06 Oct, 2009
Posted by: Scott In: The Rally
I scribed the previous entry too soon. I figured that we would have an uneventful departure from Kyrgyzstan on Thursday and that there really wouldn’t be much to say about the process. That was very silly on my part to assume given what we had been through up till then.
We both had tickets booked out of Almaty for early Friday morning–Collin heading back to London and myself heading to Novosibirsk, where I would catch the Siberian express the very same evening. We both knew that if we didn’t get out of Kyrgyzstan and into Almaty on time that we were screwed–I alone would be out of at least $1200 (the Russian visa, the plane ticket, and the train ticket). It was crucial that we get our re-entry visas to Kazakhstan in time. We had been informed by our friend at the travel agency in Almaty that this was a very simple one-day process. Turns out that it wasn’t quite so easy nor was it a one-day process.
The man staffing the Kazakh Embassy that we had spoken with previously told us to fill out some forms, deposit $30 each into the Embassy bank account, and we should be good for one-day processing. We needed the one-day processing because the Embassy was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, making Thursday our last hope. We woke up early, grabbed a taxi, and arrived ten minutes before the embassy was set to open. There was already a queue of fifty or so people waiting outside the locked doors. Not really what we were hoping to see. Collin stayed with our baggage (we were hoping to grab the visas, call up our taxi driver friend Alic, and get moving to Almaty ASAP) while I waited in line. Luckily the line moved relatively fast and I was able to hand all of our documents over within the hour. “Come back 5:00” the same guy from before said to me. What?! No express processing available? We needed to get going immediately! Nope, no go. We needed to come back at 5:00 to pick up our visas. That wasn’t going to give us much leeway before our flights early the next morning. All we could do was wait and pray for everything to go right. Yet again, a nice bout of last-minute waiting! We set off with our bags back to the hotel, dropped them off, grabbed some food (Korean restaurant again!), visited a souvenir shop where Collin picked up some soviet coins and played a round of chess with the owner, went back to the hotel to grab the bags again, and arrived at the embassy exactly at 5:00PM. The same people waiting in line in the morning were waiting in line again, so I waited yet again and was able to get our completed visas within a half hour or so. Hallelujah! We called up Alic and he showed up within five minutes–turns our he lived right around the corner. Throwing our stuff into his car we took off towards the border yet again. The four hour ride back was pretty uneventful, except for a short layover when stopped by the border police in Kazakhstan and the point where he ran out of fuel and didn’t have any cash on hand to pay for a fill-up (we were paying him for the ride in dollars and the station attendant wouldn’t accept dollars). Still don’t know how he managed to convince the gas station to let him fill-up a few liters with paying, but we ended up successfully making it back to Sayran bus station in Almaty!
It was around 10:00PM by this time and I was afraid that the public transportation had stopped. I tried to convince Alic to take us to the airport, or the very least to the travel agency where I still needed to grab my train tickets that had been DHL’d from Moscow. He told us he didn’t have the fuel to do that otherwise he would. Fair enough. We got out and waited for a bus, but the first one just passed right by us. “Bus finished”, said a nearby taxi driver, scoping us out as his next target no doubt. “Then why is that bus carrying passengers?” I replied, pointing to a bus on the other side of the road. Hah, got you there! We waited for a few more minutes before our bus came along, and this time it actually stopped for us! Boarding the bus the driver made an announcement that we couldn’t understand, as it was in Kazakh. Well, whatever–as long as we get to where we need to go, and soon! The bus started along the usual route, heading east towards the city of Almaty. After a few minutes though it took an unfamiliar turn north and we started to get worried. We continued on for a ways in the wrong direction before the bus driver pulled over to the side and turned off the bus. The fare collector that had been riding along then grabbed a handful of cash offered up by the bus driver and got off. After waiting a few more minutes he then proceeded to start the bus again and continue driving in the wrong direction. At this point we knew something was wrong so I tried to ask the guy in front of us if he knew where the bus was going. He gave me an answer that I guess would translate to “I don’t know man, ask the driver”, which is exactly what I did. The driver spouted off something in an irritated tone so I went back to my seat and continued our ride on the bus to who-knows-where. We both knew that every minute on the bus was another minute away from our destination, which meant an ever increasingly expensive taxi ride to get there. I had the equivalent of $2.50 in Kazakh tenge in my pocket. Collin had nothing. Luckily, just when we really started to panic the bus came to a halt and the last few passengers disembarked from the vehicle. We took that as our cue to do the same and grabbed our bags. We had no idea where we were and were immediately approached by more cabbies, eager to rip us off no doubt. I knew the general direction of the city but had no idea of how far away we had come. I tried to explain to a couple that had been riding with us since Sayran Bus Station that if they were going downtown maybe we could all share a cab. They didn’t seem to get what I was saying so I gave up on that idea pretty quick. A taxi driver with a shiny Mercedes offered to take us to where we needed to go for 1,000 tenge. I opened my wallet and showed him that we only had 500. He agreed to take us anyway. Jackpot!
