CIS Registration woes III: Kazakhstan
And we thought Kazakhstan would be the best of the lot!
Returning to Kazakhstan we felt we would finally be escaping the visa problems of Central Asia. In our first pass through the country, we had had no problems at all, and were expecting that it would be the same situation this time ‘round.
However, the troubles began as soon as we stepped foot on Kazakhtani soil. When we crossed the border at Korgas (14/1/2010) we received only one stamp, and seeing that this was different to what we received last year, we insisted that we should have two stamps. The customs officer then enquired with her senior officer and then confirmed that we could only get the one stamp there at the border. We have since learned that only at the International airports in Astana and Almaty, or at the sea port on the Caspian Sea an you obtain the second stamp on arrival, which completes the necessary registration process. When crossing into Kazakhstan by land, you must register at a migration office within 5 days of entry.
Thus, when we first arrived in Jarkent, on 15/1/2010, we went to the police and tried to register. The officer in charge of migration there called through to Taldiqhorgan to check the rules, and then told us to go to Taldiqhorgan or Almaty to register, as they could not handle us Australians there in Jarkent. After our Uzbekistan debarcle, we knew not to take this as fact. So first of all, we stressed to the officer the fact that we needed to register within 5 days, and we would not be able to reach neither Almaty nor Taldiqhorgan in this time. He called again to check with Taldiqhorgan and then told us that this would not be a problem, just ride as fast as possible, and even if it took 10 days to ride there it would not be a problem and they would not enforce the fine. The officer then disappeared and wouldn't talk to us anymore so we had to give up for the day.
The next day we came back with a translator we had met in the street, who had a friend who worked at the police station and a sister that does some work with passports etc. in Almaty, so she knew the importance of registration. We told her how worried we were that it would not be OK and she tried to help. However, after several hours of asking around we still came back with the same answer - ride on to Taldiqhorgan and register there, and it would not be a problem and there would not be a fine even if it took 10 days to ride there. We requested that this information be written up officially and stamped, but unfortunately the message was not transmitted correctly and we ended up with a typed letter written by our translator.
At our first internet connection out of China we spoke to our friend in Astana about China police problems, and when he spoke to the journalists they got a bit excited and published a press release that we’d been deported from China for being suspected of being spies for the Uyghurs. So for all those that might have heard this information, we must stress that in fact we were NOT deported from China.
We were later told that this type of misrepresentation is unfortunately commonplace in the Kazakhstan media, and the only action that can plausibly be taken is to issue a correction as a press release.
Early the next morning we loaded up the Quike and left Jarkent for Taldiqhorgan. However, we had quite a few unexpected setbacks on the way. Firstly, that very afternoon a big storm started and gave us a foot of snow, making the going a little more tricky on the road from then on. That night, our sleeping mattresses BOTH failed, in that the baffle stitching popped and after that one needed to be pumped again after every 4 hours, whereas the other one needed re-pumping every 40 minutes! This made it even dangerous for us to camp out in these temperatures.
Hearing all our problems (and fearing the wolves) all the townsfolk along the way helped us out with places to stay, even calling ahead to their friends to make sure they'd be able to take us in for the night. More often than not, this involved stopping for the day earlier than we normally would, just to ensure we’d have a place to stay that night and wouldn’t have to camp. When we arrived at the start of the climb on the Altin-Emel pass, the road through was actually closed that day, so we stayed in that last small village with the owner of the shashlik stand. The next morning there was a huge, chilly headwind on the road, so although the pass opened to cars that day, us trying to ride anywhere would’ve been futile!
When we finally arrivedin Sariozek we went straight to the Akimat (mayor’s office) and told them our registration problem. They said they could help us and get us the stamp. Representatives from the office then took us out for the day to see local traditions and then at the end of the day they stamped our passports. However, when we got the passports back we saw they'd stamped it with the Akimat stamp, the completely wrong stamp. Clearly they had no idea what we needed!
When we arrived in Taldiqhorgan we had a bit of trouble finding accommodation, or somewhere safe to leave our Quike, and it wasn’t until after our second night in town that we made it to the Migration desk. Unfortunately, the Migration office was closed that day and on February 5 we had to return to the office, when it was open. We have since learned that this is typical of Migration Offices outside of Astana and Almaty – they are usually open only two days, or even just two mornings, per week!
