We head out of Tashkent early, the rising sun in our eyes as we drive out East towards Ferghana Valley. Our goal is to cross the mountains while the coppery autumn light is still abundant.
The division of Turkestan into Soviet Socialist Republics was arbitrary -- nowhere as clearly visible as in the vivisection of Ferghana Valley. The glaciers that fed its rivers were assigned to Kyrghyzstan; the body to Uzbekistan, and the mouth to Tajikistan. (Tajikistan still claims Samarkand and Bukhara are Tajik cities and that she has been historically wronged.) When, following the demise of the USSR, the SSR boundaries suddenly became international borders between unhappy neighbors, Uzbeks in Tashkent and Samarkand, long accustomed to driving up easy path through the mouth of the valley, found passage on that road hostage to mercurial relations between the two neighbors. The tracks through the mountains, previously carting hill-folk from the Tien Shan and Chatkal ranges down to the cities, had to be widened; and the tunnel through Kamchik Pass made operational around 1999. This is the road we will take today.
We pass Angren at 8 am; the tapchans in the chaikhanas are filling up with locals drinking kok-cha. (The words for blue and green are the same in Uzbek, and both pass for turquoise; the Blue Dome in Shakhrisabz is kok-gumbaz, and green tea everywhere is kok-cha.)
Halfway up the hillside sprawls a brooding coal-power plant. The town was founded in 1946 as a center for Uzbekistan's coal industry. There were many Russians who ran the power station, the rubber plant, the cement factories. The bare hillsides shows gashes here and there from quarries. Now, with living conditions harsher every year, many of the Russians are leaving, and the population is 20% less than what it was two decades ago.
This could be Ranchi: the hills, the soft haze, the coal grit, the Stalinist concrete blocks of factory-town 'colony' housing, at the corner of each 'sector' dokoni setting up cuts of gusht or sprigs of sabzi for sale.
An Australian company has bought a stake in the plant for producing coal-gas underground in situ; here-and-there we spot their brand-new SUVs, standing out like bright-little push-pins in a slag heap.
The pass restricts heavy vehicles -- we are cramped in a small sedan. Nosir, who expects he will be driving till Qo'qon, says his friend Abdul-Malek will meet us in a larger minivan once we are safely over the heights and through the tunnel.
Past Angren, we drive up to the 'neck' in the mountains, where Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan all come close together. From Eurasia, a NY-based NGO working in the region:
Kuldash is unsure which country he lives in. An ethnic Kyrgyz, he has a Kyrgyz passport, but his son possesses a Tajik one. "My son lives in the next house, in Kyrgyzstan. My house is supposed to be in Tajikistan," he says with a wry grin.
"During Soviet times we grazed our cows wherever we wanted and there were no borders," adds Kuldash. Now, gesturing to his right and left, to two countries born out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union's fall, he emphasizes how difficult determining the border has been. "A lot of times the argument depends on which map you use, if you take the map that was drawn in 1936, or the map that was drawn in 1960, or the map that was drawn in the 1970s, because they all show different border demarcations. You can make an argument for anything."
The Ferghana Valley's overlapping borders are notoriously porous, portals for narcotics smugglers and -- regional governments claim -- Islamic insurgents. In many areas, such as around the Tajik town of Charku, the boundary is unmarked and runs through villages that are checkerboards of nationalities, with adjacent houses in different countries.
Aberosat faults the Tajiks for the frequent arguments. "In our national mentality, we feel we must maintain good relations with our neighbors and not have conflicts with them. But in Tajik culture, it is completely the opposite," Aberosat said.
In identical terms, a schoolteacher at a Tajik school a few hundred meters away blamed the Kyrgyz with stirring up tension. "If we adults see two groups of children fighting, we separate them and tell them they shouldn't fight," says Israel. "But on the Kyrgyz side, it is the opposite. If they see Kyrgyz children beating up Tajik children, they encourage them."
We climb for an hour. Past Kok-Sarai, a branch of the road goes off the Namangan, on the other side of the Tien Shan. The scenery turns alpine. At about 2300m, where the road plateaus before dipping into the tunnel of the pass, there is the checkpoint. Every vehicle is flagged down, militsia peer in and look every traveler in the eye. The side of the road sports a line of suitcases and boxes open for inspection, their contents casually strewn around in the frozen mud. The owners, their headgear of skullcap or chapan encoding national affiliation, quarrel with soldiers. It is not that Uzbeks themselves are unmolested, Karimov's zeal in pursuing radical Islam means that the mullah's beard might set off a guard having a bad day (these people have bad days pretty much all the time), and cause the modesty of his matron's unmentionables to be outraged by the soldier's poking cane.
As for us, we definitely do not look like locals, and Nosir to boot looks Tajik (he says he is 'Sogdi'). He tries 'mekhman, mekhman' (guests). No dice. We are asked to pull up by the side. Nosir collects our passports, letters of invitation, OVIR registrations that show where we have stayed each night of the trip and proceeds into the guardhouse. The details are written down, each page of the passports thumbed over and pored through, and finally when there is no more entertainment value left, we are let through.
