We’re In It Now: Gold-Toothed Men, Border Guards, and Other Mishaps

Posted on June 18, 2012

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I got it into my head late last night that I wanted to write something about the act of traveling itself. It’s a subject I’ve avoided for a bit in this blog and previous incarnations because I don’t quite know how to feel about being a traveler. There’s an odd mixture of joy, worry, guilt, wonder, and introspection involved in the process. That, and the recent legs of our journey have been a bit stressful—ergo not my ideal topics for a blog post. But last night I had time to meditate and think generally about travel, our trip, and the troubles we’ve had recently.

In the near future, expect posts about … the bleakness of Karaganda, miniatures and monuments, and the unique beauty of Almaty. But for now, to roadmap, because this may get a little convoluted, I’ll start by 1) explaining the most recent leg of our trip, the scenery that brought about my introspection, and where I am right now, 2) discussing the more difficult legs of our trip since we left Mongolia, and then 3) using that discussion to think a bit about the pros and cons of travel.

Yesterday, around noon, we finally managed to catch a train out of Karaganda. The 40 or so hours we spent in that little, post-Soviet, dying coal mining town will require their own post, but let us say that we were glad enough to be moving on to Almaty in the deep south of the country. The train, though, was a 16 hour ride through steppe, steppe, and more steppe.
The steppe in Kazakhstan is a little different than that in Mongolia, given that Soviet collectivization schemes effectively crushed nomadic culture, and the nomads, defiant to the end, slaughtered all their herds rather than give them over to Soviet farms. The result is less shit and bones, taller grass and some scrub shrubs, and utter lifelessness.

Our trip was a pleasant one, all told. We found ourselves in a small cabin with four bunks, which we were sharing with a young Kazakh man, A.M., who would take a bus out from Almaty to visit his family in a small town in the Tian Shan Mountains. (From Almaty, our current locale, the Tian Shan rise sheer up out of the ground, dominating the southern vistas of the city—they are the one feature by which all directions are determined and form a sharp contrast to this flat and leafy valley city of 1.5 million. The Tian Shan are really something, although nothing compared to the Pamirs, where we shall be in two weeks.) Our other wagon-mate, a middle-aged Kazakh man with an unusually prominent red nose and shockingly jolly green eyes, was equally cheery and talkative to A.M. The problem being neither of them spoke anything but Kazakh and Russian. Yet with the aid of artful sign language, a pen and paper, and a teenaged schoolgirl with some English capacity, whom the two men found and shanghaied from some other compartment on the train to translate, we managed to carry out a decent conversation about life in America and Kazakhstan and their assertions of the superiority of Kazakh hospitality to all other cultures. The latter they backed by sharing their tea, potatoes, beef, and bread with us—we in return bought them some perogies.

But conversation only lasts so long across the language barrier (credit where it is due, the Kazakhs we have met have made a valiant attempt to bridge that gap, whereas Mongols just shrugged it off and went on their merry way). And the steppe, the only other form of engagement out of the train window, is hypnotic.

Here’s the trick about watching the steppe pass by outside your window: You fix your eyes on a small hill in the background and let the green and brown grass unfold for a time. Then you realize that the hill is gone. And the next hill is gone. And then you are passing by Lake Balkhash. And then Balkhash is gone as well. And then there are the Tian Shan. The steppe lures you into that zone just outside your waking and frantic mind—a parallel state of semi-meditation at which you have enough distance and concentration to really latch onto and explore whatever skims across the surface of your mind. And for me, that meant spending several hours as the sun wound down below the horizon considering the past several days and the unpleasantries in reaching this point of peace.

This is no real litany of woes. By comparison to past trips I have taken, we have been quite lucky on this journey, and our hitches have been few and minor. But they are nagging.

Backtracking several days: It is almost impossible to get a direct flight from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Astana, Kazakhstan. We originally intended to take the land border, a thin sliver of road between the two nations that stretches from Bayan-Olgii on the Mongol side to Ust’-Kamenogorsk on the Kazakh side. But we soon learned that this road was reserved for the Kazakh population of western Mongolia, not for tourist transit. So we fell back on our tickets for a circuitous flight that would take us through Beijing and then Ekaterinburg, Russia, before dipping south into the Kazakh steppe.

Our jaunt to China was uneventful—a puddle hop to Beijing and then half a day on a transit visa to poke around the environs of the airport. But it was when we went to check in for our flight on S7 (Siberian Airways) that we broke our spell of good luck on the trip. We were informed that our paperwork did not seem to be in order. This, we protested, was impossible as we had all the relevant documentation to stay in the international sterile zone of the Ekaterinburg airport for half a day to catch our onward flight to Astana.

Ah, they said, but Astana is not always an international flight. It is sometimes, but not always, a domestic flight from Russia, for reasons that neither we, you, or anyone else fully understands. And if this is the case, you are fucked. We do not know if it is the case and we cannot reach anyone who does know. So we will let you through and let Ekaterinburg deal with you.

And deal with us Ekaterinburg did. No sooner had we taken a step toward the International Terminal than customs guards descended upon us asking to see our papers. So we showed them. And they frowned. We protested that we had organized our papers as best as possible and that everything should be in order.

Our papers were in order, they said. We had the right documentation and, yes, Astana was an international flight. But our travel itinerary was unusual, therefore suspicious, and they would have to detain us.

