Friday, February 14, 2014

Meanderings in Uzbekistan: Bombs, Bread, and a Ferris Wheel

Despite an explosion and the fear of being kidnapped, a trip to Uzbekistan became an adventure to remember.

As Spring Break 2005 quickly approached, I was working overtime to make sure that each of the twenty or so delegations of officers and cadets were ready to go out.  Every spring the Office of International Programs at the United States Air Force Academy would participate in one week exchange programs with foreign military academies.  We would send a delegation of one officer and four cadets to their academies over Spring Break and they would then send their delegations to the Academy for our International Week in April.

With time quickly running out to get all the documentation and logistics in order, I was happy that I wasn’t traveling this time around.  The previous year I had managed the entire program as well as lead a delegation to the Kazakh Air Force Academy in Aktobye.  By the time I left for the trip to Kazakhstan, my left eye was twitching non-stop from the unending stress.  My hope was that I could get all the delegations on the buses to the airport and relax for seven days while they were all overseas.

A few days before the delegations were scheduled to start departing one of the escort officers came to my office.

“Jarad, something came up and I won’t be able to take the cadets to Uzbekistan.”

“But, sir, you’re scheduled to depart in three days.  I don’t know if we can find a replacement for you in time.”

Quickly we ran through the logistics.  In order to make the trip work we had to have a military faculty member, with an official red US Passport, and preferably one who spoke Russian.  It took only a few minutes to realize I was the only one, other than my colleague who was backing out, which fit that profile on the entire faculty.  My list of things to do had suddenly become much longer with a call to my wife at the top of the list.  I swore a slight twinge was starting in my left eyelid.

I wasn’t opposed to going to Uzbekistan.  The country, like much of the region, intrigued me.  My issue was simply a matter of workload and responsibility. 

A part of me, of course, was excited for the opportunity.  Iranian nomads are the first known settlers of the region that comprises modern day Uzbekistan.  Throughout history the area has been part of various empires to include the Persian Samanid and Timurid empires.  With the development of the silk trade between China and western cultures, cities along the route became wealthy.  The Silk Road was born.  Cities with deep historical meaning grew—Bukhara, Samarqand, and Khiva. 

Eventually the area became a part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.  Since the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan has been an independent nation ruled by an authoritarian regime.  In 2005 Uzbekistan was an active and serious partner in the prosecution of the Global War on Terror to include operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Due to this relationship, we were able to travel to the country with just an official passport.  No visa was required.

Soon I was in contact with the cadets who would travel with me to Uzbekistan.  One of them was a cadet we sponsored.  He was LDS and had served his mission in Russia about ten years after I was there.  The other male cadet was also a returned missionary who had served in Russia.  We had two female cadets with us, both studying Russian.  One was an experienced glider pilot who loved to regale us with stories of her near calls in the air.  Our final female cadet was a young eighteen year old who was thrilled and scared to be abroad in such a strange land. 

Following an early morning bus ride from the Academy to the Denver International Airport, we were on our way.  During a stop at the Frankfurt Airport in Germany, one of the cadets had his camera stolen out of his backpack.  For most of my trips abroad during my time at the Academy, I used the same travel agency in Colorado Springs.  Usually they managed to work magic with flight schedules.  This time, unfortunately, our itinerary left us with an eight-hour layover in Moscow on the way in and out of Tashkent. 

In Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, we had to stay in the same small area of the airport for seven hours while we waited to transfer to the other terminal for our flight to Tashkent.  After an hour we had seen everything in the stores.  Eventually we sat at a table at a café upstairs to try different dishes.  The entire time we were in the terminal the same CD was played repeatedly.  It was a male Russian singer covering American pop music in heavily accented English.  To this day I continue to hear the words, “Oops!  I did it again.”

The transit area to our departing terminal was only manned as scheduled flights prepared to leave.  We were terrified of missing the transit bus, so we watched the checkpoint closely.  A few times we had asked the ladies who ran the checkpoint when we should expect to leave. 

“When we tell you it’s time.”

“Will you come find us to tell us when it’s time to leave?”

“No, you’ll have to be ready and close by.  Now go away and don’t bother us any more.”

