Friday, 27 July 2012

Day 124 - Almaty Kazakhstan.

Driving through the 350km of countryside between the Chinese border and Almaty, it felt suitably remote and backward – as we in the West associate with this part of the world. We were struck by the immediate but expected contrast between Kazakhstan and China. The buildings are mainly run down and of the Soviet era, the general store is filled with bread, milk, cheese, pastries and more than one type of beer, and everyone speaks Russian.

What we weren’t prepared for though, was that when we got to Almaty, we would feel like we had already arrived in Europe. The roads are wide and new and there is the usual range of grand parliamentary and government buildings, high rise apartment and office blocks, international hotels, restaurants, bars, supermarkets and so many lovely parks and leafy streets, not to mention the snow capped mountains surrounding the city. We are no longer automatically celebrities just because of the colour of our skin, in fact other than a few very subtle differences in fashion we could easily be locals. We hadn’t expected that to happen until much further towards Europe.

When we first arrived we drove around the city to try and look for the area we should be getting accommodation and hanging out in – just like we do in every city. We really couldn’t figure it out though. There were plenty of nice bars and restaurants, and we came across a couple of hotels. We could even guess where the centre of town was; we just couldn’t find anything that looked like a hostel or a guesthouse or anything along those lines. We couldn’t even find an internet cafe.

Not sure what else to do, we pulled up at the Holiday Inn and went inside to see if they’d at least have a map. The Holiday Inn in Kazakhstan is quite a posh affair, and the reception staff were exceptionally helpful. A man with completely Asian features, but blue eyes and light brown hair, standing at least 6 feet tall, took our case on board, while his very pretty blue eyed, black haired, pale skinned Arab colleague helped him out. Not only did they have a map for us, they were also more than happy to help us with accommodation. Apparently there aren’t really hostels or anything like that in Almaty. If you can’t afford to stay in a hotel, you can hire an apartment. Well this sounded fun... and possibly expensive, and we had no idea how we’d go about organising it. Fortunately huge blue eyed Asian man was more than happy to help, and offered to make some phone calls on our behalf – no strings attached. The pale skinned Arab lady translated the phone conversation as it was happening; it would cost 10,000 TT ($66) between us, but I think this was for two apartments each sleeping two. Realising that this was more money than we were hoping to spend, huge blue eyed Asian man told us about the particular stretch of street where people (usually ladies) stand at the side of the road dangling bunches of keys. It feels a bit underground and black markety, but the fact that we were directed there by the reception staff at the Holiday Inn was somewhat reassuring, so we gave it a go. The first lady we asked shook her head, indicating she only had space for two people. The next lady waved her hands a bit and did some meaningful pointing and yelled a lot of Russian at us, and then we followed her down the road, through the underpass, along the street a bit more, into the garden/car park of a housing complex, through a bullet proof door, up six flights of stairs and through another bullet proof door into what would become our home for the next week (or so). It’s a very small, but adequately clean and suitably retro two-room apartment, with a real European bathroom – shower curtain, Western toilet, and toilet paper! We drew lots of pictures and counted on our fingers several times, and eventually came to the agreement that it would cost 6,000 TT ($40) per night and we could all sleep here as long as two people don’t mind sleeping on the floor and we would be quiet and not disturb the neighbours.

The house warming for our apartment in Almaty was quite a do – we drank the local brew that is sold in the supermarkets straight from taps, watched the Russian music channel and ate doner kebabs around our two person kitchen table. We invited all our friends over, but everyone seemed to be predisposed in another part of the world. In the week that we’ve now been here we’ve come to feel very at home. Our daily routine is something along the lines of: go to some Embassies/Consulates during the day, then go home for a little bit before trekking down to McBurger which has become our local wifi hang out. Come dinner time we like to get doner kebabs from the guy on the corner (he’s our favourite in the area), and hit up a cool bar down the street called Pintas.

We’ve had some wins and some losses during our various Embassy visits, but more about that later.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Day 121 - The inconvenience of having one’s car broken into. (Kazakhstan)

It was nice to have the weekend to relax in Almaty; tour guide, conmen and NAVO free, before getting down to business on Monday morning with registering at the Migration Police and applying for visas for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. We woke ourselves up bright and early, ready for a day of paperwork and fees, only to be faced with our first experience of theft on this trip (unless you count everything we paid NAVO for, which we do). Denner had gone down to the car a few minutes early to pump up our slowly leaking tyre, and when we followed him we found   much to our dismay, that he was in the boot emptying out the shards of glass that used to be our back side window. We’re very grateful it wasn’t the back back window as this is the only really stupid feature of the car, being electric and quite temperamental, and we imagine it would have been exceptionally challenging to replace. After the initial shock that hits when you realise you’ve been robbed, we did a quick stock take and realised that the only things missing were the three items that were closest to the smashed window. One of the stolen items just happened to be the portable tyre pump that we needed to pump up our very badly timed flat, and the reason that Denner had gone down in the first place, and the other two were Tunkles’ bag and his brand new hiking boots that were loose in the boot. Not hopeful, but wishful anyway, we did laps around the nearby alleyways and lo and behold, Tunkles’ bag was in a dumpster just around the corner. His jacket, favourite t-shirt, Communist flags and other souvenirs from China were nowhere to be seen.

Our priority was no longer visas; unfortunately we’d have to put that off for a day while we got Trevor a new window. A passing man stopped and commented in English, on the fact that our car had been broken into – yes, yes it had, thankyou for the observation. And then he offered to help us find the replacement part, sure that given it’s a Toyota (one of the many factors that were at play during the car choice project) it shouldn’t be too difficult to find, but adamant that we wouldn’t be able to find it ourselves seeing we don’t speak the local lingo. He made a few phone calls on our behalf and found our part. He very kindly insisted that he would come with us to help with translation and negotiation, but he wasn’t free until the early afternoon. That worked fine for us anyway, considering we really needed to pump up our flat tyre, and although we could put off visas for a day, registering with the Migration Police has to be done within five days of arrival and this was already day five. So we drove around the busy streets of Almaty on our embarrassingly flat tyre, imagining all the other drivers laughing at us, as we would if we saw us driving around. “Ha ha, look at those stupid foreigners with their smashed window and flat tyre. Ha ha.”

Unfortunately air pumps aren’t at every petrol station in Kazakhstan like they are in Australia, but after a bit of driving around the outskirts of town and doing a lot of miming of pumping up a tyre, we eventually managed to find some air and regain some of our driving dignity.

Registering with the Migration Police was a piece of cake. Denner and I hung out with poor old injured Trevor while Ben and Tunkles photocopied our Kazakh visas and entry stamps and handed our passports over the counter.

When the time came, Tunkles and Denner went with B (he has a Russian name that starts with B) to find the window, while Ben and I did some printing and photocopying of visa related documents. When they eventually found the scrappers, down several unpaved alleyways and unmarked dirt tracks, it looked from the outside like a very high fence around a field, but turned out to be the house of some guy that lives in an industrial district and has a garage full of stuff. Fortunately he did have the promised window, for the unfortunate cost of $80.

They were back in time for us to collect our passports from the Migration Police at 5pm, now with yet another stamped form filled in and attached to our visa, and Denner spent the evening dismantling the back of the car and fitting our very tinted new window, which came decorated with free Russian graffiti.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Crossing the Chinese-Kazakh Border, by Ben Crowley

The day was Thursday the 19th of July, 2012. An auspicious date. The sun glared down on us as if to warn of the battles that lay ahead. While enjoying a scrumptious lunch of Shashliks, Bread and Beer at one of Khorgas’ fine eateries, our little Mandarin came hurriedly running over like the ferret he was to give notice that the border guards would now be ready to process us. We rolled our last meat of excitement into the bread of the unknown and headed towards Trevor, ever waiting like the loyalest of hounds. A quick detour was made by Thomas Charles and Thomas George Stanley to spend their last Yuan on cheap imitation spirits.

As per usual the thorn in our side (otherwise known as Lui), with the body of a meerkat and the intelligence of Paris Hilton, did not know the directions to the heavily signposted border of which he had been to many times before. So to save face he hired a taxi and we followed behind. We were lead into the Customs forecourt and after a long winded discussion between our unlearned friend and the guards, we were allowed through to Customs and Immigration to have ourselves, our paperwork, and of course Trev’ checked by those steely face individuals.

