Wednesday, January 05, 2005


Yesterday at work, two new employees came in to sign their documents. They had been selected among many candidates from a difficult competition and they were eager to begin work. But when it was discovered that they didn’t have passports, they were turned away until they could show passports.

Of course I understand that an official document is necessary to work and that one needs to make sure they are not inadvertently hiring citizens of other countries, a real issue here in a border zone. But these people claim they are locals who have lost their passports. And for over a year and a half now, from what people tell me, the government hasn’t had any passports to issue people. They promised to start issuing them in July, then said they’d be available after the New Year. From what I hear, they are still not available, unless you want to buy one of the very limited supply passports. One local told me his uncle got a passport several months ago for a $200 bribe, the equivalent of two months salary for a decently paid person. The passport workers auction off the tiny quantity of passports they have to those who will pay the most.

For those who can’t pay that much, they either carry the old Soviet passports or those who have lost their passports are stuck with nothing. Those who have old Soviet passports can’t travel internationally and those with nothing can’t get a formal job. I think it would be nice if President Akaev would sell his resort home on Lake Issyk-Kul and use the money to give his people passports.

I spent the day yesterday in Kara-Suu, a market town on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, about a 20-minute drive from Osh. It’s not a very attractive place – bustling, foggy, dirty, with square hulking Soviet buildings and monuments in the center. But it’s a fascinating crossroads of cultures, money and commerce. It provides a source of income for a lot of people, and quite a few, especially the market landlords, have done quite well.

I bought a winter coat there, a long cashmere coat from Turkey. There was a single aisle where everyone sold coats, and most of the coats were identical, long cashmere, wool, or wool synthetics, rose, mulberry, forest green, navy blue, tan, black, all with furry collars and muff-like fur lined sleeves. When I’d approach a vendor, they’d ask me, “What currency do you want to pay in?” meaning Kyrgyz or Uzbek som. Many of them didn’t speak Russian. In those cases, a neighboring vendor would come up and translate.

Men and young boys in tattered coats and worn boots pushed carts throughout the marketplace. Just slightly narrower than many of the aisles, people frequently got caught in their way.

“Kosh!” the call of the cart pushers could constantly be held throughout the marketplace.

“What does kosh mean?” I asked Maksim, one of my companions, after being pinned between a market stall and a passing cart several times.

“It’s a rude way in Kyrgyz of saying ‘get out of the way.’ It’s the word that we use for herds of animals when they are blocking a path.”

Tuesday was wholesale day at the market, when buyers from Uzbekistan, Osh, and other places come to stock up on supplies for their own stalls. Prices are lower than any other day of the week and the market was buzzing. Tables and benches in front of hole-in-the-wall cafes were packed with hungry buyers and workers drinking hot tea and eating manti (steamed meat dumplings) and lagman (a soup with homemade noodles, meat and peppers). I walked down an aisle with arched walkways leading into shops on one side, traditional Kyrgyz hats (kolpaks), standing upright on flimsy tables on the other side, smoke from fried meat and onion filled rolls swirling among the buyers, the rolling sound of cart wheels and cries of “Kosh!” filling the air, the smell one of mixed snow and wool and oil and smoke.

Together with Maksim and another local worker, Almaz, I visited a market vendor named Salima. She had a round face with smooth skin and a large smile, her upper layer of teeth all golden. Deep lines extending from her inner eyes out toward her ears, like fish gills, showed that she was middle-aged. After her husband died, she couldn’t find a house cheap enough in Kara-Suu, so she bought a home 10 miles away in Uzbekistan. Every day she crosses the border, illegally, in order to sell barrettes, hair ties, and other small accessories at her Kara-Suu stall.

We went with her to her relative’s home in Kara-Suu. Near the old home on the edge of railroad tracks, we came across a traffic jam and a crowd of people surrounding a bus – a strange sight on the out-of-the-way residential street. The bus was filled with people peering out the curtained windows – middle aged men, women with scarves tied over their hair – and preparing their belongings for the long journey ahead. A man stood in front of the bus with a videocamera, recording the departure.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“The holiday Kurban-Eid is coming up soon, and people are going to Mecca,” Maksim told me. He said that the trip takes 15 days in each direction and that it costs $600-700, including transportation and hotels, all organized through a tourist firm.

