|Kyrgyzstan . Elusive..
||[Aug. 11th, 2007|06:33 pm]
I have been following the pugmarks on the freshly fallen snow for a while now. Hope dying, as the walk has been long. Suddenly, I catch a movement in the distance. A little more than a snowflake falling? And then I hear it…
The alarm cranks to life. It's 4am, July 19th, and I'm running late for my flight. I try to move as swift as the ghost of my dreams.
As I'm being driven to the airport by my brother, it hits me. The absolute suddenness of this trip. It was only a week ago that I met Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan, a cultural anthropologist and professor at UCLA, at a random wedding in Bangalore. Our instant philotic connection got us discussing my wildlife photography, and more importantly, his trip scheduled to Central Asia next week. Kyrgyzstan, did he say?!
Images of golden eagles soaring high over the snow-clad mountains traversed by the almost mythical snow leopard did it.
As I check my bags at the HAL airport Bangalore, the enormity of the trip weighs me down—literally. With 14kgs of camera equipment, a 17kg haversack and my head held high, I set off for my month long expedition.
I had barely six days to plan after deciding to go with Ramesh to Kyrgystan, but my research had been intense. Between Google and Koshy's, I had it covered. Koshy's was one of Bangalore's oldest restaurants—a quaint place, where a motley crew of young talents and greybeards gather for a cup of coffee. One can pick any table and find an interesting and informative conversation.
As the different pieces of my research fell into place, I realized that Bashat, a local NGO partnered with Snow Leopard Trust (SLT), was doing the most comprehensive work on snow leopard conservation along with Wildlife Conversation Society (WCS). Bashat were also working with nomads, who, for generations, have trained golden eagles to hunt.
After emailing and cold calling the various directors of the organisation, I made the necessary contacts. I knew the people to meet. And I figured out the places to go to document the wildlife and habitat for my photo essay on the cultural keystone species of Kyrgyzstan—the legendary Golden Eagle and the critically endangered Snow Leopard.
Dr. Andrea Pitet, a research scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, who works on camera traps, agreed to lend me five camera traps to catch the elusive snow leopard. Unfortunately, I had to drop the idea because getting the necessary permissions at the last minute became a problem.
July 19th - 9.30am - Delhi
Eighteen hours until my flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There are no direct flights from India to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I was scheduled to meet Dr. Ramesh at 5pm as we would fly out of India together. With hours to spare, I decided to do some last minute emailing. I made my way through the crowded streets and sweltering heat until I was directed to a small shabby room next to the bikaner snack joint with a board outside that said "full internet access"! My inbox had a little surprise for me. The renowned Dr. Raghu Chundawat, an authority on the big cats of India and the director of the Snow Leopard Trust, India, had responded to one of my emails. A quick phone call later, he had promised to put me across to his counterparts in Kyrgyzstan.
July 19th - 3.00pm - Delhi
Noon saw me at the bikaner snack joint gorging on chole batura and a glass of lassi, which can only taste that good in Delhi.
I eventually caught up with Ramesh, who was staying at his friend Nitin's place, who was a rocker turned DJ/painter. After sampling some of his music and going through his paintings, we left to witness the "Kavaali". Kavaali is a Muslim tradition, where a large group of people gathers and sings. And tonight, a couple of thousand Muslims were meeting at the famous Humayun's tomb. As we walked through narrow lanes to get to the actual site, an elderly person volunteered to show us around the place.
As we approached the tomb, our guide suggested that Ramesh stay back since Ramesh was wearing shorts. Ramesh has lived all his life in the US and didn't think much of walking into a kavaali in shorts, but he understood that it was disrespectful and agreed to stay back.
Just as the rest of were heading into the tomb, I sensed something was wrong and whipped around to see Ramesh surrounded by a couple of young Muslim boys, who took great offence to his shorts and began to threaten him. Now Ramesh has travelled the world—over 60 countries—often meeting business heads and national figures to develop models for economic empowerment. He was not going to let the raging hormones of a few teenagers get to him.
"Are you Allah? Don't talk to me like that! I'm not insensitive just unaware. I respect this place. That's the reason I'm here. To witness this. I apologise again and will not enter the tomb, but be nice."
