Kicked Out: How the United States Lost its Key Air Base in Central Asia

Author’s note: While we spent three weeks in Bishkek waiting for our Chinese Visas, we completed a story investigating reasons why the United States’ main supply base for the Afghanistan war is being shut down by the Kyrgyz government. The piece never ended up getting published anywhere, but we put a lot of work into it and wanted it to see the light. The following feature is the tale of how the US lost its key air base in Central Asia.

Entry to the Manas Airforce Base, near where the shooting happened

It was a routine procedure for Alexander Ivanov. The Kyrgyz truck driver approached the barbed wire gate, and waited for the soldiers to push it aside. The 42 year old regularly made fuel deliveries to the US Air Force Base in Bishkek. He worked for the Aircraft Petrol Management company, and was delivering a shipment scheduled for 3 o’clock PM on the 6th of December, 2006. When gate opened, Ivanov flashed his identification badge and was waved on to the next check point. There, he dismounted his truck and stepped into a security tent while American servicemen inspected his vehicle for suspicious cargo and bombs. Once inside the tent, Ivanov would encounter a 20 year old US airman named Zachary Hatfield. And what happened next depends on who you believe.

According to the bases’ spokesmen, Ivanov pulled out a knife and charged the young serviceman. Hatfield, responding as he was trained, unholstered his Beretta 9mm and “expended two shots to the upper torso, center mass, to ensure the highest opportunity to neutralize the threat.” There were no witnesses when Ivanov died, and a subsequent Article 32 hearing in the United States did not find evidence to bring Hatfield to trial. With a de facto ruling of innocence, the case was dismissed.

The Kyrgyz police cried murder. They claim Hatfield was waiting to shoot Ivanov as soon as he entered the tent. In May 2007, the prosecutor general of Kyrgyzstan declared Hatfield guilty of premeditated murder, under article 97 pat 1 of Kyrgyz Criminal Code. Influencing the decision were allegations that Hatfield was intoxicated on duty, and testimonies from Ivanov’s colleagues who said Ivanov sometimes carried a 4 inch homemade knife with him (made from a piece of hacksaw), but that the father of two would never threaten an armed American soldier. They accused the U.S. military of discriminating behavior towards Kyrgyz drivers.

What isn’t disputed is the media uproar the shooting caused in Kyrgyzstan. In the small, post-soviet country located between Kazakhstan and China, the shooting would become the centerpiece in a decade-long PR blitz against the base by Russian backed media. The bad press would turn public opinion against the base, eventually creating a political climate this June in which the Kyrgyz parliament voted 91-5 to deny a US request to extend its contract. Now the base must be closed by July, 2014.  It is a significant setback to American interests in Central Asia.

The Manas Transit Center is a vital component of the Afghanistan conflict, serving as the transit point for 97% of all servicemen and the vast majority of fuel and goods. But soon after it opened in 2001, the base became a focal point in a neo-cold war battle between the United States and Russia. The Kremlin was allergic to a US base operating in its sphere of influence. For years, the powers skirmished over the Manas Air Base on two fronts – control of the Kyrgyz government through money, and control of Kyrgyz public opinion through media. Russian political influence would eventually tip the balance, but the Americans did have a chance to save the base on the PR front. They didn’t, and the Zachary Hatfield shooting is a case study in how the United States lost the media war. They never secured Kyrgyz public support.

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The Greatest Thing We’ve Sacrificed

Among the joys of travel, there is one aspect of our transitory lifestyle that has always been difficult: lack of community.

By virtue of being on the move, we usually don’t know anyone in the places we’re traveling. There is no calling up of old friends to relax over beer at the end of the day, and we don’t have the local know-how of the best hangouts in town. In short, there is no break from the fact that we are perpetual travelers.

In Los Angeles, I took it for granted that I had a cellphone chock full of contacts who I’d developed close relationships with. After finishing my work or chores or errands for the day, I could call any number of them and arrange to meet them at the hippest spots in LA. They were places only we knew, because we were true Angelinos.

