First, I have to preface this story by stating that while it is indeed memorable, it is NOT representative of my whole trip to Kazakhstan. I didn’t have a single other bad experience throughout the rest of my stay in that underrated country, and don’t wish to portray it in a negative light. To not contextualize it would be rather lazy and intellectually dishonest. Now that this is out of the way, here we go:
My last day in China starts a bit smoothly, and I can sleep in a bit while still getting to the Kazakh border before it opens. As there are no time zones in China, everything works on Beijing time, which means that the sun rises very late here, in western Xinjiang, thousands of kilometers from the capital. The border opens at 8 AM Kazakh time, which corresponds to 10 AM Beijing time. So basically, I gain two hours in my day. Pretty cool.
I hop in a three-wheel taxi, just like the one driven by Mr. Bean’s enemy. The driver, upon seeing my whiteness, asks in Russian “Where to?” I reply in Chinese that I’m not Russian, and without missing a beat he says “Good! I hate Russians!” He drops me at the border, there are quite a few massive buses waiting, which is a bad omen. Fortunately for me, bus passengers all have to undertake group procedures, and the line-up for individuals is rather short. I get to chatting with the only other Westerners present, whom I had run into at the consulate in Urumqi a week before that, and who decided to take the direct bus to Almaty. I’ll meet them randomly the next day (believe me, Central Asia might be vast, but it’s a small world), and they’ll tell me that they got stuck five hours at the border, waiting for every single passenger to clear out immigration. Meanwhile, a mere 20 minutes later I’m out to the other side. Traveling independently has numerous advantages.
It is my first time going to a former Soviet country, and apprehensive as I am, I can’t help but smile widely upon seeing the super-wide-rimmed caps worn by the Kazakh officers. It evokes all those Cold War movies and documentaries that I’ve seen, and reminds me that I’m far, far away from home. I exit the building, complete my first ever transaction in broken Russian (a bottle of water and some cookies from a vending tent, paid with my newly acquired Tenge) and then hop in the minibus that brings me out of the no-man’s-land and in Kazakhstan proper.
I stick out quite a lot, and one Asian guy quickly engages me in conversation. He first asks me in Russian if I can speak Chinese (what kind of fucking question is that?!), and when I nod, he switches to the latter and starts bombing me with questions. He asks me how good my Russian is, if I have a map of Kazakhstan, if I have been to the country before, and if I have friends waiting for me. Not your typical small talk, in fact he seems more as if he’s trying to bait me and measure how much of a sucker I am. I lie a bit and exaggerate facts to look less like a potential victim, and ignore his offers for a ride, thinking I’m just gonna get a local bus anyway.
But now, as we pass a barb wire fence and all get dropped off, I realize that my initial plan won’t work. At all. Khorgas, on the Chinese side, might have just been a tiny blotch on the map by that country’s standards, but at least it was an actual small town, with its banks, hotels, and bus station. Well here, west of the border, there’s… nothing. Kazakhstan has only 16 million people, spread over the world’s 9th largest land area, so saying it’s sparsely populated would be quite the understatement. All I see is an infinite plain, and a dozen old school communist cars parked by a pot-holed road. Their drivers all come rushing to our minibus, offering rides to Almaty, and being the only foreigner there, I quickly become the center of attention.
My best friend from the bus decides to take me under his wing, and despite the fact that he really is getting on my nerves, I let him play his game, as he can at least be useful by translating the staccato Russian from the gypsy cab drivers into Chinese, a language I have a slight better understanding of. I inquire about the possibility of going to the next town and taking public transportation, but no, apparently there is nothing before Almaty. I then inquire about prices, and as it is the case nearly everywhere in the world when one has to deal with unofficial taxi drivers, it takes forever to get answers. The small mob around me becomes larger and larger, louder and louder, and I am really not enjoying my newfound superstardom.
At some point, I feel two hands grabbing the mesh pockets of my backpack, and pulling me backwards. I shout HEY!!!, turn around, and get face-to-face with an elderly man, completely toothless and wearing thick wool clothes despite the summer heat. Clearly mentally handicapped, he mumbles something unintelligible, then slowly walks to someone’s unattended briefcase, steals it, and gets scolded by harsh words from the people around before just wandering away. What the fuck is going on?! What is this place?!?!
I ask my new best friend (let’s call him FuckFace) if I can borrow his cell phone to call my Couchsurfing contact in Almaty (she can’t host me, but gave me her number and told me to call should I get in trouble, and right now fits the definition of trouble perfectly), but he tells me, no, no reception. I ask the drivers (telyefon? pozhalsta?), showing them the paper with the number and before they can even answer, FuckFace shouts some angry Russian words and they all shrug their shoulders. The negotiations are going nowhere, and FuckFace is getting increasingly aggressive. We’ve been here for so long that now, a second minibus is coming from the no-man’s land. It does a 180, drops its passengers, then drives back to the gate.
I get a flash of panic, and start running towards it. I figure, fuck those guys, might as well backtrack and try to get a seat on one of the buses I saw on the other side. The hulking, hairy, AK-47-carrying soldier at the gate doesn’t agree with my plan at all. He asks for my passport, points at the entry stamp, and tells me I can’t go back. I politely ask for his phone, expecting him to tell me to go to hell and stop wasting his time, but without even hesitating nor showing any sign of emotion he fishes it out of his pocket, looks at the number, dials, talks for a few seconds and hands it to me.
Reception: all four bars. Bastard, scheming, devious, lying FuckFace. I cast him a death stare.
The CS girl confirms that yes, those black cabs are the only option, and tells me which price I should expect to pay. I thank her, thank the soldier, and reluctantly make my way back to the small group of cabbies. Before I even have the displeasure of interacting with them, though, two youngsters approach me, and in fluent English, ask “Hey man. What’s going on?” Surprised, I explain briefly, and after about 20 seconds of deliberation one of them says “My dad is over there, he came to pick us up. We can drive you to Almaty if you want.”
As if I’m gonna say no to that. And thus the tension and uncertainty of the past half-hour ends, thanks to these two friendly students on their way home after a year spent in Xi’An University, and the father constantly laughing his guts off at my stilted attempts to communicate in Russian. I will never know if FF was indeed trying to help me, or scheming a plan to get his buddies to drive me to a secluded area and steal my kidneys, but for now I am not unhappy at all to leave him where he is.
At least he was right on one thing: for the next three hours, not a single town, and barely any buildings. Kazakhstan, here I come!