The boys were not accustomed to somebody standing up against them. I could tell by the startled look on their faces. I quickly stepped in and apologised. They just walked away and the situation was diffused. We decided to settle our nerves by gorging on the kebabs at the famous Kareems' restaurant.
July 20th - 00.00 hrs – Delhi
Ramesh was suffering from a sudden bout of cold. After a couple hours of rest and many cups of hot ginger tea, we had to get going. To make matters worse, the cab was over 30 minutes late. We managed to make it to the airport by 3am for our 4:45am flight—not exactly the necessary three hours required for international departure.
I never check-in my camera gear. No matter how much I bring. The lady at the counter grumbled when I didn't give her a choice, but taking my equipment as hand-baggage was the safest way to carry expensive camera gear. As we stepped into the Boeing, we realized half the plane was empty! Not bothering to look at our boarding passes, we chose two empty rows of seats. And we slept.
I felt the warmth on my cheeks and opened my eyes, recognizing the golden morning light, irresistible to wildlife photographers. I peeped out of the window, and the sight blew me away. We were flying over the Ferghana Valley, one of the most fertile lands in the whole of Asia. As our flight had left Delhi, Ramesh had said that it was a pity that we were flying at night over some of the most beautiful terrains in the world. He was right. By the time I got my camera together, it was almost over, but I managed to get a couple of shots. After that, it was flat land speckled with spots of civilization here and there. The captain began giving out instructions—first in Russian and then in English. We had finished the first leg of our journey.
Jul 20th - 8.30am – Tashkent, Uzbekistan
As we made our way through the transit lounge, I could see traces of Russian influence in the architecture—high ceilings, huge sturdy columns and carpeted walls. After all, Uzbekistan was part of the former USSR.
We had two hours before our connecting flight to Kyrgyzstan. As we sat in the lounge, Ramesh brushed up on his Russian with another passenger, while I daydreamed about roaming the mighty Tien Shan Mountains, a prime snow leopard habitat, and strolling along the clear Issy-Kul Lake, the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan.
Jul 20th- 9.30am Tashkent International Airport
Tashkent is half-hour behind Indian Standard Time. It was time to board the flight to my final destination, Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. The plane was much smaller, and Ramesh looked skeptical.
I was going to be spending my 24th birthday, for once without my twin, for once alone, for once high up in the mountains only with the elements. I looked forward to it. As these thoughts crossed my mind, I failed to register the fact that we had already climbed 25,000 feet into the air, when Ramesh gave me a look saying, "Now you know what I'm talking about."
I looked out of his window. I was awestruck. Snow clad mountains with peaks sticking out from under a blanket of clouds… This time, I had my camera ready. As I began clicking, I heard a voice over my shoulder.
"Sorry, sir, photography is not allowed from this aircraft." A little confused, I looked back to see the airhostess asking me to put away my camera.
"Ma'am, this maybe the only time I will be traveling to Kyrgyzstan, so if you could please let me do what I traveled all the way here to do, I would be glad."
"No, sir, Put your camera in. No more photography."
I was not going to let Ms. Plastic Smile or anybody, for that matter, tell me not to do what I was most passionate about.
"Ma'am, if I can see any written documentation that says photography is not allowed from this aircraft, I will do as you say." That ended it, and with a disgruntled look on her face, she walked away saying, "Tea or coffee, sir? Tea or coffee?"
As I began to fill my 2GB card, out of the blue—civilization. We were nearing the Bishkek airport, just a ninety-minute flight from Tashkent. From my seat, I could see the small city nestled at the base of the mighty mountains.
The moment the aircraft landed, Ramesh exclaimed, "Look, who's here, Sanath." Little dark green planes surrounded the airport. I could count over twenty of them. War planes. As we taxied past them, I noticed with a shock 'US AIR FORCE.' It was as if we had landed in the middle of a war zone. Then, it occurred to me that Afghanistan was not too far off. The US was using the Bishkek commercial airport as one of its airbases. It surprised me that there was only one other commercial aeroplane in the "commercial" airport.
Jul 20th - Manas International Airport- Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
As we disembarked, Ramesh cautioned me to be extremely careful with my money especially around people in power. Ramesh suggested we hurry to the immigration desk to get our visa stamped, as there would be a long line. Also, Ramesh's friend, Adam, a documentary filmmaker, had arrived a day earlier and was waiting for us at the Alpinist Hotel.
