This is the photo that led to the theft of my Nikon digital camera.
I was approached by a tall young man in camouflaged army uniform when i was registering at the Lehap state border checkpoint. It was noon time and the young man wanted to invite us to his place 1km away for lunch. That was along the desert stretch of road to Turkmenabat and the next village might probably be another 10km or more.
We agreed and followed behind his Lada car into the small village along the railway, a short ride from the checkpoint …
(Turkmenistan … 09.01.05 to 10.02.05)
The village was a cluster of small houses around the railway. He drove us to a house end of the road right beside the railway. There were 2 ladies and a man with features different from a Turkmen. He introduced them as his family members of Kazak origins. He also brought along 2 friends, a plump guy in army uniform and a young, tan boy in sports attire.
Once inside the house compound, he welcomed us liked a good host and asked if we have a fotograf apparat (russian for camera).
When I took out my camera, he asked for it, wanting to take a picture for us as a memorial. We told him we would take together, with everybody including his family members. I even explained that the camera has a timer and I could also be inside the picture. But he strongly insisted that he would take the photo for us. His friends and family members however, declined to join in. We tried to reject since there would only be 2 of us but he insisted. And so we let him took the shot. That was the picture taken by the young man.
After he took the picture, I took back my camera and put it into my handlebar bag. He was standing just beside me at that time. As per typical Turkmen host, he gestured and repeatedly urged us to inside the house for lunch. We went in as invited but did not bring with us our handlebar bag.
Inside the house, bread and soup were brought out. While we were inside with his 2 friends, the young man was nowhere to be seen. Sean then went out to ‘get something’. When he returned minutes later, the young man also joined in from outside.
“The young man seems to be touching your handlebar bag.”Sean whispered to me in mandarin unnoticely.
The moment the young man sat down, he and his friends opened a few bottles of Turkmen vodka. They poured into small cups and offered them to us.
We repeatedly rejected the vodka, citing reasons that we did not drink and we would have stomachaches, etc. The guys simply ignored our plea and insisted on drinking the vodka with us. We got so angry eventually and took our bread, stood up and left the room. The 3 guys immediately rushed after us.
When I went to my bike, I saw that my handlebar bag was unbuckled. Immediately I opened my bag and had a shock – my Nikon digital camera was missing!
We confronted the guys, especially the young man. But they simply acted blur. The young man even threw a blank, innocent face at us and kept repeating that he did not understand what we were talking about!
We tried searching their bodies but found nothing. They must had hidden somewhere. We also tried asking the ‘family members’ but were shocked when they said they did not even know the 3 guys! We were totally pissed off by then.
The 3 guys tried to leave in their Lada after we repeatedly confronted them about the whereabouts of my camera. We blocked them from leaving in their car, opening their doors, the car boot, the engine cover and even pulling things out of their car. Sean went to the extent of removing their car keys!
They did not give up, neither did we. The young man eventually managed to wire start the car but we continued to disturb them, pulling the battery cables, removing the car seats, plucking anything possible from the engine. That lasted for maybe an hour before the young man and the boy managed to run off to find another car in the village. The plump guy stayed however, saying that the 2 had left to bring the Police back in order to prove that they did not steal my camera.
The 2 guys eventually returned with a middle-aged Police officer from the checkpoint. However when we tried to explain about the theft, he merely looked at us smiling cheekily. I suspected that they were into it together.
At that moment, the young boy gestured to me to follow him. The Police officer merely acted as though he saw nothing. Outside the house compound, the young boy told me that he had my CAMERA. Next moment, he pulled out a black thing from his jacket – it was my camera!
He handed it to me and immediately i checked for damages. I opened the battery compartment and found that the battery was missing. But thankfully, the most important compact flash card was still there.
Sensing that I found out about the missing item from my camera, the boy said to me, “I have ALL your Turkmenistan photos.” (loosely translated from Turkmen)
In my heart, I was actually laughing. He had thought that the battery was my film and wanted to negotiate with me!
I looked at him, sighed and shoke my head and walked back towards the house. I went to the Police officer who was still smiling cheekily and told him that everything was alright, I had my camera. As swiftly as he had come, he returned to his waiting car and went off.
The young boy continued to pester me, asking me to name a price. I turned to him, “Bir dollar? On dollar? Meng dollar?? Biz pur yok!!” ($1? $10? $1000? We have no money!!)
After discussing with Sean, we decided to leave the village asap. The 3 guys were abit shocked but we simply ignored them, pushing our bikes to the asphalt path. On the way out, I asked Sean.
“What happened to the car keys?”
“Oh, I already threw them away long ago.”
It was not the end. Just minutes after we hit the main dessert road, the white Lada came after us and stopped infront of us. The boy came out and asked Sean for the car keys. He told the boy he had already thrown away. They did not believe. The boy then tried to negotiate for the ‘film’. I told him to keep it. We had no money to buy back. The boy shouted back to the guys in the car about the outcome. We did not wait for them to react and continued riding again.
Once again, they chased us down and stopped infront of us. This time, the young man also came out with the boy. Somehow they had found out that the ‘film’ was actually a battery. The boy pleaded this time for me to give him our ‘film’ and he actually gave me back my battery! We were surprised and suspected that they might have taken some photos and scared that they might be a threat to them.
We ignored their demand. This time, their faces changed. The young boy held on to my arm and tried to act tough, putting up an angry face. At that moment, a truck was coming in the opposite direction and Sean immediately waved to the driver. The driver waved back. Unfortunately, he did not stop. He might have thought that we were waving for fun. The young man was very angry at Sean’s attempt to get help and he started to come nearer to us.
At that moment, another car came from the opposite direction and Sean waved again. The car stopped! Sensing trouble coming, the young man returned to their car and made a u-turn. However, the boy was still holding on to my arm.
A stern, old man came out from the back seat. The way he exited from his car, shoved his hair and walked towards us really looked liked a ‘big boss’ (Da-Gou). The boy was startled. Sean shouted to the old man, telling him that we were tourists and we had some problems with the boy. The old man walked to the small boy, pulled him aside and shouted to the guys in the white Lada whether the boy was their friend. The young man shouted from their car that there was no problem and the boy hurriedly ran back to join the car.
We thanked the old man for his help. Only after seeing the white Lada leaving did they continued on their way. As soon as they left, a Toyota car stopped infront of us. A young man dressed in shirt and tie came out from the car.
“Are you tourists? Can I help you?” he said in english.
We explained what happened and the help we got from the other car.
“I’m very ashamed of my countrymen. I’m very sorry for you that you met these bad people in our country.”
The young man was Serdar, an English teacher in a Turkish High School in Turkmenabat. He was on his way to school when he saw us on the road. We agreed to meet him again in Turkmenabat and he left hurriedly to catch his class.
We were alone on that dessert road again. Riding towards the next village, we did not utter a single word, deeply immersed in the thoughts of the encounter merely 2hrs ago.
Just before entering Peski village, we stopped by the road. We both admitted that we were too careless with our belongings, especially leaving the handlebar bags outside. It was the first time we left our bags outside the house but it was no excuse. We have been too engrossed with the hospitality in these lands that we became too comfortable and simply overlooked and ignored the possible dangers that might pose to us.
This time we got back our camera. We were lucky. But the incident really shoke us up. It was a good lesson for us!