This story starts where oh-so-much of my time these past months has been spent: in a visa application office where I’m busy battling Chinese bureaucracy from within the corrupt shattered shell of the Soviet Union. In walks PTSD Lee, also trying to fight the man for a visa. Now, saying somebody has PTSD is nonsense, especially since at one point I asked, “Hey Lee, do you have PTSD?” and got a chipper, “No mate, not me!”. In his own words: “I just had a hard tour. After years of combat duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I got back to the UK, bought a car, and drove down to London. But when I got there, I just kept driving. I found myself in Europe and said, ‘I’d quite fancy seeing the Northern Lights.’ So I drove north, and just kept driving till I was at Norcap and couldn’t go any further. So I started going east. Now I’m in Kyrgyzstan and I’m thinking to myself: ‘why don’t I just go all the way around?'” So while I was teaching my beautiful students in Turkey, Lee was getting shot at in Afghanistan. And since then, he’s been driving.
Ah! But there’s an important detail to note: he’s an aspiring circumnavigator, just like me! We got to talking, and I liked PTSD Lee a lot, even if his other ambition was to open up a brothel in Burma. He was quick-witted and talked fast, seeming to live his life with an impatience I could totally relate to. Not the type to sit waiting, he invited me to road trip around the country while our visa applications processed. “Yeah!”
So we drove around and around, camped in some beautiful places, and talked about our various routes which had taken us here. “These Central Asian roads are shit,” he tells me. “You should have seen Kazakhstan – it was a rutted ice sheet, I couldn’t go faster than 5 mph for ages. It took my five days to get across.”
“Holy shit! You drove all the way across Kazakhstan in five days?”
“Oh yeah yeah yeah. I was literally driving 20 hours a day, mate. These roads are terrible!”
“They’re not so bad!” I say. “They remind me of driving on washed out logging roads where I grew up.” Only, these roads were also sheets of ice clinging to the side of mountain chasms, and in reality more like a scene from Lord of the Rings than anything like where I grew up. “Don’t worry, Lee, I got this!” Oh, that was the other part: after we got turned back by the impassibility of in infamous Tougart Pass, :ee was letting me drive down an experimental trail back towards Bishkek. This road, too, would have defeated us, but at that point we didn’t have enough gas to be turned around, so instead I pushed sheep out of the way for hours at 4 mph. I never mentioned my less-than-exemplary driving record to Lee…
“Wow, it’s amazing you haven’t crashed this thing yet after all that driving!”
“Oh no, mate, I’ve crashed loads of times! I estimate about eleven. I crashed so hard into a snow bank in Norway that I couldn’t open any doors, I had to crawl out the boot to go for help, and it took 2 fire engines and a snowcat to pull me out! Just the other day, right before I met you, I lost control and pissed some Kyrgyz guy off so bad that he ran up trying to smash my window and kicked off the last light on my bar! Loads of times, mate!” Lee had also recently crashed a tank into a city bus. Suddenly I didn’t feel so unsafe behind the wheel…
We took turns driving and talked about many things, but the conversation kept coming back to our various visa headaches. Lee’s, however, was much worse than mine: “There’s absolutely no way to get the car into China. It would cost a fortune, require a mountain of paperwork, passing a driving test in Chinese and having a fucking guide sitting next to me the whole way. I could sell it in Dushanbe, but they strictly only import left hand drive. To sell it in Kygyzstan or Kazakhstan, I’d be paying more than the car’s worth in import tax. I’d love to drive down Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan to India, but the visa’s impossible. My only option was to drive it down to Tajikistan and just dump it, but they just started popping off shots at Kyrgyzstan and now the border’s indefinitely closed! It just drives me crazy, last time I sold a car in Kyrgyzstan it was before the new system and it was so easy-”
“Wait wait – the last time you sold a car in Kyrgyzstan?”
