Been told to go home... My hatred of Embassies and authority grows
Almaty Travel Blog› entry 330 of 658 › view all entries
People I met here who contributed to, and improved my trip: Julia (Russia), Hannes (Sweden)
Its just turned 18.30, and i somehow find myself sat at the kitchen table, in the apartment that we have just rented in Almaty! It came about after we were dropped off at the train station by our friendly taxi driver Murat and the gostinitsa (hotel) there had no room. Almaty is a very expensive city and a bed in their 4 bed dormitory, without bathroom, would have cost us 1500 Tengge ($12) each. Luckily for us, a friendly Kazakh woman called Mira approached us and told us we could rent her flat for the same price as we would have paid for the dorm beds. I must say, it seemed too good to be true.
Her husband drove us to the apartment, which wasn't too far away and i was delighted to find that it was just what I'd hoped it would be. We have a large double bed and a pull out sofa, cable TV, a balcony, fully fitted kitchen and very clean bathroom. I thought i had to document my delighted mood, whilst all the endorphins are racing through my bloodstream! But now its time to go to the supermarket, as Julia has promised to cook Dinner for us boys, hurray!
It was a quiet first night in, sat around the table eating and drinking. Julia made us sausages, mashed potatoes and tomatoes, which was a rare Western style treat for the taste buds and these were washed down with some $1 bottles of Tuborg. By 22.00 the three of us were all thoroughly shattered, so retired to bed, pretty happy with our opening encounters within Kazakhstan.
I was quite unsure of all the visa regulations regarding registration within the country, but i had an idea that we had to either register within 3 or 5 days and i also didn't know whether this included weekends or not. In such cases i would rather be safe than sorry, so we got up early on Saturday morning with the idea that we would get this sorted out as a priority.
Julia cooked us up a fantastic breakfast of Sausages and Eggs with some boiled potatoes and after this we headed to Almaty II Train Station, where our book said that we could register with the OVIR office. The book also said that the station was somewhere to be avoided, as the police are on the constant look out for foreigners to 'question' (read - 'bribe')
Well, at least the Lousy Planet got one thing right, guess which! Hannes had dressed up in his Uigher hat and was looking pretty Russian as far as i was concerned, Julia is Russian and i had seen enough Western faces to begin to convince myself that even i could pass for a Russian/Kazakh.
Julia's passport says that by law, she does not have to hand it over, but can show it to a police officer from her hand and this is what she tried to do. The cop was having none of it and started tugging it from her hands. When she protested he just yanked it away and asked if she thought he was going to steal it. She explained her rights to which he answered that of course that was the law, but so was the fact that he couldn't steal her passport. Whether he was going to stick to either was his decision - and he had already broken the first one!
5 minutes checking our entry cards and documents and we were left stood next to 2 other cops, neither of whom had talked to us.
Leaving the station we were stopped by a beggar, trying to tell a story of how he had just arrived from another city and wanted to hang out with us. He claimed to have a brother in Almaty who he was looking for, but unsurprisingly he was asking for money within seconds, an old ploy that we have in England too.
It was already 11.00 and time seemed to be flying by, but time was something we had on our side.
Almaty Mosque is the largest in the country and its large minarets and colourful turquoise dome were easily spotted as we approached. I didn't find the structure overly impressive, so we only spent a few minutes to look at the exterior, before walking through the neighbouring Zelyony Bazaar, which translates as 'Green Bazaar'. I'm normally not a cautious person when it comes to crowds, but after the pickpocketing incident in Urumqi, i found myself particularly guarded today and was happy when we reached the end of the stalls.
One of Almaty's star attractions is Panfilov Park, which covers 3 blocks and contains some interesting sights. The park was designed in the 1870's, with its most notable building been the brightly decorated Zenkov Cathedral. Almost as catching as the Cathedral was the stage that was set up in front of it, with a Kazakh pop band performing and small children drawing cars with crayons on street, as part of an 'Astana Motors' promotion.