Something that has become apparently clear during our travels is the divide and conquer nature of border crossings. That is, the powers that be feel it necessary to split the group up as if to gain some psychological advantage in their otherwise mundane career choice. So as we pulled up, Tom, Tom, Eilidh and our minion were ushered inside, leaving myself to deal with a plethora of uniforms, guns and bureaucrats. I was asked for my passport, and as I was driver of the day and therefore apparently dealing exclusively with car matters in this instance, the appropriate paperwork for the vehicle. Either through the most monolithic incompetence of all modern history, or much more likely some sinister ‘got ya’ programme one might enjoy on television, Lui of course had all the paperwork. (Although later when coming back together as a group, when my travelling colleagues had required this paperwork inside he was unable to provide it there either.) After trying to explain this and twenty minutes passed, he came running over like a child chasing a ball into the headlights of a car, although unfortunately in this case there was no car. For a brief period of time I was even facing the glare of a slightly higher ranking official for not having the appropriate Chinese Licence plates (those that have followed Eilidh’s amazing blog will possibly have read of the Licences and Registration requirements for China) on the Vehicle I was in charge of. Lui had decided to take them down for no apparent reason.

Two men wearing beautifully pressed white naval style uniforms, gorgeous epilates to boot, now approached the car with the incompetent one in tow to check the chassis, VIN, engine numbers and as is the style in these bureaucratic states, just generally have a good old fashioned stare, as if hoping a large sign will be posted inside one of the doors telling them the contraband is actually under the passenger seat, or even worse that one of the boxes on form R789489-B was ticked incorrectly. Naturally it was much easier for them, as every single form of a total of somewhere between thirty and forty were incorrect. The primary problem, but not restricted to, was our VIN numbers were completely and utterly erroneous. Realising I was in for the long haul now, I returned to the car to take a sip of contemplation from my bottle of realisation and wondered what the others were doing and whether I would ever see their faces again. While I chatted to some guards with guns bigger than themselves, Lui ran four laps of the compound trying to obtain the correct paperwork before suddenly disappearing for 45 minutes. At this stage I’m sure the others would have been thinking I had made some smart-aleck comment about the disadvantages of the state controlled corporatist system of economic management that China employ compared with the free market, or just that they all look funny (it really can go either way) and was now being held.

 Never the less, Lui eventually returned with the correct paperwork and after Trev’ passed with flying colours and I happily agreed with the Commanding Officer on Duty that our guides sexuality was up for questioning, we were treated with utmost respect and diligently shown the way to Kazakhstan. In this now very brief time, as Chinese Border guards are extremely efficient when the correct paperwork is had, Tom, Tom and Eilidh were ushered over to the car and we were on our way. China was both the easiest and hardest place to say goodbye to. Easy in that we on several occasions felt the need to smash our foreheads into the nearest brick dwelling, or at least that of the four year old child we had somehow found ourselves with. Hard in that I doubt there is a country on earth that has the same contrasts, differences in culture, people and geography. A year spent just in China would not itself be enough time.

The road to the Kazakh border post wound in a snake like fashion through a desert of sand, security cameras and gunmen. We were first greeted by a lonely shipping container whose primary job seemed to be to ensure that no one had taken the wrong turn off. After checking we were in fact heading towards Kazakhstan, we then drove the next 5km’s, having the immense pleasure of witnessing our collective first tornado in such a desert surrounding, a metaphor that doesn’t need explaining. (I’ve been informed by the others that it really must be noted that despite all the hyperbole, there really was a tornado, a real life, large, swirling, engulfing tornado.) We eventually arrived at something resembling civilisation: an automated boom gate. Here we sat while a loud speaker yelled instructions at us in Russian. We continued to sit there until eventually a Kazakh Border Guard ran over, shouting at us to move forward. He must have been 10 feet tall, or maybe we’d just been in China for too long. The gate opened and on we drove through a field of parked lories, to another gate. This one was opened manually by a guard. Finally we arrived at the 1950’s reinforced concrete soviet style immigration building and were instructed to park our car, which unfortunately ended my plan of driving straight through the building (Kazakh guards never really got my humour). After we were all ushered in to have our passports stamped and visas checked, I was told that once again I would be taking care of the vehicle customs process by myself while the others went in an all too familiar fashion to wait for me at the other side.

On to customs I drove, venturing into the unknown not unlike the great explorers of history. Many come to mind - Marco Polo, Mawson, Captain Cook, Sturt and Ranalph Fiennes, just to name a few. I pulled up in to the shed of great expectations, only to have them all dashed as I was told to get out of the car. The great game of charades ensued, only this time with the limitation of no quick movements being placed on myself by the men with guns. Where had I been? Where was I going? Was the car Chinese? These were all relatively simple questions, but made considerably harder given the fact that they were all asked in Russian. The next line of questioning was abundantly clear as certain words stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb, the only problem of course being the manner in which the question was asked. In my best written Russian, this is what the questions sounded like. “Privivet sudunsky da jie vekrarkar Marijuana tovada?”, “Hugundara sasieba ude hutura kaya firearms gogol?” To which I answered very quickly “NYET!” My fear of course being they had thrown in a double negative in order to trick. The pinnacle of this intimidation process was the classic American style swat team member, wearing even a balaclava, approaching to begin his questioning. Were it not for his fully automatic rifle pointed at me I might have actually found the situation funny. My travelling colleagues did later find this funny as moments earlier he had been imitating kangaroos and naming the cities of Australia he knew to them, before shaking each of their hands and welcoming them to Kazakhstan.

Once it was established that I wasn’t carrying drugs and that I wasn’t a criminal mastermind, I was permitted the eternal pleasure of commencing paperwork. Something we had become quite good at in South East Asia was throwing enough forms at officials that they eventually capitulated. I had forgotten I was obviously dealing with the professionals here. If there was a bureaucratic Olympiad, the former Soviet states would take gold, silver and bronze. Photocopies of passports, visas, carnet, car registration, insurance, Chinese importation and exportation were all taken. Large leather bound book after large leather bound book was filled and obediently signed. The most important two forms required during this process were the customs document allowing me to drive out of customs at this stage and the form to be presented on our eventual departure, both of which I was dutifully given. I then knew the process was over after an hour and a half or so when I was given one of life’s great pleasures - something everyone must experience once (unless of course you’re part of one of the great ethnic groups to which this is common) - the all embracing handshake that only a central Asian, or Eastern European (occasionally found amongst some Southern Europeans but not a pre requisite for citizenship) can ever provide. The perfect balance between hard and soft, the second hand on the forearm, the right amount of closeness between the two torsos of those involved. When all this is done right, you are taken into the comforting bosom of not only an individual but an entire populace.

Then allowed to drive off, I picked up Thomas, Thomas and Eilidh before heading through three more gates, the first manual, the second an automatic boom gate and the third using a rope pulley system. When finally on the road seemingly paved with all the hopes and dreams of our wildest desires heading towards Almaty, we celebrated our new found freedom from the dragon that is the overland border crossing, which is fire of time spent waiting, its deep red eyes of awkward questions asked and finally its bone crushing fists of problems unknown. As has become almost ritual, we celebrated prematurely as 10km’s further we passed the last border gate, which luckily in this instance was a quick glance of our passports and once we’d seen the guard flash his beautiful golden teeth, we knew the ordeal was over and we were in the glorious nation that is Kazakhstan.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Day 118 - The Incompetency of NAVO: Part 2 - Our sub-par tour guide. (China)

After all our problems with Tracy and NAVO getting us involved with conmen in Urumqi, we had become somewhat more forgiving of Lui and his short fallings. What we realised once we’d resolved all of that nonsense though, is that he never actually got any better at anything, he’d just become the lesser of two evils. As soon as we left Urumqi it was back to directing us the wrong way, not telling us what anything meant, asking us to repeat every question six times and just generally being a very poor tour guide. We’ve never thought he was a bad person, we could even go so far as to say he’s actually shown signs of trying really hard to do his job reasonably, but it is ever so frustrating to have a very expensive guide with you who cannot serve any basic guide purposes. We have had to continuously correct him on interpreting maps, interpretations of parking restriction signs (in Chinese), deciphering menus, and history and facts on every single site we have visited. There are too many examples of all of these things to go into too much detail, but here’s just one example:

Because we’d had all our money from the “agent fees” returned to us in Yuan the day before we left China, we obviously needed to change this into something more useful. We didn’t expect to be able to get Kazakh currency in China, so we were just planning on changing it to US$ which are fairly useful all over, and at least universally exchangeable. But when we told Lui that we’d have to go to the bank in Urumqi to change our money (and explained in much more simple terms, over and over again what I just explained here), he advised us that it would be easier at the border town. Seeing it was already 4:30pm after we’d gotten our visas and stuffed around a little bit, we thought this seemed like a pretty reasonable suggestion, and after a week of bothering with our visas we’d forgotten that we can’t trust anything he says. So we arrived at the border town on Thursday (Day 116) and found our way to a bank, which we had to do by ourselves because he was on the phone to someone. Once we’d arrived at the bank, parked the car and got out, he eventually hung up the phone and informed us that there probably won’t be anywhere in this town to change our money.

