I stood behind my American friend at the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border. It was raining from a cement colored sky, and so everyone was pulled in tight underneath the blue corrugated plastic roofing overhead. The crowd funneled into four main lines, marked by green signs printed in Russian and Kyrgyz: two for Kyrgyz Citizens, one for Kazakh Citizens, and one for foreigners. Our line was moving more slowly than the others (of course that might be a matter of perspective), but at least it was moving.
Then it was my friend’s turn. He stepped forward, handed the passport control officer his passport, and waited. The girl that had gone through just before him hadn’t taken long. She was a Kyrgyz-born, Belgian-raised college student with very good English who had struck up a conversation with us while we were waiting in line. I expected my friend and I to take more time, but not this much more.
It was hard to hear the guard through the tiny window, and my friend had to ask him to repeat himself several times. Their back and forth was in Russian, and I wasn’t following. But tones of voice need no translator. There was a problem. My friend was trying to explain something. I caught the words “fine,” “Friday,” “visa,” and “lawyer.” It didn’t look like the control officer was going to budge. I could feel my friend’s pain.
“Oh, great God, pour out your grace,” I pleaded.
A second officer appeared and had my friend step just beyond the passport control, thankfully still within my sight. He took my friend’s passport from the first officer and began flipping through the pages.
“There’s no visa,” I heard the second officer say to the first.
I stepped up to the window. The officer took my passport and said something in Russian.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know Russian. What did you say, but in Kyrgyz?”
“Ah, do you have a visa?” he asked in Kyrgyz.
“You’re with him?” He glanced over at my friend, who was still waiting with the second officer.
“He can’t go through,” he said. “Do you still want to go through?”
“No. If he doesn’t go through, I won’t either.”
“OK. I’ll keep your passport. You go with those two, and if he doesn’t get permission to go through, you can come back and get your passport from me.”
What could I say? I agreed and followed my friend. We walked ahead about ten steps and followed the second guard into an office. My friend tried to explain the situation to a man whose eyes said boss. My friend called his lawyer and had her try to explain the situation. The lawyer was the one who had assured him just that morning that all his documents were in order to leave the country that afternoon. Surely she could explain. She couldn’t.
The man with the boss eyes said, “No visa,” and the implication was clear: So you don’t go through.
My friend had held himself together like a patience weight lifting champion. I would have made a scene.
We left the office and returned to the window where the first passport control officer was sitting. He saw me and handed me my passport and then took my friend’s passport again. He even scanned it on that little reader thing they have. For a second I thought he might just let him on through. Until he didn’t. We’d been defeated by the border guard.
We left the blue corrugated plastic and walked back out into the rain.
Well, now what? We were heading to Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, to meet up with some mutual friends of ours. Do I go on ahead alone? Do we wait and let my friend talk to the lawyer tomorrow and try to sort all this out and maybe get some document that would satisfy the border control tomorrow when we try again?
We hadn’t walked far before the taxi vultures descended and began offering us rides back to the city. One of them stuck to us like glue and even held an umbrella out for us. My friend called the lawyer again. Laura and I have worked with her before. She talks half Russian half Kyrgyz at about 300 miles an hour and was apparently sick the day her teacher taught her class about antecedents. For her it’s all pronouns.
My friend asked me to try understanding her and handed me the phone.
So apparently she had done the thing [Russian Russian] and took it to the [Russian Russian].
“Uh-huh,” I said. “So, can we come to you today so you can give us the document he needs so we can leave the country?”
“No, you can’t come today. [Pronoun Russian Russian.] I can’t write the [Russian].”
She started in on a long explanation that I didn’t understand. You know, Russian and pronouns and stuff.
She said something about 10 days. At first I thought she was saying my friend could get a document that would be good for 10 days, during which time he could leave the country.
“OK, how do we get that?”
Yeah. More Russian and more pronouns. Then I realized she wasn’t saying that he had ten days to leave. She was saying it would take ten days to get the document for him to be able to leave.
“So there’s nothing we can do,” I said, hoping she’d give me a simple yes or no.
“There’s nothing you can do.”
Well that had come across clear as crystal. I had gone around and around with her enough that it was very much time to end the call. We ended the call in the customary way. We said the equivalent of “OK” a couple of times (she said hers in Russian of course), and we hung up.
My friend and I had made our way to the taxi driver’s car by that point. We tried to think through our options. In the end we opted for going back to his house, regrouping, and planning our next move from there. It was on the way I learned more of what had happened in the first place. My friend’s visa had expired, but he’d paid the fine and had been assured by everyone except the pope that he had done all he needed to do.
“I’m leaving the country,” he had told the lawyer. “That won’t be a problem, right?”
“Have a good trip,” she’d said.
Sometimes people make you want to scream. Or worse.
