In my summary to British Embassy Tashkent, I made the following observations about my impromptu stay in Karakalpakstan:
- I was well treated by the junior customs officials, who were professional and did everything to help (including arranging accommodation, providing food, etc).
- It’s a bloody mess, as you must experience the whole time. It was impossible to get any documents from anyone (e.g., despite repeated requests from my lawyer I never got even the police decree opening the investigation), the judge didn’t know the law properly, customs and border police did not understand their own or others’ processes or documents, and once the police investigation had started, no amount of evidence (prescription, proof of purchase from the UK, etc) made any difference because no one was prepared to take the decision to stop it.
- All officials absolutely refuse to put anything in writing that is outside their narrow process – judge, police or customs. This includes providing information on names, processes or administrative structures. I requested at each meeting that any key information provided to me was put in writing – I pushed particularly hard on the visa issue, following your advice. Without exception, everyone refused. The risk of shifting parameters was therefore impossible to manage – and certainly the most frustrating part of the experience. You could see problems arising, everyone gave verbal assurances that all would be ok, but refused to document anything. This behaviour extended throughout the foodchain.
- All state officials have obviously been told to treat tourists well, but at the same time there is a very real fear about the ‘internal police’. This has the impact of paralysing any decision-making process, since officials are worried about creating problems for tourists but are also not prepared to stop the process for fear of bringing themselves under suspicion.
- In summary, the whole situation was farcical, punctuated with moments of real fear. I had a fascinating time in Karakalpakstan and was treated well and respectfully – and most importantly, I had no dependents or work that I needed to return to. I was relatively philosophical about the fact that a certain degree of inconvenience was going to happen because I had inadvertently contravened a guideline of the Republic of Uzbekistan which needed explanation. Most of the time, therefore, the complications and convolutions just had to be ridden out with a sense of humour and a shrug of shoulders. Sometimes, however, you felt caught up in an inherited soviet system, that is both efficient and relentless, and yet anonymous and impossible to understand – let alone influence or reason with.
So the entire story has elements of farce and ridiculousness, which stopped being quite so funny when it started escalating like crazy. I’ve divided it up into four parts…