Tuesday, November 19, 2013

From Bishkek to the Chinese border

I caught cold in this last car. My throat hurts, I need time to rest at Nurbolot's place. Luckily, his place is a safe haven for me for as long as I need and he has the internet. I say hello to some of my friends in Bishkek, mostly Gulmira and Aiperi. I learn that Aiperi, the successful business-shark who has four jobs, is single and created a whole language center at Prospekt Mira from nothing is actually from a village in the Naryn region. If she returns there, they will probably kidnap her and kill her forever.
I leave on tuesday morning through the Dordoy bazar to Korday (in Kazakhstan), border city north of Bishkek. The border control is quick and painless and I get this annoying Kazakh registration form. This time, I'll try to stay in the country for less than five days.
I get a ride from Korday straight to the border of Almaty. It's a taxi but he takes me for free. Almaty is huge so I need another ride to get me through the city. I have forgotten the ways of the Kazakh, while neighbours with the Kyrgyz, they are way different. More distant, more cynic, more globally minded. And way richer. Now that I've lived in Kyrgyzstan for nearly three months, I can see the difference clearly. While in Kirghizia people live in mud houses without running water even in the capital, here it is less common and there is tap water even is some small cities.

As opposed to Bishkek, Almaty has some kind of architecture. Some parts of it are even beautiful and there are skyscrapers there. The bus costs more, the phone costs more and everything is more expensive of course. Kazakhstan is the model of success in the region if you don't count Turkmenistan of course but Turkmenistan is a fucking dictatorship. Kazakhstan also in a way, they have a president elected for life but nobody complains. Because democraties are a horrifying example in the region. The only actual democracy is Kyrgyzstan and it had two presidents who took most of the country's money, shot people and ran away. So when a president is good enough to actually run the country, people are happy to keep him in power for as long as possible. Because every new president is a new risk at chaos.
Almaty is not ugly at all
My cold is getting worse. And I am alone. I am trying not to take any chances so I have negociated some couchsurfing inside the city. I am counting 2 days gor the mongolian visa. Couchsurfing never works for me but this time, I've written to almost the whole site. I really need the place, I need some confort to get better and some rest before China which will be a great unknown. Miracle of miracles two people said yes to me. I will go to Uki Uki, a girl around my age living not far from the mongolian embassy. It takes me a while to get used to Almaty's transport system. First off, there are busses and not Marshutkas as in the rest of the country. Then, instead of paying to the driver there is a guy collecting money pretty much like beggars in Paris metro. Except you are actually expected to give money to this guy.
It takes me two hours to get to the rendez-vous place with Uki but she is very late so I still have time to look for the mongolian embassy. It's 4.30PM, of course it will be closed but at least I'll be able to get the opening hours on the door and apply for the visa the following morning. Afterwards, I'll only have to wait one day because the mongolian embassy has a reputation of delivering visas fast.
I can't believe my eyes: the consulate is actually open, not only is it open in the afternoon but the consul happens to speak english. Before, that is what I would expect of any embassy but now this is nothing short of a miracle. It gets better. I fill out my form, give 58 dollars to the guy and he prints me the visa in a matter of minutes. I love Mongolia, best embassy ever.

I meet Uki at some kind of big shopping center. I am tired and sick but we talk, she has lots to tell, she's a bit rainbow although she doesn't know rainbow festivals exist and half of the couchsurfers in Almaty appaearently come to her. She used to be a web programmer but threw everything away and became a yoga teacher. She gets good money out out it appearently and her appartment is european styled, it is designed with tast and it has internet. There is nothing to eat and I haven't eaten since morning but I have a place to sleep and that is everything I hoped for.
I don't have a lot of money. Just about 400 tenge from the 1000 that I got by exchanging my ramaining Kyrgyz money. I've already bought a sim card with it and enough credit to sent sms to Russia to Janela. So I really can't prolong my stay.
Me and Uki