“Huh? Oh yeah yeah yeah – about a year ago me and another officer went AWOL for a bit, bought an old Soviet beater, drove all the way across Afghanistan, up through Tajikistan, got stopped by police in Kyrgyzstan and forced to sell the car to them. That was with the old system, though. Now, as soon as they scan my passport exiting the country, they know I came in with a car. I either have to leave with it, or pay the tax. There’s literally nothing I can do that- ”
“Hey wait, sorry to interrupt, but what do you think that huddle of guys on horses over there is all about?”
“Them? Oh, they’re probably just playing goat pull. As I was saying- ”
“What’s goat pull??”
“You’ve never seen goat pull? They play it all the time in Afghanistan… All these guys are mounted on horses and they wrestle over a dead decapitated goat, and if they can fling it into their own yurt then they get to host a feast and eat it. It’s a national sport. Anyways, there’s literally nothing I can do to-”
“STOP THE CAR, LEE!!”
Before we were even in park I was racing across the snowy field to investigate.
That’s how I got a dead mangled goat dropped on my head.
But this is all a major digression from the ‘Black Market’ story I set out to tell…
Fast forward a week and we’re both back safe in Bishkek. Me – cheering wildly in the national stadium over my new favorite sport of goat pull, and poor PTSD Lee still ripping his hair out grasping for a way to avoid driving all the way back to Europe. With his car’s transit visa expiring, he was getting desperate for an escape. Two days after I was rolled by the police, PTSD Lee got robbed by no less that twenty cops at knife point and in broad daylight. This was the final straw, and Lee called a meeting in the coffee shop where he had set up office.
“Alright, mate, I think I found a way to sneak out. But in case it doesn’t work, I need the car to still be here so I can drive back west. So what I’m gonna do is: I’ll give you the keys, and as soon as you get word that I’m safe out of the country, you sell it and I’ll cut you in on the profit. If that doesn’t work, just park it somewhere, I’ll show you where the VIN numbers are – grab those – and just torch it and walk away. You think you can handle that?”
Hmmm… sell a car on the Kyrgyz black market in a language I don’t speak with absolutely no paperwork for a promise of riches at a time when, thanks to a police mugging, I don’t really have enough money to carry on without it? Or, alternatively, get involved with an international car-torching escapade? Yeah! I’m pretty sure I can handle that! What could possibly go wrong?
Well, apparently a lot can go wrong. But I’ve compiled this list of NEED TO KNOW rules in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation.
Rule #1: Everyone on the black market is greedy greedy greedy. No, strike that. I’ll move that down to number two. Rule number ONE is that you must always, always always always always always pee before doing your shady dealings. Always.
Rule #2: So that brings us back to greed. The moment the proposal was first pitched to me, a greed monster was born somewhere deep inside me (most likely my bladder). It pulled me and directed my actions, telling me not to settle for the amount we had agreed upon, but to sell the car for more money, money, I want the money, give me the money, gimme the fucking money! Woah. Alright, greed monster. So my first move was to go to the Chinese contact who had arranged a tentative sale, and explain that I was planning on taking the machine to the car bazaar unless a few hundred dollars could sweeten the deal. But the news that Lee was no longer in the country set off a major shit storm. Even though she wasn’t the buyer, the Chinese contact clearly had some greed-finger in the pie, too, and within moments I had four Chinese women screaming in my face, pounding their fists on walls, and demanding strange things.
Rule #3: Guys who fence stolen cars for a living don’t fuck around. All I wanted to do was go to the bathroom, but suddenly in storms the perspective buyer. And he’s pissed. Apparently, unbeknownst to me or Lee, payoffs have already been made, documents have been forged, and wheels have been greased. Now it is demanded of me: give this guy the keys, or I have to reimburse him. But all I want to do is go to the toilet. Nope! Absolutely forbidden! By this time the goon squad has arrived, and I’m not allowed to go anywhere. Contacts as the border are called in, it is confirmed that Lee has indeed left the country, but the room is not convinced. “It lie! He’s a trick! He a trick me!” The Chinese are screaming – I’m sat down in an interrogation chair with a good-cop-bad-cop routine only my good cop speaks nonsense and the bad cop just rages at me in Russian. I’m told that without Lee’s passport, the price will be significantly lower than I had been told, or else there will be no payment at all. They call my passport numbers into their border contacts, who have the power to lock me into the country, and crooked cops are starting to get involved.
