Long Way Home

Chapter 12

We’d intended our stay in Kazakhstan to be very brief, just passing through on our way to China, our stomachs rumbling in anticipation of the culinary delights awaiting us over the border. Alas, it was not to be, as we found out when we arrived at the border gate on the 6th October.
With barely disguised glee the officials informed us that the border was closed. Arrgghh!!! – noooo!!
We’d anticipated things being closed in China around Chinese National Day (1st Oct) but were stunned to discover that the border would not reopen until the 10th. A few unplanned rest days is not such a bad thing but with a horrible sinking feeling we checked our Kazakhstan visas and the expiry date jumped out at us – 9th Oct. Our Lonely Planet soon confirmed the worst ….. ‘Kazakhstan tourist visas cannot be extended’.

We withdrew to ponder our options (fly to another country to apply for another Kazak visa so that we can then return and leave again?!), and then cycled 30km back to the nearest town in search of a sympathetic response from the local militsia. This was not forthcoming as we encountered only a table thumping, shrieking official. The only word we could make out from the torrent of Russian was ‘Almaty’, a major city five hours away by bus, and not somewhere we really wanted to visit.

A desperate call to the Aussie Consulate provided the welcome news that the border was officially due to reopen the following day (8th Oct), hallelujah! ….. thus saving us from overstaying our visa. Next morning we returned hopefully to the border, but the guards were adamant, no matter how hard we protested we weren’t going anywhere. As the guards became increasingly agitated their habitual spitting reached frenzied levels and we backed off.

Finally we decided to wait it out and set up camp on the border, steadily joined by a huge line up of trucks, buses and others not having anticipated a nine day border closure. For the next two days we plotted our strategy, deciding to try and bluff it out with expired visas using the ‘helpless ignorance with optional tears’ approach.

The end of our tense wait on the Kazak/Chinese border
In the event, when the border reopens we are carried through on a tidal wave of humanity as nine days backlog of border traffic surges forward in an uncontrollable melee. As we pass each passport check without comment our confidence grows – we are going to be allowed to leave …….yippee!!

A few days later (once safely in China) we received an email from the Australian Consulate advising us that under no circumstances should we remain in Kazakhstan after our visas expire as we would be either: A) arrested B) fined C) jailed or D) deported!!!
We certainly attracted plenty of attention while waiting at the border…. we were resting in the tent one afternoon when the zip opened and a wrinkled brown face appeared inside, grinning and nodding in approval as our domain was closely inspected. Then he withdrew and joined the crowd busily going over the bikes – feeling the tyres, flicking the gear levers, adjusting the brakes and resetting the speedo.

Traditional costume when an important politician visits Zharkent
Packing up and ready to cross into China

The Kazakhs could certainly use some lessons in queuing from the Poms – the line-up at the first checkpoint resembled an All Black – Wallaby scrum in the final few minutes of a Bledisloe Cup match. Even funnier was the scene at the exit doors where officials were only allowing people out as buses arrived to transport them to the Chinese immigration point. Although seats were available inside the building, the crowd was pushed hard up against the doors, faces pressed to the glass in desperation to be first out the door when the moment arrived.
We finally made it to the Chinese border five or six hours after the initial stampede.