The next morning I leave at 8 from Uki's appartment. It takes me two hours to get to the other side of Almaty in a snowstorm. It's cold, I am sick and snow is falling like crazy. But I am thinking that this kind of day is going to repeat over and over so it's a good time to get used to it. I start hithhiking towards the border. There are esentially 4 cities on the way: Issyk, Chilik, Chungze and Zharkent. After Zharkent it is really the border.
The police sees me and they say they'll stop a car for me. They start waiving their sticks and scaring the shit out of everyone just to get me a lift.
Policement hitchhiking for me
They get me a car to Issyk, a guy who is driving pharmacy products there. He is very nice, he doesn't hate me because the police forced him to take me as a passenger and he invites me home.
I hesitate a bit, I want to be at the Chinese border as soon as I can. But I am feeling very bad, cold, tired and I also hungry. I feel it would be stupid to refuse. My host goes to the market to buy some food, just for the occasion. He is very nice to me, has two children and a lot to eat. He has running  warm water in his house which reminds me that Kazakhstan is really much more rich than Kyrgyzstan.
My host's grandchildren
He cooks plov, a little different than the Kyrgyz version but still very tasty. I sleep great and feel a little better. It is still snowing but just a little bit. But I better hurry, I don't intend to register in Kazakhstan so I need to stay less than five days unless I want to negociate with the border officers again. And I don't expect short processing from the chinese side either so unless I want to spend the night at the border, I better get myself there early and legally.
I hitch several cars before I get to Chilik. Then, a bus takes me for free to the last intersection before China. I am now more east than ever before by hitchhiking. My last record was Janela's house in Tegizchil. But now I have passed it by a few kilometers.
The road is white with snow and white mountains around it. But soon the landscape and weather changes. There is a microclimate around Zharkent, the weather is warmer and no snow. And I am only 40 kilometers from the border, khorgos. I am really going to China! The first new country that I will visit without Ilona. My first boat hitchhike is approaching. In some time, I will be looking for boats from China to Korea.

Two more rides before the chinese border and then I see the first barricade. Some Kazakh army chieftain tells me I cannot go on foot. I am not surprised. I have read Remi's blog, the french guy I met in mountains around Karakol along with Clark and Miri and he writes how they had to pay expensive taxis through the border at Iktersham (Kyrgyz/China) and there just wasn't any other way.
No way I am paying for taxis. But the chinese are worse byrocrats than Kyrgyz and Kazkah so I am not so sure I will manage to have my way.
The chiftain tells me that I have to take a bus. I ask him if the bus is free, he tells me no. I tell him that I am going to camp in front of his border control cabin until he finds a free solution for me. A bus comes and he puts me on it among the passengers.
The bus doesn't have seats, it only has a lot of beds. People are randomly sitting on the beds and it is really unconfortable. But I feel like being in this bus is the safest choice because I look like an ordinary tourist and everybody likes ordinary tourists.

It takes forever to reach the Kazakh border. The road is full of giant buildings and fences with Kazakh emblems. Kazakhstan is really making a fuss about that border. They are building some kind of center for international cooperation and they are making sure tourists see it before they arrive to China. If this is the Kazakh side, I can't even imagine the chinese. Maybe I should have gone through Iktersham, Kyrgyzstan and tried my luck with the taxis.
At last, Kazakh control post. They ask me questions about where I was, where I will go and they process me. I want to go to the Chinese control but again, I must take the bus, say the Kazakh lady.
"Is the bus free?"
"I think it's 500 tenge (about 4 dollars)"
"And if I go on foot?"
"Then the chinese will shoot."
"Do they have good aim?"
"Surely better than ours."
Turns out the bus is the same one as the one who brought me to the Kazakh border post. I get in again and this time, it's the chinese border control with cameras everywhere and everything electronic. I have to fill out an immigration form which I hand to the border guard together with my passport. He just writes something in it with his pen, puts on a stamp and lets me go. He actually doesn't even need my visa, he just needs to take a photo with his camera, I am already in his database and everything is computerized anyway. He knows everything about my visa, about me, and probably can read my thoughts.
I exit the border post prepared to face buses and taxis and burocracy. But nothing. I am in china. I have done it without breaking any of my rules. The road is open.