Or: how we spent the night almost driving off a cliff and plunging out of the sky to get a new Kyrgyz visa.
“The road between Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, is especially unsafe at night or during poor weather. U.S. Embassy personnel are restricted from driving this route after dark.” – U.S. Embassy
I’m sure Kazakhstan can be a very nice place. One of my students is particularly fond of it and visits frequently. When I came into class a few days after my brief glance at the country, I told my students a bit about my trip. She got a dreamy look in her face and said, “Oh, didn’t you just love it?”
No. I didn’t have a chance to love Kazakhstan. I was on a visa run mission; battles were lost, but the war was won. My final destination throughout the whole ordeal never changed; get to Manas International Airport for an on-arrival visa. It just took a ten-hour detour through Kazakhstan to get there.
The original plan seems so adorable to think about now, so naive. It started with a foundation of “how difficult can it be to get a Kazakh visa?” and built up with hopes of a small weekend vacation, splurging on Thai food in Almaty, buying souvenirs (“Oh, this hat? No, I didn’t buy it in Bishkek. You’d have to go to Almaty to get the same one.”) and returning by car in time for the start of the workweek.
The foundation crumbled immediately as it took four separate trips to the Kazakh Embassy to actually obtain the visas: once to turn in the forms (with a side trip to find a copy machine as the copies I had of my passport and visa page were not good enough), once to pay for the visa (in which we stood in line to receive a receipt to take by taxi to the only Kazakh bank branch on the opposite side of town, return and stand in line again to give them the new receipt to show we paid), and once to actually pick up the visa a few days later (with one unnecessary, miscommunicated visit somewhere in between).
We didn’t expect the last one. In my hopeful American mind, I saw the transaction about to be completed; I give you, the Kazakh Embassy, proof that I have paid $30 to your country, and you give me one less empty page in my passport.
Thanks Kirstin, why don’t you come back on Monday to pick this up, around 6:30pm?
No! Monday is March 14th. My Kyrgyz visa expires March 15th. Where’s the lazy weekend? Where’s the Thai food dinner? Where’s my chance to see Kazakhstan in daylight?
New action plan. Buy plane ticket from Almaty to Bishkek. Stress out all weekend. Have a normal Monday in the office, interspersed with complaints, “UGH! We have to go to Kazakhstan tonight!” Pack some food (cookies and samsas), pick up visas, drive to bus stop and hire a driver to take us straight to the Almaty airport.
And then drive.
Even that plan wasn’t as easy as it could have been. There was, of course, plenty of waiting to be done at the border. There may have been some sort of shady transaction regarding a “special” exit visa on the Kyrgyz side (I mean, really? Kyrgyzstan?).
There was definitely a showdown of passive aggressiveness and elbow-shoving to reserve my claustrophobic place in line in front of a large, angry babushka while waiting to be stamped through on the Kazakh side.
There was standing paranoid on the Kazakh side, hearing a different language, seeing a different alphabet, trying to ignore all of the taxi drivers soliciting us while trying to remember what our hired driver looked like in the first place.
(Luckily I took so many photos of him that we did eventually find him with his camo-colored jacket and his white car with a bunny hanging from the rear-view mirror.)
And then we drove. By the time the border guards spit us out into Kazakhstan, it was nearing 10pm and light was scarce between a few scattered roadside towns. I was in the backseat of the cab; it smelled faintly of gasoline and the windows were tinted, making it impossible for me to see any change in landscape. I could only feel that we were driving at an upward angle, and swerving around the tightly looped road. I probably would have just slept the whole time had it not been for the trashy American pop radio station our driver played for us (maxed-out bass and balanced in the back, of course). Seriously, how many remixes of Rihanna songs does the world really need?
By 1am we finally arrived in Almaty, but it’s difficult to get the impression of a city passing through tinted windows. The streets were wide and there were real car dealerships, a point that really struck me as a big indicator that Kazakhstan might be doing a bit better than dealership-less Kyrgyzstan.
I snapped a few shots of Nazarbayev, his stern face greeting me on multiple billboards, before we got to the airport.
From there it was just waiting for all 13 or so passengers to check in before we were on our way. Forty (very) turbulent (like, clutching-the-arm-rests-oh-my-god-I-don’t-want-to-die-in-Kazakhstan) minutes and one heisted in-flight magazine later, we were back on our “home” turf.
It was too early for the bleary-eyed consular official to connect the dots with our growing collection of Kyrgyz visas and we passed through immigration with no problems. A stern warning to the cab drivers of our veteran status in Bishkek, a fair price, and we sped home.
Home, as in our crumbling Soviet studio apartment. It was 4am. Mamajan stumbled off the couch and let us know that while she didn’t appreciate being left alone for so long, she would forgive us and was, in fact, ready to play. A few (too) short hours of sleep later and life had (legally) returned to normal.
At least for one more month.