Sunday, June 22, 2008

Kazakh border to Almaty

Getting over the Chinese-Kazakh only took two hours or so. The Chinese border guards were very concerned about the idea of me riding across no man’s land and said that the Kazakhs would definitely turn me back, that it was prohibited etc etc. So I had to wait around while they hassled unwilling bus drivers whose job it was to ferry people back and forth (all Kazakhs doing small time business). Eventually one driver reluctantly took me – about 500m for $3. At the other end the Kazakh guards were very relaxed and friendly and I can’t imagine they would have cared. They scanned one of my four bags as a token security gesture. All of a sudden I understood all of the curious questions they were asking, most likely the same ones everybody in Xinjiang was asking. It felt like a homecoming.

One granny was battling with at least 5 times her body weight (40kg or so) of boxes and crates with bananas etc. She must have completely depended on others to get it all onto and off the bus. I was helping her get it off and even then she wasn’t able to pull the little wheelie-thing up the ramp.

Outside customs all the locals got into their friends’ cars or minibuses, I rode off down the road, past a very modest little shop. No business activity on this side of the border. The cars disappeared and all of a sudden there was nothing much around. There was just a gentle breeze and cuckoos in the trees. Cuckoos seem to tolerate everything, even the worst possible conditions: roadworks, heavy traffic…

After a few sleepy, very Russian looking villages with main streets flanked by large poplar trees, Zharkent was the first bigger town. I stopped for some borsch, noodles and Alma-Ata draft beer ($7). Unlike in China, where lots of workers and normal people seem to drop into their local for a feed at any time of the day, going to a cafĂ© or restaurant here is a bit more of an event, with menus, background music, and meals cost about twice as much. There wasn’t much business so the waitress sat down and chatted.

Looking into a shop, half a litre of vodka goes for $3.50 and up, 0.5l beer for $1, and a loaf of bread for $0.50. The papers say KZ is banning the export of flour soon. Apart from these and local produce like milk, cheese, kefir, meat and fish, most stuff costs what you’d pay in the Western world or more.

I rolled a bit further down the road and slept in a birch forest, then headed south across a floodplain to Shonj. I crossed lots of fast flowing rivers and irrigation canals. There were also regular graves along the side of the road, all young people, often with the the words ‘died tragically’.

Shonj had a good collection of State placards all over town (with President Nazarbaev quotes on his plans for KZ), especially on a military academy. I had another feed and accidentally gatecrashed a 20 year high school reunion (mid afternoon). This was the third day that they had been celebrating - husbands, wives and kids. I was hauled onto the dance floor but got away with one shot of vodka and a touch of dirty dancing. Out of town a huge ash tree grove, several km long and maybe 1km wide, grew in the valley of the Sharin/Charyn River. After that the road tilted up a very broad plateau. The traffic became heavier and heavier- convoys of trucks, cars and even tractors. It seemed they’d all got through customs at the same time. There wasn’t much time to enjoy the plains. Neither was there anywhere to stop. At dusk I made my way 500m off the road and camped out. Beautiful spot.

The next day the road descended through a canyon and headed west for Almaty. The traffic worsened, with more hoon action. Preferred hoon cars are Audis and Mercedes. Although the road was 4 lanes wide and good in places, the road fringes were extremely variable. After several hairraising hours of ‘too fast, too little room, no indicating, honk/cut off/randomly pull over in front of the cyclist’ I got to Almaty – which was choked with traffic. My nerves were pretty shot. I’ve probably only ever felt this unsafe on Russian roads. Even China was much better.

I met some young Chechens (also sent into exile by Stalin in the 1930s) in Panfilov Park and rang Rustam, who I knew of through friends. Stas, a friend of Rustam’s, kindly put me up. The next day we headed up to Medeu and Chimbulak, the famous skating rink and ski resort just south of Almaty. The town itself is at 6-800m alt and the top of the Chimbulak chairlift at 3300m or so.

