In 1984 I went ‘on holiday’ to the Soviet Union with my Mum. Ever since she had been a school girl she had dreamt of visiting Samarkand, in Uzbekistan, to see the land that Ghengis Khan rode through in 1220 AD. We were obliged to travel with the state tourist company, called Intourist. Our time was divided between various places and, much to my surprise, we were allowed to roam freely in each place we went to see. I am aware that had we tried to leave any particular city’s boundaries we would have been stopped but that is another story.
We had a couple of nights in Samarkand. We arrived fairly late on the first night and checked into our hotel. It was the usual Soviet affair, with blatantly obvious microphones everywhere. In the room, they were above every bed, in the hall and above the toilet. They snaked down the ceiling of the hotel corridor. They hung above every table in the dining room. At the time, this was the most conspicuous sign of a surveillance state. These days, in the West, there is barely a public space where we are not being continuously filmed and recorded. Although hotel rooms and private dwellings are not subject to this intrusion, our government wants legal permission to monitor our private communications, just like the Soviet Union had. I digress.
The following day, we visited the bazaar and Registan Square, where three mighty mosques stand. It was incredibly hot and the place was quiet. After our evening meal, we were gathered in a conference room at the hotel and given some more information about the locality by our guide, Natasha. She was being observed by a dark suited individual. We all knew he was in the KGB. Natasha rounded off her talk about Samarkand by saying, “This evening you can do whatever you like. There is an excellent bar in the hotel or, if you prefer, you can wander around town. Most of the town is in a very poor condition. It has not yet been properly repaired after a massive earthquake in 1966. If you go there, please, all go together. Do not wander around individually. That would not be a good idea.” Sitting at the front and off to the side, the dark suited man nodded gravely.
Having become accustomed to our unexpected freedom, we burst out in protest. There about a dozen in our group. Several people shouted things like, “You can’t tell us what to do!” I remember my Mum loudly announcing that she was prepared for an international incident! Natasha raised her hands to quieten us. Already some of us were on our feet. Fingers were being stabbed into the air and so on. After a few minutes, Natasha managed to make herself heard, with the words, “You look like Russians. They will think you are Russians and attack you!” The dark suited man, who was also on his feet by now, put his hands on his hips and said, “This is true. Please be careful. It would be better if you stayed in the hotel but if you must go out, please all go together.” They left us alone to discuss the situation. Alone with the microphones, of course.
We weren’t sure what to make of this information. They could have easily have prevented us from walking around. We had expected that at every turn on our tour. After a discussion, we decided that we would indeed go and check out the residential neighbourhoods of Samarkan. All together. Off we went.
I’d never been anywhere like this before. It couldn’t be properly described as a shanty town but it wasn’t far off. The streets were wide, unmetalled and dusty. On either side stood rows of single story dwellings, poorly built from yellow mud bricks. In front of these homes ran a line of poles, which carried pipes and wires. Apparently, these had been strung up as an emergency measure after the earthquake 18 years before and never properly replaced. No-one was about. Without a map, we kept a close eye on the route behind us and were determined to return to the hotel before sunset.
After a while, we noticed that a man was walking along behind us. Every time we stopped, he stopped. He was clearly checking us out. We quickened our pace and he quickened his. He followed behind us at about 50 yards for ten minutes or so. Then he dropped a sheath of heavy wood from his sleeve and caught it by a handle. The wood was about as long as his forearm. We stood staring at each other. With a slow deliberate movement, he swung the wood and a massive blade fell out and locked into position. One of our group whispered that it was the largest gravity knife he had ever seen. Before writing this post, I looked for videos of knives like this but couldn’t find any. Instead I found various overweight men wearing camo, unecessary sunglasses and big moustaches, talking crazy talk. Oddly, I kind of hope that my communications are now being monitored. I digress, again.
This man stood between us and our known route home. Urgently, we discussed the situation. I thought about the grave looks of the dark suited man back at the hotel. He was probably propping up the bar by now. With limited choices, we decided to keep walking for a bit to see whether he would go away.
He didn’t. Not only did he keep following us, he sped up to shorten the distance between us. It really did look like he was picking the location to attack us. He was swinging the enormous blade, as if to prepare for throwing a a chop. I had no doubt that his weapon would cleanly remove a limb. He got closer and closer.
When he was swaggering along about fifteen yards behind us, we weren’t exactly running but we were moving pretty quickly. The sun was low in the sky and it would have been easy for someone else to be running through the back streets to tell others ahead of our impending arrival. It felt like we were being herded somewhere where something bad would happen.
In our group there was an American called Michael,. He was young, worked for Chase Manhatten Bank and travelled with his young son. He also spoke Russian. Suddenly, he turned around and faced the man. We all stopped. Michael told us he was going to ask the man what he wanted. He addressed him in Russian.
Suddenly, everything changed. The stalker looked really disappointed. It was obvious that he had suddenly realised from the way Michael spoke Russian, that we were not Russian. His entire demeanour shifted in a few seconds. His manner transformed from the buzzing high of someone about to attack to that of an insolent youth who’s been turned down for a date. With a real scowl, he folded the gravity knife up, turned around and slowly walked away, kicking the ground as he went. We stood there, watching him go and when he was out of sight, we followed. We got back to the hotel after dark to find the hotel staff, Natasha and the dark suited man fretting about our fortunes.
When I got back to school the following month, my class mates were astonished that I had travelled behind the iron curtain. Although they knew virtually nothing about those lands, they were very ready to denounce the KGB. Quite right too. However, I couldn’t help but thinking of the stress that the KGB officer assigned to us had gone through on our own behalf, after we had turned down the protection and safety of the hotel.