Well this just wasn’t on at all – we wanted to do it in Urumqi the previous day and he told us not to! I’m sure any reasonable person can imagine how we felt about this news. It was NAVO’s fault in the first place that we even had this ridiculous amount of Yuan the day we were leaving China. We wanted him to at least ask around for a money exchange, or a different bank, or anywhere, but he was suddenly positive that there was absolutely nowhere and refused to keep looking. We found this pretty hard to believe - this is a border town, there has to be money exchange somewhere.

 And then he turned around and suggested “maybe you can exchange it when you get back to Australia”! This was the most insane part of the whole situation – how could a man who makes a living out of accompanying (I’m not going to bother pretending he guides) foreigners who are driving across several countries, usually at least a couple of continents, and sometimes the majority of the world, not be able to grasp the concept that carrying over $1,200 in useless currency for several months is ridiculous. He didn’t even come up with the idea that we might be able to change it in another country, before we get back to Australia.

But Lui was hungry by now so he explained to us that he would be leaving to get himself some food and would return when he was finished. We decided to look for money exchange ourselves, sure that there must be somewhere, and not willing to trust Lui’s word on anything anymore. So Ben and I went back to the bank to try and find out for ourselves, and sure enough the lady spoke no English, but with some very simple gesturing and writing down of symbols and numbers, we got our money changed into US$. Even more incredulous at Lui’s stupidity, we returned to Tunkles where we found out that a few minutes after leaving to get food, he had returned to inform us that the border was closed now until 4pm. It was almost 2pm at this point, and given we had specifically asked both that morning and the previous evening, whether the border closed in the middle of the day at all and were told no, this had us pretty annoyed again. We could have slept in past 7am, or spent longer at a beautiful lake we thought we didn’t have time to swim in. And now we’d just changed all except for 6 Yuan ($1) because of rounding, into US$, thinking we were heading straight for the border. So Denner went and got out another 100 Yuan which is the minimum amount, so that we could at least eat lunch while we waited for the border to open.

After everything that NAVO has put us through, we were at least under the impression that they knew how to do the border procedures and Customs paperwork properly. Apparently that was a misguided assumption as well. When our “Customs broker” met us on the street in front of a convenience store and then wasn’t allowed into the Customs area, we realised that once again NAVO had gotten us involved with some unlicensed, makeshift “agent” type person. We were a bit amused at how pathetic NAVO was turning out to be, but as long as everything ran smoothly at the border we weren’t overly concerned with this bloke. But it didn’t. We’re not sure whether it was Tracy, Lui or the “broker” that NAVO employed on our behalf, but our myriads of paperwork didn’t match up with each other, the engine numbers and VIN numbers were wrong on several documents, there were documents missing, and Lui kept running off with things when the Custsoms Officials needed to see them. At one point he disappeared for over half an hour, and it turned out he’d left the Customs area to catch a taxi back to the “Customs broker’s office” to fix something. Fortunately we have our own heads screwed on, and the Officials were very reasonable, otherwise I think we’d still be sitting at that booth.

On our very last day in China there were only two things for NAVO to help us with, and they failed at both. The perfect summary to our three weeks in China.

The mistakes that we’re talking about are those that you might make if you were an inexperienced traveller, and even then surely no single person would go through this many issues in such a short time. It’s odd that in this case it was a hired professional working for an internationally renowned company causing these problems, while we battled against NAVO at every turn just to try and get through the trip.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Day 117 - The incompetency of NAVO: Part 1 - Kazakhstan visa troubles (Kazakh visas in China)

Many weeks ago now, we realised that if we could not drive through Tibet as had been originally planned, we would have to go straight through China to Kazakhstan. As a result our original intentions of obtaining visas for all the Stans in New Delhi or Tehran had to be thrown out the window and re-thought. We should be able to get visas for all the other Stans once we get to Kazakhstan, but in the mean time where would we get our Kazakh visas from? At this point we were in Laos and we tried to sort it out there (Blog Day 87 - Kazakhstan or Tibet?), but we couldn’t. So we used what we assumed at this point to be our best resource: the services of NAVO (Nature Adventure Voyage Off-road). When I emailed our NAVO correspondent of the past year, Tracy, to ask if there was anything she could do, I wasn’t sure whether this would be within the realms of her expertise or not. But perhaps she could offer some sort of advice or information, and I was very happy when I received a positive response. Of course she, on behalf of NAVO, would be able to assist us. I was aware of the fact that there is a Visa Office in Urumqi, the city close to the border between China and Kazakhstan that we’d be crossing. I wasn’t sure though how varied their services would be, and sure enough Tracy informed me that she had done some research and found that usually they only deal with Chinese and Kazakh Nationals, mainly for the purpose of issuing Business visas. Fortunately NAVO had a contact at the Visa Office though and Tracy was able to make arrangements for them to issue us Tourist visas in one working day (which would be Friday – Monday). We would be paying an extortionate amount for this privilege, but considering we were asking for services they don’t usually perform, and were guaranteed a speedy service in advance, it seemed somewhat acceptable. It was going to cost us $100 each for the visa, even though we knew the visa itself is not usually that much, and $140 for a Letter of Invitation. This part we weren’t convinced about considering we knew that Australians don’t need LOI’s for Kazakhstan, but when Tracy told me this it was only a day or two before we entered China and I only had one day to confirm in order for it to be issued on time. I tried to get in touch with some people myself to find out about this, but with very limited resources at the time I unfortunately didn’t manage. The way Tracy explained it to me was that she herself doesn’t know much about the process and is just going by what her friend at the Office says, which is that because of the exceptional situation of us being issued with Tourist visas at this place, it is best that we have all possible supporting documents with us to ensure our applications. This seemed reasonable, and having no reason to mistrust NAVO at this point, we agreed to the extortionate amount of money, relieved at least that we had a plan for obtaining our Kazakh visas.

Our whole trip in China has been ruined by NAVO (Nature Adventure Voyage Off-road) since Day 1. At first it was just little bits and pieces like the fact that our guide can’t read maps and won’t/can’t translate parking restriction signs for us. Then we discovered that NAVO had failed to give our incompetent guide our itinerary and it was left in our own hands to contact Tracy and get our itinerary. For several days we followed my hand written scribble of directions while we waited for NAVO to get their act together. And then we realised they weren’t getting their act together and we have continued the entire way through China with our own notes. We spoke to Tracy on the phone several times to try and resolve these issues, but each time we became increasingly frustrated with her lack of interest, her insistence that these things were our own fault, and her refusal to find solutions to anything. But all of these things - the fact that our guide doesn’t know when the Great Wall of China was built, or how much the toll roads cost really pale in insignificance when we discovered what the real situation is with the “assistance” NAVO offered us in being issued Kazakh visas in Urumqi.

On Thursday (Day  109, 12/7) we were in the car driving through the Gobi Desert with the intention of spending the night in Shan Shan before arriving in Urumqi on Friday to go to our appointment that was supposedly set up for us at the Visa Office in the afternoon. Apparently the Office wasn’t even open on Fridays so we really were getting looked after, thanks to NAVO. With a remaining 800 or so kilometres still between us and Urumqi, our guide Lui received a phone call to tell us that we must get there at 9am in order to get our visas by Monday now. This wasn’t exactly brilliant, and we weren’t sure what had suddenly changed, but the thing that caught our attention was that Lui had inadvertently used the word “agent” to describe who he had been on the phone to. Our ears pricked up at this and we realised that Tracy had not actually contacted the Visa Office as she had told me she had, but had simply employed an agent on our behalf. Suddenly all the extra money made sense and we were infuriated that she’d just taken the easy route and lied to us about it. I tried to think back to my email correspondence with her about the matter, but I was fairly certain (and have since checked to make sure) that she had never thrown in the word agent. What she’d told me was that she had spoken to her “friend at the Visa Office in Urumqi”. And the fact that we needed a Letter of Invitation even though we didn’t, now made a bit more sense too. So we did some quick research on the internet and by phoning the Office in Urumqi and found that they actually issue visas to foreigners just like any other Consulate would, and offer 1-2 day turn around, and sure enough Australians don’t need LOI’s and lo and behold, they’re even open on Fridays.

