The Journey From Bishkek to Almaty Shouldn’t Take This Long
This is twelve hours of travel, in almost nine-thousand words. There are no train journeys in this story.
Five minutes after arriving in the former capital city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, I was being detained inside a windowless police cell. This wasn’t exactly planned, nor completely unanticipated. I’ve learned through participation – when crossing remote, unknown, borders in post-Soviet states, shady encounters with the law should come as no surprise.
Turkgozu to Vale. Svilengrad to Ormenio. Galati to Giurgiulesti. I’ve horse-traded my way through a handful of little-known former USSR border towns over the last few years. Today it was Lugovo in the Kyrgyz Republic, more commonly known as Kyrgyzstan, but, even more commonly not known. I was hoping to cross into Korday, Republic of Kazakhstan, and expected to be filling out more than a usual amount of old-fashioned paperwork, following an indeterminable set of unpredictable instructions delivered by stern border authorities with a surplus of stylishly authoritarian uniforms, and writing down my father’s name at least three times.
Before arriving at the border, I was thinking how they’re all kind of the same in these parts. Shabby buildings. Plenty of mud. There’s always a seemingly mandatory pack of stray dogs. However, usually, the first day I enter a new country doesn’t normally end up with me making this offer to the police:
“Whatever, put my girlfriend in jail, because I really don’t give a fuck…
…but, if you don’t mind, I’d like my passport back.”
Earlier that day, I woke up in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Small and wondrous it may be, however, I’d spent the last six weeks here, which is ordinarily accepted as being far too long. It should be noted, the prevailing conventional wisdom also states that spending forty years in a florescent-lit cubicle-farm is just about right, so I guess it’s a wash.
There was a rationale for the extended stopover in Bishkek – the city has a reputation for being a useful Central Asian city to navigate through the visa nightmares that come part-and-parcel with any independent ‘Stans journey. At this point in history, obtaining a complete set of Central Asian visa’s is only for the most determined and time-rich adventurers. In general, my idea was to arrive in Bishkek, obtain visa’s for the other nations around here, maybe explore the countryside, and leave. But to this day, I still think I should have stayed in Bishkek for even longer than six weeks.
In hindsight, hindsight is twenty-twenty. Looking back, living for six weeks in a bureaucracy-heavy post-Soviet nation without a passport nor any form of identification, wasn’t a great idea. But, the very extended stopover was essential in order to visit any of the other ‘Stans. Too many border crossings and years of aimless gad-about-ing, and my passport now contained zero empty pages. A definitive first world problem if ever there was. However, full page visas are de-rigueur in Central Asia and with a fully-stamped passport, I wasn’t able to travel to any other bordering nation until I received a new passport. It’s a reasonable travel requirement to have more empty passport pages than zero.
Being somewhat stuck in Kyrgyzstan, in a small downtown apartment surrounded by freezing dystopian-esque post-Soviet-winter-wonderland, didn’t really didn’t seem like such a terrible outcome. And soon enough, my new passport arrived. Flying the highly irregular Sydney to Bishkek via Moscow airmail route, my brand new empty passport had before it’s first use travelled through three continents. On the next day, I would begin my first attempt of Central Asian visa procurement. Hopefully, the first blank page would soon be plastered with a full-page Kazakhstan tourist visa.
Curiously, in Kyrgyzstan, no single human being can be entrusted to process documents, and also handle cash. It’s a firm demarcation – one person handles documents, somebody else handles cash. There may be humans in Kyrgyzstan that can be entrusted to accept both paper-work and paper-money, but I never encountered one. I’d first discovered this curiosity at the bank.
Depositing Bishkek rent money involved sitting with a teller to begin the process, getting up and taking the actual cash to a different teller, signing my name on at least eight different sheets of paper, returning to the first teller with copies of the official slips of paper that proved that yes, I had indeed given the bank some cash, and only then would it be officially credited to an account, and my rent was officially paid. At DHL, arranging my old passport to be sent home for replacement, it was the same.
One clerk to fill out the paperwork, another to accept payment for the postage costs, and then back to the first to show a receipt for the payment, proof that the package could now be officially shipped. Thus, on this day, it was the same at the local Kazakhstan consulate. Increasing familiarity with this part of the world and permanently affected notions of convenience ensured I would, eventually, recall this whole visa process as quite efficient.
Fill out the forms. Attach the photos to the three photocopies of my passport. Navigate Cyrillic trolley-bus timetables, and take a trip to the bank located over on the other side of the city. Deposit the Kazakhstan tourist visa fee, interacting with three different staff members, and eight pieces of signed paper. Return to the consulate the next day, with the officially stamped and signed proof of the deposit, and collect my visa. Only then, could I allow myself to begin looking forward to visiting the country mostly made famous by a Jewish-raised English actor with a predisposition to having clean-shaved testicles. Very nice.
After being on the road for several years, travel planning isn’t a high priority. Indeed, I’ve never been big on travel planning in advance. An uncommon semi-nomadic existence has a far-reaching impact on which aspects of planning ahead I consider important. Typically, packing for an international journey takes a few minutes, and transportation arrangements can be figured out on the fly. As I left for Kazakhstan, all I knew is that my journey to Almaty would likely begin somewhere along the closest main road. So, on a normal Tuesday morning in Bishkek, I grabbed our bags, closed the front door for one last time, headed out onto the bitterly cold and snowy streets – bound for the closest main road, and Almaty, Kazakhstan, somehow.
