October 2003 Uzbekistan — Tashkent and K2
Back in 2003, KBR flew in and out of Afghanistan via Tashkent, Uzbekistan. You might spend a couple of hours or a few days in a hotel in the capital of Uzbekistan. Next stop was Karshi-Khanabad or K2. I spent a week in K2 that first time.
Arriving at Tashkent International Airport was like jumping back into the ‘50s. It had a ‘50s era looking Soviet gangster movie feel to it. The drab guys behind the Customs and Immigration cubicles going through their bureaucratically, mindnumbing motions. These guys were automatons. No smiles, no greeting. Hand over your papers. Stamp your papers. Move along. I don’t think they even looked at me to verify that I was the same guy as that pictured in my passport. STAMP! STAMP! STAMP! and your passport comes flying back at you. No nonsense. No greeting. Nothing. I tried to engage the dude who processed me into country. Either he was deaf or I was just another number in a long line of the faceless masses who had started passing through in the War on Terror that had suddenly made Tashkent a popular destination for business men, contractors and government bureaucrats.
The airport itself was more drab, cold and grey than the customs troops who worked there. Men in green and grey uniforms with guns stood about with no real purpose in the air about them. The building was at least 50 years old pre-dating Perstroika and Glasnost. Democracy had not been kind to Tashkent. Cheap, imitation marble lined the floors. It was an ugly structure and it was run down. Fake leather padded metal seating was thrown around in a way that spoke to the traveler. It said; “Keep going. We don’t want you here.” The baggage carousels were tattered and frayed. They were broken when I passed through. Instead of queuing at the carousel to await my baggage, carts were wheeled in and gnarled Uzbek men in dirty, tattered uniforms hurriedly conveyed our bags to the dirty floor.
Once we grabbed our bags, we were led outside where we were instantly surrounded by a teeming mass of poverty stricken humanity. Men and boys in tattered, filthy clothes demanded that they be allowed to cart our bags to our vehicles. “Sir, sir, carry your bag. One dollar each bag sir.” They were insistent. If you carried your own bag to the buses waiting to take us to our hotel, they accompanied you still. As you climbed aboard, they begged for baqsheesh. “Tip sir! Baqsheesh sir! One dollar sir!” The kids were especially insistent. They waited outside the windows of the bus. Constantly pleaded. “Sir, one dollar, sir. One bottle of water, sir. One dollar, sir. Gum, sir.”
Only one airline flew in Uzbekistan at that time — Uzbek Airlines. The airplanes were rickety, ancient machines. I thought the damn things were going to fall out of the sky. I’m pretty sure parts of the wing fell off an airplane on one landing. The airplanes that flew us from Tashkent to K2 were worse. I flew into K2 on an airplane that had folding seats bolted to the floor. One passenger was holding a chicken during a flight.
Uzbekistan was a former Soviet satellite state. It was drab, grey and dreary looking. The people looked and acted downtrodden. The economy was dead and jobs were scarce. The hotel in which KBR put us up in Tashkent had lawyers and doctors working as receptionists, bartenders and bellboys. The bars were all full of prostitutes. The first time that I stayed in Tashkent, the going rate for a night of love was fifty bucks. The rednecks from Texas and Louisiana had run that price up to 300USD within a few months. The price pretty much stuck there until KBR moved it’s operations to Dubai in 2005. However, the girls followed us. Supposedly the big pimpin’, entrepreneur who facilitated the move of half of Tashkent’s female population was the KBR Security Supervisor. Rumor had it that he had married a Russian mob princess.
Crime in Tashkent was off the charts and the police were part of the problem. We had a few guys get mugged in Tashkent. KBR guys leaving out on R&R would get wasted and fall asleep in bars and get ripped off. Bouncers would roll drunk morons in alleys behind clubs. Some guys would take girls home and pass out. Once the guy was passed out, the good little gal would steal anything she could fit in her purse — wallets, rings, watches, money, passports. Anything she could sell would be gone in the morning. I got lucky the one time that I passed out with a gal in my room. She got up in the morning and went home. I awoke with a start and noted immediately that she was gone. “Fuck! What did she take? How screwed am I?” I scanned my room. Everything was right were I’d left it. Even my wallet and stack of Uzbek Som was sitting on my nightstand unmolested. My passport was still in my backpack. Then I noticed a piece of paper beside my desk. I picked it up. “Tatiana 02398734” She’d left her phone number. That’s when the night came back to me. I freaked out. Had I really done that? Three rules to prostitution. 1. Don’t forget a condom. 2. Don’t go down on them. 3. Don’t pass out until they leave. I’d broken all three rules that night. I was lucky. The only negative consequences to that night was a bit of anxiety. I remember the girl only vaguely. She had that sexy Russian accent and I thought it was cool how she said my name. “Deh ‘veed” That and she had long, blonde curly hair and a body that a Playboy bunny would kill for.
I, also, passed out one and missed my flight. I went out with my buddies to a few clubs and came back to my hotel about two hours before I was supposed to catch the bus to the airport. I took a shower, towel dried myself and sat down butt naked in a chair. The next thing I know, I wake up with the sun shining in my face. I was supposed to have been on the bus at 0400hrs that would take me to my 0600hrs flight. I looked at my watch. It was 0615hrs. I got out two days late and had to pay 400USD to change my flight. It wasn’t a big deal to miss a flight on the way out. It was your time you were wasting. I was lucky in that regard. If you missed your flight on the way back in due to drinking, KBR sent you packing. FIRED! Sucks to be you.
The worst part about flying in Uzbekistan were the Customs Police. These ragamuffin shitbirds would attempt to intimidate us into paying bribes or steal from you as they searched your baggage. On the first trip out, I’ll admit that I was intimidated. Luckily, they didn’t ask me for money or try to take anything out of my bag. That didn’t happen until my last trip out of Tashkent. The guard rips through my bag and pulls out a knife that I’d purchased as a gift for my cousin. “I want this. Let me have it.” I looked at him like he was crazy and said; “Fuck no! That’s a gift for my cousin.” I think I shocked him. He looked at me for a hot second and then waved me on. I stuffed everything back into my bag and moved on.