparent boss) began questioning me again on my ethnic background, with Guy 1 (the original Uyghur soldier) translating and adding in his own questions.
They seemed to be convinced that I was an American of Uyghur origin. All I could do was repeat that I wasn’t, and that regardless they had my American passport in their hands, with a perfectly valid Chinese visa inside it. Eventually the questioning began to resemble an Abbott and Costello routine, and I couldn’t tell if they actually thought I might represent some kind of security threat, or if they were just bored and curious. Guy 1 in particular seemed to have watched a few too many detective shows.
Guy 1 (flipping through my passport): So, what other countries have you traveled to?
Me (in my head): You can clearly see the stamps right there.
Me (in reality): Uh, many countries….
Guy 1: Which countries?
Me: Uh, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Turkey, Fra–”
Guy 1 (leaping up from chair): Ah-ha!!! So you were in Turkey!
Me (in my head): Damn, Sherlock, you cracked the case!
Me (in reality): Uh, yes. I have been in Turkey.
After another 15 minutes of such conversation, the guys let me go back to the passport line, and I was stamped through without further incident.
-While the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi saw deadly violence in 2009 between local Uyghurs and more recent Han Chinese immigrants, it was in Hotan, east of Kashgar, along the rim of the Taklamakan Desert, where I experienced the most overt Chinese police and military presence.
The city was definitely the tensest one that I visited during my nearly three weeks in Xinjiang. There was a very obvious division between the city’s majority Uyghur population and the more recent Han Chinese arrivals, and soldiers were to be seen marching about the streets and main squares fairly regularly.
I was traveling with an Israeli guy that I’d met in the Kashgar hostel, and our first night in Hotan we went to an internet cafe near the city center. The cafe was hard to find, located down an unmarked alley, but was fairly large with many rows of computers. Like so many internet cafes around the world, it was largely filled with teenage boys playing “Counterstrike” and “Call of Duty.”
I was catching up on some news, and I opened up an AP story titled something like, “China Cracks Down on Muslim Separatists in Restive Western Province”. Well, how pertinent, I thought to myself, as I opened the story. I felt a happy thrill of safe subversion, reading a critical story in English about Chinese persecution of the Uyghurs.
As I was in the midst of reading this article, at least a dozen Chinese and Uyghur uniformed police officers burst through the door of the internet cafe. A few of them had guns, but most of them menacingly brandished heavy wooden sticks. My blood went cold. I’d taken the bait! I was being arrested for subversion!
The police began moving through the cafe, rousting some of the kids out of their seats and questioning them. One of the Uyghur officers stepped up beside the Israeli and me. Ignoring my friend, he began barking at me in Uyghur.
“Uh…I don’t…I…English…American,” I said meekly.
The cop looked at me with narrowed eyes, then down at the Israeli, then back to me. He seemed to accept that we were foreign tourists, and moved off.
The officers stayed for only 15 minutes or so, walking up and down the aisles with their fearsome clubs. Eventually they cleared out, taking some of the kids along with them.
Life at the internet cafe appeared to return to normal for those of us left. I never found out what the whole raid was about (we were lucky we were even able to communicate to the girl working there that we wanted two computers for an hour each).
I did, however, quietly hit “close” on my AP article.