So we got straight on the phone to Tracy at NAVO. Unfortunately we were of course treated with the same disdain, ignorance and disbelief that every other conversation with her ensued, but after an hour and a half of knocking our heads against a brick wall, we did at least discover that she had never bothered to contact the Consulate, that she hadn’t asked her “friend” about the Letter of Invitation even though I had pleaded with her to query this on our behalf, and that actually she knew nothing of the process at all and had lied about everything she had told us. We decided at this point that it was best if we relieve her and her “friend” from the task and continue with our visa applications ourselves. Much to our shock though, this statement was met by a threat. Tracy told me over the phone that if we refused to pay these fees and were to continue with the process ourselves, that there is no guarantee that we will be issued with visas at all. In fact it is likely that we will be rejected, and any extra costs caused by a delay in leaving China will be charged by NAVO at full price. Basically what Tracy was saying is that NAVO works hand in hand with this “agent” and if we weren’t to willingly line all of their pockets, they would see to it that our visa applications were rejected.

We realised at this point that essentially we were being held to ransom by NAVO, the internationally renowned tourist service that we paid a total of $8,000 to for the privilege of having an incompetent guide taking up space in our car. There are plenty of companies that we could have gone with that offer the same services as NAVO says they provide, for a much lower price. We’ve even discovered from Lui that the same guides freelance between several of the companies, and NAVO offers no training to them at all. All of these things we could deal with though, but now we were trapped by NAVO, our hands tied tightly behind our backs.

As such we decided that much to our displeasure, and against everything that any of have ever stood for, we had no choice but to give into the bad guy. We couldn’t risk the chance that NAVO and their “friends” would follow through on their threats and stand in the way of us obtaining our Kazakh visas at all, charging us more and more for “guide fees”, “road permits” and whatever else they might come up with. And who knows what power or connections they really do have? Is it even possible that they could make things difficult for us at the border, or with the police, or anything else, if we didn’t play to their corruption? And unfortunately until we leave China, NAVO has us bugged, followed and essentially cornered.

We always knew things like this would happen and we’d be required to pay unofficial fees. We just didn’t expect that it would be NAVO causing the problems and holding us hostage for money.

We did plead with Tracy to find out from her “friend” if we could do it without paying for the Letter of Invitation that we know we don’t need (and had just had confirmed by the Consulate itself), but apparently this “friend” wasn’t willing to budge as this is how she feeds her children. We also discovered that the “friend” wasn’t even the “agent” that we were actually using, she was just another middle man, and Tracy had never even spoken to the “agent” before. It just kept getting more and more distressing.

After being told that any time in the afternoon was fine to rock up at the Consulate, Lui then kept getting phone calls all morning nagging for us to hurry up. We were sort of in the middle of driving through the Gobi though, and there wasn’t much we could do to hurry. So we just kept going until we got to the outskirts of the city, where Lui got us lost. Just for something a bit different. So we took over navigation ourselves, the problems being that 1.) that damage was already done and it ended up taking us an hour and a half to do what should have been a 20-30 minutes drive, and 2.) all the street signs are only in Chinese and Arabic, and it’s a bit tricky to try and match up the Chinese characters with those on the map as we’re driving past. And of course Lui wouldn’t just answer our questions of “is this road on the map the one we’re driving past now?”, so we just had to guess. It was still more reliable than allowing Lui to navigate, and sure enough we managed to find it thanks to ourselves.

So off we rushed with our carefully filled in application forms, passports, and copies of our passports. The arrangement had been that we would go to the bank, find out the exchange rate for US$/CNY and get out the appropriate amount of CNY before meeting the “agent”, but because of the unexpected hurry they’d told us just to go straight to the Consulate and arrange payment afterwards. As we approached the Consulate building we recognised what it was from the jostling crowd at the front. The main doors of the building are up a few steps, and around them is a 3m high railing fence. As we arrived at the gate, a man who had presumably pushed his way through the gates, was now being pushed back down the steps by the guards. So we waited for this kafuffle to resolve and then the guards ushered us inside. Two people – a man in a suit and a woman with so much make up on that I couldn’t tell where her cheeks ended and her ears started – were waiting outside for us when we arrived. Presumably these were our “agent” and Tracy’s “friend” or something, as they handed us a bunch of paperwork to take in with us. A quick flick through this paperwork had us pretty annoyed, as all it was, was an application form for each of us, crudely filled in with an illegible scrawl, using a biro nearing the end of its life, and a very unclear photocopy of each of our passports. In we went to the Consulate, Lui and these two new characters waiting outside for us as they weren’t allowed inside.

The two windows that were open were already in use so we used the time to try and hastily decide what to do. Do we hand in the documents that the powerful and all-knowing “agent” has filled in for us? Or do we hand in the forms and documents that we have carefully prepared and double and triple checked? Well if this guy knows everyone at the Consulate, and does this for a living, surely it’s best that we hand in their forms. So against our instincts, this is what we decided to do. When it was our turn to approach the window we were asked to go one by one. One by one he dismissed us, and as we stood there confused and concerned, he came around to our side and explained that we had the wrong forms and none of the correct supporting documents. We were told to bring photocopies of our passports, Chinese visas and entry stamps, write a letter of introduction and attach an itinerary. On the way out the guard handed us a business card of something we couldn’t decipher and told us to come back at 3pm.

We were pretty upset at this point. In our language an agent is employed to do all the work for their client so that things run smoothly and hassles are minimised. We would have preferred not to pay someone else to do the work for us, but as things were, we had. But now we had not only been embarrassed in front of the Consulate Officials by having the wrong forms, we also had to go and organise our paperwork ourselves anyway.

We hastily left the Office, asking Lui to help us find a photocopy shop and decipher what the business card was for. The suited man and made up lady ran after us, harassing Lui in Chinese, and when I turned around to explain to them that we had to go and organise a bunch of documents, the suited man cut me off and very aggressively told me “don’t speak to me, this is none of your business”. Right. This is none of my business. Ok. So we continued on our way and stopped at the first photocopy shop that we passed. The suited man stood outside for a bit while we made the necessary photocopies (at our own expense needless to say) and used the computer there to type up and print a letter of intention. And then he disappeared.

Lui looked at the business card and told us it was for some business that we were probably sent to for photocopying, and unfortunately we took his word for it and returned to the Consulate even though it was still well before 3pm. As it turns out we were told to return at 3pm because that’s the end of their lunch break, so we just sat it out with the other bunch of sad sods waiting to be granted entry by the officials.

3pm came, the doors were opened, and they started allowing people in the queue to enter the building. We decided it was best for us not to queue up with everyone else, but to stand right in front of the doors where the guards could easily see us, and would hopefully remember that we’d already been in and had been told to come back at 3pm. We had noticed one white guy in the queue, and while we were waiting there he approached us wondering if we knew what the system was. We explained what our situation was, and as he hadn’t made any contact yet, he decided it best for him to wait it out in the queue.

We weren’t quite sure why we weren’t being allowed inside, especially as we supposedly had an “agent” making phone calls and arrangements on our behalf. The guards told us to wait another 30 minutes as the Officials were in a meeting. Then an hour later we were told it wouldn’t be long now. Where was our “agent”? Lui kept trying to make phone calls to find out, but he was nowhere to be seen, and we wondered whether he was actually now making phone calls to hinder our progress. At about 5pm we found out that they stay open until 7pm (unexpected, but certainly a relief), and then the guard came out and said that the computer system is down, they won’t be processing any more today and we should come back Monday morning. We asked if he would at least check our forms to ensure we had everything, which he agreed to. Apparently we didn’t have everything right though (lucky we checked) and he gave us the same business card as we’d been given earlier. Where was this stupid “agent” of ours? Tracy from NAVO refused to offer any help and wouldn’t contact her “friend” for us at all. Finally Lui managed to get the “agent” on the phone and we were told that if we went and got the money to pay him ($240 each, $960 total), went to the office on the business card and then our accommodation, he would collect our forms and passports from us that evening and we should still get our visas on Monday, possibly Tuesday now.

