On paper, the bus does not exist.
It has no schedule, and no route. It shows up mysteriously, and
just as mysteriously, the dozens of men who await it know when it
Every year, the ghost bus - and its many cousins throughout
Uzbekistan - transports hundreds of migrants to Russia, crossing
two state borders and 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) of steppe,
desert and farmland. The men it carries do not exist on the books
either, but Russia needs their labor, and they need the money.
Russia's enormous oil wealth and its plummeting population have
turned it into the world's biggest immigration destination after
the U.S., attracting 10 to 15 million labor migrants a year from
former Soviet states. Uzbeks make up between 2 million and 4
million of them. They build houses, till the soil and work in
Siberian oil towns and even on the Pacific Coast, eight time zones
and 10,000 kilometers (more than 6,000 miles) from home.
Scrawny and swarthy, seasoned by the Uzbek sun and Russian
frosts, with a wilted face and the bloodshot eyes of a man who has
not seen a doctor in years, Saidullo Sadykov is a veteran labor
migrant in Russia. The 54-year-old Uzbek takes the ghost bus every
year to what he calls his battlefield.
The bus emerged in the late 1990s, back when it was legal. But
in January 2006, a rattletrap bus broke down in the western Usturt
plateau, and all 30 passengers froze to death, their bodies turned
into ice cocoons. Russia-bound buses were prohibited.
These days, only corruption keeps the buses alive and greases
their wheels. Each year, hundreds of Uzbeks without registration
and work permits get deported and barred from entering Russia for
five years. They can't get through computerized passport controls
at airports or railway stations, so they get on the bus.
To book a $150 ride, Sadykov goes to see the bus owner.
Azim Azizov, 37, has the look and bling of a movie mobster. He
sports four golden teeth, two golden chains on his neck, two golden
rings on each hand and the complexion of a retired boxer.
He has two houses under construction in suburban Bukhara and
Moscow, two wives and five children. Both marriages are legal in
each country. He has two passports, and his fathers-in-law shuttle
with him twice a month, helping him earn about $5,000 for each
In Uzbekistan, where an average salary is about $50 a month, it
is a fortune.
Despite the money the passengers bring, Azizov treats them with
a disdain and arrogance they find natural. Clad in a velvet bathing
robe and puffing on an expensive cigarette, Azizov scribbles down
their names and their passport and telephone numbers. Some bring
thick wads of soums, Uzbek currency. Those unable to pay upfront
leave their passports. They will work off their debt with Azizov or
Azizov is part of an informal chain of recruiters who lure
Uzbeks abroad with promises of jobs. Some of these recruiters use
elaborate schemes to ensure the virtual enslavement of their
clients, says Shukrat Ganiev, a Bukhara-based human rights advocate
"It's a profitable business perfected to the last bit and
piece," he says.
A recruiter brings up to 200 people to Russia. Their passports
are taken away for registration, the promised jobs never
materialize, and the migrants panic, agreeing to work for less, he
The economic crisis has multiplied cases of forced labor,
enslavement and delayed or refused payment, rights groups say. Some
companies hire migrants, only to kick them out without payment
after a month or two.
In Russia, most Uzbeks live in squalor and save every kopeck to
send to their families. In 2008, they wired home $1.3 billion -
almost 10 percent of Uzbekistan's GDP, according to the World Bank.
Remittances from abroad account for 38 percent and 19 percent of
the economies in neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, two other
major exporters of labor to Russia.
Sometimes, missing migrants return home in sealed coffins. In
2008, the Bukhara airport received 14 of them, Ganiev says. Uzbek
officials refused to comment.
Until recently, walls of the Uzbek embassy in Moscow were
covered with handwritten notes about missing relatives. Some began
with "Dear Uzbek Muslims, help us find..."
On Sadykov's last day at home, his family prays for his safe
return at a 14th-century mausoleum of a Muslim saint.
