DAY 3 in Almaty
Dom had been whining about not having gone paragliding in Georgia for some weeks by this point. Rousing the team at 8am he announced that he had committed us all to a session paragliding. Collected from our hostel with sleep in our eyes and reluctant limbs, we were driven 40km outside Almaty to a big hill. We then proceeded to jump off the hill, strapped to monolingual bearded men, to float around for about 30 minutes each, our only instruction being “RUN RUN RUN” pre-take-off (Health and Safety gone mad!) A whole day spent waiting to look at the ground from slightly higher up (and paying £50 each for the privilege). Ollie got quite close to some Kazakh birds (eagles or similar) and Dom took off backwards. Steve went pretty high and Jack went pretty far. All in all, I think we all agree we would have preferred to stay in the dorm and watch The Wire.
Our guide, however, was very interesting. Working for a paragliding company, he couldn’t tell us anything about it in advance of our flights because he had never done it himself. We learnt from him about Almaty’s split personality between winter as a ski resort and summer as an adventure site for hikers, climbers, bikers and so on. We learnt about the deep pride that the Kazakhs have for their multicultural tolerance and acceptance of all religions. About their preference to marry young. About their unique diplomatic position, in having fostered positive relationships with China, Russia and the West. About the differing attitudes of people from the city and those from the countryside. About how Bob Marley’s music can put children to sleep.
We wanted to walk to the bazaar, but at this point there was, again, about half an hour until the Bazaar closed before we remembered.
Dom had been whining about not seeing much of each place we stayed in, ever since we had driven directly through Hungary without stopping. To shut him up, we looked up some “areas of interest” and walked around them a couple of times. We saw a park and a church thing. The most interesting thing about them were the use of old Ice Tea bottles as sprinklers to revive the balding, anaemic grass. It was nice, but it was not quite driving. Then we went and ate at a “Chinese Restaurant”. This was just a Kazakh restaurant with a sign saying “Chinese Restaurant” outside. It had pictures of approximately 8 different meals outside, only one of which we could order.
We then went for a couple of drinks at an unjustifiably expensive bar before heading back and watching The Wire. Finally.
DAY 4 in Almaty
Unable to motivate ourselves to move, we stayed in bed until it was almost too late to go to the bazaar. But then we did actually go to the bazaar. The bazaar’s meat hall alone is the size of a normal supermarket. Add two warehouse-sized indoor sectors, an outdoor sector quadruple the size of those combined, laid out over three floors, and you have no trouble losing Dominic first and then Jack. Ollie bought a blanket, we tried and failed to buy a chess set for the 15th country in a row and got out-bartered by half a dozen stall-holders whilst trying to buy Kazakhstan t shirts. We did manage to buy a ‘Good’ drink, its logo eerily similar to Google’s.
We could all feel the trip slipping away from us. We were so close to Mongolia. Our visa dates for Russia were starting to slip, Dom was running up against the number of days he could stay in Kazakhstan without a Business visa. Every day spent in Almaty meant accumulating inevitable expense: there was no way, by this point, that we would have either the money or the time to do the ‘Western route’ through Mongolia; the reason most people even bother doing the Mongol Rally. The Western Route is a roadless expanse of nomadic wilderness that is the closest thing (that you can drive to) to the end of civilisation. Imagining the limousine crossing rivers and getting stuck, its wheels falling off in the midst of Yak-inhabited steppe, was the real comedy behind choosing it. We were fairly down about the wrecked suspension and the delays.
So there we were, watching the world Volleyball championships and eating garlic croutons, our litres of beer served to us by Fraus in traditional Bavarian dress, in a German bar in Almaty, Kazakhstan. We stayed like this until we had finished the free garlic croutons and caught a taxi back to Dastarkhan, where we knew the beer was marginally cheaper.
Little did we know the margin by which it was cheaper. When we ordered 4 litres of beer, it was served to us in a ‘tower’ at a steep discount (averaging out at £1 / Litre). We were met there by a pair of American ralliers who had valorously opted to do the Rally in the tiny Daewoo Matiz. We merrily drank our way through several towers. Dom fell asleep. Jack excused himself to the bathroom. Once there, carefully surveying the room, he opted, after a slight pause, to throw up into the sink. After some time at this activity, Jack (with dismay) noted that the discharge was not going down the sink. A bouncer arrived at the door. “Hello!” Said Jack cheerfully, giving the man a nod and a wink. Turning back to the task at hand with utter despair, Jack begun using his hands as surreptitiously as he could, under the supervision of his new friend. He used his finger to poke the larger chunks of part-digested garlic crouton through the narrow gratings in the sink. He was, overall, hideously unsuccessful. We all soon left – never to return.
The walk from Dastarkhan to the Hostel takes approximately 90 seconds. Dom and Steve decided to spice things up, bored as they were, by taking a new route back. They arrived back at the hostel more than an hour later after having got lost walking round the corner. The saga continues.
DAY 5 in Almaty
The situation was thus. Dom, being the least organised of the group in the run up to the trip, had delayed arranging a Kazakh visa for so long that Kazakhstan had repealed the visa requirement for British citizens. He therefore had 15 days visa-free in Kazakhstan whilst Steve, Ollie and Jack had a full 30 days on their visa. This 15 day quota was running thin due to the delays with the drive shaft. With no available information on the new arrangement, Dom peeled himself from bed, hungover, pre-8am, and set out in search of the British Embassy.