At this point, I stop writing, scared to relive those heart-wrenching moments.
But the story has to be told.
Ramesh was the first to hand out his passport. The young officer gave it a glance, asked him to fill out a form and stamped him a multiple entry visa. My turn—the officer, without moving his head, looked at my passport, looked into my eyes, looked back at my passport and then flipped it onto his desk.
"Where is your letter of invitation?"
Ramesh butted in, "Right here, sir, on my laptop."
"No, the letter you should have sent us a week ago."
"But sir, I was told that for an Indian citizen, I could get a visa-on-arrival."
I had found through my preliminary research that one could get a visa-on-arrival. Ramesh had worked for an NGO in Kyrgyzstan, and every time he had gotten a visa-on-arrival. Although my travel agent had suggested that I carry a letter of invitation, I figured since I was traveling with Ramesh, I too would get a visa-on-arrival.
I also had been in touch with a Russian interpreter in Bangalore, who had travelled extensively in Central Asia but not Kyrgyzstan. However, she had assured me that I could get a visa-on-arrival.
Also, when I checked-in at the Delhi airport, the Uzbekistan airline official looked at our passports, consulted her senior officer on the issuing of our visa-on-arrival and cleared us for check-in.
I had overlooked one small, but important, detail. Ramesh had an American passport. Of course, they would give him a visa-on-arrival. Look at all those US warplanes outside!
"We issue visa-on-arrival only for citizens from 28 countries. India is not one of them." He quickly adds, "I could give it if you paid $1400."
"No, no, no way!" Ramesh exclaimed. Then, a senior officer, stocky with a big beer belly, walked in. True to his looks, he was going to be the villain of my story.
This officer did not speak English, so Ramesh took over in Russian. I hoped they were making constructive noise.
I was wrong.
At one point, as the conversation got animated, I heard the words a traveller in any part of the world would dread to hear: "Deport! Deport! Deport!"
My heart sank. Things were happening in slow motion.
The officer either wanted a lot of money or the "Nemesis of his Nation" out of the country.
As he stormed out, Ramesh followed him, still trying to negotiate, while I just stood in shock, rooted to the ground.
The dimly lit immigration hall was now empty and doubled as a stage for the drama being played out. But this was no act. This was a real-life tragedy.
But hope floats.
The officer had reached the other end of the hall with Ramesh in tow when he stopped, looked back and asked, "How much you pay?"
Ramesh tossed the question to me and without waiting for a reply, looked back at the officer and said, "$200." The officer just shook his head and was about to make his way out when I shouted, "$300!"
"Three hundred dollars is what I can pay, sir. I'm a student and I can't afford more." I wasn't lying. Three hundred dollars was half the money I was carrying for my month long trip.
Living in India, I was used to corruption, but this was a whole new league. Ramesh was asked to leave, but he promised to be back in an hour with the necessary letters and people to bail me out. The officer, whose ego was bruised because he couldn't flush enough money out of me, just wanted me out of the country before Ramesh returned. I can still picture the look on Ramesh's face as he left the hall saying, "I'm sorry, Sanath. I'm sorry."
One never imagines being struck by lightning, being attacked by a shark or being deported from a country. I couldn't swallow the fact: I was being DEPORTED.
I was taken to a room in the departure lounge, filled with officers talking only in Russian. Finally, when one officer asked me to explain what had happened, I started pleading and almost begging him to let me into the country. Trying hard not to be melodramatic, I told him that I had been misinformed in India and would have applied for a visa had I received the correct information. The officer looked like he could help me and told me that he would see what he could do.
No help came. I was forced to sign a deportation form. As I was lead to the terminal, I caught sight of the officer, who had just spoken to me. We made eye contact, and he quickly put his head down and avoided my gaze.
I spent one hour in the country I planned to roam for a month...
The flight to Tashkent was waiting for me. I was not allowed to check-in my haversack, so I had to scramble into the aircraft with all my luggage. My fate was sealed. There was not going to be a last minute rescue act like in the movies.
Just as I thought things could not get worse, who should I see as I enter the aircraft? Ms. Plastic Smile. She didn't look at all surprised at the fact that I was being deported. When I asked her where I could put my haversack, she just said, "Under your seat."
