Abstract Political geographers have produced extensive and valuable bodies of knowledge on both international boundaries and geopolitics. However, an emphasis on discourse study means that these literatures are in danger of becoming both repetitious and lopsided, relegating or even erasing people's experiences and everyday understandings of the phenomena under question. This article suggests that ethnographic participant observation, a method largely neglected by political geographers, could be used to address these imbalances and open new research directions. This argument is demonstrated by a study of the impact of the partial closure in 1999–2000 of the Uzbekistan–Kyrgyzstan Ferghana Valley boundary. Post-Soviet time was hyper-accelerated by the belated imposition of the logic of nation–states onto the existing social geographies of kinship practice. The legal–constitutional division of the Valley in 1991 only ‘caught up’ with the lived experiences of borderland dwellers in 1999. The sudden collapse of this ‘political geographical time-lag’ forced upon them the traumatic realisation that Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan really were two separate countries. In this context, using ethnography to highlight discrepancies between elite and everyday political geographical imaginations informs a critique of state violence that is parallel to, but not a replacement of, textual analyses informed by critical social theory.