Entering the cathedral, we were greeted by the Father of the Church, who told Julia that we should come in, take photos and enjoy our time inside. There were actually 'no photo' signs plastered on the walls, but everyone was taking photos and videos of a baptism taking place, which would be expected i guess. He told Julia that it wasn't an issue at all for us to also document our time inside the Cathedral, especially as we had travelled so far to be there! What a great attitude!
The Cathedral is a fascinating structure, designed by AP Zenkov in 1904 and built entirely from wood.
Going East into the park, we came across the War Memorial, Eternal Flame and a couple of Museums. There were monuments to the 601,011 Kazakh's who had died during the First and Second World Wars and also the War in Afghanistan. For a traditionally nomadic country, who had little interest in these Wars and with less than 17 million citizens to date, that figure seems an awful lot.
What had begun as an overcast day, was now turning into a real scorcher. Thankfully Almaty is an incredibly green city, with plenty of parks and tree lined boulevards, with some interesting buildings to break up the monotony of the Soviet style town planning and building design. Some fascinating structures that we took the time to check out included The Old House of Parliament, Abay State Theatre of Opera and Ballet, The Academy of Sciences and Hotel Kazakhstan.
It was almost 14.00 and we were all getting pretty hungry, but we couldn't find anywhere cheap to eat. It was becoming apparent that Almaty was not going to be a cheap place to hang out in. Finally we settled on some pastries and drinks from a local store, which would at least see us through until Dinner.
To give an idea of how much the prices have gone up within Almaty, the cable car ride that we next went to, had risen from 100 Tengge ($0.80) to 800 Tengge ($6.40). 4 years ago it had been possible to get a bed in the city for $2, now it has risen to $12. To go on a fairground roller coaster ride cost 1000 Tengge ($8) and to get a beer at the park, at the top of the cable car cost 650 Tengge ($5.20). The three of us therefore opted to skip the cable car and hike up to the top, which took around an hour.
I was really surprised to see Koktyube (Green Peak) choc-a-bloc with Kazakh families, all splashing out money like it was going out of fashion. Even though you paid 50 Tengge ($0.40) just to walk up the hill, you also had to pay another 50 Tengge just to use the toilet.
We spent an hour basking in the late afternoon sun and enjoying the sweeping views across the city and surrounding mountains. The TV transmitter centre actually dominated the skyline and i was pretty surprised that they hadn't turned it into a sky tower and begun charging $100 to go to the top! I'm sure it would be a roaring success.
At the foot of the hill, we caught a bus back to the centre and stopped off at an internet cafe, where i found out Leeds had won by 2 goals away from home, in the play offs.
We had Dinner in a small eatery, as our stomachs couldn't hold out any longer and then did some grocery shopping, which mainly consisted of beer, before heading home. Julia was really in a domesticated mood and volunteered to hand wash some laundry, whilst Hannes and I watched TV in Russian and i tried to listen and pick up on words. I'm actually becoming quite determined that i want to really improve my language skills whilst we are here, whether that will actually happen, only time will tell!
The following day we spent the morning in the apartment, just hanging out. I wrote my blog and we all ate some monster egg and tomato baguettes.
It was funny that every time we saw a policeman on the horizon, we would do our best to change our direction and avoid any contact with them! Our journey took us to Respublika Alangy, where the Monument to Independence is situated. The massive column is topped by a statue of the 'Golden Man', whose Gold armour was discovered in Kazakhstan and is believed to date back to 5th Century BC.
Julia was itching for some cultural enlightenment, so i suggested a trip to the nearby Central State Museum, which as luck would have it, had a free admission day.
We spent 15 minutes watching a promotional video on the sites of Kazakhstan and also perused displays on fossils, dinosaurs, the 'Golden Man', and general Kazakh History, religion and Independence.