At a distance, we spy some tabun horses, prized for the mare's milk. We are close to the tunnel, Nosir is nervous and makes chopping motions to put the camera away every time I take it out. In 2000, small groups of irregulars affiliated to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had 'infiltrated' this area: some occupied Uzbek kishlaks, while others captured a part of the road through the Kamchik pass, cutting off the Ferghana Valley from Uzbekistan. A repeat would be embarrassing, so the tunnel is heavily guarded. We come upon it suddenly, the drooping flag, a solider standing stiffly at the entrance, machine gun batteries on slopes littered with sandbags, and then we are swallowed into the dark bore.
The Ferghana side is shrouded in fog. We pass Sarvan (or Sarvak), an island of Tajikistan inside Uzbek territory. There are a dozen such enclaves (or exclaves, depending on your viewpoint) in Ferghana valley -- territories that belong to one country but are located in another. There are Uzbek enclaves Sokh and Shakhimardan in Kyrgyzstan; the Kyrgyz territory of Barak is surrounded by Uzbekistan; and so on.
From a local news agency:
The enclave is named after the village of Sarvak, the only more or less noticeable settlement of the whole enclave and its informal capital with the population amounting to about 150. The state border divided the settlement into two nearly equal parts. One half of the population therefore lives in Uzbekistan and the other in Tajikistan.
In the Soviet Union territorial jurisdiction did not matter much. Importance was attached to it only when the USSR disintegrated. The new countries set up fences along the borders and began slapping heavy fines on trespassers. Residents of distant mountainous settlements that found themselves living in a foreign country were the worst affected by the new state of affairs. When security was upped, they found themselves practically isolated.
These days, the road from the capital of Uzbekistan to Sarvak is anything but easy. A turn from Tashkent-Kokand highway right into the scorched steppes, on the only road leading to the mountains. An outpost is encountered five kilometers later. Barbed wire, trenches around the barracks, weapons emplacements. Line of defense against the enemy that may come from the Tajik enclave. Soldier wearing a steel helmet and wielding an automatic rifle studied our papers and summoned his superior. Our passports (and even our driver's) were confiscated and the turnpike was raised. We were permitted to enter the border zone.
A couple of kilometers later we reached the mountains, as lifeless as the steppes all around - no trees, no bushes. The sun killed everything on the slopes. Even the river deep down in the gorge dried up. A narrow wooden bridge is the only reminder that there was a river here once.
The road disappeared altogether and we proceeded through the rocks along the riverbed. Any car assembled by UzDAEWOOauto would have stuck immediately or disintegrated soon enough. The old GAZ of Soviet vintage is probably the only vehicle capable of negotiating this road, the shortest road between Sarvak and the rest of the world.
The settlement of Sarvak is a green oasis in a mountainous desert. Massive walls of stone along the only street. There must be the state border somewhere here but no signs indicate where it may be. The locals pay no heed, going about their business in all directions this business may take them. It is hardly surprising because they are all relatives here. It has been so ever since establishment of the settlement. Only Uzbeks live here even though half the population has Tajik passports. Passports or not, they identify themselves as Uzbeks. We were told of an episode that happened here once when a commission from Tajikistan came to the local school.
"Children, do you know who our president is?" commission members asked."
"Islam Karimov," was the reply.
"Wrong. Emomali Rakhmonov is the president. Shall we try again? Who is the president?
"We are one people, citizens of Tajikistan and citizens of Uzbekistan," another local said, "and we cannot go anywhere. We all have relatives living nearby, but we cannot attend funerals or weddings. Rekzasai is close by, barely 3 kilometers away. Many men found wives there, there are lots of relatives over there, but we cannot go them and they cannot come to us because the road is closed."
Kholmurod Kuralov is 89. He has eight children, four of them in Kokand and four in the Pap district. Kuralov himself is a citizen of Uzbekistan but he cannot visit his children because border guards do not permit it for some reason.
"They say that we of Sarvak are not supposed to go anywhere," someone said. "Everything was all right before last year when the road was closed. As soon as we set out for some place, we are detained and taken to the Pap District Directorate of Internal Affairs. Or border guards detain us and turn over to the police. And policemen charge us calling it fines..."
Mukarram Madaliyeva has two brothers in Kokand. She has a sick mother (she is 80), and one of the brothers once came to see her. On his way back the brother was detained and forced to pay a fine (20,000 sums).
"They even arrest women!" a local said.
Another woman says that she went to Rekzasai to sell apples. Three border guards detained her and turned her over to the police. The woman, a citizen of Uzbekistan, spent some time under arrest.
One Jigitali has his own story to tell. He said that several border guards had come over to check papers once. Jigitali himself was not in, and the border guards arrested his two sons. A citizen of Tajikistan, Jigitali lives on what is supposed to be Tajik land. Border guards did not care. "This is our land," they said. Jigitali's sons were taken to the Pap District Directorate of Internal Affairs and locked up for two days.
The conversation is over. Good-byes are exchanged when a man with a notebook approaches us. He never said a word during the meeting, only listened.
"May I have your names please?" he said.