Shakedown Street

“In Kyrgyzstan, it’s the ones in the uniforms who are crooks.”

– Brit in a Bishkek Hostel


Inside, the bus station was dark and seemingly dead. The official ticketing windows were all closed. We poked around for a minute, and then quickly made our way to the door. But before we reached, a diminutive man in a uniform began trailing us, mumbling something at us in Russian. We continued moving, ignoring him, but he followed us. “Documenta!” he demanded. He wanted to see our passports.


We walked on, pushing our way into the Kyrgyz sunshine, hoping that, getting him outside, he would be too frightened to do whatever he was trying to do. It did not, however, deter him. “Documenta!” he continued to growl. Eventually we had to stop beside a fountain, laying our bags on the ground so that we could ferret out our passports.


The small man flipped through the pages of our passport nervously, his eyes darting, looking more away from than at the passports. Something was wrong. This was not just a police officer sizing us up. Still, our move into the sunlight appeared to have been a good one, making him more nervous. Perhaps we should never have given him our passports. Perhaps we should have just continued walking. We boxed the man in, his back against the fountain. He held our passports, but we held him.


“Businessman?” he asked in his broken English.


“No. Tourists,” we answered.


I eyed his belt. He carried no gun. Instead, still holding our passports, he called someone, waited a few minutes, and then called them again. It was clear he was giving directions to someone of where we were at.


A few minutes later, two more cops waddled to where we were, a fat one, and then another behind him. Unlike the short man who was nervous and spoke little English, the fat man spoke English well enough to communicate and commanded a presence that pissant of cop never would be able to. The fat man glanced through our passport, and then waved us away. “Please come with me. We go to police station.”


We protested, but he was too in charge for our entreaties to make any difference. He brushed us off, assuring us that it would only take, “Two minutes.”


Inside the darkened bus terminal, the police station occupied a small, well-lit cavern. Outside the station, a sign read ‘Militasia.’ There was an antechamber with a jail cell and a bum being interrogated. The fat man waved us into his lair, the small cop, the cop who initially stopped us, was left outside the station entirely.


Inside the lair, a man, another cop, even more commanding than the fat cop, sat erect behind his desk. He sized us up, and then spoke to us, using the fat man as a translator. “Are you police?”


The interrogation continued. We talked. The fat cop handed our passports over to his commanding officer. He glanced through them as a cop behind us felt up the outside of Galen’s backpack.


As we were talking, the fat cop leaned in and asked us, seriously, “Terrorists?”


“Nyet, nyet. Americanskis. Nyet terrorists.” Galen said.


“Guns?” the fat cop asked, pointing to the bag with Galen’s tripod gear.


“No,” we both answered.


They opened up the tripod bag and found the camera equipment. “Journalists?”




They did not search my backpack at all, but they did an intense fingering through of my small bag, making me open my kindle and harddrive, but not my ipad, which, because of the cover, they probably thought was some sort of notepad.


Then, they checked my pockets, fingering through my wallet. This was the most nerve wracking part of the incident for me. He flipped through each of my bills, even fingering my Chinese money. I watched him carefully, trying to touch the bill each time he touched it, just so he could not easily yank it away.


Then, suddenly, he handed me back my wallet intact and the situation swiftly deescalated. The mood change abruptly. It was clear, whatever they might have been considering doing to us, that that possibility had passed. We chatted more, and then they let us go. As they led us, the bum outside the jail cell was being punched in the belly by the cop.


So many things seem unclear about this episode. Why did the first cop stop us? Was it an abortive attempt at a bribe? Did he fail, and we just got lucky? Or were they somehow thinking that we really were terrorists or gun smugglers or something?


Whatever the reason, these sorts of events bred mistrust among tourists. My trust in Kyrgyzstan had been violated. For an hour after the incident, I felt like every Kyrgyz was a possible enemy. After I left the bus station, I walked alone for ten minutes, being careful to avoid all Kyrgyz people. Now, I looked into their eyes differently. Each of them was to blame for this corrupt system that had subjected me to this mild discomfort. How could I ever believe in Kyrgyzstan again?


Slowly, my trust recovered, but still, these events make one more hesitant, more conservative.

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