We approached the border. A stream of lorries and coaches waited ahead of us. After 21 days of trying to drive a London taxi and ex-NHS ambulance from the U.K to Mongolia, it was to be our last day in Kazakhstan.
Russia, our destination, lay just 200 metres away behind rows of tall metal fences and portacabins, all of which had had the same cream hue from the sand and heat of northern Kazakhstan, but each of which had a specialized role – insurance, customs, stamps, and certification – to be confused at your peril!
On entering the first, the immigration office, I noticed a flip-flop poking out from behind a jarred door, which belonged to my convoy driver Matt.
“Why have they got them in the office?” I asked my travel partner Nick.
“Well he is trying to take an ambulance full of medical gear, white powder and secret hiding places across to Russia,” he replied.
We handed over our immigration cards, filled out on entering the country eight days ago. The border guard looked up, placed his hands in the air as if he was holding a shot-gun and with sound effects pretended to shoot us.
We had already had several run-ins with the police forces of every country between Poland and Kazakhstan and were not too fazed by this latest show of faux-aggression. ‘Play-dumb, nod and smile’ is the general mantra.
We were placed in the office and sat down next to our friends, the ambulance drivers Charles and Matt. There was a small leather sofa against one wall, which we crammed onto and faced the two Kazakhs behind a desk. One was called Jerry, a young cheerful character, perhaps 24 years old. He smiled along with us, happy to have some company. The other was his translator, or more specifically a car insurance salesman whose knowledge of English had brought him to us this afternoon.
“Problem”, he started. “You must register visa after 5 days, you no register visa, today 8 day.”
We huddled around Lonely Planet, which informed us this was a genuine rule and not another mere scam concocted in this portacabin desert. It read that we were liable for a fine between $100-400 per person.
Our next move was to call the British Embassy in Kazakhstan, which had listed three numbers for distressed subjects abroad – all of which were engaged.
He pointed at us one by one, “one hundred, one hundred, one hundred, one hundred, four hundred dollars”.
Lonely Planet and the British Embassy had failed us. It was time to bring out our next item of defence – our student ID cards.
After much consultation with Jerry the translator turned to us. “Ok you students, no money, you no pay.” Our inane grins became bigger.
“Instead we ban you from Kazakhstan, five years.”
This sounded like an acceptable deal. The likelihood of returning to a country where the milk tasted like aluminium in the next five years was rare.
“Ok”, we replied joyfully.
“Now this is serious, no smiles,” said the translator. “If you come back big problem.”
We soon changed our minds. Charles sensibly pointed out that we would be forfeiting our ‘rights’, and when applying for visas for countries friendly with Kazakhstan such as Russia we could really have big problem.
We decided to pay. The translator wrote out witness statements for us to sign, confirming that Kazakh border guards were some of the loveliest people to be found this side of Siberia.
Three of us were allowed out, Charles, Nick and I. Matt was left behind in the office as an insurance policy. We jumped into our cab with another border guard and drove back into Kazakhstan to find a bank. After thirty kilometres, we came to a dusty town. We followed the border guards instructions, “na levo, na pravo”, until our cab arrived at a white-washed building with another queue outside, the bank.
This bank was guarded by a tiny bald man, with a pistol, who took it on his small shoulders to guard us for the afternoon. It was soon established that we were sitting here because the bank had a power cut.
Our morale and smiles were starting to wane. We had arrived at the border four hours ago. Now we were further into Kazakhstan, sitting on a bench in a country that despite having huge oil and gas supplies could not power its own villages, whilst a border guard and his five foot accomplice stood over us with pistols.
Another two hours passed, the bank opened, our border guard ran to the front of the queue, we followed, clasping our three hundred dollars; a student discount had been thrown in.
The bemused lady behind the desk finally processed our transactions, sending our dollars off to the Kazakh government. We nodded good-bye to the bank guard, jumped back in the taxi and started to drive back.
“Stop”, shouted the border guard after a few miles. We obeyed. He led us into a shop, were I bought him a Fanta, gave him cigarettes and in return he handed me his black handkerchief which I adopted as a neck scarf.
We rolled back to the border, drove past the long queue of vehicles and waved at the guard on the check point who raised the barrier. We found Matt, seated in exactly the same spot as he had been three hours ago, exchanging grins with Jerry.
“And, how were your three hours with Jerry?” I asked.
‘The man is confused about England,” he replied. “He thought Roosevelt was our Prime Minster, Yorkshire and Lancaster were engaged in a civil war, whilst Braveheart tormented the North from Scotland, whereas today we have learned a lot about Kazakhstan.”