Two days in lines and we are finally "registered" to visit Kazkahstan.
30.06.2007 - 04.07.2007 29 °C
Our first two days in Kazakhstan were not spent drinking in the snow-capped peaks of the Altay Mountains, or imbibing liesurely in one of Almaty's shady sidewalk bars.
No, we were in for a real shocker entering this ex-Soviet republic, though come to think of it, we should have expected trouble.
Lines filled our days. Lines requiring us to get through the border, lines requiring us to register our passports at some ministry office, and to purchase train tickets. Even a 45-minute line to buy three doner kebabs at a "fast food" stand.
These were not some pansy single-file lines, either, where your placement is so assured that you could kick back and read a book. No, these lines were filled with expert line manipulators in places where nameless bureaucrats could care less what happens on the other side of the counter so long as the proper form is before them, or perferably money.
Perhaps the most startling example was the Khorgos border crossing from China. It took about a week to place ourselves in the right position, only to find that one of Central Asia's busiest border points closed on Sunday. No matter, we woke early Monday morning and walked to the border post 90 minutes ahead of opening time. We thought we were golden.
Military staff roamed about yawing, and staff arrived still in their street clothes as the clocked ticked past opening hour into 45 minutes later.
We started to sweat, thinking that at this pace, we might not get through in time for their two-hour lunch break. The growing crowd was getting restless, and our standing spots were quickly being usurped by late interlopers who were climbing over metal railings to plop themselves in front.
It was, quite literally, a stampede when the Chinese guards finally swung open the gate. Men and women of all ages and sizes threw the full weight of their bodies and bags forward and began running, in high heels and dress shoes, towards the next building. Meanwhile, the cargo trucks, which had lined up days in advance to procure their spots, began driving through a seperate gate and turning into the scrambling crowd.
I'm ashamed to admit that I ran too. But we were at the front of the first set of passport checks and sailed through the Kazakh side, too.
Our trials were not over, however. Apparently official stamps on a visa at the border are not enough to give a traveler legitimate status in Kazakhstan. We had to register yesterday at the "Office of Visas and Registration" in Alamaty, which involved more shapeless line battles. Think you're at the front and there's always someone who finds a way to squirrel around you, using the window ledging for leverage or ducking under you to appear in front. There's no shame involved.
A tactic we picked up in China has been particularly effective. We call it the "blockade," and it involves us forming a human barrier at ticket windows to shut out any cheats.
Of course, that definately doesn't mean that once you reach the window troubles are over. We found ourselves face to face yesterday with a pompous official who wouldn't take "tourism" as the simple answer to why we were in Kazakhstan.
"Why did you come here?" he demanded.
I thought but didn't say, "Because we want see home country of Borat, Great and Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."
He then told us that Kazakhs know more about American history than Americans do, and directed us to another line to pay an $8 registration fee. It took another hour to finally reach him again, and he then asked for further copies of the registration forms and passports.
"Is there anything else you will be needing?" Jacob said diplomatically.
We had to go back again early evening to wait in line again for our freshly officialized passports, which the office was holding despite the fact that a traveler can't even book a hotel room without it.
We wonder what kind of hell we're into entering the Russian "Motherland" in a week.
It's a hard fall when your standard of living drops. China was so good to us, in terms of our purchasing power. But lately we've felt like a bunch of retirees on shortened pensions.
Hotel prices exceed those of Western Europe while the quality has dropped well below Super 8. Our first night in Almaty -- Kazakhstan's former capitol before its meglomaniac president moved it to a nowhere outpost on the northwestern steppes -- was downright depressing.
At $65 for 12 hours rest, we got a room with two small twin beds, a lock that didn't work, no sink, and dried blood on the floor. Now we're in a $40 rat hole that charges an extra $1 for a lone shower on a crowded hallway.
I have no idea what's going on with the hotel prices here, except that there seems to be a mysterious shortage and nothing has been upgraded since the start of the Cold War.
City of Parks
All this is to say, we don't really hate Kazakhstan. In fact, Almaty is one of the most pleasant cities we have visited (once the hotel situation is sorted out).
It's so thick with foilage and parks that it's easy to miss the circle of snowy mountains surrounding the town of 3 million.
Out of registration offices, we have enjoyed the change from China to what is, in culture, a very Russified place.
The people seem a peaceful mix of Central Asian and very Western-looking types. Tall, muscular Russian men, with blond hair and blue eyes, stroll the streets with dark, heavy-set babushkas of Central Asian origin.
And for once, we feel a sense of space and openness, which comes from a country declining in numbers and not exploding at the seams, like China.
We have not quite arrived in Europe, but we are getting there.