I found it more than a little sad to be saying goodbye to our modest home – another, in my increasingly long line of temporary accommodations. But, if there is one thing long term travel makes you an expert at, it’s saying goodbye. It’s much easier to suppress the normal emotions associated with permanent departure, when you’ve become numb to such regular absoluteness. Even though our socialist tenancy in Bishkek was certainly grey on the outside, it was decidedly warm and comfortable within. And, when you spend six weeks in one place, you actually start to grow attached. Like all of my temporary accommodations, I had been referring to this as “home” since the moment we stepped inside – it’s a mental trick of the nomadic trade.
Known locally as Stalinka’s and Khrushchyovka’s, with reference to the Soviet leader that ruled during the time of construction, our standard-issue Soviet Union apartment block was either a model 103 or 104, I’m not certain. Quickly constructed during the mid-20th-century, the stereotypical blocks were built to house the growing number of working class people who greased the wheels of Soviet communist industry – the wage earning “proletariat”. Expected to offer between 25 and 50 years of service, basic maths, history, and economic theory, prepared me to expect a few cold showers and rough edges. But, even during a fairly extreme winter, our Bishkek digs were warm and comfortable. Without any pretense, I had been happy to call this Stalinka, our home.
We walked down our potholed and muddy Bishkek driveway, flanked by the neighbouring Stalinka’s and rusting Lada’s. Encased by dark skies, noticing the beginnings of wintry-white-out conditions, I looked ahead at the closest main road. Within a few minutes, I would have completed the entire extent of my travel planning and life would then revert back to my never-ending unknown moment.
How hard could it be, I rhetorically wondered, crossing overland from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan? People have been doing this for centuries. Sure, Marco Polo probably didn’t stand on the side of snowy Jibek Jolu Avenue, waiting for a taxi to take him “anywhere I can catch a bus to Almaty”, but that was my plan. Maybe he didn’t attempt the crossing in winter.
Today, it really was shocking weather. Thick snow was coming down. Cold wind was picking up. If we didn’t make it to Almaty by dark, it would be a really cold night. For at least a brief moment, it occurred to me that I’d need to start thinking sharp. With a little more determination, I squinted through snowflakes at the oncoming traffic and started waving my hand palm-down, as is the custom to catch a ride in Bishkek.
On the roof of the old Lada, I spotted a broken sign made from decaying yellowed plastic, magnetically attached and easily removable. I’m not sure what it said, but it certainly didn’t say Taxi. Good enough, I thought. The elderly driver of an old Russian Lada lowered his window just a crack, and peered through the snow. I initiated our conversation.
First, I always say hello.
It’s a sure-fire indicator that I’m a foreigner, to eliminate any expectation of communication in Russian or Kyrgyz.
He answered me in Russian, wishing me good morning. I told him exactly where I needed him to take me.
“Bus?….avto-bus? ..auto-vaux-haul? Almaty? Kazakhstan? Bus station?”
His nod indicated he understood what I was saying, even if I didn’t. He got out, popped the rear of the “taxi” and I held it open, as the ability to hold itself open had been lost many years before. We threw our backpacks in, between the old rusty oil can and the enormous overflowing bag of greasy potato skins. Inside, it was all a fairly typical scene within the diverse fleet of Bishkek taxi’s. Stained remnants of crispy and yellowing antique-plastic partially protected the ripped-velour door panels. Orange crumbs, littered the rear passenger floor – probably toxic, no doubt from the decaying seat-padding. We were underway, possibly, to the bus-station. Or not.
I’d been told a long-distance share-taxi to Almaty was a common alternative to the “Marshrutka”, the omnipresent public transport vans that ply the streets of many nations of the old Soviet Union. So, I wasn’t too surprised, when we arrived at the “bus station”, there wasn’t actually a bus station. Just a couple of guys wearing fur hats standing by their cars on the side of the street, smoking cigarettes in the snow.
A small sign propped up against one rear window said “Almaty” in Cyrillic. This was good. I walked over, said hello, and inquired about the price of our proposed international journey. This is one situation where the negotiation – language barriers aside – would need to be very specific and completely clear. It’s not that Kyrgyz are dishonest people – meter-less Taxi drivers, all around the world, require extra precaution. He seemed a friendly man, and his car was a nice, later model, black Mercedes. We began to discuss the proposal – driving all the way from here, across the border, into Kazakhstan, and on to Almaty.
His English was slimmer than my Russian. At first, he was asking me about driving to the local Bishkek airport – the conversation helped along with the universal sign language for airport – straightening out your fingers and arm, and using your hand to indicate a plane taking off. The sound effects were fun, but completely unnecessary. I tried to make myself clearer – I wanted to pay him to drive us from here in Bishkek, all the way to Almaty. It seemed obvious enough – he had a sign saying Almaty, we’re interested in getting to Almaty, but, no, we’re not going to the airport here in Bishkek, therefore, we’re headed to somewhere in the city of Almaty, but not the airport. After a few laps of this conversation, finally we were all on the same page, and it was time to discuss price.