Whilst waiting at the locked gates of the Consulate, Grady wasn’t the only person that we’d started speaking to. Tunkles had actually struck up quite a friendship with a man of Kazakh ethnicity, who lives in China very close to the borders with Mongolia and Russia. Whatever his business at the Consulate was mustn’t have been urgent, as he was willing to give up for the day and insisted on helping us out if he could. There wasn’t much he could do, but his car was parked a lot closer than ours and a lift to the bank wouldn’t go amiss.

We got the money, gave it to Lui, and thought that maybe now that we’d paid him our “agent” would do his job. Even though it was their fault they hadn’t been paid first up anyway. We said goodbye and thankyou to Norman, the Kazakh man, and exchanged details with Grady, the English man, and hurried off to whatever the place was on the business card we kept being given.

As it turns out, this place was a sort of agency itself, but one that cost 20 Yuan each and actually completed the job. There were four ladies seated behind desks with computers on them, and one at a time we were asked to sit down and answer questions about ourselves. At the end of it we were given an application form – exactly the same one as we’d originally filled in ourselves – completed in print by these ladies, and a cover letter with their stamp on it. Apparently this is the real way they charge a “service fee”, and this is all the Consulate Officials had been looking for. If our “agent” had known anything he would have already done this, or at the very least would have known to send us there first thing. This is when we really realised that not only was this whole system a con and a rip-off, but the “agent” and “friend” that NAVO had so forcefully set us up with didn’t even know the first thing about applying for Kazakh visas.

It was about 6.30pm at this point and we wanted to just go straight back to the Consulate with our new forms. But apparently we had to find our accommodation and the “agent” would collect all of our paperwork and passports that evening.

We decided it was best for us not to say a word, or even see this con man when he rocked up, so poor Lui was left to play middle man yet again. For some reason Tracy and her “friends” never want to speak to us themselves, they always want to text message or speak to Lui and have him pass on their messages.

After speaking to the “agent” and handing over all our documents, Lui greeted us with a few bits of information. Apparently cake face lady had been so upset by our antics in the afternoon (!!!) that she’d gone and got herself into a car accident so she couldn’t do the work for us anymore. NAVO, the compassionate angels that they are, had begged and pleaded on our behalf for the suited man to take over our case and help us with our visas, and very kindly he had agreed. Oh these people and their good hearts. But because we’d caused so many problems in the afternoon (!!!), and now the computer system was down, it would be very difficult for them to get our visas by Monday, but they should be ready by Tuesday. Apparently we were also very lucky to have such a good and kind agent on our side as well, because the Officials inside the Consulate had been very offended by us and didn’t want to issue us with visas at all now because of the ruckus we had supposedly caused. Well this was the most blatant and childish scare tactic we’d come across yet. The only “ruckus” anyone had caused was when we’d pointed out that the forms the “agent” handed to us when we arrived were wrong. The Officials didn’t even see this interaction, and nothing was said inside the Consulate other than to answer their questions.

We were told to attend an appointment at the Consulate on Monday morning at 10am.

We used our opportunity over the weekend to sleep, relax, and wander around a city calmly and in our own time - a very welcome change from the rest of our time in China. It was also a welcome break from 24/7 with Lui, and we solidified our new friendship with Grady.

Not wanting to risk anything we left plenty of time to get ourselves to the Consulate on Monday morning, and ended up arriving before 9am. Grady stood up pretty close to the fence, but we sat down a couple of metres away knowing that we had to wait for our “agent” anyway. A few minutes before 9am we watched all the Officials and Guards arrive in their plain clothes, pushing their way past the hordes and slipping through the gates that they unlocked for themselves. Then the same guards as we knew from Friday came out and started letting people in. One of them waved to us and Grady immediately, grinning at us as if he’d been waiting all weekend just to see us again. A little while later – maybe around 9.30am – Grady was ushered in, and the guard waved at us to follow. But we had none of our own paperwork! So we had to just stand out there like idiots – again – and wait for the guy we were paying all the money to. He pulled up in his black Lexus, tinted windows and all, a while later and parked 100m away without getting out of his car. Lui ran over to him and took ages to come back with our forms and passports, exactly how we had given them to him on Friday evening. So he hadn’t done anything with them, he just collected them from us to sit on them all weekend and prevent us from doing anything (we can’t drive without our passports and we need them to check into any accommodation).

Thankfully the guard hadn’t changed his mind after all this palaver and we were still allowed to cross the threshold and enter the building. We were asked to sit down and approach the window one at a time where we were questioned about our applications – verifying name, address, place of work, purpose of visit etc.

When the Officer was satisfied with our application he gave us each an appointment slip and told us to return on 18/6 at 3pm. We kept our cool, thanked the men at the windows and left the building. That’s Wednesday! We met Grady outside and this was exactly the same time as he’d been given after paying his 140 Yuan ($23) straight to the Consulate and not involving NAVO or their “friends” in anything.

Outside Lui was waiting for us and we told him the two problems. He got on the phone to Tracy or the “agent” or the “friend” or whoever it was, spent ages on the phone during which time we kept asking us to please tell us what’s going on. He’s very bad at that. Eventually he got off the phone and bearing in mind this was a 20 or so minute conversation, informed us that the “agent” was “working on it”. Well actually this wasn’t really good enough and if everyone was going to refuse so profusely to speak directly to the people paying them all the money, then Lui was going to have to do a better job at playing middle man. Eventually we got to the solution of we’d be refunded the extra 280 Yuan we’d paid for the double entry, as if this was a great and kind thing they were doing for us! We still weren’t getting the double entry visas which obviously we wanted more than that money anyway. And the “agent” would continue “to do his best” to at least get them by Tuesday (the following day) for us, or at the latest Wednesday (the day the Consulate was giving them to us anyway). Not satisfied at all we had no choice but to return to our hostel and try and continue with our day.

This really just wasn’t sitting well though. We actually weren’t getting anything quicker, easier or more definitely than all those other people rocking up and dealing directly with the Consulate. We’d gone from being honestly frightened and intimidated by Tracy from NAVO threatening both our passage to Kazakhstan and our finances, to anger, irritation, dismay and what can only be described as amused bafflement. Everyone involved in this was so unbelievably corrupt and unfortunately we had put our trust in NAVO and allowed them to play us for fools.

When we spoke to Tracy on Thursday, the day before we arrived in Urumqi when we started to realise the situation she’d got us into, she had agreed that if the “agent” didn’t deliver our visas on the Monday as promised, NAVO would pay all the “agent” fees. Well it was now Monday afternoon and it didn’t look like we were getting our visas that day, and by now we were also pretty sure we wouldn’t get them by Tuesday either. By now we highly doubted that the any of these people – Tracy, her “friend” or the “agent” – knew anything about or anyone involved in anything to do with this system. Why didn’t Tracy just tell me in the first place that she couldn’t help?

So I got on the phone to Tracy to remind her of the agreement. Of course she wanted to tell me how I don’t understand the system, and she was only trying to help out of the goodness of her heart in the first place, and make excuse after excuse for everything, including all the previous problems we’d had with NAVO which I really wasn’t interested in talking about at this point. The main thing that she kept going on about though was how it was our fault because of “what happened on Friday” and her “friend” had told her this and that about how we’d refused to pay and had been exceptionally rude etc etc. Apparently we’d agreed at some point that it would be ok if we got our visas on Tuesday, although I’m not sure when this would have happened seeing we hadn’t spoken to her since before we arrived in Urumqi. It’s very hard to rebut blatant childish lies with reasonable and structured arguments, but I continued to knock my head against the brick wall that I have come to know as NAVO.

We were sure by this point that we wouldn’t get be getting our visas any time before our allocated appointment of 3pm on Wednesday, and sure enough Lui came to us on Tuesday afternoon and told us that the “agent” was unable to get us our visas before Wednesday and after a whole lot of pushing, it seemed that NAVO saw no choice but to refund the “agent fees”, obviously deducting the 140 Yuan actual visa cost. But of course they wouldn’t give us the money until we had the visas physically in our hands.

