Thursday, February 17, 2005
The Uzbek blogs will take some time to put together, so for the time being I will fill you in on our time in/thru Kazakhstan.
Long story very short. We left our friend's place in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, at 9:30AM on the 12th. Our feet hit the ground outside the train in my sis's town in China at 6:00AM on the 16th. There was a 24-hour layover (more or less) in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Long story not so short. At the Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan border, there are 4 checkpoints to pass thru (we elected to walk across instead of paying one of the harassful taxi drivers an exorbitant amount to take us the 1/2 kilometer or so): 2 on the Uzbek side and 2 on the Kazakh side. No problem. One Uzbek and one Kazakh guard claimed to remember sis from the month before when she was going into Uz, which greased the wheels a little. Then the greaze froze up. Thru the last Kazakh checkpoint all we had to do was pass by the little toll-type-booth for vehicles going into Uz. My fat mouth made a comment about our ease of passage so of course as we passed this booth a Kazakh guard yelled at us, took our passports, told us that since we were missing our customs declarations forms (not to be found anywhere) and that we'd need to pay a fine. Sis argued with him for a minute or two then translated for me what was going on so that we could both show annoyance. After all of us standing around for about 10 minutes, this guy was on the verge of giving in when another guy took up the fight and brought us 'inside' and gave us customs forms to fill out. These forms have columns where you have to declare any and all cash you have on you (no min. amount). Helpful so that they know how much to take for a bribe. And you have to be pretty honest because if they check and you lied....bye=bye extra money! It turned out ok. We filled out the forms, they 'reviewed' them behind close doors and they let us go without lightening our pockets.
Hassle 2. Our first long ride was from Shymkent, Kazakhstan (a 2-hour ride from the border) to Almaty, Kazakhstan (the recent ex-capital of the country. The dicta...um, President, BUILT a new city to be the capital. A very Russified [Russian] country, he wants more conversion to Kazkh only stuff. So he built a friggin' city out in the middle of nowhere. Money which could have been used for much better things. Like, improving the living conditions in the country? Blog for later). The bus departed at 7pm and was scheduled to arrive in Almaty around 7AM. The guy sitting behind us, upon learning that my sis speaks Kazakh, was continually shoving his head between us (literally pushing my head aside) to talk to her and wake her up when she began trying to sleep. Annoyed, I buggered him off and sis ignored him. Semi-worked. Outside it had been and continued to snow, making the roads treacherous and slow (I still don't look out the front window. It's better to not know what's coming). Oh yeah-and at 2am, the bus broke down. In the driving lane of a narrow 2 lane road, in the snow and -20 degree C weather. I got out to 'relieve' myself and enjoyed the peaceful mostly empty road and quiet frozen scenery and gave thanks for the invention of emergency flashing lights on vehicles. Getting rear-ended would be less than ideal-sis and I had seats in the second to last row. Scampering back on board I joined the rest of our fellow passengers in the hopes that the bus would move again under its own power (no towns in sight). Several people didn't stick around to see what happened. Another bus stopped (not to help but to shanghai passengers) and there was a brief rish to grab a 'seat' in the aisle of the working bus. We decided to hope for the best. Maybe 2 hours later the bus began moving, the engine sounding decent until the gears were engaged, at which time I began to wonder why there were small to medium sized rocks dropped into the cylinders. An hour later the drivers called it quits and dumped the bus on the side of the road with instructions for us all to "get off". This left us, at 3AM, standing on the side of the road, waiting for another bus to stop and load us on. 15 minutes later our salvation arrived. Brenda got a seat next to a woman traveling with a wig (don't ask) and I got on a low platform (used as a bed so the drivers could be well rested) with 6 other people. My new close friends and I jammed together, all of us laying on each other's shoulders in attempts to sleep. This worked well for me the entire 20 minutes I slept. The experience would have been much nicer and more of a bonding experience except my left leg was painfully twisted by the woman sitting on her bag in the aisle who NEEDED to snuggle with her husband seated next to me (later on, he laid across my lap and used my backpack as a pillow. Cute, eh?). That's how I sat, for 7 hours. Couldn't feel most of my lower body when we stopped, except of course for my blottoe'd knee. "It'll make a good story," was my mantra.
Eventually we boarded a train from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Urumqi, China (Xinjiang Province). A longer stay in Almaty would have been nice only a bus was out of the question-the border was closed (the road, actually. Darn snow!)-and trains only made the run 3 times a week. Our options were to leave the followign night or overstay our 5-day transit visas. Tired already of Kazakh police, a rapid departure was deemed optimal. A 30-hour ride, our tickets claimed. Leaving at 10:40PM, arriving....later. We left at 10:40 on the 14th and arrived at 6AM on the 16th. Looong ride. Eventful, in a way. About an hour before hitting the Chinese border, 2 Kazakh cops on the train checked passports. Only mine and my sis's were taken for 'further inspection'. 1o ticks of the minute hand later they returned and asked us to come to their berth to talk. Guess what? Another extortion attempt! We were 'missing' a form that a guard at the border said was not needed. It would be no problem if we paid a 'fine'. Same routine as before. Sis explained to me, we both muttered unhappily and sat around until they got bored and said that "it'd be ok". Assholes. I thought cop harassment was bad in Uzbek, but it's worse in Kazakhstan. Crooked cops....ain't they great? Finally the border arrived. Our berth mate, a Chinese woman, started talking with my sis when she realized a common language (that would be Chinese, the 6TH language my sis has spoken in my presence thus far). Warnings about Kazakh customs people flowed like rotten milk from her mouth. Her trip into Kazakhstan wisened her to the ways of the customs folk. Our money pouches got shoved into our pant legs and valuables were buried under clothes and such at the bottom of our packs. Seems the guards like to go thru your stuff and keep money they find as well as items that may catch their attention. Nice. Our worries were unsubstantiated this time as they didn't even go thru our bags. They only kept the train at the border for 4 hours, constantly tramping up and down the hallways looking 'impressive'. Their last act of bullying (before making us wait another hour) was to have everyone in the car leave their berth and stand in the hallway outside while they checked for....something. In an act solely intended as a display of "look at how much power we think we have, and you can't do anything about it", they ruffled our jackets and pillows and sheets (yes, we took the expensive sleeper car, thank god [only because there were no hard seats]). Official, I am sure. I mean, the guys doing the ruffling had on tool belts containing a flashlight and screwdriver! Maybe they wanted to fluff our pillows as a thanks for being patient? Oof. 4 hours!! Then we had to deal with the Chinese (a relief! Not words I thought I'd ever say). Our bags got emptied (we got to do it, they kept their hands off which was nice) and our passports were returned within an hour. But for some reason we remained motionless for another 2 hours.
Which brings us to the end. Fortunately, sis asked if the train passed thru her town which is 3-4 hours by train from Urumqi. They said yes and saved us 10 hours of travel and some cash. 5am dumped us unceremoniously into the -20 degree C streets. As I've said before, those are not conditions conducive to bargaining. The taxi guy ripped us off and charged us the foriegner's rate (it is a known fact in China that there is a higher cost for us non-Chinese), DOUBLE the amount that sis has ever spent in a taxi here (she does speak english; he didn't care).