She knew the bag would not fit there, but this time, I did not have the energy to fight. I put my camera bag under my seat and then put the haversack ON my seat, forcing me to sit at the edge of my chair. At this point, I could not have cared less of what the other passengers thought.
As the plane began to move toward the runway, I ejected myself out of the seat, screaming, "Passport. Passport." I checked under the seat, inside my bags, my pockets—front, back, front again. I began to shout at the hostess, telling her my passport was missing.
"Open the door! It must have fallen outside!"
I begged my bewildered neighbor near the window to look for my little blue book. Just as I was getting hysterical, another airhostess calmly sashayed down the aisle with a plastic bag swinging in her hand.
"Sir, your passport is with me. You can collect it from the immigration officials in Tashkent."
My mind and body returned to its numb state as I fell back down on my 2in by 2in seat.
I was overcome by a strange unexplainable calm. Seated next to me near the window was an old Kyrgyz woman. She wore beads in her hair and wore a long silk dress. The lines on her face gave her the aura of a matriarch reminiscent of a portrait I had seen in National Geographic. The old lady sat with her head back, chin up, eyes closed. In a soft tone, she began to sing. Or was it a prayer? Perhaps a prayer song?
Maybe it was her first time on a flight. Maybe she was hoping for good fortune. I don't know, but I would believe it was a prayer—a prayer in my favour.
Jul 20th - 1.30pm – Tashkent, Uzbekistan
The immigration officer held out my passport and shouted, "Mr. Reddy!" I followed.
"So you want to fly to Delhi? Let me see. But there is no flight to Delhi for another six days. And you don't have a visa!"
Why would I have a visa for Uzbekistan? I had only planned on transiting through the country. Also, I had learned that there was a 5:30pm flight to Delhi from Indian that I had passed in the terminal.
By now, I was used to the lying, the threatening, the mind games, whatever was necessary to make you relent and part from your money. I saw what was coming…
"But maybe if you paid a little, we could put you on an earlier flight to Amritsar."
I didn't budge.
"If I'm being deported, why do I have to pay when I already have a return ticket? Moreover, I'm a student and don't have enough money."
Jul 20th - 2pm – Tashkent International Airport – Confined
I was taken to a room and asked to wait. The officer left without any explanation. By now, the only thing I was certain about was uncertainty.
My ordeal was not over. I was left in that room for the next 20 hours with only the floor to sleep on and a bottle of water to quench my thirst.
Jul 20th - 6pm- Tashkent - Corruption
The officer entered with my passport and said, "We could put you on the flight to Amristar the next day at 11am, but you need pay a little as your flight was booked to Delhi." I wanted to get back to India as soon as possible. It didn't matter what city. I was asked to put $130 in my passport and be ready. He left the room with my ticket. As promised, he returned 10 minutes later to collect my passport with the money discreetly placed inside as he had requested. He left, only to return, and say, "My boss wants another $50, not for me, says your record will be cleared on the on the computer. You will not be a deportee officially. It's good."
So I placed another $50 in the passport.
Jul - 20th- 9pm- Tashkent – Cold
The immigration officer came back with his boss, my ticket and passport in hand and exclaimed that I have a ticket to Amristar for the next day July 21 ticket and says, " F__K OFF."
I'm told I can only collect my ticket and passport before departure. As he was leaving, he said he would send someone with food.
Jul 20th- 10pm- Tashkent - Call
A man entered with what he called a bowl of chicken noodle soup and some hard bread. It was barely palatable, so it was back to water again. But the man spoke some broken English and had a cellphone! He was intrigued by my camera bag, so I quickly took the opportunity to befriend him. Explaining that I was a photographer, I gave him a tour of India's wildlife on my laptop. It didn't take much to impress him. He was amazed by my photographs, and so, at the right moment, I asked if I could I could make a phone call to Bishkek. He shook his head, "No." He could not make international calls from his phone, if I could wait, he would get a calling card. My photographs helped!
He came back sooner than I imagined. Just before he dialed the number, he said it would cost me $3 per minute—steep, but did I have a choice? We sat there for the next thirty minutes trying to call Ramesh in Bishkek. I gave up sooner than he did.
Jul 20th -11pm- Tashkent – Call on Me
It seemed as if I had become known around the Tashkent airport. At around 11pm, I was called on to be used as an interpreter for another Indian, who only spoke Hindi.