Standing in the address that Google Maps had given him, he could not help but feel as though something was not quite right. There was more greenery than he was expecting, and fewer walls. The British Embassy appeared to be a disused lot with some old children’s play equipment rusting in it. Checking his facts online, he was redirected to a nearby hotel. There was a picture of the hotel on the British consular section’s website. That was how Dom knew he was in the right hotel.
“They have moved”. The stony receptionist told him adamantly. “I don’t know where they have gone”. After a couple of phone calls, she had an address for him. On the opposite side of Almaty, Dom found himself in the building that also housed the US embassy; this seemed hopeful.
The foyer was split into two halves. On the US half sat 6 armed guards in full uniform, set up with a pair of PCs and a full walkthrough metal detector. On the British side sat a
Kazakh teenager in a fake Gucci t shirt playing on her iphone. She stared through his passport with glazed eyes and directed him up 8 floors. Dom, following these instructions, arrived in the offices of the British Council, an organisation for the promotion of British culture and the English language outside the UK. They have absolutely no dealings with Visas, but the staff there had a tip as to where he ought to go next. The directions took him back towards the centre of town to a complex that was approximately 3 minutes’ walk the Hostel. After walking two laps of the complex, Dom eventually realised that his destination was a set of closed shutters adorned with precisely no information as regards opening times. Dom would later discover that August bank holiday applies to British staff working in Almaty. But even if the place had been open, it would have only helped him get a visa for Britain, being the British visa service for Kazakh citizens.
In a nearby café, Dom phoned the number listed on the British embassy website. The number rang through to silence three or four times before someone answered. “Hello, this is Happyland Almaty!” Bewildered, Dom borrowed the café’s phone. “Happyland Almaty, how can we help?” came the beatific response.
The British embassy in Almaty is not where it says it is, and there is no information at their previous address as to where in fuck’s name they’ve gone. The phone number on their website sometimes rings through to what we can only assume is a child’s play centre or a well-disguised brothel. When you email them, you receive an automated response. More than a week later, they send you a canned response telling you that they cannot advise you on the visa conditions of other nations.
After lunch, Dom and Steve begun another wild goose chase. We did learn an important lesson. When all seems lost, travel agents will try their very best to help. They will make phone calls, print things, give directions and speak English to you. The one that we tried sent us to the (admittedly wrong) immigration police office.
Talking to the single police officer we found there, wedged under a flight of stairs leading up to an apartment building, we were overheard by a short, rotund civilian. She rattled off a couple of phrases in broken English. Nodding in oblivious agreement, we climbed into her car.
At the other end was the correct police station. Our guide/kidnapper melted silently into the crowd. The office looked a little bit like a British post office, except one wall was lined with a cage full of police (the naughty ones, we guessed) and the queuing system involved significantly more ramming than you might find on your typical UK high street. The police there moved us from one queue to another for a little while, sort of how you might shift food you don’t particularly want around your plate, after sadistically hearing out Dom’s tediously long and certainly incomprehensible Russian explanation of why he was there. Eventually another complete stranger told us Dom could only extend his visa for business purposes. Or perhaps he could leave and come back and everything would be fine.
Back at the hostel, we finally managed to get through to a British consular office in Astana. A confused individual, ostensibly working in the visa office for British nationals in Kazakhstan, explained “I am not sure about the visa rules for British Nationals in Kazakhstan. Either way, it is the policy of the British Embassy in Kazakhstan not to give advice on the visa rules for British nationals in Kazakhstan. Unofficially, you could probably leave and come back”.
Having pursued the topic for an entire day and beginning to understand how gristle, doing circuits around the human digestive system and enduring peristalsis and stomach acid, but ultimately remaining undigested, must feel, Dom ‘decided’ he would just go to Kyrgyzstan the next day anyway. At the worst, the car would by 60kg lighter. At the best, we would be shot of Dom for 24 hours.
Sitting listlessly in our hostel room, hitherto our exclusive sanctuary, we were disappointed to receive news that two more guests would be sharing with us. We opened the windows, put our shoes out of the windows, put our socks out of the windows, binned the remnants of sausage and cheese that littered the floor and generally tried to skim off the stench that was churning around in there. The two men who entered were vaguely familiar. After several minutes of conversation we realised that we had met them before. They were the pair of Israeli hitchhikers we had met at the port in Baku more than three weeks ago. They had caught us up!
There is something amazing about this pair. They fought as though they had endured 30 years of marriage together, carried everything they needed on their backs, did what they wanted to do and went where they wanted to go whenever they felt like it, met incredible people wherever they went and were constantly imbued with restless, cheerful and yet critical energy. They urged everyone around them to explore more, to be more interesting, to get more from their situation. For instance later that day, at a music store looking for strings for their ukulele, they befriended a Kazakh and his girlfriend and stayed the night with them, even though they had paid for the hostel.
Hugely relieved that they had left us to grow mildew in our damp squalor once more, free from the pressure to have adventures and such, we brought the shoes back inside and closed the window, loaded The Wire onto the laptop and sunk into the midst of West Baltimore’s most exquisite traumas.