On the road, Morgan and I don’t have that community. It’s our greatest sacrifice. We have to find new friends in every city, even if we’re going to leave them just a few days later. Building a circle of friends is one reason why we’re stopped in Kunming—our two weeks in this city is as much about finding community as covering stories as journalists.  It’s about relief from the solitude of the road, and discovering China through Chinese friends.

Yet the task presents its own challenge: how do you scale a network of friends when you don’t know anyone and will only be in a city a short while?

Fortunately, Morgan and I have a strategy that we’ve honed in previous places like Bangalore and Phnom Penh. We call it ‘blind friend dating.’

The process begins much like regular online dating, except that we use couchsurfing.org instead of match.com. First, we pull up a list of couchsurfers in a city and start looking through online profiles for anything remotely interesting – for people who’ve written something beyond the usual “I like traveling and meeting people blah blah blah.” Who’s got some personality?

Bingo. On page two, I spot one. Female, 24. “I was born for art.” The Chinese girl writes.  “I’m a true kidult with an old soul. My current mission:  to be everyone, to be a genius, to originate the future.”

She definitely passes the ‘interesting’ test. So we send our message – hey we’re two cyclists who are in the city and you should meet with us….

Should she respond to these desperate sounding Americans, a meeting is set. And once we’ve moved away from the virtual world, it’s game time. The blind dates are what really matter, and the trick is to set up as many as possible.

“Alright Morgan, we’ve got meetings with couchsurfers set for lunch tomorrow, and dinner on Tuesday.”

“Right. I’ll see if I can commit that other surfer to lunch on Tuesday.”

So then you show up, looking around the restaurant or coffee shop for someone who remotely resembles the photo you saw online. Usually it’s the person who looks as lost as you do. You spot each other. “Chris? Morgan?”

“Yup that’s us.”

And the small talk begins.

The truth is that most of these meetings end up going nowhere. On blind friend dates, we either click with the person or we don’t. The secret is not to care about the meeting’s outcome. While repetition and small talk can be tedious, the practice’s strength lies in numbers. Eventually, between all the “what’s your favorite Chinese food?” conversations, you’re going to find someone who’s dynamic and awesome. Once you do, you’re set: awesome people usually hang out with other awesome people. With that first friend nailed down, you can suddenly find yourself introduced to a whole community. We accomplished it in Bangalore and Phnom Penh.

So has it happened in Kunming yet?

Nope. But we’re at 6 blind dates and counting. I can feel we’re getting close.

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It’s Not All Glamour: A Day on the Bike in China

Chris eats rice porridge at a street-side eatery in Kunming

On the wonderful occasions that I get to reconnect with friends at home, I always ask the question: “So what’s new in your life?”

With frustrating regularity, I receive the answer: “Oh, nothing you’d be interested in.  It’s not nearly as exciting as anything you’re doing.”

My goal for this post is to dispel some of that romanticism.  This post is about the days that don’t make it into the blog, that are so predictable my camera never leaves its bag.  Travel, like all disciplines, has a routine, and more than its fair share of tedium.

This is one day on the bike in China.

7:00 AM

I fell asleep more than 9 hours ago, but the first thought in my mind is “already?”  This country has the most comfortable budget hotel beds in the world.  Sixteen bucks gets you something like a Best Western room, with two clean-sheeted queens and free toothbrushes wrapped in plastic.

I’m up before Chris.  I strip and head for the wall pegs, our riding clothes stored there like engine rags.  Which is what they are. It’s been five days since I washed them, and my bike shorts hold the shape of my legs even on the peg.  Grimace and pull.  They’ll soften with sweat soon enough. Chris wakes up to me stuffing scattered gear into panniers.

Chris gets the electric kettle going, a staple of the Chinese hotel room.  On the menu: Nescafe.  We’ve been drinking it for so long I almost think it’s coffee. We drink it in silence when the panniers are rolled  and ready.  I run through flashcards, trying to pick up a few more words of Chinese each day.

