We’d been beginning to feel left out….we’d heard so many stories of other travellers having to pay ‘fines’ or ‘supplements’ to ensure their paperwork was correct and yet there we were travelling along relatively smoothly and beginning to wonder if it was all an exaggeration of some outdated stereotype.
But we can now report that we have officially been fleeced by the migration police. You may recall from the last blog entry the difficulty we’d had in getting our visa registered in Petropavlovsk, where they initially refused to register us and said we’d have to pedal a further 200km to Kokshetau, and how grateful we were when they agreed to grant us a 10 day registration that would see us through to Astana or perhaps even Almaty.
Imagine our surprise then, when we went to register in Astana and the official, who spoke perfect English, told us that registration was FREE, that we should not have paid any money to the police in Petropavlovsk, and that they should have automatically registered us for the full 30 days of our visa and not the 10 days they graciously allowed us. So, at least we now have a genuine travellers’ tale to tell and can report that corruption is indeed alive and well in the rank and file of Kazakhstan officialdom, and we can no longer complain of being cheated of the complete Central Asia experience.
After posting our last blog entry (through cunning and sneaky methods to get round the block on WordPress that seems to be in place here) we realised that we’d have to make haste to Astana as although our registration lasted until 31 August, there was a bank holiday on the 30th and the registration office was likely to be shut on 30th AND 31st. So we decided to take the shortest route, along the boring, but beautifully smooth-surfaced main road. And luck was on our side with a strong tailwind. We sailed along at 30+kph and got to Astana early on 29th August. Our first stop was at the train station to see if we could get a train to Almaty that evening, but they were fully booked so we booked ourselves on the 10am train on the 30th, to arrive in Almaty at 6am on the 31st. So that meant we’d a) need accommodation that evening in Astana, and b) definitely need to register our visas in Astana and not wait until Almaty.
The guest rooms at the train station were expensive and could not accommodate the Pino, so we approached one of the several people outside the station who were advertising rooms. The lady we approached was one who had previously handed us her card when we’d been locking the bike before buying the tickets and had seemed friendly enough albeit perhaps a little eccentric.
Oh deary, dear though. We really must get better at judging people. Alma turned out to be as mad as a box of frogs! At first we put the confusing communication down to the fact that our Russian is really not very good, but after a while it dawned on us that our landlady was excessively garrulous and incoherent even to other Kazakhs, but by that time we felt we’d wasted so much time with her we needed to stick with the decision to just get the room sorted so we could go and get registered, which we absolutely HAD to do that day as it would be too late by the time we got to Almaty.
So, after much confusion and debate about where the bike would be stored (eventually in our 5th-floor apartment and not in the outdoor public car-park that Alma initially had sold to us as a secure police-guarded park) and many spurious side-trackings on topics that we did not understand and, indeed, suspected had scant relevance to the business in hand, we agreed to take the apartment and asked Alma for the address which we would need to give to the migration police. Matters got even more frustrating at that point when Alma insisted she would need to come and register us as our landlady. We suspected this was not the case, but our knowledge of the intricacies of Kazakh visa registration were insufficient to be positive on this point, and in any case it would have taken more than our feeble protests to deter Alma from her mission to be as helpful as possible to us. So, instead of hopping on the Pino to nip into town we had to take a taxi with Alma to her apartment to pick up her passport and paperwork (and also to allow her to change her top and hat to another combination as mismatched and odd as her original attire) from there we proceeded to the migration police where Alma, after dawdling and digressing all morning, suddenly became a whirlwind of anxiety and barged through the crowds to pick up the forms she insisted she needed to fill in for us. Six attempts later we were surrounded by torn up paper, Alma was muttering and mumbling and seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Keith and I were wondering how on earth we could take the situation back into our own control. Finally, forms completed to Alma’s satisfaction, she whirled off through to another room to hand everything over to the officials. A few minutes later she returned in high dudgeon, ranting something about us having tourist visas, and then disappeared again back to the officals whilst we stood dumbly waiting. Eventually she called us through to speak to the official, who spoke perfect English and enquired how we knew Alma who was making no sense at all. We explained we had just met her and were renting an apartment from her for our stay in Astana. The official took our passports and told us to return in 15 minutes. Alma threw a complete hissy-fit at this and stormed off to get herself something to eat and drink, trying also to drag us along with her. We refused to go and instead waited for our passports, which were returned to us as promised along with a printed out form completed with all our information, which we simply had to sign and that was it, job done. We went to pay the official and at that point discovered we’d been fleeced in Petropavlovsk.
