August 22, 2010

by Stephen Jan in Priyrtyshskoye, Kazakhstan


After that 4am encounter with the spitting police officer, we eagerly searched for any identifiable lodging - the last thing we needed was more “hospitality” from the Astana police. Once again we were finding our way through a foreign city in the middle of the night, with a useless Lonely Planet guide map entirely unsuited for driving in one hand and compass in the other. And once again, we couldn’t for the life of ours find ourselves on the map. And once again, we found lodging by lifting our heads and finding a giant pink neon HOTEL letters in the distance and making a beeline toward. We were happily looking forward to hot showers, free wifi, and food not prepared in fly infested dens.

Astana was a welcome sight of civilization but we didn’t stay long. The only thing that made Astana attractive to us was the asphalt that was completely missing from the rest of the country. It was hard for us to understand how a country with so much oil weath would spend more money building ugly futuristic gold plated buildings than on roadways connecting the country. The only explaination we could come up with was “Well it’s Kazakhstan.”



We left late afternoon the following day aiming to travel an hour or so outside the city before we would camp out. We had purchased a 20 euro BBQ grill way back in Germany with high hopes of grilling our way across the continent. Unfortunatly, finding charcoal and fresh meat along the way was difficult and so the grill was never used. After roughing it across Kazakhstan, Astana was hardly the civil oasis that we sought but they did have BBQ charcoal and fresh (looking) meat. We organized a cookout the following evening after leaving Astana. We grilled steak, chicken, and tomatoes and topped off 2 bottles of wine, several bottles of beer and a bottle of Ukranian chili vodka.

The plan was to drive toward Semey and hopefully find good roads between the two cities and cover a good amount of distance the following day. There’s a city by name of Pavoldar on the way to Semey. Of course, to us non-russian speakers that meant we’d be looking for signs that looked like “P-[Gibberish Cyrillic Letters]”. But like in the rest of Kazakhstan, roads signs are few and far between. The missing signs coupled with dilapidated roads made knowing where we were impossible. We could never figure out whether we were completly lost or that the “main road” was in fact a dirt road unfit to even walk on let alone drive.

By midday, we came across a map citing that we were nearing the city Kostanay and we should take a right if we wanted to head to Omsk. Something didn’t feel right. We knew that Omsk was a Russian city and even in Kazakhstan, we should see signs to Semey before we saw signs to a Russian city. It turned out that we were in fact headed toward Omsk. The “P-[Gibberish]” that we had followed out of Astana turned out to be Petrapolovsk instead of Pavlodar. In our rush to fire up the BBQ the night before for the feast, we geniuses took the wrong high way out of Astana. Instead of heading east toward Semey, we had been driving north toward the Russian border for the past 300 km. The prospect of essentially losing the entire day of was unthinkable, back tracking was not an option. We headed toward Omsk.


We did our best to plot a new route toward Omsk by examining Mark’s Kazakhstan map and tracing what looked like the main highway north into Russia. I’m not sure why but despite having travelled through some of the worst roads in the world in this country, we still continued to hope and optimistically expect lamp lit, line delineated, three lane highways from when we follow main roads from maps. But of course the roads degraded from asphalt ….


To bad asphalt…..


To bad asphalt with huge pot holes…


To a dirt path with grass….


Mind you, we were following the big thick yellow line on the map marked M52 that’s supposed to suggest “main highway” on the map. It was so ridiculously sorry that we couldn’t help but to stop, laugh and take photos. The rest of the day was spent winding around looking for any asphalt that lead north as we were acutely aware that terrible roads meant 10 km per hour progress or risk car damage. The only methods available to us were to optimistically guess blindly, optimistically guess from the useless map, and helplessly asking locals using sign language. Try communicating “Is there asphalt down this road?” It’s loads of fun. The miserable day ended on a sour note. We set up our tents in middle pouring thunderstorm after being abruptly turned away from a border that was apparently reserved for locals. Yes, after all thjat driving it turned out we had been chasing the wrong border all day long. We were officially sick of Kazakhstan.