We’d been enjoying the fact that not having to drive 800km every day meant that we could actually sleep until whenever we wanted in the morning, and then even once we’d woken up, we were free to lie in bed for as long as we liked. Well on Wednesday morning we were awoken at 10:30am by Lui whispering to Tunkles that the “agent” could help us get our visas that morning if we wanted. What?! This was possibly the most ridiculous thing out of everything! Obviously he’d just rung up the Consulate and asked whether they were ready yet. It’s not like he was even going to collect them for us (not being any sort of accredited agent he wasn’t even allowed inside the Consulate building), so he was really just scraping of the bottom of the barrel here, hoping that we’d for some reason be happy to pay him probably his full original price, to go and collect our visas ourselves maybe 3 hours earlier than we were already planning to. Obviously we dismissed this immediately. Our feelings were now turning into pity for these people.

We left plenty of time to get to the Consulate, and arrived 45 minutes early. So we joined the eager, anxious, frustrated and impatient throng outside the front gates, waiting for what hopefully would be a relatively painless collection of newly visa-ed passports. We met a Japanese guy there this time. He’d also applied on Monday and had been given 3pm Wednesday collection time. No third, fourth or fifth parties involved.

The doors opened and the guards came out to start letting people inside. At first he ignored us – the same guy as all the other times – and then he looked at our appointment slips that I was reaching as far through the fence as I could manage, and shook his head.

“What?” I tried to ask him. Of course Lui was nowhere to be found, so we did our best to communicate with him anyway. I reckon he spoke more English than he could be bothered letting on, but he eventually came up with,


“What? Why?”

Another shake of the head and what I think was a smug grin, but I’m willing to pretend was an apologetic smile, and “Tomorrow”.

In the mean time we were all running around looking for Lui – we actually needed a translator now. If you’re going to manage your job once, please make it now. By the time we found him wandering across the road to buy himself a drink though, we’d already managed to somehow manage to get ourselves waved in. We pushed through the crowd, most of whom tried to sneak in with us, pushing us out the way as they did, and found ourselves inside the building.

I had honestly expected it to take a couple of hours to get the visas in our hands. I really thought that we’d rock up at the gates, be told to “wait a minute” for an hour or so, be asked to go inside where we’d have to sit down for a while, to be told to come back tomorrow or pay more money, before eventually being given our passports. As it happened though, we walked in the main door where we were met by a man in a black t-shirt who told us to wait there as he picked up our passports from the desk right in front of where we were standing. He checked the pictures as he handed them back and out we waltzed, armed with Kazakh visas.

It was a battle to get our money back, even after NAVO had agreed to it, but we did manage. They have offered us no apology, no acknowledgement of the trouble they put us though not only with this fiasco, but throughout the entire trip, and no compensation monetary wise or other. It has been extremely disappointing to be treated like this by what we thought to be the most reputable, experienced and reliable company offering tours of this sort. We opted for the more expensive, yet safer option by choosing NAVO over any of their competitors. We would have really struggled to believe that there would be this much corruption and incompetence in a company of NAVO’s supposed standard.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Day 115 – Urumqi. (China)

After covering over 6,000 km in 14 days, this will now be our sixth stationary day in Urumqi, having travelled no more than a couple of kilometres to the market and back in this time. We had a bit of trouble with our Kazakh visas which is what caused the delay, but we should be getting them this afternoon and shooting through towards the border this evening. The story of our visas is a long and excruciating one which I’ll write about and put up on here in the next few days.

We’ve greatly enjoyed sleeping, using the internet and enjoying not having to drive 800km every day, but two nights ago we were having dinner at a street restaurant when a young Chinese guy came up and asked if he could help us with ordering or anything. We knew exactly what we wanted – lamb shashliks and flat bread – but we took him up on the offer of helping us get it. His English was impeccable and we asked him and his father who he was with if they’d like to join us. They’d just finished their own meal so they didn’t help us eat the feast, but his father ran across the road and came back with a couple of bottles of Chinese “wine” (some sort of rice wine that’s 50 something % alcohol) that he insisted we help him get through. At the end of the evening we exchanged details and agreed to meet up the next evening to have a meal together.

So last night we met Can and Bing Lu and they treated us to an exceptional feast. Can (the 21 year old son) met us near our hostel and took us to the restaurant where Bing Lu, his father, already had a table covered in food for us. Again, he had a bottle of “wine” for us to share, which was replaced with an onslaught of beers when we managed to get through it. And the food just kept coming. By the end of it we had two entire chickens (head, feet, stomach and all), a whole fish and an entire table of veggies, soups, buns, noodles and who knows what else.

But the time has now come for us to cross town and visit the Consulate once again, where hopefully we’ll be picking up our Kazakh visas.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Day 110 – Multicultural China (China)

For the first three months of our trip (barring the three weeks which we spent in Australia at the very beginning) we drove around South East Asia – Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Predominantly we drove North, then East, then North again, but actually we drove around in circles quite a bit and weren’t opposed to a bit of back tracking when something took our fancy. During this time we noticed minor changes in the appearance of locals, their culture and food, architecture and landscape. For the most part though, the people all over this area come from very similar ethnic backgrounds. As a result their facial features and skin colour don’t vary too drastically; the architecture mainly fits into the same basic categories; and the food encompasses a lot of the same ingredients and styles of preparation. The landscape changes somewhat over the whole area, but in a nutshell it’s all tropical, and as a result most of it is some rolling green hills and rice fields. These things vary from place to place, but usually very gradually and fairly minimally.

When we arrived in China we immediately noticed a marked change in culture, food and architecture. Driving from the South to the North - from Laos to Kazakhstan – in less than three weeks though has really been an eye opener.  In my blog of Day 108 I outlined the various landscapes and climates we’ve experienced during this time, from banana and tobacco fields, to sheer cliff faces and tumbling waterfalls; rolling green mountains scattered with roaming yaks, to the vast and harsh Gobi Desert. Even within the desert the landscape changes dramatically over and over again. There have been bits of very boring, flat land extending to the horizon in every direction, a smattering of shrubbery dotted across the landscape. In other parts we have found ourselves winding around huge rock formations and sand dunes. Then there are the areas covered in huge cracks that look like the dried up lips of an aged smoker. Sometimes the sand is very fine and almost white, yet in other places the ground is pebbly, even rocky, and very gray. And the most bizarre variation is where trees and crops have been artificially planted, right in the middle of all of this.

What we have just started seeing though is the great change in local ethnic groups and their languages and cultures. Through most of China, Han Chinese is the ethnic majority. They speak Mandarin and are what we think of in the rest of the world, as “Chinese”. That’s what we saw up until we reached the Gobi Desert. We’ve now been to three towns/cities in the desert and they’ve all been very bizarre places.

The first was Dun Huang. We were struck by the suddenness of this town rising out of the desert, a small belt of trees surrounding the outskirts and doing a remarkable job at keeping out the harsh elements of the Gobi. We started noticing a few people that didn’t look Han Chinese, but as far as we could tell, the ethnic makeup of the city seemed to be pretty close to all the other places we’ve been through, and most of the buildings and businesses seemed pretty akin to those in the rest of the country.

The second was Shan Shan which is inside the Xinjiang Province. The other Province borders that we’ve crossed have been absolute non-events just like between Victoria and South Australia, or Scotland and England, but this one felt like a real border crossing. There were army people around, and lots and lots of police pulling almost everyone over. Very surprisingly, and much to our delight, we were amongst the few vehicles to be allowed through without any more than a glance. But most importantly, this is where we really started to see the ethnicities change. The first thing was the signage. In the rest of China the signs are all in Chinese, with English translations on road signs and most businesses. In Xinjiang though, the signs are all written bilingually for Chinese and Arabic, with no English whatsoever. And looking at the faces of the individuals in the police force and the army, they matched the signs. For the first time on this trip we were seeing people who looked Central Asian and Arab as opposed to Southern or Eastern Asian.

Inside the town of Shan Shan itself though, the mixture of backgrounds became even more obvious and confusing. Some people looked mainly Chinese and some looked mainly Arab, but we also noticed people who could have been Greek or Turkish and others that could have been Indian or Pakistani. The vast majority however seemed to be some unique mixture of everything in between. Still though the food is very Chinese, varying only as much as it does from province to province in the rest of the country.