Four fingers were held up. Indicating four hundred, or about seven bucks. That seemed too cheap. He must mean four hundred per passenger, which takes us to about fourteen bucks. Or maybe, it’s per passenger, based on a full car of four passengers. Maybe, I would be in for twenty-eight bucks. Maybe thirty-five, if he assumed he could squeeze in five passengers. Nobody really knows the price, pre-journey.
However, we would be travelling for several hundred kilometres, so even thirty-five plus tip would be fine. We agreed, had a last cigarette in the snow, and traded a few smiles. We were about to spend a lot of time together. I took photos of Phillipa with our driver and his colleague who also waiting for passengers, brushed the snow off her jacket, jumped into the Mercedes, and we headed off to Kazakhstan.
There is a concept called a “pole of inaccessibility”. That is, the point on any continental landmass that is farthest from any Ocean. In Australia, it’s near the small town of Alice Springs – there, you’re about nine-hundred kilometers from the closest Sea or Ocean. In North America, just outside of Allen, South Dakota, you’re 1650 km from the Gulf of Mexico. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, you’re around 2500 km from the Persian Gulf, 3500 km to the Mediterranean Sea, and about 4000 km to the East China Sea. Even if you went North, to the frozen seas around the Arctic circle, it’s still more than 2500 km away.
Not far from the spot we were currently driving by, lies the furthest most point from any Sea or Ocean, anywhere on the entire planet.
Thinking about this concept in such detail reminds me that our ride to the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border was totally uneventful. Mostly, I spent the journey wondering why such a landlocked nation had so many sea containers.
Often, an impromptu market springs up on the habitually run-down road that connects any two ex-Soviet nations. Assorted vehicles line the street, selling fruit, vegetables, cigarettes, coffee and even somewhat-fresh cuts of meat straight from the car boot. At these border crossings, if the road isn’t muddy or snowy, it’s dusty. There’s an incongruous sense of lawless-no-mans-land frontier, combined with a prevailing assumption of inevitably unyielding tyranny.
At even the most remote border crossings, there’s a rapid and jarring transition as the surroundings quickly change from hours of desolate and tranquil country roads to a noisy and chaotic array of congested humanity. Importantly, I knew we were now in one of those places where western tourists stick out like fresh car-boot-meat. My serene thoughts of sea containers were quickly replaced with the usual expectations of here-we-go-again uncertainty.
Our taxi joined the lengthy queue of border traffic, we were slowly inching forward and I watched the temporary market pass by. We were stopped by our first snappily dressed border guard, he spoke in Russian to our driver, who passed on the instructions to get out, take our larger backpacks from the back, and walk through immigration. Our driver would stay with his car, and meet us on the other side, after his vehicle had been inspected.
At that point, I made my first mistake.
There’s a rule in these situations, and it’s blindingly obvious even to new players. But in the maelstrom of remote border crossing rules I always abide by, I forgot to follow the most cardinal rule of all. Sure, I had remembered not to take any photos, despite the overwhelming urge to capture the unique, endangered, street scenes. And, I only cracked at smiled with the border guard, after he initiated some relaxed frivolity and indicated he was up for a spot of English practice with two strange foreigners from New Zealand and Australia – places that were as remote to him as this place was to me.
Robotically, I had patiently and calmly waited behind all of the marked lines inside. Filled out my arrival slip with the neatest handwriting, presented my passport and documents with a blank soulless look on my face, and answered all questions simply and precisely, using my clearest non-accented English.
But, I already had a serious problem.
I just didn’t realise it, yet.
We cleared Kyrgyzstan customs. For the next few hundred meters, we walked through the no-mans land, towards the building that marked the entrance point to Kazakhstan. Inside, I went through the same series of procedures I’d just been through on the Kyrgyz side. My recently acquired full-page Kazakhstan visa, page three in my fresh new passport, really looked the part. There were no issues, my tourist visa was stamped. The final steps were to pass our backpacks through a scanner and place them on a table for further inspection. I opened my backpack, and the guard made a simple cursory glance.
At that point, the real day actually started.
Standing next to me at the bag inspection table was an older Russian lady. Fur coat. Leather boots. Old-fashioned printed scarf draped over her red hair. Nothing was matching, but everything was working. She was holding a large hand-woven recycled plastic bag, full of something – perhaps food, perhaps scraps of old newspapers – I’m not sure what was inside, but the formerly quiet and somewhat nostalgic scene began to deteriorate.
At first, she started quietly arguing with a guard, who was blocking her exit out of the building, and into Kazakhstan proper. Quiet arguing rapidly became loud yelling. The guard, trying to keep things calm, gently held her by the arm, and tried to escort her away from the exit. In turn, she pulled against him, grabbing at the barriers designed to herd the human traffic along the strictly pre-determined pathway of procedure.
She grabbed onto the barrier, he grabbed onto her. The barrier broke apart and fell onto the cold polished concrete, a loud riotous clang echoed and reverberated through the Soviet-era hall. She fell to the ground. She stood up. She demolished another metal barrier. And another. Each one making more noise than the last. Her screaming intensified. Other border-crossers began getting restless, but, nobody looked particularly worried – as if this was an everyday border crossing occurrence. Phillipa started walking quickly to the exit. I whispered in her ear “I’m going to walk very slowly, you go ahead if you like..”, as I retrieved my backpack from the inspection table, leisurely placed it on my back, adjusted the straps, re-positioned it, and took as much time as possible to delay my exit from the customs hall. It’s true, occasionally, that some men just want to see the world burn. And, some women too.