We got back to his house. My friend’s wife, a Russian speaker, had also called the lawyer in the meantime. Seemed like we had more or less understood the lawyer the same.
Laura was there, and the four of us agreed I should go ahead and go. I could either wait until the next morning or go back that evening, hopefully making it across the border and all the way to the hotel before too late. I figured I might as well go that night. So I took a taxi to the border. Again.
As I walked up to the building in the rain, I felt the brunt of my being alone. Then it hit me. I wasn’t alone. The Maker of the mountains I couldn’t see because of the clouds was with me. Heartened, I approached the first building, a building the same color as the sky and just as cheery.
Here goes try number two, I thought.
This time there were considerably fewer people waiting in the lines. The foreigner line was closed altogether. I scanned the faces of the officers sitting behind their windows and picked a face I thought I’d be able to carry on a conversation with. When it was my turn, I handed the man behind the window my passport. He flipped through all the pages. He flipped to the front, studied the picture, checked it against my face, and then began tapping on his computer. Then he returned to the passport.
I tried to help him find my current visa because I thought he couldn’t find it. I didn’t help. He’d already found it. The people waiting behind me began applying the pressure the only way they could: by moving in closer. Finally he picked up his magical stamp of power. I just hope he knew what he was doing and that whoever looked at my passport next would agree with the placement and type of the stamp. Guess we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.
At this point in my life, I’ve crossed enough borders that the sound of the stamp coming down on a passport page of mine is nearly magical. Without looking at me, the officer put my passport on the counter. I picked it up, and before he could change his mind, began moving along. One check point down. That was on the Kyrgyz side of the border. I still had to enter Kazakhstan. And speak with more border control officers.
It was still raining. A river serves as the border at this particular point. I crossed it on a covered sidewalk and walked into an ancient concrete building on the Kazakh side. A man holding little cards looked at me, and without a word, I took a card. I was supposed to fill out the blanks. It was my entry visa. Turned out it was a bring-your-own-pen kind of deal. I dug in my bag and pulled one out. The guy next to me asked to borrow my pen.
“If you’re fast,” I said.
“I’ll be fast,” he said, and he kept his word.
I decided right there to reel myself in. No need for me to be so snippy. Though I had no idea at the time, I’d certainly need the self control.
I walked over to the line of windows and tired to choose the one that was moving people through the fastest. In my hesitation, a man shoved passed me and got in behind a single person. Then he started calling for a woman who was standing behind me.
I got in line behind three other people. The line moved quickly. When it was my turn I took off my hat and stood up straight. The passport control officer stood and adjusted the camera so that it wouldn’t take a picture of my chest. He asked me to write my name on a small piece of paper that had been stamped. Then he stamped the piece of paper I’d filled out (another magical sound), stuffed it inside my passport, put my passport on the counter between us, and pushed the piece of paper on which I’d written my name toward me.
I wondered what that piece of paper was for. I’d soon find out. All I knew was that I was through. Two check points down. Two to go.
I walked into the space just beyond the passport control area. A guard was sitting in front of a screen next to a baggage scanner, but he didn’t see me. I got his attention and pointed at the machine. He nodded. On went my bag and back pack. On came the little red light. Out came my bag and backpack on the other side. I shouldered the backpack and picked up the bag. Just as I was walking away, he called me back.
He asked me something in Russian. I uttered my most often used sentence in Kyrgyz: “I’m sorry. I don’t know Russian.”
He wanted to look in my bag. I opened it up and started taking things out: my laptop, my Kindle, their chargers, a battery pack for my phone. It was when I pulled out an apple that his curiosity seemed satisfied, and he let me go.
I walked out of that building and towards a fence. I was almost there. A guard in camouflage stood between me and the gap through the fence that was Kazakhstan. He asked for something that I didn’t understand. I handed him my passport. He looked through it until he found the stamped piece of paper on which I’d written my name, which he kept. So that was what that was for. He handed me my passport, and I was finally through. I’d beaten the border patrol.
And then the taxi vultures descended. This time I was at their mercy. I had to get to the city. It was about a two or three hour car ride, depending on the spunk, shall we say, of the driver. Well, it was supposed to be.
An old man and a young man got to me first. Both held umbrellas.
“How much?” I asked the older man.
“650 soms.” Just under ten dollars. Not bad.
I looked at the younger man. “How much?”
“550,” he said.
“I’ve got a Mercedes,” the older man said. “Good car. It’s a minivan.” I realized he wasn’t speaking Kyrgyz but Kazakh. They’re much closer than even Spanish is to Italian, so for the most part a Kyrgyz and a Kazakh can communicate. “Come with me,” the older man said.
I looked back at the younger man.
“How well do you drive? Not too fast, right?” I asked him. Let’s face the music: Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have some of the worst highway morality rates in all of Central Asia. I really didn’t want to die on the way.
