The city of Termez on the Afghan border is best known for its 2000-plus year old Buddhist ruins and relics, many of which are still being discovered today by international archeologists. But its prime location on the banks of the Oxus River attracted settlers long before, and long after, the Buddhist era in Central Asia. As the director of the excellent local archeological museum put it, "Sukhandarya [the region in which Termez lies] is the only place in Central Asia where you'll find archeological sites from all the major eras of Central Asian history," dating right back to the Neanderthals. And, perhaps even more importantly, "The museum was opened in 2002 by the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Islom Karimov. Look, there's his photo on my wall!"
Imagine that, a photo of Karimov in a state museum! It was no less than a gargantuan scoop, but sadly I had to pass on it as I was short on time (as usual). In fact I almost missed Termez completely. Having been advised that it was an 8- or 9-hour drive south from Samarkand (It's actually only a 5-hour drive), I decided earlier that I would fly to Termez from Tashkent at the end of my trip, time permitting. Time permitted, but barely. My ticket to Termez was for the morning of Wednesday Nov 15 - the day before I was to fly home to Manila - returning mid-afternoon the same day. But if had things under control in Tashkent, I'd try to fly standby to Termez Tuesday evening to buy myself a few more hours of research. Either strategy was risky, for if they cancelled the last flight out of Termez on Wednesday I would likely miss my Thursday flight to Manila and be stuck in Uzbekistan at least for at least 3 more days waiting for the next plane to Frankfurt.
Anyway, I flew back from Fergana at noon on Tuesday after successfully navigating my first run-in with the law. Regrettably, it turns out, I proceeded to have what can only be described as an epic afternoon in terms of guidebook research. In just 4 hours with my trusty driver Murad, I managed to have three important interviews and visit the eight or so points of interest remaining on my Tashkent list, all spread out across the sprawling city. In a brilliant coup, I managed to schedule my last interview in the cafe of the domestic terminal shortly before the Termez plane departed. It was a sterling performance but in the end it would serve me poorly, for my evening arrival in Termez would cause an unlikely stir.
Ostensibly, it was another poor piece of advice that got me into trouble in Termez. Several travelers and residents had insisted to me that you no longer have to acquire a special permit to visit Termez. These can be acquired, apparently, at the Termez OVIR office (Office of Visas and Registration - purely a legacy of the Soviet period) upon arrival. Needless to say I didn't even consider jumping through this hoop, especially considering that I was arriving at night and staying for much less than 24 hours. Besides, airport officials registered my passport upon arrival. I figured that was more than enough to keep me legit.
Once I'd landed and successfully registered, I made my first faulty move, choosing a taxi driver who turned out to be drunk, or tired, or both. I had to punch him to wake him up no less than three times during the 15-minute trip into town. He redeemed himself, slightly, by finding me a very comfortable $ 6 alternative to the main hotel in town, which cost $60. In hindsight, I would have been happy had a narcoleptic taxi driver been the extent of my troubles.
The next morning I checked out a few places near my hotel then headed over to the museum, where I met the aforementioned director and secured a guide for the morning, Gulya. We saw the main archeological sights around town - in truth just a small sampling of what's in the area. Then around 1 pm we went back to my hotel to pick up a small handbag that I'd left there.
I could sense trouble the minute I arrived, as my hotel owner, who had been nice the night before, was in a tizzy. She ordered me to stay put. I said screw that, I'm leaving, and I barged my way into the office and grabbed my bag. She then explained that I had nothing to worry about, that OVIR was busting her, not me, for not being registered to host foreigners. I knew that was BS, but I then thought better of escaping because even if I managed to give OVIR the slip now, they'd easily track me down later at the airport.
The mystery was how they knew I was staying at that hotel. There were two possibilities. One, the previous night I had eaten at the fancy hotel and sought advice from one of the managers there. In the process I told him where I was staying. It's possible he could have narked on me. Another possibility, of course, was that my hotel owner had done the deed. But she had been friendly, even giving me a good English book on Termez free of charge the night before. So I was blaming it on the fancy hotel.