"It's like a small hajj," he says
When he leaves Bukhara the next morning, his head is covered
with the snowy white cap pilgrims wear after making the hajj, the
Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
"I'm going to the front line," Sadykov says.
The Nightingale arrives at a chaotic bus station at noon. This
33-year-old ghost bus is painted lime yellow, with the Russian word
for nightingale and the bird's cartoonish silhouette on its
Its drivers look like a comic duo - a corpulent, mustachioed
six-footer nicknamed Tyson and his scraggy, almost rodent-like
sidekick Alisher. Above their seat dangles a souvenir dagger,
Muslim worry beads and a laminated Playmate postcard.
Seventy-three men aged 17 to 60 clamber aboard in the scorching
sun. There is one woman, Khafiza Ibragimova, whose braid of
henna-dyed hair hangs down her long purple dress. She is travelling
with Ulmas Tashev, her gaunt brother, to work at an Uzbek
restaurant near Moscow.
Azizov's fathers-in-law are on board. The Uzbek one is a
taciturn man in his sixties who dozes most of the time and
occasionally drives. The Russian one is The Nightingale's
figurehead owner, Alexander Kopeikin, who gulps vodka shots and
Its windows sealed and its air conditioner broken, the
Nightingale ventilates on the go through ceiling hatches and open
doors. It also carries a Russian license plate to avoid the
attention of Russian police.
This time, it attracts the attention of Uzbek police instead.
They forbid Azizov to use the Russian-registered bus on Uzbek
So Azizov finds a decrepit Uzbek-registered bus to take the
passengers to the border with Kazakhstan, about 700 kilometers (440
miles) westward. He brings along Tozagul, a plump and energetic
matron who negotiates with police.
The bus breaks down twice, then is forced to stop overnight at a
police station in the Kyzyk-Kum desert. The passengers sleep
aboard, in the sand and on the warm asphalt. Many wake up with bug
The next day, the lumbering bus is pulled over five times, once
by an armed anti-terrorism squad. After each halt Tozagul jumps out
to negotiate a bribe, and comes back cursing "greedy redneck
By the second sundown, the bus stops at an inn. Tornadoes of
bugs swirl around the bare light bulbs, and the desert outside
reeks of burning garbage. Arif Ortykov, 52, airs his grievances
over a cup of tea.
"If only I could make $150 a month, I wouldn't go there," the
potbellied welder says.
It takes him two more cups to get to the fact that Uzbeks depend
on jobs in Russia because of their large families and unemployment
"If they close borders, we're all be at war with each other,"
he says. "There's too many hungry and too few well-fed."
Uzbeks have fled their country, a Muslim nation of 27 million,
because there are no jobs. In the countryside, farmers are forced
to sell cotton to the government at a fixed low price. In the
cities, growth is stifled by corruption and state control.
But now, the economic crisis in Russia is likely to send
millions of jobless migrants back, which could destabilize
Uzbekistan. At least a quarter of migrants have left Russia,
experts say, and many of those who stayed have joined the army of
illegal workers and day-laborers.
The bus moves all night, passing fields encrusted with salt. It
enters the lifeless Usturt plateau, where the passengers froze to
death in 2006. It drives by a road sign showing directions to
Jaslyk, Uzbekistan's most notorious gulag, located in impassable
By the third night, the bus reaches a Kazakhstan border
checkpoint. The passengers of three other migrant buses are already
there. The steppe around is dotted with bushes and human excrement,
and two mangy camels bellow in the distance.
Over tea and chewing tobacco, Sadykov instructs the youngest
passenger, 17-year old Kamol Shamsutdinov, on how to dodge
policemen in Moscow.
"Don't swerve when you see one, but don't look him in the
eyes," Sadykov says, sounding like an experienced trapper
describing a dangerous predator. Men around them nod their heads.
"They can smell your fear," he says.