About an hour two before we scheduled to depart we watched as a female, a Russian national, walked up to ask some similar questions.  Unhappy with their answers she pressed them further, not wanting to miss her connecting flight.  The conversation deteriorated to the point of yelling and then screaming.  Finally, a large and hardened woman in uniform, obviously with some authority approached the scene of the altercation.  Hoping for some help the lady seeking information turned to the new arrival.  Instead of help she received an open-handed blow to the side of the head, dropping her to the ground.  The lady in charge told her colleagues to carry the lady to the holding room for further processing. 

We sat quietly and waited for them to announce our flight.

Our arrival into Tashkent came in the middle of the night and was uneventful.  The next day we were free to explore the capital city so the embassy hired a guide to take us around the city.  Before we left the hotel we exchanged some US Dollars for the local Uzbek Som.  I don’t remember the currency rate, but after I exchanged $100 I had to put some of the stacks of cash into my backpack in order to carry it.  The highlight of the day was a visit to the large open market in town. 

Tashkent Bazaar

In the evening one of the US Air Force officers, a major or a lieutenant colonel, took us to an amazing restaurant for dinner.  He was there to work with the Uzbek government on military flyover issues in support of operations in Afghanistan.  At dinner he told us of another Air Force officer whom some local thugs beat.  Upon learning of what had happened the landlord, who was shall we say well connected to those with some clout, arranged to have the thugs taken care of…somehow.  Our host also told us about his mission to buy a nice Persian rug for his wife.  What would have cost him a $5,000 in the US, he was able to purchase for under $1,000 in Tashkent.  He said the scary part was carrying a backpack and two handbags full of Som to pay for the rug.


Prior to our departure from the Air Force Academy we received a threat and security briefing on what to expect and how to behave in Uzbekistan.  The Office of Special Investigation was not excited about our location.  Militant Islamic groups in the Fergana Valley combined with the authoritarian methods of the Uzbek government, had created a touchy situation.  We were told we shouldn’t go anywhere in uniform and should try to hide the fact that we were Americans.  Following the briefing I had to convince two of our cadets not to back out.  

(Two months after our trip, Uzbek police and military forces would shoot and kill over 700 people in Andijan.  This action would begin to unravel the partnership with the United States.)

Our second day at the hotel we were met our military escort, a young captain, from the Uzbek Air Force Academy.  As asked, we wore our service dress uniforms.  Our driver was an ethnic Russian who had married an Uzbek and remained behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We drove south out of Tashkent toward Djizzak.  The roads were rough but we passed some beautiful farms.  Cows, goats, and horses were staked along the highway allowing them to feed on the grass.  Our conversation with our escort and driver picked up steam as we got to know one another.  We were informed that as part of our itinerary we would visit the academy in Djizzak, play a basketball game against their school team, take a cultural trip to Samarqand, and then visit a tank school and aerodrome in Chita before returning to Tashkent.  The next five days promised to be exciting.

First, however, we had to get past our fear of being shot, kidnapped, and/or tortured.  In Tashkent police officers lined all of the main thoroughfares, standing every 30 to 50 yards apart.  You could tell, especially in the capital, that there was significant tension and the expectation that something could happen at anytime.  With that experience and the memory of our security briefing, we were pulling into a small town wearing our uniforms.  I did my best to assuage their concerns, reminding them that our escorts would do their best to keep us out of danger.

Our fears spiked when we entered Djizzak.  Luck would have it that we entered on a holiday, I believe it was the anniversary of the city’s founding.  The captain and the driver suggested that we drive down to the celebration, kind of like a county fair, to walk around and see the people.  We pulled up to the edge of the celebration.  There was a roadblock to keep vehicles out of the pedestrian and vendor areas.  Our escort spoke quickly to the police at the roadblock to explain who we were and the plan to have us walk around.  They excitedly pulled the barricade to the side to let us through.  A couple of the police officers then followed us to where we parked and continued to walk around with us, our own, armed escort. 