8:15

We eat small steamed doughballs stuffed with mincemeat and rice porridge at a hole in the wall hotel adjacent.  Our bikes are parked in front of the cook’s workstation. We start to talk about the ride.  I pull out the sheet we write before each leg, start reading some elevation stats. 200 meter bump at km 30, 300 meters at km 60 and 75. At 85 clicks, the real work begins.  2300 vertical meters over 75 kilometers.  We’re sleeping in the fields tonight.  We’ll need to grab noodles, seasoning, and gasoline along the road.

10:30

My trip computer reads 85 minutes of ride time when we hit the bottom of hill 1. Besides a few faulty shifts on my rear derailleur, the ride has been smooth.  The first two hours are always nirvana if the road is good.  I’m still juiced off the coffee, and my blood sugar is high enough that I dream about things that aren’t food and pain—it’s all endorphins and fresh legs. The grade kicks up to a steady 4 percent.  I shift down without thinking and close the gap between Chris and I, putting my wheel behind his for the ride up.

I used to dread the hills. I not quite sure when things changed, but I’ve started looking forward to them.  Maybe it’s that after 24,000 kilometers of open road, the countryside has to be jaw-drop beautiful for me to bat an eye.  And when I’m not stoked on the scenery, I have to be stoked on the biking.  That means getting into the pain.

100 meters up the hill, the lactic acid surges into my legs. I stall my hand from pushing on the shifting tabs and push the pedals a little harder.  I focus on form, clinching my abs to stabilize the bike, making sure I keep my shoulders square over the handlebars.  I try and pull up on the clips as much as I push down. The hills are the only thing of consequence I’m going to accomplish today, so I damn well better beast them.

We’re over the crest in twenty minutes and passing trucks on the way down.

12:20

3 hours, 15 minutes on the bike.  The hunger bite kicks in, hard, right on time like every other day.  Hunger doesn’t develop slowly on the bike, like it might if you weren’t exercising.  The endorphins suppress it until they can’t, and then the floodgates just open, and you realize you owe your muscles a few thousand calories.  You get five minutes warning max.

We’re in small villages along a river valley, topping off hill two.  Not a restaurant in sight.  We keep moving forward, finding hope in the village around the next bend, but none of them have restaurants.  At 3 hours, 40 minutes of ride time, I’m about ten minutes away from having the mood swings of a girl on her first period. Anger at Chris stews unprompted. We end up stopping at a tiny convenience store built at the entrance to someone’s house.  We buy two cups of ramen noodles, and the kindly lady goes into her house to boil us some water. It barely makes a dent.  One more cup and we’re operational again, sort of.

I munch a hoarded Snickers bar as we coast downward.

3:30

We hit the base of the monster hill, after a quick stop to adjust my derailleur.  I’d been excited about it until I saw the road.  It was more of a goat path.  It would be a road soon, but in meantime, there were bulldozers and gravel piles that made passage even more difficult than if they’d left it untouched.  Our progress slowed to a crawl—just 3 or 4 km an hour.

We were in our lowest gear, and our tires kept slipping on the loose dirt.  Every few hundred meters we had to get off and push over steep sections of rock or sand. I became covered in mud and extra sunscreen.  My gear cluster got gummed up too, and I was forced to listen to the creaks of friction of my chain as I pedaled. Painful.

5:45

We’d been moving two hours on the road and only advanced eight kilometers.  Ride time: 6.5 hours.  I could feel my body starting to give way. I started making dumb mistakes—bumping into rocks I could avoid, pulling my shifting tab the wrong way. We found ourselves in a hidden valley, with terraced mountains inhabited from top to bottom—almost 2000 meters of vertical living.  The bulldozers and construction crews killed some of the serenity. No energy to pass them though. Time to find a place to sleep.  We forced our bodies up a few more switchbacks, then found a terrace that looked uncultivated and accessible from the road. A quick stop by a creek to fill up on water for cooking.  Then we pushed our bikes down the mountain towards the terrace, slipping and grabbing bushes for stability.

Arrival at last.  I couldn’t bring myself to open a pannier for twenty minutes.  I just sat in the dirt and ate handfuls of peanuts.