We spent the following day finding the “right” border and arrived late in the afternoon. We queued up and waited, fully expecting to stay several hours. By now we were seasoned veterans of border crossings. If there was one thing we learned waiting at the Baku port, it was that so long as you keep your spirits high, an all day long border crossings could, in fact, be fun (a little alcohol never hurts).

Kaz Kaz

We arrived at the front of the queue after two hours of amusing ourselves at the border queue. We knew the drill: In no particular order “Come here” “Go there” “Documents?” “Who is Driver?” “fill out this form” “wait here” “Be quiet” “No eat”

Eventually we got to meet his royal highness the customs agent. We all stood on line waiting with Kazakhs and Russians. Mark was up first. The stern custom official glanced at his documents, shook his head, and spewed out a stream of Kazakh (or maybe Russian). Mark looked at him blankly and said in his well articulated British-English “I don’t understand, what is the problem?”

The guard responded with some more Russian(or Kazakh) and waved the next person in line to step up. He sifted through all our documents and gestured us to step aside. We were all confused as hell. We all rolled our eyes. Here we go. We patiently waited for about 30 minutes before the guard came around and threw some more Russian (or Kazakh) information at us and pointed at the stamps on our immigration papers. “Problem”. It appears that the number of stamps that each member had were different. Pete, Tom, and I had two rectangluar stamps. Mark and Judy had one rectangular stamp. Lillie had one round stamp and one rectangular stamp. We didn’t really know what this all this ink stamped on a piece of paper no larger than one sheet of toilet paper meant but apparently it meant alot to the Kazakhs.

Mark consulted his Lonely Planet and confirmed that we’re supposed to have sort of registration stamp that we were supposed to get from somewhere - either at the arrival port or a police station. Mark began cursing the bonehead border agent back in Aktau who neglected to stamp his immigration card. Now here we were, stuck at the border dealing with his mistake.

We paced around trying to figure out what to do. The Kazakh authorities offered no advice, no help, and we still weren’t sure what the difference was between the circle stamp and the rectangle stamp. Lillie pointed out that her immgration paper was prepared in Berlin by the Kazakh embassy and that should be in order. The offical looked at her passport with the immgration paper taped to her visa. He pointed out that the name field was missing. Lillie responded that the embassy offical instructed the field be left blank, presumably the name can be inferred by the attached passport. The agent couldn’t seem to accept that logical jump. Either he couldn’t understand or just didn’t care. He crossed his hands and barked a “NO”. As Lillie opened her mouth to protest, the guard tore the immigration form out passport. Lillie’s eyes widened in horror and fell silent. Mark decided it was high time to call for help. He picked up his black berry and dialed for the UK embassy, though by now it was about 9:00. If the UK embassy in Kazakhstan only answered phones during business hours, we’d be out of luck. And we were indeed out of luck. No one picked up.

As everyone huddled and discussed what to do, a man in military fatigues walked over and escorted Mark to a small side room, seperating him from the group. We were on edge. Even in Azerbaijan we were never seperated in this fashion. For the next hour, mark sat in the hot seat while Kazak border officials and soldiers rotated in and out.

We were able to make out a little of what was being said in the room. We would hear a flurry of voices in Russian (Or Kazakh), then a pause, then some soft english, then a pause, then a response from Mark that usually started with “I don’t understand”

A soldier escorted a flustered Mark out of the room. Marc shook his head in frustration, documents in one hand and phone in the other. He shrugged and sighed in a serious tone, “We’ve got to get in touch with the UK or US Embassy.” Meanwhile the border agent looked around asking for the next representative. That was me.

It should be noted that unlike Mark, I came to the Mongol Rally only mildly prepared. After losing all my gear in Berlin, we went from “mildly” unprepared to “completely” unprepared. I had no idea what the number to the US embassy was, nor did i follow my army friend’s recommendation to register myself with the US embassy in case something did happen. I did not have a roadmap of Kazakhstan. I certainly didn’t have a working cell phone to call anyone. I was going into the situation without a shred of a plan. After seeing Mark get absolutely nowhere. I was convinced that I too would, at best, get absolutely nowhere.