At this point, the cadets were beside themselves with fear.  Here we were in what was considered a dangerous country, in a public setting, and wearing our uniforms.  Stepping out of the van we immediately had hundreds of people stop whatever they were doing to take look at us.  One of the female cadets almost climbed back into the van.  Our escorts, however, weren’t worried at all.  In fact they were excited to show us their city and have us join in the celebration.

Walking away from the van, the captain said, “Let’s have them ride the Ferris wheel.” 

So, we made our way over the back of a very long line to wait our turn.  As we stood there, wondering if we were going to survive the afternoon, the people at the back of the line turned and noticed us.  Quickly the word “American” began to trickle through the crowd until all of them, parents and children, were looking at us, murmuring excitedly to one another.  Suddenly, one of them grabbed one of the cadets by the arm and made a statement.  In abject fear I looked at my escort.  He simply smiled and nodded his head. 

I thought, “Here it is.  We’re about to be kidnapped and held for ransom and our government handlers are in on it.”

Quickly, before we could react, we were pulled forward to the front of the line and pushed into the next open car on the Ferris wheel.  The locals were so excited to have us celebrating their holiday with them that they honored us by giving up their places in line.  As we rode the Ferris wheel we all agreed that with that type of hospitality, there was a good chance we would make it home alive.
Ferris wheel in Djizzak

That night, after a quick tour of the campus and a great dinner at the mess hall, our group was separated.  I was dropped off at the officers’ quarters just off of the campus.  The cadets stayed on the campus with their Uzbek counterparts. 

My quarters was a two-room suite with a basic living space with a sofa, chair, and desk and a bedroom.  A full-sized fridge, containing some bottled water, stood next to the bed.  Exhaustion overtook me and I went to sleep on my thin mattress.

From the depths of my sleep, I heard a loud boom, and explosion.  Immediately I came fully awake convinced that a bomb had just gone off outside of the barracks.  I rolled off and under the bed, hoping it would provide additional protection in the event of a second explosion.  Lying there I noticed that the explosion had thrown the fridge door open.  In terrified anticipation I wondered if there would be another explosion, whether or not I was the target of the bombing, and if terrorists were on their way up the stairs to get me.

Five minutes passed.  Ten minutes passed.  Fifteen minutes passed.  Nothing else was happening.  I wondered if the attack was coordinated.  How were the cadets?  Were they safe or was an attempt made on their lives as well?  Grateful that I wasn’t injured in what may have been the opening salvo, I thought of having my body sewn up in the local hospital; of a long flight home with serious injuries.  I tried not to think what it would be like as a hostage.

The only sound was the water dripping from the bottles in the fridge onto the floor.  I couldn’t tell how far the explosion had thrown the fridge, but I figured the blast must have been significant to break open the plastic water bottles in my fridge.  After all, I was on the second floor.

Finally, I poked my head out from under the bed to look around, using the faint light from the open refrigerator.  It appeared that the fridge hadn’t moved much.  The door was just hanging open with the water dripping out.  I lay there a few more minutes as it dawned on me what may have occurred.  After a few more long minutes, I pulled myself out from under the bed and crawled to the fridge, not wanting to make any type of silhouette against the window, you know, in case there was a sniper waiting for me outside.

Reaching the fridge door, I pushed it shut some so I could maneuver to peer inside the fridge.  There sat a two-liter plastic water bottle with a hole blown in the side.  Turning the bottle I read the label, mineral water.  There was also a bottle of regular water.  I touched it.  It was frozen.  The bottle of mineral water had exploded as the carbonated water expanded with the dropping temperature.  The bomb had exploded inside my room, inside the fridge.  My hosts had planted it there because they knew, that unlike them, Americans like their drinks cold.  To make sure the water was cold, they had turned the temperature very low on the fridge.  Because they never cooled their mineral water, they had no idea that it would freeze and explode.

I sat on the bed for several more minutes trying to relax.  Once my heart rate had dropped, I took a towel from the bathroom, wiped up the mess, and checked my watch.  It was around three in the morning.  At some point I did manage to fall back asleep, but it wasn’t restful.

The next morning the escort officer asked me if my quarters were comfortable.  I smiled and said they were wonderful.  The second night there was a fresh bottle of mineral water in the fridge.  I pulled it out and set it on the table.