She was really starting to smash the place up. Resisting four, maybe five border guards, who finally managed to drag her away, through a special door that I guess was reserved for just this type of situation. The show was over, I walked outside, and smiled at Phillipa. Years of Western propaganda had taught me to expect this sort of thing in the former USSR. In reality, I knew this was an unusually anarchic experience. Unfortunately, most of what we’ve been taught about the USSR is biased at best and outright fabrications at worst.
Outside, we walked through the last gate.
We were officially in Kazakhstan.
I looked around for a spot to stand, and started waiting for our Kyrgyzstan taxi driver to come across the border.
But, we wouldn’t be heading on to Almaty anytime soon.
Around fifteen minutes later, maybe longer, I noticed our taxi driver. On foot. Without his car. In his limited English, and my extremely limited understanding of Russian, I determined that for some reason, he was saying his car was not allowed to enter Kazakhstan. Or maybe, that it would take several hours to be inspected before his car was allowed to enter. It was impossible to say with any certainty what was going on, but I knew that he wouldn’t be taking us to Almaty.
He started drawing circles in the air.
Small circles. Well, maybe you could call them medium sized.
I had no idea what drawing circles in the air meant, and his incredibly sheepish look began to disturb me.
At this moment, I realised exactly what my rather serious problem was.
We were now standing in Kazakhstan.
Back in Kyrgyzstan, was the taxi.
On the backseat of the taxi, back in Kyrgyzstan, was my small day-pack.
And also back in Kyrgyzstan, on the backseat of the taxi, was Phillipa’s small day-pack.
Inside the day-packs, was all of my cash. Also, my laptop, camera, phone, various credit cards, wallets, purses, house keys for back home, and everything that Phillipa and I deem too valuable and too important to put in our large backpacks.
Apart from our passports, every item valuable enough to carry on our person for the last several years, was in another country, on the backseat of an unattended Mercedes, on the other side of a Central Asian border.
I had messed up, big time.
I really didn’t care whether the same Taxi driver would be taking us to Almaty, or not. I just wanted my bags, our cash, and our valuables back. But, our Kyrgyzstan driver seemed to be solely preoccupied with organising our onwards transportation. We were soon surrounded by a large group of Kazakh taxi drivers, all discussing who would take us to Almaty.
“No, we can’t leave!”
“My bags are in your car! Small backpacks, one red, one black. Backseat!”
“Plus, my hat!”
I mimed putting on a hat.
Nobody spoke English, and nobody understood anything.
Our most essential life and travel possessions, and our money, were almost within sight – but in another country. I guessed we could probably re-enter Kyrgyzstan, but that would end any plans of returning back over here, to Kazakhstan. Our visa was valid for one entry only. Heading back would definitely be a one-way journey back to Bishkek.
I pointed back across the border, touched my large backpack, and then cupped my hands to indicate a smaller backpack.
“My. Small. Backpack. On… back…seat… of YOUR car… your auto-machina…..bag… backpack…!”.
I pretended like it was a high-stakes game of charades. Because, it was.
I’m pretty sure I said “mali” several times, which is the Serbian word for small. Instead of “backpack”, I tried “packet”, “ruck-sack”, and “suitcase”. I was surrounded by confused looks on the faces of Kazakh taxi-drivers.
“English! We need somebody who speaks English. Ang-lisky. English?””
An elderly gentleman came forth. He was volunteered by the group, as the best local English speaker and designated translator. He listened to me intently as I explained my backpack situation, nodding as I spoke, he said “yes…yes… yes…OK… yes…”.
When I stopped talking, he looked into my eyes and said:
“Two time? Two time? What does that mean?” I asked.
“Two…. time. TWO TIME.”, he offered as an answer.
“fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck….” I quietly said out loud, with somewhat restrained civility.
But, there was no point in getting frustrated.
Damn it. I really needed those backpacks. In my pockets, I had our passports, but that was all. No money, no way to obtain any money, standing in the middle of nowhere, in one of the coldest winter countries on the planet. Failure wasn’t an option. But, due to the language barriers I still wasn’t exactly sure where the backpacks were. Maybe they were in Kyrgyzstan on the backseat of the taxi. Maybe not.
Nobody understood anything I was saying.
Somehow, between the ten to twenty members of this organically growing and shrinking multi-national group, all standing on the side of the road next to the gates of the border crossing, somehow, we finally made our taxi driver understand. He now realised, I thought, that we had left our day-packs on the backseat of his car. Upon this light-bulb moment, he held his finger up, grinned, pivoted on one foot, and hurriedly half-jogged back into the no-mans land. Flanked by the customs buildings of the two nations, he soon disappeared from sight. I hoped, this was to retrieve our backpacks.
I did think, maybe we would never see our driver, ever again.
But we waited.
People gave us cigarettes.
One of the Kazakh gentlemen who was “assisting” with our situation, seemed to indicate that when we actually had some money, for a reasonable fee he could drive us to Almaty city – which was still more than two hundred kilometers away. His face was trustworthy enough. We placed our large backpacks on top of his Mercedes, in preparation for the return of our Kyrgyz driver, who, it was assumed, would soon be coming back across the border, hopefully, with our small, valuable, backpacks. I had to remain optimistic.
