Let’s take it back to where we left off: May 30th – June 14th.
It had been nearly 2 months of being settled in Bishkek when I decided to head to Almaty, Kazakhstan to visit a friend and see the city for a few days. I had almost forgotten how much I missed the excitement of being in transit – watching the scenery go by, being put in odd situations, and possibly encountering countless mishaps along the way. The day after my TWENTY-FIFTH birthday (celebrated quite well in Bishkek thanks to my friends – Chris, Ryan and Rory – I miss you guys!) I decided to set out, on a marshrutka nonetheless, in the direction of an interesting adventure I will never forget.
Almaty, at first, seemed like nothing more than a larger Bishkek. When I got to the bus station on the outskirts of town, it didn’t even feel like I had left Kyrgyzstan. I played my cards right with the taxi drivers outside by saying I only had 500 tenge when they wanted 2000, and managed to get just that to my final destination (go me). It just so happened that the first person I asked was also the same person to finally accept my price about 5 taxi drivers later. Too bad the driver got stopped by the police on the way and had to pay a bribe – aka the money I was about to give him. Yes, that was a bit awkward.
Strange police incident aside, during the ride I began to notice the actual bustlingness of Almaty. A lot of travelers I meet seem to think of Almaty as being a sterile-Dubai-wanna-be city that just leaves your pockets a little lighter, but I was able to see the city from a local perspective instead of just as a tourist. Yes, with a little insight from locals, expats, and other travelers I met during my stay, I was able to experience the excitement a large city in Central Asia has to offer. Unfortunately, I must admit this has since somewhat skewed my perspective of my oh-so-easy-to-live-in and now-seemingly-boring Bishkek.
The plan was to stay for just 5 days and for two reasons: 1) I still had lessons at the London School, and 2) After 5 days you have to register your passport in Kazakhstan. So instead of shelling out extra money, I grabbed a marshrutka on the fifth day in reverse and was Bishkek-bound. At the border, however, I noticed it was taking quite some time for the Kazakh lady to flip through my passport. I began to get antsy as I noticed the other lines of people moving along quite quickly. Then she said it: “Your Kyrgyzstan visa is not valid.”
Oh, gasp! It’s hard to explain the exact feeling that pulsed through my body at that moment because it was a combination of shock that my visa was invalid, and a bit of hilarity because I should have known this was going to happen. See, previously, I caught wind from the office manager at the London School that a single entry visa in Kyrgyzstan is really a double entry, single exit visa. I know, it doesn’t make much sense, but apparently that little stamp I got in my passport when I first arrived in the airport doesn’t really count. Even though Nargiza said it was her job to know this stuff about our visas, I had to investigate to a higher level by talking to the official visa office in Bishkek. They, too, said I could leave and reenter Kyrgyzstan one more time. Ok, problem solved.
Being in Central Asia, you start to learn quickly that you just NEVER know anything as fact about the government. And, oh what a ridiculous fool I looked like when I had to sit in a room full of Kazakh and Kyrgyz border guards trying to explain in broken Russian that I had the right to reenter Kyrgyzstan, even though it clearly appeared that my single-entry visa was good and null by now.
“Back to Almaty, girly,” They said. (Ok, minus the girly part.)
I made my way back outside towards the border, and of course, was stopped by more border guards who were wondering why I was trying to reenter Kazakhstan from the wrong side. A couple of guards took my passport and disappeared inside while I was slowly surrounded by about 10 Kazakh guards, each of which I had to beat off with a stick in the end. I told them I had a boyfriend, but the fact of the matter was that I did not have a husband, so in all actuality was still fair game. I really need to invest in a cheap gold band. (I’m still diverting their phone calls a month later!) Finally, I was saved when my passport was returned. One of the friends of the guards actually drove me to the taxi stop down the road in town, which was extremely nice of him, even if it was just done in an attempt to date me.
In the taxi back, I was quickly befriended by a Turkish/Kazakh guy who spoke great English. He bought us both cake and soda, and definitely made the ride go a bit faster. He even proceeded to call me periodically throughout my stay in Almaty to see if I needed help with anything. It is absolutely refreshing when traveling to meet such nice and helpful people.
Nearly 10 o’clock when the journey ended, I was nothing more than relieved to be reunited with my friend in Almaty. Unfortunately, the relief didn’t last long when I realized it was too late to get my passport registered by the fifth day of my stay. So, finally when we did get the passport registered, I also had to pay a fine of 5000 tenge on top of the normal 5000 tenge registration fee. Oh, and of course, I didn’t get that back until the weekend meaning I had to wait until the following week to apply for my new Kyrgyz visa. A 5 day trip quickly turned into 2 weeks, and I will admit that I did begin to feel my pockets getting lighter.
In spite of all this hassle and unnecessary stress, I eventually made it back to Bishkek, and still had a ton of fun being stuck in Almaty. I got to know that the sweetest, most obedient dog in the world is actually Almaty’s dog-fighting champion. I got to ride the sketchiest Soviet-style roller coaster ever overlooking the city (I will never forget the screams of terror on every corner from fear of flying off the side of the mountain). And, how could I forget the weekend spent partying on the beach of the man-made lake at Kapchugai (Tons of fun when I needed it the most!). With all these memories I take with me it may be safe to say that when a border crossing goes wrong, it might not be such a bad thing after all.