7:00 PM

It’s my turn to be on pot duty tonight. It’s not a bad gig; I stay close to the stove as the temperature drops. I watch the egg noodles boil and cut up hot-dog-looking mystery meat we bought from the roadside lunch joint.  I believe it has some protein, but it looks like the kind of food you store for nuclear winter.  The pot is overflowing. Standard ration is 500 grams of noodles a meal.  The master chef’s flourish: chicken stock powder.  I boil the water until it is gone.  This saves water but makes the noodles salt mush.

We eat overlooking the valley, which is almost too dark to see now. Then we wash the pot using our hands as a scrub brush and we’re in the tent by 8:30.  I squirm into my bag and try to flatten out some of the lumps underneath the tent. I pull out my kindle to read. Futile exercise.  I won’t last fifteen minutes.

Tomorrow there’s another two grand in vertical meters.

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P1 Answers Your Questions

We recently asked readers on our social media channels what they wanted to know about our journey thus far. The following are a selection of our favorite questions: 

Q: Could you talk about how you two have managed to stay safe from people along your way?

A: We’re not going to sugarcoat it. We are never 100% safe on the road, whether it’s from motorists or from people with more sinister intentions. On the road, bicycle crashes just happen, and sometimes they’re not our fault. A good example is the time a cow suddenly turned into the road in India and caused a little boy on a bike to crash into Morgan. There’s just no way you can anticipate that kind of thing. Same goes for bad people. We had a few problems with that in Romania. We got jumped by a group of gypsies, and one man tried to tackle Morgan off his bicycle as he was passing through a village.

The best two pieces of advice we can give to prospective bike tourists are 1. stay alert and 2. don’t let what we wrote above scare you from going on a bike tour.

Even though we’ve had some problems, they have been extremely rare considering the amount of time we’ve been away. The most amazing thing we’ve discovered is the incredible kindness of strangers all around the world.

Q: What songs have been stuck in our heads during our trip?

A: Gungnam Style. While we were in Laos, the international phenomenon was just hitting the jungle highlands, and Laotian villagers went crazy for it. A funny thing about Laos is that even in humble villages, people had shelled out money for these huge 500 watt speaker systems. The result was that nearly every time we emerged from the jungle, a full-on Gungnam style dance party was in swing. It became the soundtrack for our Southeast Asian bike tour. The only problem was that we heard it so often, the song was stuck in our heads constantly!

Q: What is the most unexpected thing we’ve encountered?

A: The White Man’s Privilege. In many places, we’ve been treated deferentially for no other reason than the fact that we are white and foreign. This comes in many flavors. It can be as simple as being seated before locals at restaurants, and not having our receipts checked at supermarkets (because it’s assumed we’re wealthy and would not steal anything), to things more profound like having meat served to us every night in an Indian village while the farmers there could only afford it once a week.

The White Man’s privilege is something we’ve never quite gotten used to or know how to deal with – oftentimes our refusals of hospitality have created more offense than if we had just accepted the deferential treatment to begin with. Of course, this is uncomfortable when you operate with the ideas of equality, and that honor should be earned, not assumed. The White Man’s Privilege is something we’ve grappled with and never really anticipated before the trip.

Q: If you got to pick one city you could live in for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A: Istanbul or New Delhi.

Istanbul because it truly is the crossroads of the world, a place where vastly different cultures intersect and collide. Assuming that you have to stay in one place for the rest of your life, you couldn’t pick a more dynamic spot.

Or…

New Delhi, because of the endless opportunities there. Nowhere else have we found a place where it is so easy to reinvent yourself. Within the swarming masses of the Indian Capital, you become like a drop of water in the sea, but anonymity and the drive of the people there creates an atmosphere that’s energetic and intoxicating. The New Delhi high.

Q: What can you tell us about important foods to pack for bike touring and how do you stay healthy?

