we finally got a good night’s sleep at our very generous host Indira in Bishkek. She lives in an old Soviet building (“Kirgiz Platte”) however her apartment was amazing: completely refurbished and definitely the best place we have stayed in since Iran. We had breakfast at completely overpriced “Navigator” café where we were “robbed” of our last local money. We then continued our way towards the Kazakh border and again successfully implemented our manual “How to deal with Entrepreneurs in Government Functions – Traffic Police” twice, “sadly” enough we never went beyond advice 1 “continue despite being waved at by police”
We then arrived at the border where the so called “Grenz-Fick” started: the Kirgiz side was relatively easy. We received our stamps and were waved through within 30 minutes. The pain started on the Kazakh side: first “Master Machine” (i.e. Eugen and Philipp) and passengers were divided. All locals were driven into a cage like cattle (the situation reminded of Friday nights in NYC meatpacking district when hordes of party-goers try to push into clubs). Luckily Michel, Matthias and Sascha got preferential treatment and were directly led to the VIP entrance (i.e. the front of the cage) and passed through security checks smoothly.
The Master Machines were not as lucky. First Philipp and Eugen had to fight against a group of 20 locals and Russians to get a desired stamp confirming that the car entered the country (stamp 1). We then had to continue to customs where the entire car was searched. We had to empty the entire car (Philipp: “Are you f*** kidding me?!”) They then asked whether we had crack or coke. After the fifth time Eugen answered with “Knowing, da! Having coke on us, niet!”. The situation reached its’ pinnacle when the officers suspected coke in Philipp’s childhood teddy-bear. “If they cut it open, something very bad is going to happen”. Luckily we could convince that the bear was indeed only a stuffed animal. Search completed (stamps 2 & 3 from two independent customs officers). Stamp 4 at immigration (passenger check). Stamp 5 & 6 at car immigration check. Stamp 7 for final checkout.
Summary: Total time wasted 2:55hrs, yield 7 stamps (0.04 stamps / minute). [Benchmark: Turkmenistan: time wasted 6:30hrs, yield 17 stamps (0,044 stamps / minute)]
As we continued our way to Almaty we had an interesting addition to our manual “How to deal with Entrepreneurs in Government Functions – Traffic Police”: In Kazakhstan they seem to have professional tripod speed cameras (impossible to see in advance) and a police check about 200m thereafter. Our take:
- If possible follow a local who will point out the position of speed cameras to you by breaking suddenly without apparent reason
- If caught speeding do NOT stop at the following police check, continue with reasonable speed (our recommendation 60km/h as this too fast for the police to react but at the same time slow enough not to break your axle)
We had dinner / late lunch right on the main avenue in Almaty: the city had a very international vibe and it was much easier to navigate as an English speaker. Our host Adil picked us up and brought us to our apartment which turned out to be a luxurious castle with Jacuzzi.
We started our night off at Soho Club Almaty, then went to a Russian student bar (Kazakh Parlour style) and ended up at a Berlin-like underground bar. Michel and Eugen took a taxi back telling the driver beforehand that they only had $6. The driver first agreed but then suddenly stopped and claimed $20. We then haggled for 10mins and then flagged a passing police car. Big mistake! The taxi driver left immediately. We were then confronted with “narcotics” accusations and prompted to come to the police station (the police was obviously trying to get a bribe). Michel crossed his hands (sakrit-style), yelled “finished” and walked off. Eugen was first slightly confused (and intimidated by the Uzis the police was carrying) but then decided to follow Michel. The police luckily decided to drive off and we soon found out that we were in fact only two blocks away from our apartment.
After a proper hangover breakfast, Sascha and Michel went off to get the cars prepared for the challenges ahead. First, they stopped by a Subaru garage (trusted for their off-road/rally competencies) to get the cars checked out. After two hours, we got the confirmation, that our Suzukis still have a fair chance to make it to Mongolia. From there we moved to a small shop where we had tubes installed in our tires to prevent them from blowing while driving over the crappy streets and desert tracks. While the work was done we relaxed in a cozy shisha place and got to know our Kazakh friends better. Also, we learned about the latest technological innovation in the shisha business: The Medusa – a shisha that does not only look super futuristic but works without tobacco and might therefore be almost healthy.
At night we were invited to a mountain nightclub about 30min from Almaty on 3’000m. On the way Michel and Sascha were involved in the first accident on the trip, luckily not as drivers but as passengers. Our host’s girlfriend hit another car (SUV vs. SUV) and completely smashed the other driver’s door. The club itself was epic but it was terribly cold (~8°C). While the two drivers went to bed at 3:00AM, both Matthias and Philipp did not get back until 6:30AM.
Also we thought we had to share some intriguing Kazakh scam ideas (source: The Lonely Planet) with you:
- “Wallet-Full-of-Dollars” scam: Someone finds a wallet on the ground as you pass, opens it and finds hundreds of dollars inside. They draw your attention and if you stop, offer to share the loot with you. As you starting getting involved another person arrives, claiming that it’s his wallet and that there had been much more money inside originally. They demand compensation and threaten to take you to the police unless you make a payment.
- Another way is that someone pretends to have lost their wallet and demands to check your pockets. If you allow them to check your pockets / bag (note: that would be just utterly stupid) they will be provided with a great opportunity to snatch your belongings.
- There have also been reports from drivers picking you up at the airport and drop you in the middle of nowhere. They will threaten to strand you there and only continue driving in return for a big cash payment
- Also be wary of accepting invitations to stay with strangers. One traveller’s “host” demanded a large amount of money to let her leave with her luggage
- Try to avoid police, who are often only interested in foreigners as possible sources of bribes for minor “infringements” (note: no real change to other central Asian countries – see our manual for advice)