The city itself looked very Central Asian. The buildings were of a style I would associate with the “Stans” and the main colour of the ground and buildings is the pale yellow of the desert – not something I think of when I imagine China. Our Han Chinese guide did not feel comfortable camping near any of these houses, considering the ongoing conflicts between them and the ethnic minority groups, especially those in this area.

The third city we’ve visited in the Gobi Desert is Urumqi, which we have affectionately named Jamiroquai because the pronunciation is such that no one can understand us even when we try and say it properly. This is where we are now and this is where we are supposed to be getting our Kazakh visas issued to us. 2 million people reside in Jamiroquai, rendering it the largest city in the world this far inland, and it is made up of the same confusing mixture of ethnicities as Shan Shan. After driving hundreds of kilometres through desert, finding a city of this size is not something one would expect, yet once in the city there isn’t really any evidence of its unusual location. We can really notice the difference in food options now though. There are the usual Chinese styles available, but we’re loving the integration of Arab styles we’re managing to find in this neck of the woods.

That’s one thing I am greatly looking forward to on this next leg of the trip. Central Asian/Arab/Middle Eastern food. I have grown somewhat tired of noodles and rice, and am looking forward to some hearty meat dishes.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Day 108 – Banana plantations, the Tropic of Cancer, the Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi Desert (China)

Unfortunately we haven’t had much opportunity to blog since arriving in China two weeks ago. We knew we had a tight itinerary because of the change in route taking us to Kazakhstan instead of through Tibet to Nepal, but we hadn’t quite realised just how tired it would make us. We’re averaging seven hours of driving per day, after thirteen days, with a couple of ten hour days in there. We’ve also been camping all except three nights, which obviously means no internet access.

During this time though we have managed to cover about 5,000km and almost 20 degrees of latitude, witnessing an incredible amount of changes in landscape, architecture, climate and culture in such a short space of time.

Entering China from Laos we noticed the landscape change immediately from rice fields and jutting cliff faces, to banana, tea and tobacco plantations spread over rolling hills and gentle valleys. Driving through the Yunnan Province on our first couple of days we saw some of the most exceptional scenery that any of us have ever seen before.

Then we crossed the Tropic of Cancer, glad to finally be out of the tropics after three very sweaty months. At this point we were up in some mountains which if it was winter, would be covered in snow. At this time of year however, it is summer and it’s still pretty warm. Much to our delight though, we started experiencing chilly evenings and had quite a lot of rain. It’s been a while since we’ve been in rain that makes you colder instead of hotter and stickier. As annoying as it is to have everything in the car drenched and muddy, and have to do a stop at a service station every morning to pack up properly under some shelter, it is very refreshing to have a change in climate after the tropics.

After a few days of chilliness and a bit of moderate warmth in the afternoons, we came back down off the mountains to Chengdu. Chengdu is a city in the valley, with a population of 11 million, and in summer it gets very hot. So with all our rugged up-ness from the morning and most of the afternoon, we arrived on the outskirts of the city to realise it was pretty warm now. By the time we made our way through traffic, stuffed around looking for accommodation, realised we couldn’t find any and drove to a camping spot, it was getting pretty stinky.

The main thing to do in Chengdu is visit the Panda Research Base, so with the limited time that we have because of our very tight schedule (this is so frustrating – completely defeating the purpose of driving! But unfortunately we have no option for China) we camped in the car park overnight, and spent a couple of hours there in the morning. It definitely wasn’t long enough, but it was very enlightening. We discovered through observation of habitat, activities, diet, mating rituals and appearance that Denner is actually descended from pandas.

That same day we saw one of the things that makes this route change slightly more bearable. The Terracotta Warriors. This site is pretty phenomenal. There are a couple of pits where the pieces have been excavated, but the main one that is set up for us to look at is incredible. Positioned as if they are ready for war, there are thousands of life sized terracotta warriors, each one individually modelled on the image of a specific warrior of the time, the detail extending all the way to their unique hairstyles and footwear.

From there we headed back up into the mountains, feeling the temperature dropping again. Rising to an altitude of 4,000m, we found ourselves in the Tibetan Plateau which makes Yunnan look like my back garden. We couldn’t help but continuing to stop and look at yaks running across the hillside, being herded by locals in traditional dress, tents covered in paintings and symbols dotted across the valleys. Mountains topped with snow and surrounded by clouds were up in the distance, while the sun shimmered on fields of bright yellow flowers in the valleys. Actually I can’t even consider doing this area justice with words. Up there it was cold, but the sun was bright and warm.

When we came down out of this area, we drove towards the Jiayuguan Great Wall Pass and quickly found ourselves in some pretty arid land. Unlike the desert in Australia though, this one is continuous rock formations and small hills and valleys, the road winding between them. The interesting thing though is that the Chinese are working very hard on turning it into arable land, so although it’s desert, there are artificially planted trees in places, and groups of workers tending to crops. Right there in the middle of the desert.

The second thing that made us slightly more content with our route change, was that we’d be able to visit the Great Wall of China. The part we got to see is completely rebuilt and only 100m long, but the great thing was that we were the only tourists there at the time.

And then we drove out into the heart of the Gobi Desert, where it is just yellow sand, cracked ground, dry rocks and rolling dunes for as far as the eye can see. We visited the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, where due to an unfortunate misunderstanding we ended up in a Chinese tour group. So we don’t really know anything about them, but they’re really old and really colourful and very culturally significant.

And this is where we are now, revving ourselves up for another ten hour drive through the desert today.

The very interesting thing about driving North West at such a rate is that our evenings are getting longer and longer. Driving North they should be anyway, as it’s Northern Hemisphere summer, but the most ridiculous thing is the fact that although China should encompass three time zones, they have chosen to have only one. When we cross into Kazakhstan, we will lose two hours.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Day 96 – Bye bye Laos, hello China. (Border crossing Laos to China)

It has taken many months of planning, a lot of difficult decision making and apprehensive separation with a considerable amount of money, but today was the big day. After spending the night in the tiny village of Boten on the Laos side of the border, we were up and ready to head off at 7:45 this morning, prepared for a full day of paperwork and various checks. The Chinese side of the border opens at 9:00, so because of the time difference the Laos side opens at 8:00 and we were keen to get the ball rolling as early as possible, unsure of how long everything would actually take, and aware that everyone goes on three hour lunch breaks.
We specifically left basically an extra day to get to the border, meaning we only had 80km to drive yesterday before arriving at Boten. We stopped at a quarrie on the way where Tunkles played with his bb gun for the last time, before giving it a proper gangster farewell by dramatically smashing it on the ground then leaving it to sink in the stagnant marshy water that had gathered. We completely missed the town, driving right up to Customs before realising we’d gone too far. There was a small restaurant amongst a strip of very abandoned looking buildings, where we decided to have lunch while we figured out what to do. Realising this was in fact Boten, we considered going back to Oudomxay 80km away. This didn’t really look like a great place to spend a whole day and night. Other than this small strip of dilapidated buildings, there was a huge gravel truck parking area and one motel type place that we couldn’t find anyone to work at. Remembering that we had driven through a small village a couple of kilometres before, we decided to check that out, and sure enough the tiny village was the actual town of Boten. There were two guesthouses in the town, both basically the same thing for exactly the same price. We chose the one with the slightly cleaner bathrooms. It turned out to be a great afternoon in the end, spent cleaning the car out in the afternoon sun, and playing cricket for an audience of curious locals. Everyone we came across wanted to wave and say hello, seemingly astounded that we were there. I guess they wouldn’t get many Western tourists crossing that border.

The last 80km or so of road approaching China is built and maintained by the Chinese government, and the difference between that and what we’ve been used to throughout Laos and Cambodia was incredible. As we got closer to the border, the Chinese influence became ever more evident, not only in the improvements in road conditions. After passing through Laotian Customs (which we weren’t required to stop at since we were leaving the country), we rounded the corner and were astounded with the sight of several huge buildings rising out of the mountains. It has been several weeks since we’ve seen anything higher than about five stories, and coming from the tiny village just a couple of kilometres away, it certainly was a sight to behold. Still in Laos though, the bank we went to in order to change our Kip to Yuan, was a single room behind a half closed roller door lined by a few chairs. While we waited for the bankers to decide what exchange rate they felt like giving us, and use the calculator to negotiate between themselves what they would do, we spotted the shower and toilet in the back corner. Even after all this time, these things never cease to amaze us.

