Please release me, let me go…

You may think that Kazakhstan and Wisconsin seem to have very little in common but you would be wrong in some respects, I happened to live in Eau Claire Wisconsin for a little while and I have very happy memories of the work we did there and the friends I made in that team, in fact for many years I would go back occasionally to go fishing in Canada with those guys and remain friends with folks like Bill Petefish and Dave Noddin although we rarely meet these days.  What brought that to mind was a couple of odd coincidences, one of the border guides looked incredibly like Bill only with an Asian twist, the same white beard thing in the same shape and the same relaxed good humour that I remember Bill for.  There is a road from Uzbekistan to Almaty in Kazakhstan that I am sure is based on the road from Eau Claire to the twin cities, it is concrete and the tyres have that humming noise that I remember in the USA, it is wide with big ditches which I remember trying not to skate into when I hit freezing rain, and the countryside seems similar if you do not look too far in the distance – far in the distance is a enormous mountain range that would pass as a double of the European alps only bigger you don’t get that in Wisconsin for sure.  You also do not get cowboys herding sheep down the central reservation either or herds of beautiful horses crossing the road unconstrained and unguarded – but apart from that it feels similar, the temperature is cooler than the extremes of the desert roads and the countryside is greener, I even saw some small spots of rain for the first time in a month and a half and had my first Starbucks Latte this afternoon.

Here are some pictures of my camp and the road that reminded me of Wisconsin, but in this case there is a herd of horses crossing the road which was one of those “not Wisconsin” moments in the dawn light

The reason this came to mind is that I was reflecting on the experiences of last night, I got stuck at the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for 6 hours and on reflection it was mostly my fault coupled with a bit of government official inefficiency. As I was driving I remembered the border control at Sioux Narrows when I used to turn up, they usually had to root around to find the stamp for foreigners (ie not US and not Canadian) as that border is not often used by outsiders.  So it was last night I think, if for fun I imagine my friends Bill and Dave were the two customs guys I had to deal with, and they were on the Canada border when a Russian speaking guy rocked up in a truck from the UK and an Irish passport you can see the experience through a different lens.  It might have gone like this from the perspective of the border guys last night.

“Hey Bill have you seen what we have got on the monitor, some numpty tourist is coming to our border, don’t they know this is the truck border and they should cross at the main border 60km on, there are signs everywhere but still they come, look he is wedged in between a couple of big trucks he will be there for hours….” Dave looks at the monitor and sighs “I bet he won’t speak a bloody word of English like the last one, we will have to run around him all night -anyway its your turn I did the last one and the footballs on” Bill scratches his chin and adjusts his fatigues “maybe we will be lucky, anyway we are here for the whole shift”

Two hours later I rock up to the gate visibly relieved to be out of the truck que with my bunch of papers ready to do battle with the forms and appear at their window, Bill asks “Hello please give me your passport and your registration document for the car” I look blankly and hand him my passport and insurance…”No not that the REGISTRATION DOCUMENT for the car”, Bill hopes by saying it more loudly I will understand, which of course I don’t so I just start handing over documents until Bill can pick out the one he wants, which he does.  “Finally” he says to Dave, and looks at the documents “Oh no, he has gone right past passport control, lets send him back” “right mister you need to go back to passport control, passport, stamp, over there, no over there, yes you go over there and get a stamp on your passport (mimes stamp, points at another building)” I give him the thumbs up and stride confidently to the toilet block, walking around looking for the man with a stamp that I seem to need on my passport first.

“Holy god, he’s wandering around the toilet block, what an idiot” says Dave watching me on the CCTV Bill for goodness sake send that private over to point him in the right direction, so a nice young man in military uniform, picks me up and shakes my hand, walks me to the police passport check point that I was supposed to have stopped at and mimes – stay here till you get a stamp then come back, I nod happily in a Forrest Gump kind of way and approach the passport police from the wrong direction in the face of a que of locals waiting to cross in the right direction – Mr Passport Police who we will call Mark, calls me forward and motions the locals to wait, who take one look at me and sit down with exasperated sighs.

Right Mr Foreigner lets get you sorted, “were are you from?” he asks and I recognise from my Russian lessons, (generally remember the right Russian phrase cleverly about 10min after I needed to remember them so far).  I say “Irelandi” and he says “ah Iceland OK”, but then realised that I do not have a Visa, which is OK if you are from the EU, but not if you are from Iceland.  Many sentences later, including me pointing to my very handy world map, and we determine that its Ireland not Iceland, a call is made to the office upstairs and internet is consulted on his phone, and we are satisfied that I come from Ireland and Ireland is in the EU so that is all right then…well not really…”you have machine” he asks miming a steering wheel helpfully, I say yes and hand over the registration document for the car and a whole new dance starts

“Which country is this from” I point to the UK written on the registration document (the UK government helpfully puts in big red letters “this document is not proof of ownership” intended to help people in the UK to remember that there might be credit owning on the car when they are buying one – in international borders it is a right pain in the ass – officials who can read english all ask for proof of ownership as soon as they see it – but the registration document is all we have).  He consults with his colleague ‘I am asking him were it is from and he says united kingdom, but it cant be from the USA as the system will not accept it, Again we resort to the map “ah Anglese, why the hell did he not say that in the first place, he does not even know what country he comes from Mark says to his sergent who is now standing behind him as the que of locals builds up.  And then finally i get a stamp, fingerprints and photos taken much to the relief of all the onlookers.

