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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Going Fishing With a Grandad in the S.E.Z.

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On the ride back from a ski trip last winter, Sergei promised to take me fishing. With his comfortable Mercedes and pleasant demeanor, he had quickly become a favorite driver for weekend excursions. When I discovered that he was also an avid fisherman, I was overjoyed.

It always felt a little funny to have this chatty grandfather wait for us in his shiny car all day while we hit the slopes, but almost everybody here with a car in the early 1990s had become a taxi driver.

I had no idea where we would go when Sergei picked me up. Bishkek is near the southern edge of the expansive Chui River valley, and dozens of smaller streams flow down from the dramatic mountains south of town.

The last place I expected to cast a line was the S.E.Z. -- the Svobodnaya Economicheskaya Zona, or Free Economic Zone -- out near the airport. I had been there last fall for a story about nebulous companies that refuel planes at the U.S. airbase. The companies were rumored to be owned by Kyrgyz first families both before and after President Askar Akayev was ousted.

In fact, as Sergei approached the first of several guard posts, I thought he might have taken a wrong turn. "Commander," he said to the rent-a-cop security guard, one-third his age. "Let me ask you something. Who can I talk to about the fishing hole out here?"

To my astonishment, the guard let us through to the second checkpoint. "Did I talk to that guy right, or what?" he asked me, beaming. Minutes later, Sergei emerged from another guard station, all smiles.

Back in the driver's seat, he pulled out his Interior Ministry identification card -- a red leather billfold, of sorts, that most men here have somehow acquired. Inside was his prize, this Captain Ahab's white whale for the day -- the name and number of the general director of S.E.Z. back in Bishkek, scrawled on the back of a receipt.

And so it goes. While these mythical free-trade waters would have to wait until next week, there was an equally alluring smuggling zone just down the road. The Chui River is a swift muddy wash, far enough from town to be free of broken vodka bottles and cigarette boxes if you walk a few hundred meters away from the highway pull-off.

It is also the border with Kazakhstan, and I tried to spot kids with jerry cans crossing from the energy-rich neighbor as I baited my hooks. Business looked brisk; nearly every house was selling soda bottles of gasoline.

Ethan Wilensky-Lanford is a freelance journalist based in Central Asia.