Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Day 142 – In the mean time... (Border crossing Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan)

This was now our third border crossing where we had to split up – only one driver allowed per vehicle. I was designated driver to cross into China, Ben was assigned the job of China/Kazakhstan and this time it was Tunkles’ turn to play the bureaucracy battle. While he was busy photocopying forms and negotiating which guard would like to make which stamp, Ben, Denner and I went through immigration as foot passengers. It’s a fairly simple process involving choosing a queue, pushing your way to the front of it whilst attempting not to get trampled, looking into a camera for a couple of minutes while the guy at the desk twiddles his thumbs, and leaving the building to walk into no-man’s land.

The late afternoon sun was relentless and guards kept ushering us and everyone else away from the entrance to an unused building, where the only shade in sight was to be found. A slight breeze came up from the river separating the two countries, so we stood on the bridge to try and get some of it. We couldn’t decide if it was a man made river or not – it looked like maybe it was a natural river, but its border qualities (sharp rocks, fast rapids and suitable width) might have been enhanced. The gravel path on the Kazakh side was certainly not natural; too wide to jump across and graded so that any footprints were ruthlessly visible. And just in case someone did manage to get across the river and the path – not an easy feat, but surely not impossible – there were three metre high barbed wire fencing on either side.

 I think that was the smallest no man’s land we’ve encountered so far, with only a 100m long bridge separating the two border posts. We were right in the middle of the two, sweltering in the heat, and straining to see whether Trevor was still parked where we’d watched Tunkles take him, just inside the border area. After an hour or so we were beginning to get concerned – we’re prepared to wait for an entry, but it shouldn’t take this long to leave a country. What could possibly be going on? We began going through hypothetical situations that could have occurred, but I won’t jinx us by saying them here.

It was a busy border - there was hustling and bustling in both directions, and a lot of people were waiting in no man’s land like we were. We watched a lot of them – mainly ladies – stop between the borders to get dressed into entire bags of clothing (to avoid paying tax we assume); three or four pairs of trousers topped by a couple of dresses, a t-shirt or two over that and jumpers/jackets both on them and draped over their shoulders, tags still on all of them. It was obvious what they were doing, but apparently it’s a thing that’s done. In the couple of hours that we ended up waiting there we witnessed half a dozen instances of a border guard/army official/policeman walking through no man’s land from Kyrgyzstan and meeting a border guard/army official/policeman from Kazakhstan in the middle somewhere. They would shake hands, exchange cash, hand over a passport or two and return minutes later to their post on the respective sides of the border.

The crowd seemed to be getting a bit thicker around where we were standing, and suddenly there was a group of about 60 people – mainly ladies again, and fairly well dressed – frantically pushing each other and screaming, climbing over the massive overground pipe to get onto the road. Much to our amusement one young guy attempted a flashy jump over the pipe and landed face first on the ground. They all seemed really desperate and concerned, but we had no idea what about.

An army truck began reversing out of the Kazakh border area and through the boom gate into no man’s land. The crowd moved forward, thrusting themselves at the truck, and we watched in horror as the vehicle reversed into the throng and the people at the back pushed forward towards the truck, crushing all who were at the front. These people were acting as if they had refugee family members inside the truck or something.
At a certain point the truck stopped reversing and an army guy got out of the driver’s seat and stood aside whilst a man in civilian clothing got out the passenger’s seat and made his way through the jostling crowd to the truck’s back doors. It was difficult to see, but it seemed that the crowd was indignant towards him, perhaps he was refusing to open the doors? But the group was so tightly squeezed against the truck that he wouldn’t have been able to anyway. A stocky lady in a yellow t-shirt seemed to suddenly rise above the horde and with the support of some chanting, managed to heave herself onto the back ledge of the truck.
We watched in amazement as the lady in the yellow t-shirt and the army man in civilian clothing opened the back doors of the truck into the swarm, shoving crowd members into each other in the process. We really had no idea what to expect once the doors were open – were they all going to try and jump in to smuggle themselves across the border? Were people going to jump out? Would the truck be full of illegal goods or food products? And then the lady in the yellow t-shirt started lifting handbags, shopping bags, children’s backpacks, brief cases and other such small pieces of personal looking luggage up. For each item she held up, a selection of crowd members would wave their arms and scream, presumably trying to claim that item. It now seemed like some sort of Red Cross type delivery, but these people didn’t look like they were dirt poor and it didn’t quite seem to fit.

The army officer who had reversed the truck from Kazakhstan into no man’s land was standing aside while the proceedings took place, and he spotted us watching what was going on. Obviously bored he approached us and to our pleasant surprise, used his limited English to enlighten us as to what the situation was.

“Contraband,” he spat, disdainfully gesturing to the items getting tossed around in the crowd. He went on to explain that the Kyrgyz people go into Kazakhstan to sell their goods. “Kyrgyzstan, little money. Kazakhstan, big money,” which also explained all the ladies dressing up in seventeen layers of clothing. He ruefully told us about how they import goods to Kazakhstan every day, and every day they take more than the personal limit. Every day the excess goods are confiscated, and every day they are returned. He rolled his eyes and made a circle with his finger, indicating the vicious cycle that continues every day.

Because there is no repercussion for attempting to exceed the limits (fine, jail sentence, limited import allowance, or even just losing their items) there is no risk other than wasting half an hour at the end up the day jostling through a crowd to get their belongings back, these “business people” make a living out of doing this. If they try every day then I’m guessing that sometimes they’ll get the stuff through, and if they don’t then no loss. It’s bizarre that we have to sit in no man’s land for two hours waiting for Tunkles to take dozens of forms to different windows just to exit the country, yet confiscating goods that are being illegally brought into the country just isn’t a big deal. It was refreshing though to speak to an army officer who realised the irony of the system and was more than willing to tell us all about it.

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