Standing next to his car, the scene remained chaotic as others passed through the border. Dramatic levels of uncertainty remained. We were, after-all, now at a remote border in Kazakhstan without any money, and with an inability to communicate properly with anyone. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant place to hang out. But no matter what, I wasn’t going to leave that spot without our valuable day-packs.
Still waiting, our new prospective driver grabbed our large backpacks from the roof, put them inside the boot, got into the drivers seat, and turned the key. What, in the actual shit, was going on now. I slowly walked to the front of his car, blocking any getaway. Phillipa, instinctively, slowly moved and stood at the rear. I had visions of him reversing into her, and speeding away with our large backpacks inside. Paranoia will destroy you, so I convinced myself he was just getting out of the cold, and turning on the heat. I reminded myself to remain calm.
We waited some more, standing at each end of the car. After a while longer, thinking the situation through, I wasn’t worried anymore. Living a nomadic life for so long, you genuinely start to devalue all material possessions. My brain was now processing the potential of a worst-case-scenario, how we could replace everything we had lost today, and most importantly where we would sleep the night. No big deal. It simply wasn’t an option to go without a warm bed to sleep in later tonight. My subconscious had already determined that when this was all over, there was no doubt everything would work out fine. Often, you need a certain amount of ridiculously speculative optimism to survive travel through these sorts of destinations. And occasionally, a healthy disregard of reality. But, sure, I thought it would be nice if our day-packs did actually find their way to back to us.
With a style befitting his nomadic ancestry, my Kyrgyz taxi driver, finally, walked back across the border, with our two small day-packs, holding them aloft, arms stretched high, with some degree of pride. He was wearing my hat. Kyrgyzstan is may be a stunningly beautiful country, but this was the most glorious sight I had seen in my entire six weeks. I’m sure my eyes welled.
One final task, I needed to pay him for our ride so far. Not seven bucks, or even fourteen, or thirty-five. It was 1000 Som, about seventeen dollars. Whatever. Didn’t care. I thanked him in Russian and English.
Now, we had our valuable backpacks, our taxi onwards to Almaty arranged was pre-warmed and ready for departure. The ride away from the border would take us across the same silk-road Kazakhstan steppe that Ghengis once traversed, into Almaty. Once again, it was time for me to negotiate a price with our third taxi driver of the day.
The first figure the new taxi driver gave me was $130 US dollars. A price so absurdly high, it defied any further negotiation. A price reserved especially for tourists who had been recently observed dealing with a rare case of missing luggage at a remote, unknown border. I didn’t want to consider any further negotiation with this man, so I tapped on the boot of the car and asked him to open it, to retrieve our larger backpacks and look for an alternative method to complete our journey. After four or five taps, he opened it. Not once, did he attempt to negotiate down.
There was a small shop nearby. I exchanged some cash, smoked a cigarette, and looked around. Another one of the gang of taxi drivers came over to talk to us. He offered the price of about fifty bucks. This confirmed that my initial offer was certainly a tourist price. In between his offers, I constantly said two words. “No”, and “Marshrutka”. I was done with taxi drivers for today. Not knowing for sure, I assumed there must be a bus or van that would drive us the three or four hour journey to Almaty. The taxi driver consistently told me “no Marshrutka”.
Of course, it didn’t take long to find the appropriate Marshrutka. It took a lot longer to leave, as it’s common practice to only depart once the van is full of paying passengers. There’s no timetable, only bums on seats will get the van moving. Waiting was fun – Russian ladies approached, selling hot coffee, tea, and Piroshki’s – homemade fried buns stuffed with pickled cabbage, onion, and meat. Delicious. I would gladly wait all day, eating Piroshki’s in the back of a cold and crowded Marshrutka, rather than paying for an unscrupulous taxi.
In Zadar, Croatia, I had a taxi driver tell me “fine, just fucking walk then”, rather than allowing me to pay anywhere near the same price that a local would pay. In Sri Lanka, I was asked to pay ten times the going rate, by a driver that lied about already having been paid for the journey, by the hotel I was staying at. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, just try and get a taxi to turn a meter on. In Bulgaria, there are secret buttons to make the meter spin faster. So, it’s kind of my personal travel rule – where possible, when time isn’t an issue, I don’t use a taxi. And, sitting in the Marshrutka, with a posse of local Khazaks, eating Piroshki and sipping hot coffee, made me feel totally restful and at ease.
The Marshrutka journey to Almaty, which I spent a great deal sleeping through, was uneventful. My waking moments were spent looking at the serenity of the mostly empty steppe rolling by, punctuated by the occasional town, and checking in on Phillipa, who was calm, relaxed, and gazing out the window. Fortunately, we both got some rest.
Really, we were going to need it.
Upon arriving at a seemingly major bus station in Almaty city, formerly the capital city of Kazakhstan, we departed the Marshrutka, grabbed our large backpacks from the rear, and held our small backpacks tightly to our chests like they were human babies. There was, of course, a spruiking flock of taxi drivers, and we passed quickly through the pack to a quieter spot nearer to the main bus terminal.
The day was getting colder, and darker, and for some reason, my phone had stopped working. This was a problem. We were now somewhere in Almaty, but I had no way of contacting the owner of the apartment we were booked to stay in tonight. I didn’t have the precise address, nor did I have any idea of where we currently were, or how to get to our final destination.