The room was small. There was space for one desk, one chair and a chest high file cabinet. A side table was tucked in the corner and a neat row of hand radios sat on top. I stood in the tiny room, my back to the window, wearing a stupid grin on my face looking like a child about to do something silly. He planted his palm on the desktop, leaned over, and gestured for me to take a seat. I said to him “Nah I’m good.”

We look at eachother for a moment, his expression serious and grave, mine completely wandering and clueless. As he slowly opened his mouth to speak. I interrupted him and exclaimed energetically “Hi!! my name is Stephen! How are you?” He was taken aback by the interruption. He answered in slow stuttering English. I dont remember his name so let’s just call him Bob The Kaz.

Me: “Soooooo, wassup?

Bob: “Please-for-give-my-Eng-lish, I-can-not-speak-very-good.”

Me interrupting again: “Nah nah nah, your english is great.”

Bob continues slowly: “…I trying help you, but there is problem with you documents.”

Me: “Really!?!? Gee THANK SO MUCH!” I nodded to myself “Help is good, we could always use more help!” I reach over grab his hand shake it firmly again and pat his shoulder. He gave me quizzical look, clearly uncertain what the deal was with me. Moments ago, Mark was in the same position repeating the English mantra “I dont undertand”. But now, in front of him stood this weirdo New Yorker who even under the threat of being arrested by the border police wouldn’t take anything seriously.

He took a deep breath bringing the situation back to the grave problem that it was supposed to be. He pointed to the immigration card. Apparently there was some english written on the back (as if we paid any attention to it). It stated that if the visitor was nor properly registered within five days of entering the country, he or she would be persecuted under the fullest extent of the law. That didn’t sound too good. My eyes drifted around the room and I spotted a hat resting on the file cabinet and exclaimed, “Woah, Nice Hat! WOW I wish I had a Hat like that! Can I take a picture with it? man, VERY impressive.” Surprisingly, he let me examine it and wear it. He started laughing.

I spent the next half an hour completely avoiding the topic of our papers. A soldier would periodically come in to help Bob Interrogate me. When I discovered that the soldier spoke a bit of english, I looked at him, gestured around my face and said, Kazakh? They looked at eachother and chuckled. The dude nodded. I said “ah. Well I’m not. I’m Chinese” I pointed to the soldier and said, you sorta look chinese to me. Bob doubled over and started cracking up while the soldier also laughed. Eventually they were more interested in where I came from, what I did in New York, what my family was like and what a bagel was.

He asked us what we were doing here. I have him a silly monolouge that was probably more beer induced than anything else.

“We are driving to mongolia. We started in london and are on a charity rally. We plan to donate the Car to mongolia to help them. Why whould you want to stop us? We’re just a group of friends trying to make the world a better place through charitable work. We are not crimminals! Why would you want to punish us? A group of travelers trying to complete a journey for the betterment of humanity?” We are trying to help Mongolia! We’re good people helping Mongolia, not criminals. So please, help us help Mongolia. Help us help mongolia. HELP us help mongolia!“

For those of you that have seen Jerry McGuire, yes. I pulled a page out of the movie. It was damn fun

In the end we spent more time chatting and joking about how awesome Kazakh roads were than actually talking about the “Problem”. The crowning moment for me would have to be when the official sat down in the chair and sifted through papers seeming like he was about to write me a traffic ticket. I looked at him with a wide grin and sarcastically complained “are you kidding me?” He says “what?” I say “no chair for me!??” The man looked at me and asked me if I wanted a chair. I laughed and said I was just kidding. He stood up and left the room. Meanwhile my teammates standing outside trying to make out what was being said suddenly saw the door open and a border soldier steps out. He marches down the hall and dissappeared into a room and comes back with a metal chair. Judy thought to herself “What the heck is going on in there? Either Stephen is about to get a beat down or this guy is really just bringing in another chair.” He planted the chair beside me and gestered to me to sit.

Somewhere in the midst of my antics, they communicated to me that the fine would be twenty dollars per person. I still remember feeling the releif in seeing that an acceptable resolution was close and that there was a simple solution out of this 4 hour stalemate. I came out of the interrogation room feeling like a champion although in hindsight it probably wasn’t any great acheivement that the situation was resolved entirely on their terms. But at twenty dollars a head, we glady took it.

-Stephen “Nin” Ja-n