In a blissfully Alma-free state and with all our paperwork complete, we were tempted to make our own way back to the apartment then and there, but decided we’d better wait to see if Alma re-appeared as we weren’t entirely sure if she’d understood we needed her to check us out of the apartment at 8.30 the following morning. She returned within a few minutes and we got another taxi back to the apartment where we tried to arrange for the morning’s key return then get rid of her as quickly as possible so we could go sight-seeing in what little remained of the day. No such luck. We first of all had a big argument about passports – she wanted to hold on to ours as security until we returned the key and we were under no circumstances prepared to relinquish them to her insane care – matters were eventually resolved when we wrote down our names and passport numbers and a mobile phone number (my UK PAYG one that doesn’t work here). She then tried to convince us that we must go to the train station together as she was sure we needed a separate ticket for our baggage and Keith had to be very firm in telling her that if there was a problem it was our problem. She then insisted on coming up to show us the workings of the flat (windows open and close, taps turn on and off, TV has a remote control…..nothing unusual or idiosyncratic in any of these items), and then, despite our increasingly impatient responses to her babbling, tried to drag us to the nearest shop so she could help us buy food. Despite our insistence that we’d been managing to buy food for ourselves in strange countries perfectly well for the last four months it was incomprehensible to her that we might be able to manage to do it by ourselves. We had by this time been in her mad and maddening company* for about 5 hours and despite our continued pleas that we wanted to go sight-seeing and thank you but we were quite sure we’d be able to manage on our own, in the end Keith had to be rude to her to by opening the door, cutting her off mid-sentence and saying firmly “Goodbye” in Russian. Eventually she left but it took us both quite a long time to feel calm again.
Anyhow, craziness over and done with, there was still sufficient light in the day to go and see the sights of Astana. And what sights they were!
Gleaming bronze, gold and green skyscrapers glittered and shimmered in the evening sun. The imposing block-shapes of fortress-like, Soviet-inspired buildings sat in sharp contrast with the futuristic curves of the Norman Foster designed shopping centre. Skyscrapers leaned quirkily like books on a shelf. Golden minarets nestled in a strange harmony amongst the mish-mash of classic colonnades, sleekly curved glass expanses and pagoda-style roofs. The city is barely twenty years old, and the newness lends it an energy, a feeling that anything is possible, and this energy and the diverse cultural heritage of its inhabitants are reflected in the extraordinary mix of architectural influences exhibited by its buildings.
The next morning we were dreading meeting Alma, but she seemed to have calmed down a bit and apparently bore no grudge against our rudeness the night before (if indeed she’d even registered it as such). We escaped her presence with relative ease and made our way to the train station to start the now familiar process of working out which platform we’d be on and how best to get the bike to it. As in Yekaterinburg there was no fixed platform, but luckily Astana only has three platforms, and platform one was occupied by a stationary train, and platform two and three were actually just different sides of the same platform, so we found the crossing point and wheeled across to await the train there (having already removed the chain linking the front and rear cranks, the front seat handles, both sets of pedals, and reversed one of the front cranks). It was still a mad scramble to complete the separation and wrap everything up when the train arrived and we could see where our carriage was, and once again we were reliant on the kindness of our fellow-passengers to accommodate all our belongings, but we’re getting the hang of it now and because we know what to expect the process doesn’t feel quite as stressful.
The journey itself was fairly uneventful, aside that is from my clumsiness whilst trying to clamber into the confines of the top bunk (we’d been allocated two top bunks). I was poised half-way up trying to work out how best to complete the manoeuvre in the absence of any grab rails that might assist one as vertiginously challenged as myself, when either the train swayed or my lack of co-ordination and balance overwhelmed me – the truth will never be known and isn’t really important as the outcome remained the same. One minute I was lightly remarking to Keith that it wasn’t as easy as it looked and contemplating my next move, and the next I was slipping through the air, thrashing madly and searching in vain for a foot-hold to step down to. Luckily the girl sitting in the adjacent seat kindly broke my fall a little (I hope her head is not too bruised) and I was uninjured but mortally embarrassed when my ass hit the floor. For subsequent ascents I misused the table as a step and ascended securely using adjacent bunks as hand supports rather than trying to clamber up the short end of the bunk using the step provided. Of course, instead of politely pretending it hadn’t happened, all the other passengers had to rush up the train to make sure I was all right, pat me on the head, and thus complete my mortification. Oh joy! Really, cycling is so much safer than setting foot on any form of public transport.
We are now staying in Almaty with Tas, an all-action, mountain-biking, adventure-racing airline pilot who is insisting that Keith enters a mountain bike race later this week (not on the Pino!) and threatening to take us mountaineering. I am drawn by the beautiful snowy peaks surrounding Almaty…..but can’t help but wonder if it mightn’t be safer for me to stay indoors with a good book.
*(the ‘mad and maddening’ phrase has been lifted directly from Keith’s diary – it just sums up Alma perfectly but I can’t take credit for it myself)