For the next three hours, we waited as they questioned us alone in turn. On entering the room where one tired, bored interpreter sat next to one customs official, we both independently thought, oh sit. In the corner was a broken chair and on the desk was a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

Over the course of my hour, the customs officials tried to fish out whether or not I was a Muslim subversive, a political subversive, or an employee of one of the seemingly dreaded NGOs. They copied all the contact information out of my notebook and rifled through my photos, computer, and underwear. They questioned our motives, belittled the concept of traveling for the sake of traveling or learning about the world, and were sometimes a wee bit racist, as when, after perusing my notes and seeing my notion that alcohol and cigarettes find you friends everywhere, the Russian customs officials scolded me for “giving Mongols alcohol” as “it turns them into wild beasts, they have no control, it is not a good thing.”

After finding nothing incriminating about us and realizing that all our paperwork was, in fact, still in order as it had been several hours before, they released us. Only to confiscate our passports and lock us in the international sterile zone for seven hours until our flight to Astana started boarding—at the last minute a customs official returned our passports and allowed us to check in for our flight.

I have to take a moment here to highlight that phrase they used in Ekaterinburg—the international sterile zone. Sterile. It’s a phrase airports like to use to make everything sound sanitized and safe for the sake of the local and the traveler alike. To contain the outside and maintain a stasis environment for the globalized clientele. What a joke.

Culture seeps in everywhere. It is discrete and minute enough that it can pass through almost any barrier and will, even in these tiny particles, make itself known to the traveler. As in Pakistan, where walking down the international terminal, store owners still come out and accost you and haggle and hassle you as if you were at a street market, so in Ekaterinburg the presence of Russian security and sensibility permeates the place. Even in Beijing, the well-intentioned futurism and show-room atmosphere, the most masterfully executed of any airport setting I’ve ever encountered, speaks to a deeper yearning and manner of presentation perpetrated by the Chinese government. Though the most sterile of all airports, the most monumental, and, I understand from people who have spent more time in Beijing, broken from the popular culture beyond, something of the political and business culture of the nation still melts through the glass and steel and fills the place up.

But onwards. Our slight bad luck held out in Astana, where we were swindled out of cash twice by taxi drivers and unwittingly consumed horse rectum—and out of politeness forced ourselves to down more, although the taste and smell of a pasture has not left us yet, not really (it is … quite a potent national delicacy, but I do not regret the experience). Mike had his Gortex jacket stolen as well. These, though, were only mild inconveniences. Then we took a bus to Karaganda.

The ride went smoothly for a time. But then we noticed that the man sitting in front of us had begun to mock his girlfriend. The two of them downed plastic cup after plastic cup brimming with cheap vodka and she began to cry and slap him, and he in return began to wrestle with her. Their tensions were only diffused when they turned their attention to us.

He was an ugly and abusive man with a laugh exactly like you’d expect from a 1970s stereotype of a Soviet thug. Given that the diet in Kazakhstan is low in sugars and other dental-decay foods, we could only conclude that all his front teeth had been replaced with gold after a bar brawl. He snarled something at Mike in Russian, then in Kazakh. We couldn’t understand and said as much.
They laughed at the dumb, mute Americans. Then his girlfriend started to make the international signs to “have fun, party with us” and tried to grab my hand and move it towards her chest. I pulled my hand back and this led to outrage on the part of both her and her abusive beau. Apparently rejecting solicitations is not proper.

They launched into snarling insults, yelling pro-Kazakh and anti-American slogans and slurs, and continued their tirade for the next hour, unrelenting as Mike and I just stared out the window, attempting to brush them off. When we finally pulled into Karaganda, the man swayed to his feet, blocking the aisle and pointing at us, continuing to yell. I, nonviolent, had no recourse to this save to defend myself if he chose to bar us physically. Mike, on the other hand, told me he was close to removing the man’s gold teeth for him. Fortunately, a little grandmother intervened, telling off the man and cursing him in Russian until he backed down and fled the bus. We would see the couple once more in Karaganda on the street, but they gave us no more trouble.

Now to the musing.

Travel often feels like a dilettante’s pastime—frivolous, luxurious, and pointless. There’s credence to that feeling. Travel often requires a certain amount of privilege, be it in wealth, time, a lack of obligations social or otherwise. Likewise, often travel corresponds to the image of the tourist gawking from afar at the amusing object of another culture, moving through streamlined and cultivated circuits assigned for their viewing pleasure. Such is the nature of the tourism industry and tourism infrastructure. (I recall this especially from Kenya, where the goal was usually to whisk travelers out of Nairobi as fast as possible in order to get them to jump with a Masai and take a photo of a lion from their jeep.) In the case of travel as accommodated and perceived by many governments, practitioners, and tourist agencies, then, the privilege that allows one to move about freely seems to be squandered, and even to objectify, harm, or degrade in some ways the places that one travels to.

In spite of this, I still believe there is value in travel, especially in its bumps and bruises. As we came into Almaty, a police officer approached us for our second round of interrogation on this trip. He took our passports and had us empty out our bags. He fingered our money and held our credit cards. At that moment, stripped of the protection of your citizenship and the cushion of your money, unsure and mute, you get a flash of powerlessness. Or when a golden-toothed man rails at you and readies a punch, you feel more disoriented and confused than you may otherwise have occasion to in your day-to-day life. You’re just fucked. For travelers who have the power to travel, such mishaps and the sense of powerlessness and introspection they engender are strong learning tools.

Being stranded, isolated, interrogated—they’re clean breaks from comfort, and in that discomfort there’s the opportunity to learn. It’s a transitory, faint, tinted sort of education, but it is an education nonetheless. In these little travel mishaps, though they leave me grumbling at the time, I suppose there is redemption. So here’s to the next border check point!

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