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A chilly welcome at the Kyrgyz border

We had to cross another mountain pass and motor a further 20 kms to reach the Kyrgyz border post so a rare half hour was spent in Nomansland. The passports were stamped without a problem but the Customs man made a point of keeping us waiting and eventually ambled out a with a sniffer dog straining at the leash, a stick with a hook on the end and a collection of tools with which to carry out his examinations.

The luggage, once hauled out on to the tarmac, seemed to satisfy the eager hound, so the two-legged beast (noticeably less frisky and agile) ordered the boot to be emptied of all other contents in readiness to do a bit of sniffing of his own. Dimitri (my driver) stared contemptuously as the stick prized away the panelling and then I watched his lip curl in disgust as the guy unapologetically bashed a hole with hammer and screwdriver into the metalwork of his cherished vehicle. It was only then that a horrible thought entered my mind. Supposing my driver was part of a drug-running syndicate and the belly of the jeep was packed with heroin. Would I be charged as an accomplice and locked away in a Kyrgyz jail for the next forty years? It just didn’t bear thinking about. Who would put my bins out every Thursday night?

The vehicle was clean from a narcotic standpoint but oily enough to blacken the customs officer from head to toe and offer Dimitri a smidgen of revenge. The whole process of dismantling and rebuilding the jeep had taken the best part of two hours, a tedious exercise that has to be repeated day after day, week in week out – not just here but all over the world. And what does it all accomplish? Nothing more than an artificially high price for drugs making the business so lucrative that it grows with every passing day.

I suggested a late lunch in Sary Tash, which first time round I’d mistaken for Scary Tash, as worn by the ladies of Portugal. My colleague managed only a short grunt by way of a response and backed it up with an unenthusiastic nod; the border shenanigans had left him in no mood for conversation. It didn’t take us long to get to that first main town but as we slowed down to survey its ramshackle streets, two men in military uniform gestured for us to pull over to the side. Dimitri winced, stopped the jeep and leapt out. A loud argument shortly ensued.

Given that my Russian had not advanced beyond “piva” and “spasiba” I had no idea what was going on, even when the noisier of the soldiers opened the passenger door to speak to me in English. He was shaking with anger, he was drunk as a skunk and he wanted to know where we were heading. It was a frightening and bewildering scenario and it got very much worse when I told him that Osh was our destination. He ran round to where the other two were standing and with bared teeth and the glassy eyes of a madman released a flood of abuse at the Tajik (the only word I could pick out) followed by a wild kick aimed at his thigh. It turned out that he was trying to get his mate a lift towards Osh, but Dimitri, not wanting to have anything to do with them, had said that we weren’t going that way. Thanks to my unwittingly spilling the beans there was no way out of the situation other than to make space on the back seat for the younger, quieter drunk and his enormous rifle.

One very silent and sulky driver steered us Oshwards as I tried to make conversation over my left shoulder with the unwanted guest. The stench of the vodka and the size of the gun by his leg had persuaded me that we would be doing nothing to irk this chap – I was ready to be the most compliant hostage he’d ever taken and was grateful for his few words of English. His utterings didn’t make a lot of sense but he smiled the smile of a dangerous drunk and I couldn’t work out whether he was friend or foe. He mumbled something about drugs and Americans and then slid his hand into an inside pocket…. and pulled out a pistol.

I looked him in the eye to gauge whether his plan was to kill us there and then or follow the far more tidy and practical route of blasting our brains out on the edge of a steep ravine. My hands sweated, bowels threatened to open and heart pounded so loudly that it must surely have echoed through the valley. The blood that would escape in all directions from a bullet at close quarters was pumping at a phenomenal speed. Then a few surprise words from the hi-jacker: “Do you have children?”

I told him no, to which he looked puzzled, and on my returning the question he pointed the gun towards me, put it on top of the luggage, took out his phone and with a glowing vodka smile, showed me the pictures of his loved ones. How they were very, very, very beautiful children, I assured him. Five minutes later he was fast asleep. After my declining his offer to get out and do some shooting his drunken ramblings revealed that the USA was sponsoring his unit to try to stem the flow of drugs through the country and that he and his fellow officers spent night and day beavering away along this notorious smugglers’ route. He was grateful to Uncle Sam, and no wonder: a nice little earner for the lads, uniforms and guns dished out to bully people at will and a plentiful supply of vodka to wile away the hours in the sunshine. I looked back over my shoulder to see the unfired pistol sitting atop my bag and the soldier slumped in the corner, head lolling, mouth open, fetid alcohol breath filling the car. It seemed I wasn’t destined to die just yet but still it took another ten or fifteen minutes of calm before my fists unclenched and the tension slowly started to ooze away.

Welcome to Kyrgyzstan.

Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012

The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries

Both books can be ordered from or

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