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.