Almaty was a disappointment. It is absolutely crammed with traffic, most notably nouveau riche 4WDs: Land Cruisers, Range Rovers, Porsche Cayenne Turbos etc. It’s very dangerous for riding, with many bad, impatient, aggressive drivers. The air is shit, probably as bad as Moscow’s at times. It turns out that the predominant winds are southerlies, blocked by the mountains to the south, and northerlies are rare. That’s enough to wreck a city for me.

Here, it really struck me just how totally road traffic can dominate a city. Sure, there are some beautiful parks and even central city apartment blocks with pedestrian access, but when you go near the roads, there is nothing else. Cars are parked late ‘90s Moscow style- anywhere and everywhere.

Oil boom culture is everywhere. The forested southern slopes are being cleared for enormous palaces and upmarket apartment blocks. Top shelf prestige brands are advertised prominently. Plenty of supermarkets sell mostly Western European products. . The locals tell me that Kazakhs love showing off their wealth, if they have it. Though most of the population is Kazakh, with a small Russian minority, you only hear Russian on the streets.

Corruption is thriving in Kazakhstan. Everybody I got to know, city and country, described having to pay off bureaucrats in everyday life. It’s not just that you can buy a driver’s licence- even if you wanted to do it properly, you’d STILL have to pay someone off. It certainly shows on the roads. The GAI (road police) are sporadically active and generally it’s considered much easier to pay (cash of course, say $10-15) for a supposed infringement than argue. Everybody focuses on the ‘transaction’ so much that the infringement, if any, is irrelevant. (Funnily enough, when I put my seat belt on in a car, everybody tells me, ‘Don’t worry, they don’t fine you for that’. And I was thinking road safety.) I watched one hoon, having been pulled over for clearly speeding, arguing with the GAI that all his papers were in order, as if that made any difference. This culture fundamentally affects the way people think.

A big part of corruption is still ‘who you know’ or ‘blat’, a big part of Soviet life. When I said I might go to the border zone, where you need a permit, a friend said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll call the officer there, you’ll be fine.’

Students bribe doctors for medical certificates to get out of the army (say $3000 in Almaty, maybe less elsewhere). Many doctors (who might earn $300/month) do nothing without cash up front. The standard of medicine is poor – a few stories were enough for me – and there’s minimal trust. The inability to treat properly seems to result in attempts to instill fear of the inevitable: eg. ‘Your heart is in a pre-infarct state and you should avoid exercise, heavy lifting, stress, drinking and smoking.’ Not very useful advice, especially without appropriate follow up.

In both Kazakh- and Kyrgyzstan, many people are in a state of denial about this. They say, 'No, it's impossible that our doctors buy their degrees. How can you have doctors that pay for their degrees?' To which I say, 'My point exactly'.

To buy property you need to pay off a whole series of bureaucrats. My Azeri friends are now supposedly entitled to a variable amount of compensation from the Kazakh government for their forced resettlement in 1936 by the Soviets – up to $900-1000 – but the requirements are so complex that many don’t bother. If you do bother, you’re looking at a bribe of $100 or so, and the amount of compensation itself might depend on the size of the bribe. If a government official makes a mistake in the documentation, it’s always your problem, not theirs.

Hearing these stories makes me so angry. I find it very hard to just roll with it, as the locals have to. In terms of bribery, it sounds as if nothing has changed for the better over the past 15 years. Some people are outrageously wealthy now but I’m not sure about the ‘trickle down effect’.

In the papers there is a lot of talk about ‘the battle with corruption’ with show trials of various evil people but whatever is being done isn’t changing peoples’ lives. The culprits tend to be people like small time poachers in national parks. On TV the ministers have politically correct Western-style lingo down pat: 'We need more transparency and accountability...'

'Sobaka lait, veter unosit' - A dog barks, and the wind carries it away. I don’t see how a dictator notorious for nepotism could ever bring about real change.

On the contrary, the way Nazarbaev and other wealthy bureaucrats work is even admired by many - this is just how they expect the world to be. 'We were born like this'.

1 comment:

Otto said...

Oil is the new gold. Gold has always corrupted people.
In the near future oil might be more precious and have sever consequences.
Real good to know you haven not been kidnapped or run off the road ( or both ).
Keep on trucking buddy and don't let the worries of injustice drag you down too much.