May 25, 2015
Coming from Shymkent, I arrived at the chaotic border on the Kazakh side and trundled my backpack-strapped-to-the-luggage cart through the immigration and customs. There were no other tourists, but a lot of traders with bulky boxes and bags. The immigration officers at the Uzbek end were hanging out outside and one of them motioned me in. He popped into his cubicle and popped up in the window like a jack-in-the-box. And the first words I heard were
“What?” I asked, wondering if this was normal proceedings.
“Whiskey?” he repeated in a hoarse whisper.
I replied that I did not have any. He shrugged, stamped my passport and waved me to the customs officer. There was a momentary confusion when no forms in English could be located. A lot of shuffling of assorted papers on several desks commenced and finally two forms were unearthed. While his underlings were looking for the forms, their chief barked out
“Yes,” I said.
“Dollar?” He asked.
I can only plead temporary insanity, and replied “No”. I was thinking if I had said ‘yes’ to the whiskey, they would no doubt have wanted it. Perhaps saying ‘yes’ to dollars might prompt a request to part with some as well. And so my form read “None” under declarations. How was I to get money, he asked. ATM machines, I answered. And that was that.
All through these past few weeks in chatting with other travelers, I heard about hassles on exiting Uzbekistan. About being given grief over minute differences in foreign currency. About how some have declared everything including memory cards. I sweated a bit. The last day in Uzbekistan, in the town of Andijon, I spent a good part of the day industriously sewing dollar bills into my underwear.
June 15, 2015
Early in the morning, I set out for the border. I was walking funnily, the movements carefully orchestrated. A wrong move and I would start crinkling – a dead giveaway for the dollars tucked into my clothing. And I minced waering boots with recently acquired lumpy insoles courtesy of the same reason. In the shared taxi with me were two older Kyrgyz women, with numerous boxes and bundles between them. The post was deserted save for the pair of officers, a man and a woman. A trio of mechanics had taken the air-conditioner apart and were standing around amid the various parts having a spirited discussion about the problem.
As before, there were no English forms but the woman said there were forms filled out as examples. Easy to follow, I filled out a form, this time conscientiously filling in $150 and adding the camera and the tablet. While waiting for one officer to finish minutely examining someone’s suitcase, I chatted with the other. She asked how I had found Uzbekistan, and I answered honestly how much I had enjoyed myself. Especially the kindness and friendliness of its people. We spoke in Uzbek. I had been merrily butchering the language and subjecting to toruture all those around me these past few weeks. But apparently the officers were delighted with my sketchy Uzbek.
On showing the form to the man, he compared it to the one on entry. He was shaking his head. I waited on tenderhooks.
“Missus,” he said, “there is a problem. No money here,” he said indicating the entry form. “But, money here”, pointing to the form I just filled.
I had an answer ready. “From ATM machine” I said, miming inserting a bank card. “No, no, no,” he said, as he crossed out the dollars and the camera and the tablet.
“Photocopy” he said, indicating the forms, meaning they had to match. He motioned that I fill out a fresh form. I did so with alacrity before he could change his mind. Duly stamped, I moved to the area for bag inspection. The female officer waved away any need to open my packs and just asked if I had books and medicines. She gave my book a cursory glance and asked about the efficacy of the various pain killers, the muscle rub, the hot and cold patches that I am carting around.
The two Kyrgyz women had had their bundles and bags thoroughly inspected and had been herded into a cubicle to be strip searched. I had to simply wait to get the customs stamp and that was that. A couple more minutes and I walked into Kyrgyzstan to begin haggling with the taxi drivers.
A visit to the bazaar is in the cards to replace perfectly good underwear that I ruined.