Saturday, July 5, 2008

Out of Almaty to the Kyrgyz border

Escape from Almaty to the east, sticking close to the mountains on local roads to evade traffic – almost impossible on a Saturday. Lots of booming restaurants and wedding reception centres, shashlik mixed with diesel fumes, blaring Turkic pop. How many weddings can there be? First night - slept in the garden of a florist who I had got café advice from on the way through. On the next day I found some company in a young Kazakh tobacco picker who had just brought himself a new ‘Ukraina’ single speed roadster the week before and was getting into riding. Made in Kharkov, exactly the same as the ancient Soviet ones, most likely in the same ancient Soviet factories. Funny that in some areas they stick to these, and in others they’re importing rubbish Chinese bikes. After 25km one of his pedals was clunking. I had a look and found a loose crank AND pedal. For that effort I got the nickname ‘diamond–eyes’. We had a feed in a market chaikhana (teahouse) and then a local Russian invited me back to his place to try his home made kvas and meet his Korean wife, who he rescued from Kyzyl-Orda (godforsaken town in the northern wastelands of KZ, on the Moscow-Central Asia train route – dust, crumbling buildings, camels). I asked him about the scars on his arms. He said, ‘I told you, I had to spend almost a year in Kyzyl-Orda’. He also had some shocking army service stories. The modern day Kazakh army gets mixed review from the local men – about half say that the old Russian practices of ‘dedovshina’ (officers constantly beating, humiliating and robbing new recruits) still persist. I’ve been reading Anna Politovskaya’s ‘My country’s army’ which has damning accounts of the army’s utter legal immunity, and indifference to soldiers’ lives. The second Chechen war from 2000-2002 was especially horrible. It’s hard to imagine a more inhumane culture. Even worse is the fact that many of the commanders seem to have built themselves political careers on the basis of their supposed hero status. That’s all about Russia, but the cultural influence is extremely strong in Kazakhstan.

The road swung around to the south up a dry rocky canyon and up onto a series of plateaus. Late in the evening, at a roadhouse, I caught up with a pair of lovely truck drivers who I had passed while they were fixing their Kamaz. The elder – Russian, blonde, the younger – Uighur, neighbours from Zharkent, near the Chinese border. The Russian one had a charming old fashioned way of apologizing when he used a mild expletive, not wanting to offend the guest. We said goodbye and straight away I was bailed up by some Russian long haul truckies from Bishkek, 2 men and one 21 year old son, who were just as friendly but stereotypically ‘rude’ – I can’t find the words – they swore in the most crude Russian ‘mat’ virtually every second word. (‘Mat’ is the extremely crude slang of prisons and army.) Funnily enough the son didn’t swear at all, although his dad was going for it.

Heading further south across dry plains, across the Charyn River canyon, and up another long valley to Kegen, the country got dryer and the traffic sparser. I found my first wayside kymyz (fermented horse milk) salesmen. Past Karkara the valley became lush and fertile again, but the road towards Kyrgyzstan petered out into a gravel track.

At the border I was prepared to speak only English, as I hadn’t registered (though you don’t need to.) The Kazakh guards were funny and completely un-hostile. One was a ruddy, jolly redhead called Max who told me what a dog specialist he was, said he wanted to come and work in Australia, but was then confused when I told him we have no land borders. His offsider, an earnest young Kazakh, told him, ‘it’s a separate continent, silly!’ Duh. Max proudly told me that they had internet, satellite TV and earnt $US 500 per month. Then he asked, ‘So how much do you earn?’ I came up with, ‘More than $US 1000 a month.’ (I’ve decided this isn’t bad- they normally don’t probe further.) Then he added, ‘Even the commander over there’- pointing at the Kyrgyz side – only earns half of that.’

Over at the Kyrgyz side the very young guards tried to be stern and strict. They said, ‘Wait there!’ while one went into a decrepit shack with a Soviet radio set visible. Then ‘Enter!’ after a bit. The young guy mucked around and eventually found a key for a safe in which there was nothing but a stamp with a date. I got my stamp and he painstakingly wrote my details in a book, struggling with English letters. I asked, ‘Can I go?’ He said, ‘Yes.’

Just beyond was a rather more grand house. I heard, ‘Stop!’ The Kyrgyz commander came out. I said, ‘But the soldier said I could go.’ Answer, ‘He was drunk. You haven’t been through Customs yet.’

He took me into the house. Paper shuffling. Lit a candle. Questions about what I was doing. Then he produced a customs declaration, A4 size. ‘Fill this out.’ I said, ‘Why?’ (‘Zachem’ in Russian can express a bit of disdain, more like ‘Why bother?’) ‘Hmm, OK.’ He put it away and got out another, smaller form which he gave to me. 'Fill it out.'

I looked at it. The title read 'Quick questionnaire for foreign tourists who enter Kyrgyzstan'.
I started filling it out. After a bit he got bored and said, 'Give it here'.

'Why did you tick "Tourism on Great Silk Road" AND "ecological tourism"?
'Well, I'm kind of doing both.'
'Where are you going on the Silk Road?'
'That's not on the Silk Road.'
'Umm, yes it is.'

'So, do you want the form?'
'No, you keep it.'
'Can I go now?'

And I was free to go.
My favourite bit: ‘He was drunk’. (He wasn’t!)

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