The long road from Samarkand to `The Sweeney'
Frontline UZBEKISTAN-TAJIKISTAN BORDER
Thursday 08 July 1999
As with all good nightmares, this one starts pleasantly, even pastorally. The road from Samarkand threads a smooth, flat, un-potholed line between the old collectivised farms. Ancient Soviet lorries line the roads waiting for even older combine harvesters to fill them with grain. Women in bright headscarves squat in the shade of fruit trees beside neatly stacked hoes and pitchforks. It looks like a Socialist Realist painting. And, given the unreconstructed nature of the local economy, it more or less is.
At the border, the Soviet bureaucratic monster proves to be alive and well too. A soldier directs me to a small, greasy man in a sweat-stained blue shirt and over-tight, slightly flared nylon trousers. He looks like a darts player in Deptford.
For 10 minutes he spits out questions in incomprehensible Russian, then waves me through. I walk 1,000 yards through the fields, and another half dozen propaganda paintings, to the customs hall, a long, open warehouse with two desks at one end. I hand over my papers and belongings and we soon discover a problem. I have $50 more than I had declared on my arrival. This is serious. I smile dimly and shrug. "A mistake," I say. "Big problem," say both customs officials. Their accents remind me of those Soviet spies who periodically surfaced in The Sweeney.
The $50 are, indeed, a problem. Because I won't leave the cash behind, they won't let me go. For an hour we argue until, after a final harangue - in Uzbek to make absolutely sure I can't understand - I am frog-marched to the door and ordered to leave the country. Which is exactly what I was trying to do in the first place.
Mr Greasy, the darts player, appears from nowhere. "Where are you going?" he asks. I can only gawp at the stupidity of the question. I am three yards from Tajikistan. I take a step forward. A soldier bars the way with his rifle. "What's your problem?" he asks like a drunk outside a chip shop, and then corrects himself: "What's your purpose?" I nod towards the border six feet away, ease his gun to one side and walk past.
The Tajik border guards, despite the Rambo bandanas, overtight T-shirts and overmuscled torsos, were rather pleasant. A series of bizarre questions ends in friendly back-slapping after they discover I am a West Ham United fan who had studied at Oxford. I just had to pay a $5 "special visa fee" and I was free to go.
I hired a battered Lada taxi in the nearby metropolis of Penzikhent (a bazaar, 50 dilapidated apartment blocks and a statue), bought some salami, four round, flat loaves, some cold beer and a big bag of cherries.
Within an hour we were climbing through the foothills of the Pamir mountains. Silty brown rivers rushed through deep gorges. The trees clustered thick and black in the sun beneath the snowfields. The road dissolved into potholes.
Then, as the Uzbek Sweeney extras would say, we faced a "Beeg Prroblyem". The road was barred by a makeshift swing-gate and a small group of large men. They wore dirty combats and carried guns. They were either police or men loyal to one of the independent commanders who control much of Tajikistan. One opened the door and beckoned me out with the muzzle of his Kalashnikov. They demanded my passport and then ransomed it for note after note of Tajik roubles, to be laid among the tea cups and stale bread on a table in the shade. Every time I paused, the guns swung towards me. When we reached 800 roubles I handed them a pen and suggested they name their price. Illiterate, but too proud to admit it, their commander wrote down 1,000R - about 70 pence.
A few miles on, the same thing happened. A little more money changed hands. The scene was a little uglier and the threats a little sharper. Then a third checkpoint, in the pathetically poor village of Anzhob. The same bullying sneers. The same demands. The same bewildered smiles in response. I am just a journalist travelling to meet your president, I lied, and all my documents are in order. I offered our bag of cherries round. I had hidden my $3,000 in my shoes. Between my knees were cameras worth pounds 3,000. Very deliberately the biggest, ugliest soldier took my bag of cherries, ate one, spat the pip into my lap and waved us through.
They must have felt they had missed an opportunity. As we chugged away, half a dozen soldiers piled into an old Volga saloon and set off in pursuit. There followed a farcical car chase - at 15mph, in 20-year- old vehicles, up a mountain road little better than a broad goat track. After 10 minutes, the Volga broke down and, the last we saw of it, stones were wedged under the wheels and the bonnet was up. Two hours later we were in Dushanbe.
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