“I drive really well. Of course, not too fast. Come. My car’s right over here. Another woman is already waiting.”
I took turns looking both in the eye. Was there any way to really determine which one was more trustworthy? Of course not. I had to guess. I went with the younger guy. He said I could wait in his car while he tried to fill the other two seats. The woman he had mentioned was sitting in the back seat. The driver took my bag, lifted the hatchback, and set it inside. I sat in the front seat, on the side where the steering wheel should have been but wasn’t because this guy’s car had probably come from Japan.
So I sat and waited. The woman in the back seat asked me for the time twice in Russian. Later I learned she was a Kazakh woman who spoke very little Kazakh. Both times I just showed her my watch. At one point a loud character on a phone got in the back seat. I figured we’d soon be on our way. It was not to be. Before too long, he got out of the car and disappeared into the crowd.
The woman got out and began working on a cigarette. I waited some more and finally got out myself. I walked over to the driver, who was still standing at the exit from the border patrol area under his umbrella.
“I’ve waited half an hour,” I told him. “How much longer?” The poor guy was still trying to fill his last two seats. He’d make 2200 soms (about $30.00) driving four people three hours to Almaty. And that was before gas. Did he have a family? Had he had any other fares that day?
“Please, just 15 more minutes. Please, you can wait in the car.”
He was really trying. He didn’t want to lose his fare, and the competition was fierce.
The woman had an excuse for waiting outside the car. She had to smoke. I had no excuse but said I’d wait outside, too. It was still raining, but more blue corrugated plastic served as a shelter. Six or seven men stood with me and the woman under the roof. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I think most of them were taxi drivers, too. The older taxi driver I’d talked to at first tried again to convince me to come with him. I told him I’d wait. Another Kazakh-speaking man asked me who I was and what I was doing here. We talked for a little bit, and then I decided I’d try to get a handle on the situation. Were there any other taxis that only needed one more person before they were full? If so, might I be that lucky one? Were there any mini buses?
The woman finished her cigarette, and we both got back in the car. After a little more waiting, she had an idea.
“Let’s get some coffee,” she said. There was more, of course, but that’s about all I understood.
Sounded good to me. I got my bag out of the back of the car and followed the woman in the direction of some stores along the Kazakh side of the border. I didn’t look over at the driver, who was still hovering around the others who passed the final checkpoint and arrived on Kazakh soil, desperate to fill his car.
Without even stopping, she asked several other drivers how many passengers they we waiting for and how much they were charging. I was getting the idea she had some plan.
We entered a store and the woman walked over to the counter.
“Tea or coffee?” she asked, turning toward me.
“Coffee,” I said.
She ordered two coffees from the woman behind the counter. She saw me looking at the Snickers.
“Yes,” I said, and she ordered one for me.
Then she paid for both coffees and the Snickers. I got out my wallet and offered her at least something. She refused. She actually refused. A complete stranger bought me coffee and a candy bar.
We sat at a table together. It was then I remembered this saying Laura and I have. Now I don’t remember where it came from, but it goes like this: “It’s only as weird as you make it.” I’ve decided to live that saying to it’s fullest here in Central Asia. Having coffee with a middle-aged Kazakh woman who apparently only speaks Russian after she pays for both your drink and a Snickers bar while you’re both waiting for the taxi driver to fill his car so you can go to Almaty? No problem. I’ve been in more awkward situations.
“So…,” I said, racking my brain for every last word in Russian I knew. “One som how many tenge?” The tenge is the currency in Kazakhstan.
And that was the extent of our conversation. She finished her coffee first and said something about her needing to go outside for another cigarette. I wondered what the women sitting at the table behind us thought.
When I finished, I went outside. It was still raining, and it was starting to get dark. She finished her cigarette and the conversation she was having with another taxi driver. I pointed over at the first taxi we’d waited in. I imagine she said something like we had waited too long for that guy, but who really knows, right?
She said goodbye to the driver she was talking to, put out her cigarette but in an overflowing outside ashtray, and headed toward a group of other drivers. I’m not sure how it happened exactly, but soon she’d made a deal with a driver and had signed us both up. Apparently one of them needed exactly two more people to fill his car, and wouldn’t you know it? She and I made two.
Looked like I was still going to Almaty with her, just not with my original taxi driver. The driver was Kazakh, so we I asked him how much, he told me 2500 tenge. But now that I knew the exchange rate, I knew that at about 500 soms, I was going to end up paying just about what I would have paid the first guy. The woman took the front seat. That left me and two other guys in the back seat.
It’d been some five hours since I’d left my house to start this trip, and so far, I’d traveled maybe 25 kilometers from home. I wish I could say I arrived in Almaty a few hours later, wish being the key word in that sentence. If you’re getting the idea the trip took longer than expected, you just might be onto something. Tune in next week for the rest of the story.