I asked my companions if they wanted to go to Mecca.

“Of course,” said Salima, “everyone should go to Mecca.”

“Maybe when I’m old,” Maksim said, without much enthusiasm. “Now when I’m young, I need to spend my time working and make money.”

Almaz, a tall, thin young entrepreneur with large, open ears, like oval pancakes, seemed least excited of all. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he said.

“When people have money, they go,” Maksim told me. “Those who have more money go by plane.”

Salima invited us to her home in Uzbekistan, promising that she’d get us through the border. I did believe that she could get me into Uzbekistan, and never having been there before, it would have been an adventure. But since I didn’t have either my passport or my visa with me, I wasn’t sure she could get me back into Kyrgyzstan. I didn’t want to be trapped in Uzbekistan, especially given what Almaz told me about it.

He recently went to Tashkent for his grandfather’s funeral. His parents left Uzbekistan for Osh during Soviet times, but all of his relatives are still there.

When he reached the capital, he found evidence of a large outmigration. “A lot of Uzbeks are leaving Uzbekistan for other countries, such as Russia and Kazakhstan,” he told me. “In Tashkent, I saw entire regions of the city that were empty, like ghost towns. We went to Namangan, a regional town, and stopped at the covered bazaar to buy lepushka (Uzbek bread). When we got out of the car, we saw that it was entirely empty.”

“That’s because they don’t have free trade there,” Salima said. “Here we have free trade.”

I’d heard from other sources that there is little incentive to open a business in Uzbekistan, because the government taxes it so heavily it soon goes right under. Therefore, people like Salima take advantage of the low cost of living in Uzbekistan, and the ability to work and trade freely in Kyrgyzstan. She has to break the law to do it, but people along the border are used to that. There are all kinds of means set up to keep trade flowing, even when politics are tense, including baskets slid across wires running over a river.

Maksim and I decided not to take the trip without our passports. Almaz went. He had a Kyrgyz passport with him, but should have had an Uzbek visa to get into Uzbekistan. As Salima promised, she did get him through without problem. “She paid a bribe two days ago,” Almaz explained when he returned, “and that bribe was still valid today.”

“It’s not hard to get into Uzbekistan,” Maksim told me. “But it’s once you’re in there that it’s dangerous. When we go, police recognize us as Kyrgyz and they stop us all the time.”

Almaz said that he went through 14 police checkpoints on the way to Tashkent and he had to stop at all of them. His luggage was searched twice.

“They have giant ‘wanted’ posters at every stop with tiny headshots of all the wanted people filling it up.” He indicated the size of the board with his arms. “Imagine how many people that is – all bandits.”

“There are a lot of terrorists there,” Maksim said. “So they need those.”

“Does that mean that money doesn’t interest those checkpoint guards?” I asked. “They are really searching people?”

“Of course money interests them. It interests everybody.” Maksim laughed.

“So if a real terrorist came through and paid a bribe, he’d get through?”

“Yes,” Maksim admitted.

“But if the terrorist didn’t have any money, they’d be stopped?”

“But they do have money,” Maksim said.

“Still, it somehow helps,” Almaz said, hanging onto hope.


nathan said...

Couldn't find an email address, so I thought I'd drop a comment. I served in Uzbekistan 00-01 and love keeping up with volunteers in the region.

Anyway, what's the word on the street, if any, about the protests in Bishkek.

I can be reached at nathan --at-- registan --dot-- net

jj said...

Hi Nathan,

Thanks for reading. I haven't been in Bishkek lately and I don't have either a TV or a phone at my new residence, so to be honest, I hadn't even heard of the protests. I did see my first protest (albeit a tiny one) in Jalal-Abat yesterday and your post inspired me to do some research on what's going on elsewhere in the country. I'll write about the local protests in one of my next posts.