Even the Russian police admit to routinely preying on labor
When looking to detain a labor migrant, police officers "make
up anything, because they want to live and eat," says Mikhail
Pashkin, head of the Moscow police trade union. "The state created
a system where a policeman cannot survive on his salary."
Rights defenders are less understanding. "Policemen fleece
(migrants) like sheep and beat up those who resist extortion so
often that they see these incidents as something usual," says
Russian rights defender Svetlana Gannushkina.
Police officers top the list of people Uzbek migrants fear the
most. They also fear skinheads. In 2008, 99 people were killed in
Russia in apparent racial attacks, 49 of them natives of Uzbekistan
and neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Sova, a Moscow hate
crimes watchdog, reports.
To Sadykov, skinheads are easier to avoid than police. "Don't
take suburban trains at night and don't go outdoors after football
games," he warns Shamsutdinov.
After a night on a dirty reed mat, Sadykov wakes to the sound of
honking cars and trucks. "Hope we'll get through by noon," he
says, putting on his pilgrim cap smeared with sweat and dust.
The border crossing takes nine sweltering hours. Kazakh border
guards tell the Uzbeks to line up, and rummage through their bags,
throwing their belongings on the dusty asphalt. Then the passengers
leave - all but Khafiza Ibragimova.
She has a prior deportation from Russia. She whispers goodbye to
her brother and walks away, her head hanging despondently.
The passengers rush to The Nightingale, which is waiting. There
are 73 men for 62 seats.
Azizov nonchalantly tells the passengers who did not pay upfront
to sit and sleep in shifts.
He occupies his seat of power - an oblong wooden box behind the
driver's seat. Covered with blankets and pillows, it serves as his
bed and vault for plastic bags of Uzbek money.
The fathers-in-law, the drivers and respected veterans such as
Sadykov occupy the first five rows. The youngest passengers sit and
sleep in the aisle, on the dust, next to butt-ends and spits of
The bus passes through western Kazakhstan in less than two days,
but it takes almost another two days to cross the Russian border at
the village of Ilek. Since the bus is too crowded, Azizov tells 11
passengers to stay in the no man's land.
The passengers again line up with their bags open. Red-faced
Russian guards ridicule their shabby clothes and old-fashioned
shoes. "He's gonna dance at a strip bar in these," one of them
says, pointing at a pair of worn-out platform shoes.
The guards tell Azizov to remove some of the Nightingale's
paneling. Azizov says later that the check was "harmless"
compared with previous examinations. He says he paid the guards
$1,000 for not delaying the bus and letting through several people
with prior deportations.
At dawn, eight of the 11 stragglers knock on the bus door. They
say three others were deported. Azizov says it is their own fault
because they did not bribe him to get them through.
The bus moves past meadows with waist-tall grass and pine
forests. Despite the Russian license plate, police pull it over
several times. "They stop you less, but charge more," Azizov
Sadykov, his face covered with gray stubble, is getting fidgety.
"We have to hurry to build Moscow," he tells Kopeikin.
"Moscow was built long ago," Kopeikin growls angrily. "All
you need is our money to run away with."
Many Russians think the same way, partly because of a massive
anti-migrant campaign by the state-controlled media. Experts say it
is designed to divert anger over the financial crisis away from
authorities to foreigners.
After the sixth night on the road, the bus approaches southern
Moscow and stops near Azizov's unfinished house. Several Uzbeks are installing plastic windows on the third floor.
Azizov collects the passports of 22 passengers who did not pay
and herds them in. "They'll work it off in here," he says.
Other passengers pour out, smiling happily. They take their bags
from the trunk and rush to a nearby bus station.
Sadykov takes off his gray and dusty pilgrim cap, exposing his
bald head to a Russian drizzle.
"The battle is beginning," he says.
In a week or two, the bus will take another load of Uzbeks home.
They will bring along second-hand refrigerators, TV sets and gas
stoves for their families.
In the meantime, in the giant yard of Azizov's house, The
Nightingale will wait.