Julia really excelled herself tonight, cooking up a fantastic mushroom soup that contained some noodles and vegetables, which i ate with some baguette. The main course of spaghetti with chicken, onions, tomato and sauce was equally delicious and we were all left thoroughly stuffed. In an attempt to walk it off, we went out to try and use the internet for half an hour, but the two places we went were both full, so we headed back to the apartment and just chilled out for the remainder of the evening.
Monday was scheduled as the day to sort out our registration and also to inquire about my new passport. I phoned the UK Embassy first, to clarify what documents were required and how long it would take. I was therefore gob smacked when i got told that they couldn't issue a new permanent passport in Kazakhstan, but only a 1 year, 10 page passport. Just as i was getting my head around this, thinking i could work something out, i was then hit with the sucker punch. As my passport was full and not lost or stolen, they wouldn't actually issue me with any form of passport! What the F##K! I told the woman on the phone that i would come in for an appointment the following day, as there was surely something they could do.
As we walked to the OVIR office for the registration, my head was spinning, would i have to go home, could i fly to Turkey and get the embassy there to issue me a passport, or maybe back to Estonia? I didn't want to go home and spend weeks there before getting one.
It took around 45 minutes at the OVIR office to collect all the relevant forms and documents and fill them in. If Julia wasn't with us, it would have been impossible, as everything was in Kazakh and Russian only. After filing the papers, we were told to return between 16.00-18.00.
After a short stop at St Nicholas Cathedral, we caught the bus to Gorky Park, located in the East of the City. We had come prepared with a rug and picnic, so found a cool, shaded spot of grass and settled down for the afternoon. The Park was actually a little grotty, so we tried to have a walk around, but it didn't particularly improve wherever we went. Finally we settled on a bench next to some rusting soviet theme park rides and couldn't believe that people were taking their children on the outdated death traps.
At 15.30, we caught the bus back to the OVIR office, but our papers were not ready. I took this as a bad sign, as we didn't have a hotel address, or the name of our landlady, filled in on our form. I was therefore delighted when we did get the relevant documents back at 17.00 and they were all signed and in order. Now only my passport to worry about!
Back at home Julia cooked up a really good soup for starters and sausage and chips for the main course. It was great to be eating Western food again and i found my appetite had grown somewhat since leaving South East and North East Asia. The three of us played Ludo over a couple of bottles of beer, before turning in for the night.
Tuesday was the day that could technically end my trip, with a visit to the British Embassy top of the agenda.
The receptionist remembered our phone conversation from the previous day and reiterated that nothing had changed from their point of view. I once again explained my predicament and showed my passport to her. She said she would take it to the consular and see what he had to say. 10 minutes later she came back and said that they were going through all their legal documents to see if there was anyway they could help me out.
20 minutes or so passed and i was feeling a little bit sick to tell the truth, i really wasn't ready to be heading home, all of a sudden it felt like i had only left yesterday! Finally a guy came out to talk to me and started to ask me questions such as 'Where was i going next', 'Did i travel by air or land', etc etc.
On his piece of paper that he had printed off, it did however state that any citizen with a full passport was entitled to a new one. My problem was that i had one blank page! He suggested that i should go along to the Kyrgyzstan Embassy, acquire my visa and return to submit my claim for a new passport once this was done. He still said that a proper passport wasn't really feasible as it took too long, but i could get a 1 year passport, which would at least give me 6 more months to travel, and then i could worry about what to do from there!
I left the building happy to know i still had time left to see some more of this incredible World that we live in, but still rather aggrieved that i couldn't get the issue settled properly.
Our Lousy Planet is already 4 years old, but as i can't find the new edition, we are trying our best to make do. This doesn't always work out though and this proved to be the case with our next adventure to the Kyrgyzstan Embassy. Well, actually it turned out as a trip to where it was 3 years ago! I had been lucky with the British Embassy that i had called in advance, as it had also moved, but i didn't realise that i would be trying to make the visa today, so hadn't managed to research the location.