My travel-planning nonchalance felt like, maybe, it was starting to catch up with me.
I needed a moment to think things through.
It was time for a cigarette.
I’d read about Almaty being basically a “smoke-free” city. Recognised by the World Health Organisation as such, I had to be careful where, and when, I lit up – even outdoors. The anti-smoking laws here in Almaty are very, very, strict. This isn’t about no-smoking at a bar, restaurant, or even an office, school, or hospital – many outdoor areas are completely off-limits to smokers.
Five minutes after arriving in Almaty, I was about to find this out the hard way.
I had already noticed the signs on the wall. Three of them. No smoking. I could read the Cyrillic. A 5000 Tenge fine, or about twenty-seven dollars. Phillipa and I chatted about it, and looked for a place to safely light up. Away from the terminal building, there was a small raised garden bed. In the middle of the bed, a sign indicated this was the place for smokers. A few men standing on one side, near a bin, puffing away, settled the matter. We stood near the men, and Phillipa lit a cigarette.
Immediately, two young and smug Kazakh police arrived on the scene.
His hand was outstretched.
After a brief, fruitless, discussion, I handed over our passports.
Looking around, the faces of the smoking locals expressed preemptive sorrow.
The Police looked at the passports, and then spoke to us.
“Hmmm. Problem. Smoking. No smoking. You must Protocol!”
I pointed at the men smoking, standing next to us.
Then at the “smoking here” sign, right next to us.
And at the three “no-smoking” signs, that were some distance away from us.
With a few more hand gestures offered, it seemed Phillipa had a single puff of a cigarette on the “wrong” side of the garden bed with the smoke-here sign. I apologised on her behalf, despite that locals were smoking here as well. Later, we would see a uniformed Kazakh police officer smoking in the precisely the same location.
“You. Come. Protocol. No smoking.”
They started to walk away. With our passports.
I’d already spent a great deal of today holding tightly to the last valuable item I possessed, our passports, whilst all my other valuables were gone. Now, the situation was ironically reversed, my passport was no longer in my control.
“Why? What is the problem?”
“Can you just give me our passports back… we have only been in Almaty only five minutes, we’re sorry.”
“No. Problem! Smoking. Protocol.”
“Look, there is a sign. It says we can smoke here.”
“No. Come. Protocol!”
I threw down my large backpack with exasperated disgust and began to follow after the police.
It had been a long day, so far. I told Phillipa to stay here, and wait with the locals, she would be safe, I’d sort this out.
The two Kazakh police officers chaperoned me through a dirty corridor, inside a dark and off-limits section of the cavernous and stark Almaty bus terminal. I already knew, there would be no official report. There would be no paperwork. There would only be cash. Surely, Kazakhstan was about to join Armenia and Transnistria on my special hand-written list of post-Soviet nations I’ve been bribed in.
Years of listening to anecdotes from fellow travellers, experiences from my own journey’s through the old Russian states, and a youthful diet of 1980’s spy movies set in faraway Soviet lands, would need to coalesce. I’m well versed in the surreal blending of reality and imagination that sometimes occurs in these places, and I had a plan. With the language barriers and cultural differences soon to be rendered trivial, I would deftly navigate through any shakedowns and scams, and continue on my way, sans bribe, Scot-free.
Usually, you shouldn’t follow random Police down dark corridors to out-of-view locales. But this time, I didn’t have much choice, as they held our passports. I followed them into the bus terminal, and started looking for anything that indicated that this was indeed an official Police station. There was a simple, weathered, sign in Cyrillic that read “полиция”… Russian for “Police”. For some reason, that made me feel a little better about the situation. I followed the men into a small room. They closed a heavy door behind me and locked us all inside. I laughed, knowing that a dirty attempted bribe from a couple of Khazak cops, wasn’t even close to being the highlight of my increasingly lengthy day so far.
He wanted to know if I could speak Russian. I have a standard response, it normally makes people laugh.
I always pronounce it like “neeee-yet”, with my best Russian accent. It means no, in Russian. That’s the joke.
I knew they would, it’s a classic when delivered just right.
“What is you name?”
“Nathan. My friends call me Nate.”
“Nate.. you have problem. Smoking. You must protocol.”
“Sorry, I don’t understand.”
I’d seen rooms like this before. Without a doubt, “you must protocol”, meant “you must pay us cash in this windowless room if you ever want to see your passports again, and no, there will be not be any receipt”. But I also knew I wasn’t going to give these police one red cent.
My plan was simple – delay, remain polite and confuse them by speaking as much English as possible. And, constantly tell them I that I didn’t understand, even if I did. Eventually, I assumed, they would give up and look for easier prey.
To get around the language issues, they drew a map of the bus terminal, the location of the garden bed, the smoking signs, the no smoking signs. Then, they mentioned “protocol” a lot, and tried to explain what I’d done wrong. No matter what they said, my reply was “sorry, I don’t understand”, and then start randomly talking about Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, rip off taxi drivers, Australia, Serbia, Europe, and my backpacks going missing but that everything was OK, now that I’d got my hat back from the other side of the border.
Every now and then I’d say “sorry, I can’t speak Russian”. When they said something to me or provided me a new drawing, I’d temporarily feign understanding, to make them think they’d finally managed to successfully explain the situation to me.