I walk back around the toilet block to what I now understand is the customs officers office “Oh finally here comes Mr Numpty says Bill to Dave” I proudly present my stamped passport, registration document and some other forms to do with access control at the border – “Customs declaration please” asks Bill, I look blankly….”Private! take Mr Numpty back to the police checkpoint and make him fill out a customs declaration..”  My friendly private takes me back to the same building I have just left to a desk just after border control Marks desk under the big sign in Kazak and Russian saying “Fill in your customs declaration here before proceeding any further” which of course I had walked straight past in my puppy like happiness at having achieved the passport stamp.  15 min later it is all done, thankfully it has english subtitles and I return to the customs post.

“Here he comes again Dave” says Bill “no way he is all yours, I’m watching the football counters Dave” and so Bill works through my forms and gives me a new bit of paper which has to be stamped by the customs inspection team, pointing at the group of guys smoking in the corner he says “go there and points”….I happily approach the group and pick out the sergeant ” Saalam” I say it is now dark and he says “you have a car?” which i understand and point to the Landy which has been waiting patiently for about an hour. “Oh crap, he says to his friends, have you have seen this machine, there must be a million paces to hid stuff in that thing” he shouts down to the nearby group “hey youngsters come over here we’ve got one for you” he says to three young conscripts.  “Take this thing apart look for alcohol and perhaps we can get something out of this miserable night” he says and the youngsters proceed to get me to open every compartment, tool box, storage box, cupboard, roof box for them one step at a time, I insist on putting one away before opening the next one up so that I can manage to keep an eye on the stuff, so the whole process takes an hour and I am sweating buckets by the end (they even get me to pop the roof at which we have an audience of about 10 border guards including the chief who has come to look at the machine

He takes pity on me sweating in the dark, and says to me in perfect english “OK Mister you can go” and indicates to the young guys that they are to help me put the stuff back in the truck.  I go back to Bill and Dave with my stamped form and they drag themselves away from the football to counter stamp the forms and give me the document I need to carry with me in country and surrender at the exit of the country.  I am happily heading to the gate when lots of shouting and waving starts to happen and I realise I must have done something wrong.

“I told him to go to xRay (Radon in Russian apparently) says Bill to Dave, how can these folks turn up here and not speak a word of english, at least Fred has caught him and pointed him in the right direction” So my new private indicates I still have to go through x-ray, so I drive into the big hall watched by the x ray operators on CCTV who shout at me on the intercom, I have no idea what they are saying so I get out of the car and shrug my shoulders – I can imagine the discussion in the control room ” go and get him Fred or he will get fried for stupidity and one of the guys has to come down from his air conditioned office to bring me inside so they can see that I don’t do anything stupid.

Finally xray complete there is one final police check at the gate and a nice soldier opens the gate, it is now 1am, I am in a new strange country having spent 6 hours crossing the two borders (the outline above is only half the story, I had to get out of Turkmenistan first which was a similar process) so weaving in and out of a massive 2km que of trucks, on a bumpy road, choking on diesel fumes and haze, I have to find my way to buy insurance, change money, and get something to eat….never mind finding somewhere to park up and sleep – here is Nelson outside the insurance office in the middle of the night so you can see I am not making it up !

Now the moral of this, rather long, story is that on many websites this could be written up as “what a horrendous, badly organised nightmare of a border crossing” but the truth is that it was a bit disorganised but the main problem was me as follows

  • Always choose the crossing which is set up for your type of person and familiar with foreigners, check out the web reports on each crossing in advance
  • You should arrive early in the day not as night falls
  • Don’t be in a hurry
  • Have somewhere to stay on the other side organised
  • Learn to speak the basic words in the local language, specially the local words for where you come from and where your car is from if that is different (nobody knows UK out here, its all Anglese, and Ireland has them scratching their heads or saying “braveheart”)

So I broke all the rules, but I did finally find a decent place to pull up and slept well, I needed to make up the time to get to Almaty in time for Lee’s flight so there was a good reason for breaking the rules, but if you do there are consequences – don’t blame the locals when you are really the main cause of the delays (mind you they were being a bit hard assed about the searching and a separate car lane in no mans land would have saved me 2 hours)

Just a part of the big adventure


About Gerry Mulligan

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