It took us thirty hours to get to Almaty from Urumqi. Six of those were spent waiting at the border. The rest were on another notorious “sleeper” bus.
We left in the early evening and sometime before nightfall we passed as close as we’re ever likely to to the point on the earth’s surface that is furthest from any sea. It’s called the ‘Eurasian pole of inaccessibility’ and it was a useful symbol for the fact that, though Kazakhstan is in the middle of everything, it is its middleness that makes it so remote.Our bus mates included three toddlers who were at once scared of and mesmerised by the bouncy ball tied to elastic that I used to throw to pass the time at rest stops. Their presence was another example of something we’ve observed throughout our travels: outside of New Zealand (and/or the West) little ones are routinely expected to do things – stay up late, travel on long journeys, walk long distances – that would be considered herculean or impossible feats for kids at home. Sure, the toddlers got a little tired and grumpy as the hours dragged on but, hell, we all did.
The peril of pretty black passports
The border crossing was a mission. The Chinese side was okay. An official took our passports and examined them in detail. The fancy New Zealand fern covers might be pretty, but they probably attract unhelpful attention. “You are going to central Asia for sight seeing?” he inquired, bemused. Yes, we are. We then had to rattle off all the countries we plan to visit before returning home to New Zealand. As those of you familiar with our forward plans can appreciate, this can take some time.
It seemed like the interrogation might end, but then he paused. “I ask you more questions?” he said. We couldn’t turn him down. “Wellington is the capital of New Zealand?” We confirmed it was. He continued: “New Zealand, Harry Potter, J R R Rowling?” We set him straight: “that’s England, but in New Zealand we have Lord of the Rings.” This satisfied him immensely. “Ah, yes. The Ring,” he said. With the broad smile of knowledge confirmed he waved us through to traverse no man’s land before Kazakh formalities.
Entering Kazakhstan without cash money
We stayed on no man’s land for at least four hours. For no obvious reason the vehicles wanting to cross were in massive, slow moving queues. When we got out of the bus and into the queue for Kazakh immigration a man in military dress approached us. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but wanted to know where we were from. He too seemed to think our shiny black passports afforded us special foreigner status and marched us to the front of the line. We waited patiently there until his colleague, also in military uniform, came and marched us to the back again.
The Kazakh immigration officer was the first local with blond hair and blue eyes I’d seen in months. She spoke enough English to quiz us about our plans and was on the verge of stamping our entry approved when she called over a serious looking colleague. This had me a little worried, until his self conscious giggling gave away the real purpose of his questions: to practice English. He asked my name. He asked my age. He asked my name again. He asked Fiona her horoscope. He asked where my immigration card was when he was holding it in his hand.
The customs officer next up had little English, but he had what he needed. “Passport” he barked, and I handed it over. “Cash money,” he stated boldly. “Good try, but no,” I said. His computation of my refusal gave me enough time to grab my passport and march out to the waiting bus. In hindsight it’s possible he wanted me to declare foreign currency I was bringing into the country. But it sounds like “cash money” is basically the way things get done with government officials in Kazakhstan, so I probably did, indeed, escape offering a bribe.
From the border it was another seven or so hours into Almaty. The road was bumpy and single laned, despite being the main highway from China. The desert and steppe landscape rolling by was majestic and open, punctuated only by the occasional yurt.
We were super grateful to be met in Almaty by the friend we would be staying with. We’d been told our bus would arrive at 5pm. She’d been told 9pm and had been waiting since. It ended up being about 11pm.