Hannes was having all kinds of hassles with organising his trip back to Sweden, as he found out that to fly via Moscow would mean that he needed a Russian transit visa, which he wasn't too keen to obtain. It felt like we were just going through problem after problem, which was tying us to the city, when the mountains were looming on the horizon, just waiting to be climbed! Today was also the clearest day we have had so far, and this really gave some perspective as to how impressive the surrounding topography really is.
We spent the evening in the apartment once again, with Julia cooking up some excellent food.
On Wednesday we decided to try and phone the Kyrgyzstan Embassy before setting off and were relieved that we did, as the information on the internet was completely bogus. The phone number belonged to a furniture shop and the address was also wrong. 30 minutes of phoning travel agencies didn't work, as no-one had a clue where it was. Eventually Hannes came up with the idea of phoning directory inquiries and this route proved successful. They gave us a number, which Julia called and the Embassy gave us the directions of how to find them.
It took nearly an hour to reach the South of the city via bus and foot.
I had previously been told that the visa process only took 4 hours and that i should receive my passport back at the cost of $40. It therefore came as somewhat of a shock to be informed that the visa now took 8 days and cost $45. There was another option of paying $90 and having it done in 3 days, but either way we weren't staying in Almaty for another 3 days, so opted for the slower option. The plan was that we could then go on a journey to the West, return and collect my passport and then hand it in to the UK Embassy and apply for a new passport.
We were told to go and pay the fee at a bank, located 15 minutes walk away. After getting there, filling in the forms and queuing, then walking back, an hour had passed and we arrived back at the Embassy just after 12.30. For some reason the security gate was now locked, so we rang the buzzer and waited for the guard. When he arrived he told us the consul had gone on lunch, even though they were scheduled to work until 13.00. He said we must return after lunch at 16.00, even though the board said lunch was 13.00 - 15.00!
We weren't sure how to kill the time, so wandered to the British Council, where we could use their library and internet facilities. Not for the first time in recent days i was left questioning my countries policies, as we were told they no longer had either available - where does my tax money go? I think British citizens need to start asking some serious questions.
At 15.00 we headed back to the Embassy, to find a queue already forming outside. At 15.30 the doors were opened and we found ourselves arguing with the security guard, who for some reason wanted us, and only us to wait until 16.00! Once inside the Embassy, things didn't really improve. The moody receptionist started to tell us that applications were between 10.00 - 13.00, so Julia told them that we tried to do this, but they closed early.
Eventually she agreed to accept our forms, but then refused to give me a receipt. Without this, there was no proof that my passport was at the Embassy and therefore the Police could fine and arrest me for not carrying my documents! She really didn't care and told us to come back the following day, as the consul had already gone home! Wow, nice life, working 2 hour days.
We left the passport anyway, not wanting it to take any longer to get processed and caught a bus back home. We met up with Hannes, who had spent the day less stressfully and went to the train station to buy some onward tickets. I dare not go too near the station, for fear of the Police, so sat on a nearby bench and waited, whilst they went in and bought them. Thankfully we got 3 tickets to Turkistan, without any hassles.
In the evening we went to use the internet and Hannes booked his flight ticket home. After this we bought some beers and went home to watch the Champions League Final between Chelsea and Manchester United. As a Leeds fan i hate both teams, but Chelsea were the lesser of two evils, so the 3 of us cheered them on.
Mira came round at 09.20 to collect the house keys, so dreary eyed we gathered our belongings and took them to the train station baggage storage. Once we had done this, it was another trip to the Kyrgyzstan Embassy to try and get my passport receipt. Incredibly the receptionist told us to come back at 16.00 and if it wasn't Julia speaking to her, i think i would have gone crazy! 15 minutes later the lazy bitch pulled out a printed sheet, wrote my name and passport number on it and it was that easy. People like this deserve to be locked up and have the key thrown away, complete arseholes.
Now there was 7 hours until our train left and we had nowhere to go and nothing to do.