“Where did you come from to get here?” Crossing the Uzbek-Tajik border

British student Danny Gordon has been cycling across the world to raise money for UNICEF and Sports Relief. He recently passed through Central Eurasia, and NewEurasia managed to catch up with him to ask his impressions about crossing borders here…

Photograph by Danny Gordon (CC-usage/NewEurasia).

Editor’s note: British student Danny Gordon has been cycling across the world to raise money for UNICEF and Sports Relief. He recently passed through Central Eurasia, and NewEurasia managed to catch up with him to ask his impressions about crossing borders here…

Somewhere on the dusty, Kyzyl-Kum desert road between Nukus and Bukhara, I was stopped and offered tea by a large man who ran a roadside stall. It was a kindness that had been a common theme since Turkey. I leaned my bicycle against a post and children materialised as if from nowhere, curious about this alien form of “velosiped”.

I sat down, and the usual questions came, only now they came in Russian since my host presumed it more likely that he could be understood in Russian than Uzbek. “Where are you from?”, was the inevitable opener. It seemed innocuous enough, but so many before this man had asked me, and subsequently been overjoyed that the answer had been “England”, that it was obvious that this was more than just a conversation starter. It seemed to be a method by which you could quickly determine friend from your enemy.

Photograph by Danny Gordon (CC-usage/NewEurasia).

That was important, since there was a national pride in Central Asia more deeply entrenched than almost anywhere else I had been on my travels. Traditions that had faded under the Soviet Union had been brought back with a vengeance. Flags signifying the unity of these new countries filled the skies of the cities, including the biggest in the world in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe.

The burly man who had offered me tea asked how far I had come. “Nine thousand kilometres”, I replied. He blew out his cheeks and let a gruff chuckle escape. “Where did you come from to get here?”, he asked. This was one step too far for my Russian. He caught the confused look on my face, and began listing countries in the hope I would catch his drift. “Ah OK”, I exclaimed knowingly, “I came through Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan”. He paused for a moment, forming an unspoken opinion. “And afterwards?”, he inquired, throwing his hands forwards to make the point. “Tajikistan”, I said. His brow furrowed. He took a moment, before looking at me again. “Uzbekistan”, he said clenching his right hand into a fist, “Takjikistan” he said, clenching his left hand into a fist. He bumped them together, and asked if I had understood. I nodded. It had taken me a while, but I had perfected the “I’m-on-your-side” nod.

I had known very little about this part of the world before cycling through, but it was apparent that there was animosity between some of the neighbours here. Subsequent tea-induced chats left me in no doubt that feelings of hostility had brewed between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan after the nations’ borders had been crudely drawn under the Soviet Union, with Turkic Uzbekistan now claiming ownership of ancient Persian silk-road cities Bukhara and Samarkand. I encountered so many people, in both nations, of mixed Uzbek-Tajik heritage and yet it seemed that the vast majority picked one allegiance rather than the other.

The stall owner had made his feelings about the Uzbek-Tajik relationship clear, but interestingly had given very little away about his feelings towards Kazakhstan. I was certain he would have commented, had he had a strong emotional reaction. But it was in keeping with the relatively relaxed border crossing between Uzbekistan and its Northern neighbour. True, I was checked three or four times for the correct documentation, but never aggressively and always quickly.

Unfortunately, I was soon to find out that his reaction predicted the state of the Uzbek-Tajik border too. The border intersecting the most direct route between Samarkand and Dushanbe had been shut by the Uzbeks and was kitted out with armed guards and innumerable banks of oil drums and barbed wire. The guards were aggressive, and had been given power to ensure the closure; a power they were clearly revelling in as they repeatedly administered orders to confirm their authority. It was a route that would surely have been the most efficient for Tajik commerce and trade. The inconvenience of a 500km detour to the next border crossing at Denov was not lost on me.

“Be careful”, the man shouted as he waved, tea-cup still in hand. I glanced over my shoulder, and watched him melt into the Kyzyl-Kum dust behind me.

Photograph by Danny Gordon (CC-usage/NewEurasia).

4 comments Show discussion Hide discussion
  • Where to draw the boundaries was, however, complicated by the fact that if the delimitation were conducted on exclusively ‘national’ lines, the pastoralist Kyrgyz, who moved seasonally between low-lying winter encampments and summer pastures, would end up with a Kyrgyz republic that had no cities of its own: a worrying prospect for a state preoccupied with thrusting ‘backward’ populations into Soviet modernity. In practice, economic imperatives – the needs in particular of an irrigation-dependent cotton monoculture – often trumped the ‘national principle’ when it came to the details of border-drawing. As ‘modernising’ projects were undertaken, farms collectivised, dams and canals built, and herders settled in lower-lying ‘planned villages’, as new land was brought under irrigation and the mountains dotted with mercury mines, the borders between constituent republics were repeatedly moved. In the drive for industrial-scale agriculture, reality diverged increasingly from the Bolshevik vision of ‘national’ republics. Or rather, the ‘national’ principle that had prevailed in the 1920s came increasingly into conflict with the economic imperatives of 1930s collectivisation.

  • Excellent piece Dan, Ive lived and worked their since 1993 !
    I v rarely comment on news from the region, but felt impelled after reading that.

  • @phil,
    Thanks buddy – It is an incredibly interesting place!!

  • We pulled into Ishkashim with no idea how we were continuing our journey or how much farther we actually wanted to go. Somehow, we ended up in the backseat of a Toyota Corolla that would take us to Kakaha Fortress about an hour and a half a way and then a town about 20km past that. We were aware (thanks to the Lonely Planet guide) that Tajik border guards were currently occupying the fortress but that they mainly resided in the upper fortress, so we proceeded cautiously as we snapped shots of the historical site. Inevitably, two border guards showed up – whether they were on their schedulled patrol or just coming out to shoo us away, I’m not sure. I’m also not sure why, but I was more afraid of their reluctance to break a smile or even a grin than I was of their giant guns. I’m not sure what explains my lack of knee-jerk terror at the sight of a machine gun – It’s not like I’ve grown up around guns to be comfortable with them. Perhaps it’s the absence of seeing their effects that leaves me with an underdeveloped sense of caution and fear. Anyway, as we drove on, our drivers made the suggestion of continuing on to stay in a village near the Yamchun Fort and Bibi Fatima springs. Since these were locations we were debating visiting anyway, we figured that we may as well extend our journey. And so our adventure continued – for a total of 7 hours of driving in one day which finished with the ascent of a very steep, very narrow road in the dark, resulting in one frantic evacuation and car pushing at one point.

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