I got to see a little bit of Uzbekistan, but only from the air. Here's what's left of the Aral Sea.
I wanted to shoot a story about Uzbek weddings, lavish affairs that are the stuff of legend among the Uzbek migrant population in Moscow, where I live.
As a Russian citizen, I don’t need a visa to visit Uzbekistan. But I knew the country is deeply suspicious of journalists of any sort. So as not to look too professional, I selected only a few lenses for my trip. And, another precaution: I deleted some phone contacts, cleared the browsing history on my iPad, deleted the Facebook app.
Around midnight last Wednesday I took off from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport and at 5.30 a.m. landed in Tashkent. My future fixer was at the airport to fetch me and take me to a barbeque at his home.
At passport control, I waited behind a crowd of Uzbek migrant laborers. But when it was my turn with the immigration officer, something was clearly wrong. He scanned my passport several times, then frowned and said, gesturing to a bench, “Bro, would you be so kind to wait a little bit over there?”
The crowd thinned and disappeared. After maybe half an hour, two polite men in the olive-green uniforms of border agents across the former Soviet Union asked me to follow them. As we walked, they asked if I’d ever been to Uzbekistan. Yes, I’d lived briefly in Tashkent as a first-grader, but I grew up in Russia. And I’d visited some friends there in 1998.
They looked disappointed. I asked what was happening and they said only that I was on a “blacklist” and that I was being sent home.
At the gate, the olive-green men approached an attendant for the return Moscow flight and said, “This guy is being deported back to Russia. Find him a free seat.” They handed her my passport.
Only back in Domodedovo that afternoon did a Russian border guard return my passport.
After posting my story on Facebook, my witty friends laughed at me, asking how I liked the Uzbek hospitality. I felt like a real loser. Some journalist colleagues have been banned from Uzbekistan, but they’d reported previously in the country. I’ve never published anything from there, just some reporting on Central Asian migrants in Moscow. But I guess that was enough for such a paranoid regime.