An idea to write a story about trade on the Kyrgyz-Chinese border came to me when I read a Russian-language Chinese magazine aimed Russian-speaking visitors to China. I’d always been interested in old books with descriptions of various towns and settlements along the old Silk Road. And now I had the idea to see it with my own eyes.
My intention was to trace the flow of goods from China to Kyrgyzstan and further to the border with Uzbekistan.
The trip took two weeks, with overnight stays in hostels, private houses and delays on the border. I talked to 20 or 30 police officers and border guards, and made courtesy visits to about 30 officials. I talked to the same number of traders and questioned about 40 drivers.
Researching this report was a real eye-opener for me - and not without risks and challenges.
I was stopped by police on Taldyk pass in the mountainous Alay district. They said I was looking suspicious. Despite the fact that I had all my documents, they refused to believe that I was a journalist and wanted to take me for questioning at the local police station which was two hours away. But after interrogating me on the road for half an hour, they let me go.
When I was trying to cross from China into Kyrgyzstan, Chinese officials said I needed a medical certificate stating that I was not HIV positive. I told them that I had no such document, and only personal charm and the fact that some of the officials were helpful ethnic Kyrgyz got me through.
I was also really surprised by the some of the things I witnessed. For instance, along the more remote mountain routes in southern Kyrgyzstan, I came across villages that had changed little since independence in the early Nineties.
There was a primary school which was named after the first Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. In Kyrgyzstan today, you have to look hard for public places that retain names from Soviet times. Everything is now in Kyrgyz.
Asked how the school had kept its name, the director told me that they did not want to change the name because the school was the first one to be built in the village.
I believe that in my report I was able to show the current realities of this ancient trade route by highlighting the problems that arise from the smuggling, corruption and bureaucratic regulations.
The issue of trade with China and how it affects the local population has in the past been raised by the likes of political scientists, sociologists and analysts from various countries. But this information has been largely conveyed in dry reports, whereas I think I managed to give readers a vivid picture of how the lives of ordinary people are affected by the trading.
For example, I met a group of Uzbek traders who come across the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border to Karasuu market, where they stock up on cheap Chinese goods.
A 30-year old woman from the Uzbek city of Namangan told me how she was beaten up by Uzbek border guards on one of her trips in the summer.
She said the guards caught her as she was loading a truck she rented on the Uzbek side of the border, having smuggled her goods across the border on foot. The woman said they grabbed her, pulled her down by her hair and started to kick her. Her goods were then confiscated and she was forced to pay a fine. She had borrowed 800 US dollars for the trip - and lost it all.
Trade with China and Chinese goods is for a great many people, especially in the south, the only way of surviving and one can hope that something positive will happen by publicising their plight.
Following the publication of my article, I received a number of responses from readers in Russia and other states who wanted to retrace my route.
Ulugbek Babakulov is an independent journalist and IWPR contributor in Bishkek.
Link to original article by Ulugbek Babakulov in Kyrgyzstan. Published in RCA No. 512, 19-Oct-07
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