“…ohhhhhhh… right… smoking is OK here, but, smoking is NOT OK there… so protocol… but… ummm… umm… sorry, I don’t understand.”
Repeat this loop, and watch their frustration slowly but surely increase.
Eventually, a clear offer was on the table. They had written a dollar sign, a five, and a zero. Clearly, I couldn’t feign a misunderstanding any longer. They wanted fifty US dollars. I told them I had no money. And, that I didn’t understand.
The police told me they would hold onto our passports, if I can’t pay the fifty dollars now, and when I returned with fifty dollars, I could have the passports. My tactics weren’t working. They had all the power, I had nothing.
I continued to take them around in circles. Smoking. No smoking. Me no understandy. They made a drawing, I made a drawing. Fifty dollars, protocol, and I don’t understand. Universally, time is money – and I still assumed either they would give up, or reduce the bribe amount. It’s a simple numbers game. They could be missing out on more valuable westerners, arriving at the terminal outside at any moment. Perhaps another tourist would be willing to hand over cash a little faster. They can’t spend all day with me, the numbers just don’t add up. They were unlikely to get physical or risk any kind of incident. I knew it, they knew it. But they had our passports, and they wouldn’t let me go.
A third policeman joined us. An older gent. He too mentioned “protocol”. I told him I didn’t understand. He said the Russian word that sounded like “sht-raf”, many times. I later found out, it means “fine”. But, in this dank room, the two words bribe and fine are completely interchangeable. I told him I didn’t understand. We ran this loop a couple more times, he gave the other two policemen a look of “screw this for a joke, I’m out”. And, he left.
The first two cops wouldn’t give up. Aware that Phillipa was waiting outside, with strangers, at a bus station somewhere in Kazakhstan, I felt the need to move things along and decided to switch to a different track. So, I made a drawing of Phillipa (a female stick figure with long girly hair and a cigarette in her mouth), and I explained the pertinent facts – I didn’t even actually light a cigarette. I told them it was Phillipa that was smoking, not me, that I’ve really done nothing wrong, and I shouldn’t really be here, so they should just go ahead and let me go.
The more staunch of the two policemen picked up the pen.
He drew a horizontal line under the stick-figure Phillipa.
And, another line above.
Then, connected those lines with a series of straight lines, with a neat gap in between each.
It was now a drawing of Phillipa, locked-up inside in a Kazakhstan jail.
Evidently, it was time for another idea.
I tried a few more delays, my frustration eventually resulted in the use of the “well, Sir, my Embassy will certainly be informed about this!” line. They laughed, drew a rather neat outline of Australia, and Kazakhstan, and pointed out that we were all currently a very, very long way from Australia. With increasing frustration, I decided it was time to call their bluff, and get this over and done with.
“OK. Look. Really, I don’t care anymore. I didn’t do anything wrong. No fifty dollars, no protocol. Nothing for you.”
“Phillipa. Girl. Woman outside. Jail. Good. Jail. OK?
“Put her in jail, whatever, leave her in jail, because I really don’t give a fuck at this point, but, no protocol.”
Understanding what I was saying, they laughed incredulously.
Sensing a golden opportunity to provide Phillipa with yet another impromptu real-life lesson in Soviet-shit-hole contemporary bureaucracy, I asked the Police if I could go back outside, and bring her in here. Then, they could explain the situation, to her. It’s not like I could get too far, they had my passports. They allowed me to leave.
They unlocked the door, I walked slowly, at first. Then, after they couldn’t see me, I started walking really fast.
She was at the same spot I had left her.
Not worried, and not smoking.
I’d been gone at least forty minutes. It probably seemed like a long amount of time for her to be standing, alone, outside the bus station of a former USSR city we had just arrived in, unsure of what had happened to me, without her passport, surrounded by strangers. One day, I’ll have to ask her about that. In any case, I had to quickly explain the lay of the land, what was happening, so we could get both go back to the shitty, windowless, room.
“OK, look, this is the situation. These cops are total pricks, I’m not really getting anywhere, they want fifty bucks, but I think the delay tactics will work eventually…
…oh, shit, that’s right, you don’t even know what the problem is…. the problem is, according to these arsehole cops, you smoked on the wrong side of the no-smoking sign. You needed to be there, not there.”
I pointed at both spots and waited for her response to my news update.
Calmly, she said “well, that’s a joke.”
“I know, I know… so look, this is what’s happening.. you’re going to come with me into this little room they’ve been holding me in. They want fifty bucks. US dollars. I’m not paying them, no matter what. Do you have any cash in your pockets? Shit! Fucking hide it! OK, so when you get inside the room, you’re going to see a drawing of you, you’re going to be locked up behind bars, inside a Kazakhstan jail, but, but, don’t worry, it’s just part of my plan…”
“…don’t worry, it’s all bullshit, it’s just games, babe. You know what it’s like around here. Smile, and keep saying you don’t understand. it really pisses them right off. This might take a bit longer yet, but we can get out of this without paying for anything…”
“But we didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I know… it doesn’t really matter, you know what cops in these post-Soviet shit-holes are like, they just want cash… sure, not in Georgia, those cops were cool, but… just trust me, alright, let’s go…”
Honestly, post-Soviet shit-holes is a term of endearment. I love these places. Armenia. Moldova. Transnistria. Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan. Lithuania. Latvia. Estonia. Uzbekistan. Georgia. Moldova. Ukraine. Azerbaijan. Some are less Soviet, and less shit-holey, than others. But often, they have one thing in common – more than their fair share of ridiculous police. Strutting, intimidating, checking documents, talking about you-must-protocol.