We reached the actual border at about 8:15, where we parked on a bit of gravel and took our passports up to the window. This border was certainly a bit more of a big deal than the one we entered Laos at. The volume of traffic we saw here was probably similar to what they see in a year where we entered the country. We passed hundreds of trucks parked in various parks, and lined up along the side of the road, a few private cars scattered around. Despite the number of vehicles though, the buildings were still pretty non-eventful one-story cement blocks with little signage.

We made our way to two windows side by side that people seemed to be queueing up at with passports. We noticed most of them were also handing over cash which we were concerned about. When I said queueing I obviously meant the forming of a triangular shaped mass of shoving bodies, focused towards a single point that everyone feels they must get to right now. It’s actually been quite a while since we’ve seen something even that close to a queue. When we got to the front of the triangular shaped mass of shoving bodies though, we were pretty happy to have our passports stamped and handed back with not so much as a request for a “processing fee”. The conclusion that we came to is that most of the people travelling across that border are just locals doing trade and they won’t actually be required to have a proper passport. In that case, they’re probably paying for some sort of temporary pass. And the only way I can explain the fact that at the Southern border where we entered Laos from Cambodia we had to pay “fees”, but here we didn’t, is that the crossing is big enough that they just have to play by the official rules.

Back we went to the car. This is now in the top three most exciting and nerve racking moments of the trip so far – right up there with leaving Melbourne in the first place, and collecting Trevor from Port Klang. We only got as far as the passport windows though which was about 30m of road, before we were waved over by officials. With a bit of hand gesturing and shaking and nodding of heads, we discovered that only one person is allowed to be in the car at this point and the others must get out and walk. So Ben, Tunkles and Denner dutifully climbed out and walked along the side of the road, while Trevor and I entered No Man’s Land and drove towards China. 100m down the road I decided to pull over and wait for them, not actually sure how far they were supposed to walk for. Noone seemed to be watching though, so probably it was fine for them to get in now. While they had had their passports checked, I had driven out of Laos without anyone even glancing at me or the car.

We had a couple of kilometres of No Man’s Land before rounding a corner and being smacked right in the face with China’s audacity. The road suddenly widened and there were markings and signs left right and centre, ensuring that no driver would be confused as to where and how driving should be done. With only a couple of kilometres between us and the primitive Laotian side of the border, we were struck by the infrastructure. On both sides of the road were several large modern buildings, an enclosed pedestrian overpass over the road joining two buildings ahead of us. My instructions from NAVO about what to do when we got to the border crossing were at hand, expecting that we’d be confused and unsure about where to go. That was a waste of paper.

An immaculately uniformed guard at a booth before all the buildings pointed us to the paved car park in front of the main building on our right hand side. We parked there inside a designated spot, marked on the tarmac with bright white paint, and took our passports into Customs. The floor was shiny, the walls were clean and we walked through heat detectors to enter. Another guard pointed us in the direction of a stand holding arrival/departure cards. As we filled in the cards he asked if we had our own car. When we told him that yes we did, he asked us if we had a guide and checked we already had visas. This guy actually knew what was going on! Not only was it comprehendible to him that white people might be driving a car across this border, but incredulously, he knew what the process was in order for this to happen. He politely chatted to us while we filled in our details, helping Denner out a little bit when he got confused (Denner’s not the best at filling in forms), then led us to the passport desk. I’ve got no idea where all the truck and car drivers from the other side had gotten to, but we were the only people in this whole building so we had about half a dozen interested and helpful Chinese Customs guards to assist us.

At the passport desk we were greeted by Lui our guide, who we were pleased to note, was tiny and only had a very small backpack. That would make squeezing him and his stuff into the car less of a hassle. He had a list of our names and some details and asked us to show our passports in this order. When they were finished with our passports the other three followed him through, while I - as designated driver - was instructed to return to the car and drive it around the building past some parked trucks where I would be met by Lui and the others.

It felt odd doing this bit by myself, but off I went. I deciphered the instructions and found my way to the Customs checkpoint where I was stopped at a boom gate. Expecting to have the car checked, I switched the engine off and got out. The guard walked up to the back passenger door, which was locked, and tapped on the window. I unlocked it for him and he opened the door, turned his nose up and slammed it shut. Then he walked around to the boot which was also locked. The only really annoying thing about our car is that the back window is electric and must be down in order to open the back door. Unfortunately the lock has become really stiff and I can only open it now by switching on the ignition and using the button on the dashboard. So this is what I did. He looked inside, tapped on our box of paperwork which I opened for him, turned his nose up again and walked off. I took that as it was ok for me to drive on, so I did. The others had appeared at a doorway and followed me on foot to a parking spot. Lui ran off to take care of some paperwork and we waited by the car.

When he came back we all piled in and drove on through the vast car park and through a boom gate where we had to pay 2 Yuan for “parking”. At this point we turned onto a wide boulevard lined with big new buildings, trees and garden beds lining the road. It’s quite incredible to be suddenly thrust into this expanse of infrastructure and wealth, straight from the wooden shacks and potholed roads of Laos and Cambodia.

We were hesitant to begin celebrating our arrival in China, considering we’ve done that prematurely at every other border, but Lui assured us that we had completed all Customs and Immigration processes. Yay!

He asked us to stop for his luggage a little way down the road. Darn – we’d really hoped the little backpack was all he had. He ran off into a building and emerged a minute later with a full-sized suitcase, wheels and handles and all, and a huge calico bag. Altogether, his luggage is about three times bigger than him. What could he possibly need this much stuff for for less than three weeks?

The next stop was the border town of Mohan, to use the ABC (Agricultural Bank of China) ATM which is apparently the only bank that accepts international cards. Tunkles, Ben and I queued up behind each other and withdrew the maximum 2,000 Yuan each. Then we’re not quite sure why, but Denner allowed himself to be pushed in front of by a fat Chinese man. After five minutes we were all starting to wonder what the story was, so we went up to have a look. As it turns out the maximum amount per withdrawal is 2,000 Yuan, but apparently there isn’t a maximum number of withdrawals. So this guy did ten transactions. He kept pulling out his receipts after every one to count them. In the mean time quite a queue was forming behind Denner, but he was paying absolutely no heed to the comments and criticisms flying around at him. What a ridiculous person.

Eventually Denner got his turn at the ATM, and we were able to get on our way once again. The next stop was Mengla, the nearest major town about 100km away. This is where we would get all the car stuff sorted. Lui directed us to the police station where we joined a queue of about a dozen cars. Lui ran off and returned with the information that it is now time for the policemen to have lunch (it was about 12pm), so we would have to return at 3pm. With no other option, we chose not to get annoying over this and just use the time to go and have lunch and wander around the town. So we left the queue of cars to park in a proper spot, where a guy ran over and met us. I thought he was telling me I’d parked in the wrong place, but apparently he was telling us they’d do our testing now anyway. Fantastic. I had to get out though so that he could jump in and drive the car. Thankfully Trev started first time right then. He usually takes two or three turns, and just before I’d had quite a struggle. He drove Trev upto the testing area which was a 100m long area under a metal roof, dotted with desks and plain clothes policemen. We stood and watched as he stopped and started, cringing as he accelerated and braked hard. He did a couple of laps of the testing area, just accelerating and braking the whole time, then drove back out into the car park and nodded his head at us. We knew the car would be checked, but we hadn’t expected it to be in this form. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to check the breaks of cars entering a country, but it does seem somewhat redundant seeing a Laotian vehicle doesn’t need to be checked in order to drive around in China.

We waited a little while longer while Lui went into a different building to complete the last part of the process – the paperwork obviously. When he emerged he had our Chinese temporary car registration which is a laminated piece that sits on our dashboard, and four temporary Chinese drivers’ licences. We were all looking forward to using these as ID when we got back to Melbourne, but unfortunately there’s no DOB on it. What it does have though is our names translated into Chinese. They’re pretty awesome.

We had our first lunch in China and on our way we went.

(Posted by Eilidh's dad, a couple of weeks after the fact, which is as often as Eilidh &co are getting sufficient access to the web to send me stuff. Check on facebook shortly for pics of China that she has sent for me to post there.)