Friday, 22 October 2010

Almaty to China - Stage 2 complete !

I still cant believe it, we’re exactly on schedule and are all set to meet our guide at the Chinese border on the 18th. Keen to keep ahead of the game, we decide to position ourselves at the Chinese border the night before.

The road to the border is brilliant, just an hour outside of Almaty the urban sprawl ends and we start to head out into a vast desert wilderness. The terrain is very similar to the desert regions of the Western United States, wide open spaces peppered with rock formations, ravines and canyons.

We make our way to Charyne Canyon an ancient natural valley created by erosion from a local river. The water is fast flowing with a slightly blue hue, typically Asian looking yellow trees line the river banks, it’s a peaceful place and unbelievably picturesque. (See picture gallery photos)

After a wander down the river and quite a few pictures, we head back to the car and crack on towards the border. Daylight fades as we near the border town of Horgas, the headlights do a mediocre job of illuminating the bumpy road ahead. Suddenly there’s a strange smell in the car, no not Becky but the sickly sweet smell of burning Bakelite……The headlights start to flicker but fortunately don’t fail.
We definitely cant stop here, so I decide that unless things get drastically worse, we’ll carry on and check it over at the hotel. Two minutes later both headlights jam on in the full beam position, inconvenient for the oncoming traffic, but also for me as every car blinded by the lights does the same to me with theirs.

We’re running low on gas, but fortunately we’re almost out of the desert. Pulling into civilisation and the first fuel station in ages, we’re greeted by a stocky guy cradling a pump action shotgun. You know you’re in a dodgy area when the fuel station attendant needs a shotgun to do his job….! (See pic)

Whilst re-fuelling, a smart Mercedes S class pulls into the garage. The driver jumps out and walks over, he speaks a little English and is fascinated by the car and our journey - We ask if he knows a hotel nearby, he does and gestures for us to follow him there. I was a little wary of this guy, his face was busted up and scarred, his left eye badly punched up, but he seemed genuine enough and very willing to help us out.

Arriving at the hotel he goes out of his way to arrange a room for us and joins us at the bar for a beer and a bite to eat. Unfortunately we never made a note of his name, but he was an absolute legend , one of the best. We quickly learn that his injuries are down to his job, he’s one of the top boxing champions in Kazakstan. His next big fight is at the Flamingo Casino in Las vegas sometime in November.

The next morning we drive the final 2km to the border, the Kazak guards wave us through to the customs office as priority traffic, the sun is shining and we’re pretty pleased with ourselves - We made it to the border exactly on schedule and everything is looking good…..A customs official walks over to check my passport, he quickly flicks through to the page with my Kazakstan visa and nods his head slowly....

Theres a problem, he gestures for me to read the small print on the rear of the piece of paper stapled to my passport on entry into Kazakstan “VISITORS MUST REGISTER WITH THE IMMIGRATION POLICE WITHIN 5 DAYS OF ENTERING KAZAKSTAN. FAILURE TO DO SO WILL RENDER THE OFFENDER SUBJECT TO PUNISHMENT UNDER KAZAK LAW” Wait a minute…carry the two….add the three….we must have been in country for 6 or 7 days by now…?....

Big deal! I explain that we didn’t know anything about it, and we only want to leave not enter, but he doesn’t look happy. His superior walks over and explains that we need TWO rubber stamps on our visa in order to be able to leave Kazakstan. We didn’t register with the special "immigration police" and have been in country over 5 days, so we’ve broken two rules - The kazak authorities are big on red tape, rubber stamps, useless scraps of paper with official stamps on and receipts of all kinds.

Evidently breaking these rules is a big deal and the chief guy isn’t happy. “You…..You….You must register. Register now!” Surely we can do it here at the international land border? Nope, he draws a map and instructs us to drive back out of the border zone to the nearby town of Zharkent, 30km due West. There’s an immigration police office there, they’ll be able to unwind things for us.