Jitender was travelling to Milan and only transiting through Tashkent. A brother of his working in Milan had sent him the ticket.However , he, too, was being deported back to India "due to inadequate visa details", they said, which I translated to Jitender. It was strange that one could be deported from a transit point, but before I could say anything, I found myself back in solitary confinement—my personal "Deportee's Lounge." I was so tired and heart-broken that it didn't really matter anymore that I had to sleep on the floor.
July 21st -7:40am – New Day
I woke up to a lot of noise outside. The departure lounge was filled with passengers. I was extremely hungry, but the thought of home silenced all sensation.
July 21st - 9:30am - Uzbekistan Airlines – Departure
An officer told me to pick up my bags and head to the departure lounge. My luggage attracted unwanted attention from the curious passengers.
"Where are you going?" "Where are you coming from?" "Where are you from?" Generally, innocent and understandable, but given my predicament, embarrassing. I patiently answered the what, where, and why, and then, to my relief, it was time to board.
On the flight back home, I reflected over the past couple of days: my aspirations, the hope, the support and encouragement people had invested in me. How eager my friends were to see my work when I returned. Had I let them all down? This was to be a career-defining experience, and now I was back to square one. I began to wonder if I was somebody with mediocre abilities and just high aspirations or if there was more to me and I was resigning myself to mediocrity.
From Uzbekistan, I flew over Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally reached Amritsar, India.
Jul 21st - 2.30pm - Amritsar – India
Two days, three countries later Amritsar. Punjab is known to have some of the most fertile land in India. The city is also home to the famous golden temple. But for all its glory, Amritsar needed to invest a little more in its airport.
When we landed, we were the only aircraft in the airport. Having received a phone call from the Bishkek airport, I underwent even more grilling by the immigrations officials at Amritsar, but as they heard my story, I was connected to the chief of Uzbekistan airlines in Delhi, Mr. Hussain, who apologised for the wrong information given and on behalf of his officials who let me board in India, aware of my visa status.
There was no direct flight from Amritsar to Bangalore. I didn't feel like waiting four hours to fly to Delhi and the Rs 6000 price tag wasn't very inviting. I decided to take the 5:30pm train to Delhi and catch a redeye to Bangalore.
Since I had a couple hours before I boarded my train, I decided to visit the famous golden temple and rid myself of any residual karma.
The autorickshaw driver suggested that I eat at "Brothers Dhaba" since it was only 50 yards from the temple. After having a well-deserved meal, I set off with my Lowepro camera bag hugging my stomach and the Gregory haversack attached to my back. Imagine a brown man walking the hot dusty streets of Amritsar with 31kgs strapped across his shoulders with no temple in sight. People looked at me like I was a tourist in my own country.
The restaurant was fifty yards from the temple? Yeah, right! I had walked the better part of a kilometre when I came across the site of the "Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre." On 13th April, General Dyre and his men opened fire on a multi-religious congregation of Indians, who had gathered to organise the case for India's independence from the British government. The mingled blood of about 2000 innocent Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, who were shot by British bullets, hallowed the ground I walked.
Taking photos of the memorial with two monstrous bags strapped to me, I was sure I had tourist stamped on my forehead. But I was wrong. A Sardaar approached me with his wife and asked, "G on DA Spaat Photo Dege?" (Sir, will you give us a photograph on the spot?) He thought I was taking photographs for a small fee! Despite everything, I was thankful that I could smile and walk away.
The temple was fifty yards from the memorial. After a quick visit to the temple, I found a place to check my mail. Ramesh had sent an SOS email to some of my friends. I sent a quick relief email to Ramesh and my friends, reassuring them that I was ok, and I made one phone call to my folks to let them know I was alright and coming home.
July 20th - 10.30pm – Delhi
I rushed to the airport, hoping to jump on a random flight to Bangalore. No such luck. The earliest flight to Bangalore was at 6:15 the following morning!
Another night. Another airport.
The two and half hour flight to Bangalore felt like a couple of minutes. As I headed home, I remember thinking the only word I knew in Russian was one that I never used: Spaseba, which means "Thank you."
It had felt like an eternity, but my ordeal had lasted just over three days. As I dragged myself into the house, I heard my parents breathe a sigh of relief. I made straight for my bed and collapsed.
I slept…with no dreams.