Only once, was I asked to pay a fine where I had genuinely done something wrong in a former Soviet country. I’d parked in a no-parking zone in a town not far from the border of Georgia. The policeman was clearly shocked, when I offered to pay the legitimate amount of the fine directly to him, in cash. It was only about nine dollars. He backed away from me, told me to take my hand out of my pocket, to not worry about the fine. He quickly got in his patrol car and drove away.
Armenian police, Tajikistan police, Transnistrian police multiple times, and as it turned out this wouldn’t be the last time the Kazakh police had a shot at making me pay money, for not doing anything wrong. Mostly, I enjoy the game. My rules are simple – pay as little as possible, preferably nothing, in as little time as possible. Then the game ends, and I win.
Now, less than an hour into Almaty, Kazakhstan, I thought this would be a great opportunity for Phillipa to get off the bench and get some personal experience in bribe negotiations. Considering the lesson was to commence with the Phillipa-in-jail drawing, sure, it would absolutely be baptism by fire.
We entered the room.
“Ahh. Miss “Phillipa”. Smoking. Protocol. Problem. You must protocol.”
Despite an uncanny ability to seem like reasonably fluent English speakers, their small Police vocabulary was almost strictly limited to words about collecting money. So, I felt sure that I could safely talk to Phillipa, without the cops comprehending what was being said. Quietly, I suggested she just keep smiling and told her not to worry, as they can’t really understand any English.
Like a third-base coach, I’d talk the game plan through with her in real-time.
Tapping the drawing of Phillipa in jail, and they sternly frowned.
I spoke quietly, just above a whisper, and told her what to say.
“OK, act like you’ve just understood what that drawing means…”
“Right, now just say sorry a few times… good… good..”
“Now, tell them you don’t understand…”
“Tell them again, you don’t understand…”
“Great, now do it all again… this is great… you’re a natural!”
“Oh wow, they’re really getting really pissed… this is working… keep going!”
The look on Phillipa’s face seemed to convey she didn’t seem overly convinced of my situation assessment.
“Don’t worry, you’re not going to jail… probably not anyway…”
It was a spontaneous play on a well-worn sitcom trope – the clever, older, guy hiding in the bushes, providing the lines for his nerdy buddy to romance the hot girl looking out from the second-floor window. It always, almost always, works.
At that moment, the door unlocked with a clank, and a new Policeman entered the room.
He was older, and had an altogether much more serious look of “I don’t fuck about, so don’t even try it”.
The game was about to change.
His first question was to ask if we were American’s. We pointed at our passports on the table. He picked them up and flicked through the pages.
“No, we’re not American. Australia. New Zealand.”
He spoke in Russian to the original cops. It was a lengthy conversation – he looked and sounded very, very, annoyed.
When he finished speaking, he left the room.
The two cops handed our passports.
“OK, you go now.”
It made no logical sense that we were in that situation in the first place or why we were finally allowed to leave.
But, I’ve found that logic is quite often over-rated. And the journey for this single day wasn’t yet over – the grand-prize of a warm bed still remained quite out of reach. Outside it was dark, I had no way of finding our apartment, nor contacting the owner, and my phone still wasn’t working. Believe me, there were no wifi-enabled cafes at that bus station in Almaty, and the police were much more interested in seeing the backs of us than lending any kind of assistance.
Finally, we left the bus terminal.
My plan was to head towards the closest main road.
There’s a short version of the remainder of our day. I managed to buy a local SIM card from a lady who was also selling frozen whole chickens, I phoned the apartment owner, and received an address with complicated directions to an Almaty “micro-district”. He suggested catching a Taxi, as the local buses would be too difficult. Inquiring with four different drivers about the price for a ride into town, each gave me a different price of at least ten-times the amount a short taxi journey in New York City would cost. We hailed the first bus we saw and hopped on.
As it turns out, the bus was heading in totally the wrong direction. We got off that bus, walked a bit more, onto a street heading at a 45-degree angle to the last (logic!), and hopped onto a different bus. Then, we switched to another bus, blindly choosing buses, in the hopes that via a process of elimination, eventually, surely, a bus would be going in the direction of downtown Almaty, and we could figure it out from there.
On the fourth bus, helpful English speaking locals assisted us. We were now certainly heading in the right direction, and they would let the bus driver know when to stop. We didn’t pay for a ticket because by now we had no local cash left. This wasn’t a problem – the ticket-collector laughed, seemingly all-knowing about our trials of the day. We practiced our foreign language skills on one another, the passengers on the very crowded bus were all happy and smiling. It was great.
Walking uphill, through deep snow and slippery ice, well and truly late, we arrived at our new home in downtown Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was warm, comfortable, and had a great view over the Soviet-era neighbourhood that we would eventually spend a month in, collecting more visas for the other Central Asian countries.
Just before I fell asleep, I told Phillipa how, in hindsight, it was a great day and even without planning it turned out to be fairly easy to get from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
I passed out, not knowing exactly where I was.