A third possibility arose when a single, plain-clothed OVIR officer arrived on the scene in an unmarked car. He claimed, plausibly enough, that they had been looking all over for me, since I had not gone into the OVIR office that morning to get my special permit. But as far as I was concerned I didn't need the permit. And why all the fuss over one lousy American tourist? As my paranoia peaked, my nerves were made all the more unsteady by the fact that my plane was due to depart in a little more than two hours. And then there was the issue of my notebooks and camera. Stupidly, I was carrying all three of the notebooks I'd been using on this trip, all of them packed with miscellaneous info. Not only that, worried about getting my notebooks confiscated in the wake of the incident in Margilan - which effectively would have wiped out a month's worth of work - I had photographed the pages of two notebooks that morning. If the authorities happened to look through my photos, as they have been known to do, this would look suspicious indeed. It also didn't help that I had taken a few photos of the Afghan border near one of the archeological sites. The Uzbeks consider this illegal and have been known to shake down violators of this law in the past.
With things looking grim, I took a few countermeasures. One was that I insisted on having Gulya with me at all times as my "translator." Having a third-party witness limits the chance that they'll act too far beyond their rights. I also handed Gulya a notebook that I hadn't photographed and told her to hide it in her purse. I then tried to refuse to go down to the station with the officer. That strategy went nowhere, so it was off to the OVIR office for me.
To clarify, in this case I really wasn't worried about going to jail or anything like that. My main concerns were my notebooks and my flight. Still, those concerns were lofty enough to have me very nervous as we drove down to the station by taxi. It was during this trip that I made the move that would ultimately end up saving me, calling my "company," MacGregor Group, to see what they recommended. Sure enough, they had somebody on the spot for just this sort of thing, and within moments he was standing by in case things took a turn for the worse.
Upon arrival at OVIR, they led Gulya and I to a featureless white room with a couple chairs and a desk - an interrogation room if there ever was one. They let us stew for about 15 minutes, then three guys in plain clothes came in, including the one who had come to get me at the hotel, plus a youngish guy in a track suit who spoke good English. I immediately dug myself deeper into my hole, again making the mistake of telling them that I was a consultant traveling in a "tourist capacity." My "handler" at MacGregor Group was now letting me know that this was a poor strategy. Also, up to this point I had been pretending that I barely knew Russian. Nervous, I fell for a simple trick, answering him in Russian when he cunningly asked me in Russian what time my plane departed.
"So you speak Russian," he said in a tone that could not have been more accusatory.
"A little," I said, but I knew I'd been busted.
I was shocked that they had not looked through my stuff and continued to pray that they would not. At this point the English-speaking track suit guy pulled the same move the plain-clothed cop in Margilan had pulled on me the previous day, leafing through my passport and ticking of the countries one by one. Then he dropped a bomb.
"Are you a journalist?"
"No, I'm not a journalist," I answered as if it were the most preposterous thing I'd ever head. "I'm an education specialist. My boss is on the phone with your friend. Ask him."
One look in my bags would have proved to them that I was lying. And even now I remain shocked that these apparent professionals did not check by belongings. Either this guy really wasn't as slick as he seemed, or my handler, who was now talking to the other guy via my cellphone, was bailing me out. Still, I wasn't in the clear yet.
"Do you have a camera?"
"Let me see it."
I picked up my camera, turned it on, and instantly considered deleting all the photos - about half of the photos I'd taken during my trip. These innocuous photos should have been my trump card, proof that I'm just a humble education specialist schlepping around on business and taking a few photos of the sights while I'm at it. But then there was the matter of the hundred or so photos of the pages of my notebook. And the border photos.
When I handed him my photos, I did something smart and made sure his slide show would start at photo 1. There were a good 400 photos on the camera; the notebook photos and the Termez photos were at the very end. I had to hope that the guy looking at my photos - the driver, not the English speaker - a) wouldn't be smart enough or digitally savvy enough to figure out that my Termez photos would be at the end of the chip; and b) wouldn't have the patience to go through 400 photos and thus would not get to the end of the chip and discover my suspicious notebook photos.
Luckily, I was right on both counts. He dutifully started flipping through the photos from the beginning. That went on for about 15 minutes while the other two cops, apparently, were preparing some registration papers for me. It was a race: Would the cops to my right complete the paperwork before the cop to my left discovered my notebook and border photos?
Luckily, the cops to my right won the race. They gave me back my passport and said I was free to go. Soon after, the other guy handed me back my camera - without, I should note, complimenting me on the quality of my compositions. With a huge but hopefully not visible sigh of relief, Gulya and I were escorted out of the building. It was almost 3 pm - not enough time to finish up my work in Termez, but enough time, thankfully, to catch my plane and reflect on the nerve-racking events.
When I got into the car I looked at my camera, which was still on, to see how far into my photo chip he'd gotten. The photo on the screen was from Margilan, just 7 photos shy of where the shots of my notebook began.