The customs officials themselves were giant men, well over 6” tall, decked out in all black SWAT gear — combat boots, fatigues, bullet proof vests, and, yes, full ski masks. They appeared better prepared to be working the execution shift of a special ops contingent than inspecting the bags of old ladies trying to bring back curtains and head scarves from the China side of the Horgos free trade zone.
The woman in front of me was trying to carry across more duty free goods than the rules allow. Her penalty, apparently, was to be thrown. I watched as one of these 6′ 3″+ tall black-clad beasts grabbed the screaming, 50 year old Kazakh women, violently separating her from her possessions, smacking her once or twice, and then tossed her out of the gate which cages in the customs area. A small crowd had gathered to watch the pummeling, some onlookers were yelling.
I was next. The giant, SWAT-ed up gargoyle returned through the gate and peered down at me, a half foot below. I looked up at eyes deeply set back in the ski mask. I imagine I appeared frightened, as I then saw a smile crack from within the mouth hole. He then opened the gate and waved me through with an exaggerated gesture of hospitality.
I walked across the river on the narrow, virtually deserted track that leads to the border post. I’d already walked through one military checkpoint and had entered an area that was in every way a proper no man’s land. There were no buildings, no development, no nothing but a road leading on to the Kazakh/ Chinese frontier a kilometer ahead.
I came out the other side and ducked under a gate that led into Kazakhstan’s immigration area. Two soldiers were standing outside of a small white booth next to the gate. They stared at me as I walked by. When I was a few steps beyond one of them called out, motioning for me to return.
The soldiers were dressed in typical camo fatigues. The older of the two asked for my passport; I produced it. Although I first removed my entry card before handing it over. If I lost this scrap of stamped paper I could potentially be denied the right to exit the country and issued a significant fine. I imagined the scam: a simple crinkling up of a piece of paper could produce a rather nice payday for an enterprising border guard.
The older soldier didn’t quite acquiesce with this preference. He took the entry card and handed it with my passport to his companion and then motioned for me to go into the small shack with a twitch of his head. The younger soldier, who was around 20 or so, strutted in front of me with my passport in his hand with exaggerated authority. He lead me around to the back of the booth, well out of public view, where I found a small line of prospective border crossers waiting before a closed door in a cramped, dark hallway. I was moved into this line.
I’d been in this situation before: remote border post, being taken into a secluded room by the authorities . . . nothing good could come of this. The young soldier was still holding on to my passport, and it was clear that he was using it as a rather effective tactic to keep me there. I reached forward and wrested it back. The soldier then peered at me angrily. To get back at me he shoved the guy standing in front of me. I looked at the guy, he seemed to be quivering. As did the woman in line in front of him. We all knew why we were there.
I turned and made to walk away but the soldier blocked my path. “I have to go, I’m late,” I spoke in English. He motioned for me to wait, then opened the door to the room that we were standing in front of, apparently to see if my processing could perhaps be expedited. Inside, I saw a man pleading before a soldier. The soldier was yelling at him. The young soldier closed the door, scowled, and again shoved the guy standing in front of me.
I looked at how unsettled the people in line in front of me were. I listened to the guy yelling inside the room. I’ve crossed enough borders to know that I had to get out of there.
I turned to the young soldier who was still scowling at me and smiled really big. I began waving my arms and motioning towards the bus outside the immigration inspection station that had just arrived 50 meters away. I began spouting off with exaggerated, faux friendliness about how I had to go get on that bus . . . talking fast and loud . . . smiling big . . .and walking. I heard shouts coming from behind me. The foreign idiot maneuver in full effect.
A couple of years ago the head of customs of this border crossing was arrested and charged with tariff evasion, taking bribes, and corruption. Little seems to have changed. For small traders, moving merchandise from one side of this border to the other often means enduring a shake down.
“Usually you just give the guy at immigration some money and they let you through,” a Kazakh guy that I later met on the Chinese side explained how to better maneuver across his country’s border.
“Sometimes Chinese traders have to bribe Kazakh customs officers. Otherwise they won’t let their goods pass,” a cross-border Chinese trader told the China Daily. “Asking for bribes is pretty common in Kazakhstan. Sometimes, Chinese are fined for no reason.”
“KZ is one of the worst cross-border trading countries,” said Stephanie Koole, a European researcher who has studied Central Asian trade issues in-depth, told me later. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business report, this year Kazakhstan ranks 122 out of 189 countries for ease of international trade. It was easy to understand why.