Rule #4: Work out your secret codes well in advance. They force me to email Lee and read through all our old messages (which they’re printing out and racing across town to have translated). Hmmm… I think carefully… I have to write something that says “sell the cars to these guys quick for the new price!” but I’ll try to word it in a way that secretly says: “Don’t do it! Hold out! I can take care of this as long as they don’t think I have your permission!”…. But PTSD Lee is in no state to decipher subtle codes: his emails are like this: “I made it out of Kyrgyzstan but now I’m in big trouble in Kazakhstan entering without a visa! I’m being frog-marched around under armed guard and I can’t figure out what they’re going to do to me!” Can I use the toilet now? NO!
Rule #5: Calculate how much your life is worth, and don’t sell anything above that number. After being guarded and glared at, lots of pounded desks and me casually scheming a way to get myself out, an email comes in from Lee. “Just get what you can for it, you’re more important than the car!” Damn. He had missed my secret message. But now the thugs know that I’m authorized to sell, and they load me into a car to go get the keys from my guesthouse. We start driving around furiously – mobsters must always drive furiously – and I start to realize: once the keys are in the equation, that’s the only thing that really matters. How much is my life worth in a country where the annual monthly wage is $200? Is it worth $1,500? Because that’s how much the car is worth… or rather… the keys… or rather… that’s what I’m told I will be selling the car for. Hey, wait a minute… am I being forced to sell a car for less than what its worth, or am I being robbed? Suddenly the little knife in my pocket is feeling out-gunned. Suddenly, I feel as though I may be in over my head…
Rule: #6 (and this is probably the most important rule) On the black market, the only things that matter are keys and money. I was selling this car without a scrap of paperwork. There is only cash and keys, nothing else matters. So the crucial, most important thing I must do is make sure, sure, not to hand anyone the keys until I have cash in hand. Don’t give anyone the keys, don’t give anyone the keys… We drive way out in the country and I’m sure I’m about to be murdered and dumped for the keys. Then it looks like we’re picking up a hooker “Guys, is this really the time and place for hookers? If you guys get a hooker, can I at least pee?” But no, she just hands a big bundle of cash in through the window. Ah! Money! Good sign! Until we drive to a sketchy chop-shop where cars without plates are being stripped down and reconfigured, the driver gets out and hands the money to a group of thugs and starts pointing at me. No! Don’t give them the money! Give me the money! I want the money! It’s all okay, though, as long as I don’t give anyone the keys. All I gotta do is hold the keys, don’t give up the keys. Don’t give anyone the keys… Until: “Hey, gimme the keys.” “Okay boss! Here you go!” Shit! Shit! That was my one job! Not to give away the key! They fooled me in bladder-confusion! Well, at this point I have about as much authority to demand money as if I was a stranger on the street. So I do the only thing I can think of and jump into the car, refusing to get out. The old “hold your breath and wait to be kidnapped” defence. But shit I need to pee sooo bad! Do you think they’ll time-out the tuff-guy business for a minute? You’ve never seen anybody who needed to pee this bad.
Rule #7: Get the MONEY. Finally they laugh at me and hop into the car. He reaches into his pocket, and counts out $1,500 into my pee-trembling hand. Then, in a bizarre show of something, he snatches back $20 and waves it in my face, making some sort of joke and slipping it back in his pocket. I think he said, “We’re giving you this money, but just remember: we could kill you instead.” Yeah, fine, I don’t care: sir, you have no idea how close you are to having your face peed in right now. I jumped out of the car and ran away. It wasn’t until I was safely peeing that I finally realized what I had done. Hey! Look at all this money! I did it! I sold a car with no papers on the Soviet black market!
BOOM. And that’s how you fund a documentary film.
Wait, what? ….