The remainder of the trip was amazing.  Our game of basketball against the school team was a little lopsided.  Out of the five of us only one had any decent skill at the game.  One of our female cadets was extremely competitive, (she wasn’t the one with skill), and managed to put a three inch scratch mark on the face of one of the opposing players. 

One of their officers had been a helicopter pilot during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.  He forgave me for the Stinger missiles that were launched at him and for those that had killed his friends. 

For lunch on our second day the deputy commander of their academy hosted us.  He was an ethnic Uzbek, a lieutenant colonel.  At the close of an amazing lunch, during which he boasted of the service the Uzbeks were providing to the Americans in Afghanistan, he asked us to drink a toast with him.  He was shocked to learn that three of us were Mormon and wouldn’t drink the alcohol.  Perhaps feeling guilty that he, as a Muslim, regularly drank alcohol, he pushed us hard to drink with him.  He challenged our manhood and insinuated that we were offending him.  I told him I had no intention of offending him, but that if forced to choose, I would rather offend him than my God.  In all my time in Russia and other countries, I had never been treated so rudely for not drinking alcohol. 

(A month later I turned the tables on him at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.  I told him that I would be offended and that our general would be offended if he didn’t eat a ham sandwich with us at the mess hall.  He didn’t speak English so he couldn’t complain to anyone.  Of course, as a good host I had made sure they had a nice halal alternative for him.)

After two or three days in Djizzak, we loaded back into the van for a trip to Samarqand.  Two of the Uzbek cadets came with us.  Once in Samarqand we also picked up a female tour guide who spoke excellent English.  We visited the Holy Daniel, a site that is believed by some to hold some relics of Daniel the prophet of the Old Testament.  Supposedly it contains his arm bone and some believe that it continues to grow, hence the long sepulcher.  We also visited the mausoleum of Tamerlane and the Registan, or Public Square of the old city.  The Islamic architecture and design of these buildings is amazing.  Again we visited an open market and purchased round loaves of bread to eat while we walked around.

Registan (Public Square) Samarqand

From Samarqand we stopped by an active Uzbek Air Force aerodrome, or air base.  During our lunch with some of their helicopter pilots in the Officers’ Club we were invited to fly with them in their helicopters.  When we tried to decline the offer, they told us that they often fly our special forces into Afghanistan and that we shouldn’t be so scared.  Luckily a storm front moved in before they could get the helicopters, large Mi-8s, ready to fly.  We had to settle for a quick walk through of the helicopters.

Mi-8 Helicopter

Our final stop before returning to Tashkent was a tank school in Chita.  When we arrived it was obvious that they weren’t clear on when we were supposed to arrive.  Nothing was ready but they managed to feed us a late dinner and get us berthed in their barracks.  I was put in a room with a bare mattress and a scratchy wool blanket.  The next morning we played with their tank simulators and then visited their World War II museum that focused on the epic tank battles against the Wehrmacht.

On the way into Tashkent, our escort officer stopped to feed us one last meal at a restaurant.  All of us were tired and would have preferred to go straight to our 5-star hotel for a shower, some sleep, and then maybe some food.  As the gracious host he was thrilled to spend a little more time with us.  He used it as an opportunity to get very drunk.  Our female cadet who was only 18 years old asked if she could partake of the alcohol since she was of legal age in Uzbekistan.  Since Academy rules allowed for it and there were going to be three of us with her who weren’t drinking, I told her I had no problem with it.  She said it was her first time ever trying alcohol and I’m pretty sure she was being honest.

Once we finally arrived back at the hotel in Tashkent our first stop actually was the business center to send emails to family assuring them that we were alive.  I sat next to the young girl who had tried alcohol for the first time.  I watched as she typed her email:

“Dear mom and dad, I’m in Uzbekistan.  I think I’m drunk for the first time ever.”

Then she clicked send.  Immediately I jumped on her computer and sent her parents another email giving them the details and letting them know that she was safe.

The next day at Domodedovo airport in Moscow I sat watching snowflakes fall against the big window, and slowly drifted to sleep to the sound of a Russian man singing, “Oops! I did it again.”


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