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Trapped In Tashkent

''Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with Turkish Airlines. Due to a weather problem in Dushanbe, we will be landing in Tashkent.''
''Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with Turkish Airlines. Due to a weather problem in Dushanbe, we will be landing in Tashkent.''
The barely visible outlines of the Tashkent airport terminal were all that I saw of Uzbekistan, but they spoke volumes about a nation under tyranny.

Most frequent (and even not-so-frequent) fliers can relate awful airplane anecdotes, but I think few can match what my colleage Farangis Najibullah and I had to undergo yesterday in making our way from Prague to Dushanbe via Istanbul. Scheduled to arrive in the Tajik capital around 3:30 a.m., we were already enduring the uncomfortable, red-eye leg from Istanbul, a feature of many trips to Central Asia (a region that seems to get the short end of the stick when it comes to international flight schedules).

About 20 minutes before we were set to land, the pilot announced matter-of-factly, ''Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with Turkish Airlines. Due to a weather problem in Dushanbe, we will be landing in Tashkent.''

Well, I've never been to Uzbekistan before (it isn't exactly easy for Americans, never mind RFE/RL employees, to obtain a visa), and so while this wasn't exactly the ideal way of visiting the place, I still greeted what would otherwise have been an unqualified release of horrible information with a small bit of excitement. I might not be able to get that Uzbek stamp in my passport, never mind actually explore the most populous and powerful country in Central Asia, but at least I could say that I had been there!

Boy, was I wrong.

What started out as being a weather safety diversion soon transformed into a small-bore political crisis, as word spread throughout the plane that the Uzbek airport authorities were denying our plane the necessary fuel we needed to get to Dushanbe (a fact that was confirmed to me by the captain once we finally arrived in Dushanbe shortly after noon).

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have had notoriously bad relations, particularly since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Aside from the predictable border disputes that emerged when arbitrarily demarcated republics became independent, both countries have accused their own citizens of the rival ethnicity of espionage for the other. Uzbekistan, in particular, has said that Tajikistan allows the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to use its territory as a safe haven. The border between the two countries is heavily mined; dozens of civilians have died in recent years due to mine-related accidents.

Uzbekistan is far richer in natural resources, causing obvious resentment in Tajikistan, which is heavily dependent upon its much larger neighbor for natural gas. Oh, and don't forget the whole Rogun dam dispute, which recently led Tajikistan to make a formal complaint to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that Uzbekistan has been deliberately holding up Tajik rail cargo traveling through its territory.

Surely, more than one passenger was heard to remark, the obviously unncessary delay had something to do with this abiding animosity.

Finally, after more than five early morning hours waiting on the tarmac of Tashkent International Airport (a period of time longer than the actual leg from Istanbul to Dushanbe itself), we were in the air for the short flight to neighboring Tajikistan.

It was never made clear why, exactly, we were made to wait. Just what did the Uzbek airport authorities think they might accomplish by keeping people sitting in a hot and cramped cone for so long? There must be some International Air Transport Association guidelines that stipulate how airport authorities must assist civilian jetliners which find themselves in such desperate situations, even if the U.S.-inspired Passenger Bill of Rights hasn't caught on yet.

But, hey, at least I can now say I've been to Uzbekistan.

About two hours into my claustrophobic misery, attempting to grab some fresh air, I was afforded a peek out the cabin door. What immediately struck me was that the only planes I could see were those belonging to the state carrier. It would appear there aren't many people flying the unfriendly skies into Central Asia's next hermit kingdom.