It ended up being about a ten minute ride to the Daphne Travel office in the middle of town. Of course the agency was closed by this time of night, but the very accommodating manager said he would give the ticket to the night watchman to give to us. The inside of the building was dark and no one seemed to be present. I pounded on the door. And pounded. And waited. And pounded. The watchman next door came over and inquired as to what we were doing. I explained we needed to talk to the watchman inside and the guy replied that he was probably sleeping in a back room. I was getting a bit worried, so I took a chance and called the manager’s cellphone. He was gracious enough to answer at 10:30PM and said he would ring the security guy and tell him to come to the door. Right after I get off the phone the door opens up and out steps a groggy, pissed-off looking ‘security guard’ dressed in what looked like his pajamas. He handed me the train tickets, I said thanks, and we were on our merry way. That has been the last big potential obstacle, and as it was now behind us we decided to spend our last few hours at the Irish Pub, a short walk away, celebrating the final night of our journey together.
We grabbed a bite to eat and a few drinks at the bar before it closed at around midnight. Now we had to find yet another taxi from there to the airport–hopefully at a much lower rate than we had paid upon arrival. We flagged down a guy and offered 3,000 tenge ($20). He accepted our offer (which was less than half of what we had bargained down to on our previous airport taxi ride) and we were dropped off at the terminal around 1:00AM. We spent the next few hours in a sleepy haze, just counting down the minutes until we could check in for our flights. Mine was scheduled to leave around 6:00AM, his was at 8:00AM. At around 4:30AM we said our goodbyes and I was off on my own, on towards Mongolia!
Ah yes, almost forgot to mention that the first night we stayed in Bishkek we had an interesting incident in the hotel room. We returned home around 2AM after a few drinks at the bar and I hopped in the shower. Getting out, I put on my clothes and went to hang my towel on the open door of the giant armoire when the entire thing came crashing down, missing me by mere inches. Collin ran over to help me right the thing back against the wall. It was pretty mangled–doors had come off the hinges, hardware was bent, and a small table with a phone on it the was against the adjoining wall was smashed into pieces along with the phone. The whole armoire probably would have shattered had it not been for my duffel bag cushioning the fall. I did my best to reassemble the table but ended up just throwing th pieces into the armoire. The phone was still working but had some pieces missing. The doors that had come off were places precariously back onto the unit. A few days later we had to change rooms because our room had been previously booked. I motioned for the attendant to come look at the armoire and scolded them for having such dangerous furniture placed in their rooms. The attendant called over some of the other staff and they picked through the pile of rubble, obviously aghast at what had happened to their ‘antique’ soviet-era furniture. I’m quite surprised that they didn’t try to charge us for the damage. Heck, they even moved us to a nicer, less expensive room upstairs, complete with an armoire that was properly secured to the wall!