A: Cycling for six hours a day burns a crazy amount of calories. By our estimate, we need to consume at least 6,000 kcal to maintain our body weights. That’s not as easy as it sounds; we can’t comfortably gorge ourselves on ice cream and butter all the time and still feel great on the bikes. So we do our best to compensate, scouting foods that help us perform efficiently on the saddle. We’ve discovered the most important thing is getting enough protein. In places like rural Burma, we lost dangerous amounts of weight because we weren’t getting enough meat and dairy. A belly full of rice may keep one full, but after weeks of cycle touring the body drops muscle and fat at alarming rates. (Just ask Chris).

So what have we found? The best and cheapest foods for bicycle touring are: eggs, peanut butter, chocolate, rice, bread, and meat (canned or dried).

Oh yeah, and one more thing: Beer.

Q: What was your favorite part of Central Asia?

A: The Pamir Highway. The ‘Roof of the World’ in Tajikistan is a special place. Passing by Afghan villages, the friendliness of Tajik goat herders, and the otherworldly desolation of Pamir’s desert plateaus are mesmerizing. While getting to there may be difficult, the results are well worth it.

Q: Can you name what you might not be excited about encountering when you return to the US?

A: Predictability. One of the best things about traveling is being constantly confronted with new scenes and situations. Even now, after 22 months of travel, we’re still surprised by things we see while casually walking down the street. Just yesterday, as were buying apples, a marching band of old Chinese grandmas rounded a corner and stopped all the motor traffic. It was hilarious.

When we return to the country we grew up in, things will be more familiar. Moments of true surprise will be less frequent, and surely they will be missed.

Morgan’s also going to miss the fresh, organic produce that feeds most of the world.  Even if you shop in the organic section of the local supermarket, that produce has travelled a long way from the farm.

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How This Trip Would Be Different If We Were Women

I recently received a message on our facebook page from a fan who made a great point: We don’t talk about women enough.

“I want to offer a critique as to your choice of article topics.  As two men traveling alone, how does gender impact your daily decisions? Can you imagine what precautions you would have to take were there a female component to your journey?”

Thinking about it, I realized she was right: we often fail to show how gender roles play out in places we’re traveling. Needless to say, there’s a lot to discuss. So Morgan and I decided to take up our fan’s cue and share some of the ways we think this trip would have been different had we done Postulate One as a pair of females. We came up with four broad categories:

Access to Culture

Right off the bat, being female would have barred us from some male-dominated institutions along our route. A couple examples: Women are not allowed to enter the traditional tea houses of Turkey – especially those outside large cities. Similarly, workingmen’s bars in Indian towns are usually devoid of estrogen. In both cases, they are regarded as sanctuaries for men, and trying to enter one as a woman would provoke a fierce response.

What’s important isn’t that female travelers would miss out on Turkish Chai or Indian Malt Liquor; it’s that these institutions were central to our understanding of how those societies operated. They were where tales of hardship were exchanged in stories or drowned in alcohol; they were where business deals were made, and family allegiances cemented. They were where men let their guards down to talk about politics and religion and sexual desires in a candidness that wasn’t appropriate on the street.

In one Turkish village, we asked a man what his wife did while he spent hours at the tea house each evening. The tea house was the only business open late at night.

“She waits for me at home,” he responded.

As female travelers, we’d probably have been resigned to our hotel room.

Journalism

Pursuing stories as journalists would have been different as females. To begin with, I admit that we probably would have covered more female characters. A glance through our stories shows that the vast majority of characters are men, partly because access to them was easier and we related more. But in some countries it also would have been difficult to gain the trust of male sources who aren’t used to female strangers asking them personal questions. Again, I go to India – where interviewing men from a cotton farming village about their alcoholism wouldn’t have been appropriate. By the same token however, the wives in Brahmanapally were too shy to talk to us, and maybe if we were females they would have opened up.

Additionally, the majority of nonfiction authors we’ve read in our free time are men. Out of the last 24 narrative journalism books I’ve read, only 5 have been authored by women. Much of this has been unconscious, but the result is that many of our stories follow suit, covering topics more appealing to guys – like our story about boxing in Thailand, or extreme mountain climbing in Georgia. There are many topics we’ve missed out on that two female journalists would have picked up.

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