This is bad news, our Chinese guide was waiting for us on the Chinese side of the border and this episode was going to make us late…All this for one rubber stamp. Pointless state burocracy is the perfect way to keep the masses employed in poor states.My personal favourite is Cambodian customs, where a line of eight customs officers process your visa on arrival.
(Man #1 opens your passport and hands it to man #2 who stamps it and hands it to man #3. Who checks the stamp and hands it to man #4 etc....)

I digress...We speed out of the border zone and into Zharkent, a ramshackle town in the middle of nowhere. We soon track down the police station and queue up to speak with the officer on duty. He takes one look at our passport and shouts “ALMATY!” What?……Did he just say Almaty? As in the Almaty that we were in yesterday? The Almaty that’s 400km away through the desert? Surely not, there must be some mistake. I try to ask some questions but he doesn’t speak English, his reply: “ALMATY, ALMATY, ALMATY, ALMATY, ALMATY !!!!” I was more p’d off than I’ve been in a long long time, to make things worse he’s got the biggest grin on his face imaginable. He knows Almaty is an 800km return trip and he’s loving it.

He MUST be able stamp it, surely he’s just being awkward? I pull out a $100 bill and say “Straf” (fine), a feint effort at disguising the fact that I’m offering him a bribe to stamp our passports. His eyes nearly pop out of his head, but its now obvious that there really is nothing he can do…Confronted by an even bigger grin I ask for his “Nachalnik” (Superior officer), another guy wanders over and explains their boss is in Almaty for three days. Great…

Theres nothing we can do, the quicker we leave, the quicker we get back. One thing was certain, we weren’t going to be crossing into China today. The ride back to the capital was an incredibly gutting 4.5 hours of desert driving . The process of getting “the stamp” proves to be incredibly long winded and tedious…numerous forms to complete plus copies of all our documents etc… The fine is $100 a head.

As usual, nobody in the customs office speaks any English and its due to shut any minute. Out of nowhere a lady walks in off the street, she speaks fluent English and offers to help me complete all the forms and arrange the payment. An absolute God send, without her help we’d probably still be there…If you’re reading this, I cant thank you enough.

Its dark so we head back to Hotel Astra for something to eat. I ask the receptionist to check our passports to verify they’re definitely in order. She says she’s not sure, the rules change so often that nobody really knows them anymore, but she’s fairly certain we’re still one stamp missing. The last time she checked you needed three stamps and not two…She could ask her boss, but he’s sick. AAAAGGGHHH !!!

We decide to talk our chances and head back to the border anyway. After a lightning fast meal and three cans of Red Bull, we jump back in the car - It was right about this time I remembered that Jerrys lights were jammed on full beam….. This was going to be an interesting drive. Five gruelling hours later we arrive back at the border town hotel. Partially blind from literally hundreds of main beam jousts with oncoming traffic and very, very tired. Its 2:15am.

At the hotel car park we’re accosted by a drunk Russian truck driver who loves the car. He staggers around the car park swigging from a Vodka bottle, proudly giving us his best rendition of Michael Jacksons “I’m Bad”. “I baaaaa, I baaaaaa, u know, I baaaaaa” Simon Cowell wouldn’t have been impressed, damn funny though!

Stage 2 complete

Istanbul to China = 6,650 km
Distance travelled to date = 9,750km
Fuel burnt = We lost count, garages stopped issuing receipts way back in Georgia.
Punctures = 0
Spare wheels on board = 3 (I’m starting to hope we need to use at least one spare!…)
Speeding tickets received = 7
Fan belts changed = 0
Spare fan belts on board = 5...
Number of times we’ve washed the car = 0
Current favourite songs on the iPod = Deep Purple “Highway Star” and James Gang “Funk #49 “
Breakdowns = 0
Arguments = 2.5
Amount of pointless red tape encountered = Miles and miles..
Worst police = AZERBAIJAN - No Contest
Best police = Georgia
Bribes paid = Some

Current topics of conversation = The state of the last toilet we used, our dog “Bramble”, my aunties newborn baby ‘Freddie’, my brother-in-law Matty learning to fly, Angel City Flyers at Long Beach airport, houses in Thailand and my mate Tim in Hong Kong who’s meeting us for a ‘few quiet beers’ in Saigon if we get there….

No comments:

Post a Comment