However, when we got there the next day, there were dozens of people ahead of us awaiting service. It is not so bad to have to wait, but many times before we had waited in similar queues before only to be told at the counter that we were in the wrong queue. We’d seen this type of situation successfully negotiated by locals before, so we used our newfound skills. We went the end of the counter, stuck our heads around the security glass at the gap with the window, caught someone’s attention by speaking English and bad Russian, and then we got served.
The Migration Officer took our passports, got a copy, and was gone a while, and she said we needed a letter from the inviting party. We said we could bring it back, and we showed her a photocopy of a stamped letter we had from Avalon HGS (our inviting organisation), but she said she needed a different, and specific letter. We tried to ask her whether she had been notified that we were coming so that we could explain to her why we were late, but of course, she’d never been notified about any Aussies arriving late to that office.
So we went outside and called Vitaliy for advice. He wanted to make sure he got the details correct, so he wanted to speak to the migration officer directly, so we went back in and put her on the phone to Vitaliy. Confronted with this, her story gradually changed. First she said she needed the original, not a fax or copy. Then she told Vitaliy that we needed a representative to register with us, and only in Karaganda, and there would be a fine of about 14000 Tenge for Roger, Megan, and Avalon, each. Plus, as we were now illegal, a police officer could arrest us on the spot should he catch us before we manage to get ourselves registered.
After hearing this we decided we had only one option – go to Karaganda. Plus, we couldn’t go without the Quike because we had no idea what might happen to us, and if we’d be allowed to remain in the country. As it was Friday that day, and Vitaliy wouldn’t be in Karaganda himself until Tuesday, we decided to remain in Taldiqhorgan until Sunday, and then start the long bus ride down to Almaty and then back up to Karaganda – a 1250 km journey. We couldn’t take the slightly shorter road up north to Karaganda because due to the bad winter that was settling in, that less-used road would probably close often and we might be stranded.
The next morning (Saturday) we had an appointment with the local TV news at Jetsu TV. We did a quick interview and a demonstration of Quike riding and repairs, and while we were there we met a very kind man named Valeriy. He was the President of the region’s Velosport Federation, and trainer of Olympic and internationally competitive Kazakhstani cyclists. So of course he was very interested in us and our contraption. He took us to his house that evening to feed us up on a high-protein diet, and while we were there he begun calling around to his friends to try to pull some Migration Office strings for us. But unfortunately he really couldn’t do much for us, and the best he could do was to help us get to Almaty and then Karaganda safely.
It took us a 4-hour taxi and then a 24-hour bus ride, and on Tuesday afternoon we arrived in Karaganda. The next day, we spent the whole day at police offices, trying to fix our problem. At the first office, we were just told to sit and await further instruction - about two hours. Then we were driven to a different office, and we sat in a room for another hour. Then we were taken to a third office where we waited in the foyer for them to finish lunch. But then we only got in to talk to the guy after 3 pm. It wasn’t fun when we did, because he handed down the fine and accepted no excuses, because we were so late. Vitaliy tried to explain to them that we had tried to register in time, but were misinformed, and then we tried to register so many times since too. But he wouldn’t have a bar of it – according to him, the fact that we were by now “almost a month” (18 days) late with our registration was so inexcusable that he was not going to let up on this fine. The decision was – 14132 Tenge (about AUD $120) each for Roger, Megan, and Avalon HGS.
But then there was another spanner in the works, because we didn’t have enough cash on us, so we had to get to an ATM, withdraw the money, and then go to a different bank to do a moneygram transfer to the police. This was all done very hurriedly because following that we had to return to the police office, before close of business, and hand in the receipt of payment. At that point we were told that we could return to the office in two days to collect our registered passports. Why they need to take two days to put a stamp on a piece of paper, nobody knows.
After all that, the only consolation was that we had a big story in one of Karaganda’s leading newspapers, telling all about the bad treatment we’d received at the hands of the migration police. It might not have been the best move for us, politically, but it is probably a good thing that these problems with the police can and are reported publicly.