“Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!”, said the friendliest immigration officer I’ve ever come across.
I was surprised by the quick, painless, and friendly immigration process; something I would not have expected from a “stan” country.
It was over 9:00pm and we had been on the road all day. We were tired. We were hungry.
After we all cleared immigration, we decide to stop a few meters beyond the border to grab something to eat and change some money. It might have been late, but the place was quite busy. People were chatting on the road, customers dined on the few road side food stalls and shops, and border traffic rolled up and down the street.
Some of us changed money; I didn’t. I relied on borrowing a few Soms (Kyrgyzstan’s currency) from one of my teammates to buy food, which I was to repay later.
As usual, we grabbed the local’s attention with our cars two rally cars. It’s quite hard to pass by unnoticed when your car is covered in stickers and logos and you have a BMX bike on the roof rack. Many of them came close to our car to see what we were all about. Even with the language barrier, we were able to show them what we were doing through charades and images. Many gasped in awe and laughed at our irrational mission of driving from London to Ulaanbaatar.
After a few minutes everyone dissipated slowly to go back to whatever they were doing, and only the teammates stood next to the cars chatting about our next move and random stuff.
The three Danes, Alex, and I were standing in a semi circle when we saw two of the local guys come back to the conversation. As soon as they joined, we noticed that one of them was holding a gun in his right hand. We all looked at him quite puzzled. He didn’t say anything.
Immediately he showed his gun to us and started waving it aimlessly. Does he just wants to show us his gun? Sell it to us? We had no idea, but the thought of him using the gun agains us didn’t cross our minds immediately since he was so friendly to us before.
I told Alex in a low voice, “oh, I don’t want that here”, referring to the gun (as if Alex had any power on the situation).
The armed guy sees me standing right next to him, grabbed my tshirt, pinned me against the car behind me, and put the gun on my neck. I immediately felt the cold metal pressing against my skin.
He didn’t do it too aggressively, so my first thought was that he was just fooling around, so I laughed at him and told him to “get that thing off me”. Obviously he didn’t understand me, but maybe my naive lack of fear towards him made him stand back.
He stood back, looked at us, cocked the gun, and shouted, “dollah, dollah”.
We got it at that point. He was no longer the friendly local. He wanted to steal from us at gunpoint.
We were in disbelief. How could this guy do this here? We were just a stone throw away from the border, which was full of armed guards! In addition, there were a lot of people around. Would he really get away with it? Maybe he was just bluffing.
The guy kept shouting “dollah, dollah” at us, but none of us did nothing. Without knowing what was happening, Pavan (of The Thubderyaks) walked into the group and asked what was happening around. Bille (of The Great Danes) told him “I think we are being held up”.
Pavan immediately came to the same conclusion as us. Would he really do such thing in a public place? So he told all of us, “get in the car, lets get the hell out of here”. Everyone walked away slowly towards their car. I on the other hand, had to walk relatively close to the guy with the gun since he was standing next to the passenger door where I was sitting previously.
As I walked away, he put the gun to the back of my head and demanded for “dollah” again; a bit more aggressive this time. I didn’t have any dollars anyways, so I had nothing to give him. I slowly raised my arm and with the back of my hand I pushed the gun away from my head (very slowly). The whole time I only thought, “please don’t shoot, please don’t shoot”.
The guy put down the gun and I proceeded to enter the car. We rolled away without thinking it twice, and as we left, I saw the two guys walking rapidly away from the car.
Both of our cars sped down the road that would lead us to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. We would not stop until we got there.
But, after a few minutes, we lost sight of The Great Danes car. It was a dark road and we could barely see behind us. We used our Walkies (which we had used during the entire rally to communicate between cars) to ask The Danes if they were ok.
We stopped on the side of the road to see if they wee coming. After a very brief pause we got a response saying, “don’t stop, don’t stop, they are followings us!” We sped immediately.
We saw a white car with two guys inside speeding alongside our car. The car then accelerated and pulled to the left side of the road. Upon seeing this, my imagination played with me by picturing the car turning around to block the road and the guys getting out of the car to shoot us or something like that. Luckily that didn’t happen.
The white car reduced its speed and wedged itself between both of our cars. What the hell do they want? It continued to move around back and forth between the cars, until eventually it sped off.
We weren’t sure what would happen next. They were ahead. Would they confront us later on the road? What a stupid thing we did, leaving a public place and getting into a dark road that stretched 60 miles of nothingness.
In the end, we didn’t see them again and nothing else happened. We were quite glad about it.
I still can’t fully comprehend how the friendliest welcoming to a country became the most frightening in a matter of minutes, but for sure, this is an experience I will never forget.
Phew, what a night!
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