Day 119: Bureaucracy

Almaty Travel Blog

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Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Tim & Wim (Belgium), Aselya (Kazakhstan), Gijs & Saskia (Netherlands), Darragh (Ireland)

As I hadn't been able to secure a train ticket for today, I had to stay another day in Almaty. Didn't really mind though, as I am quite enjoying this place. So were Tim and Wim and they had decided to stay another day as well, so we extended the rent of our apartment with another day.

First thing in the morning I went to the Indian embassy to apply for my visa. Every person applying for a visa gets a personal interview with the consul, though in my case this was more a formality than that there was any chance I wouldn't be granted my visa.

We mostly talked about my trip. “Why did you come all the way over to Kazakhstan to apply for an Indian visa?” he asked. When I explained about the new visa applications laws India has enforced (you can't apply for a visa more than 3 months in advance) he was very sympathetic. He doesn't understand the reasoning behind this strict enforcement either and fears that it will harm tourism to India, which is a major source of income for the country.
Well, in my case it meant some profit loss for the country anyway, since an Indian tourist visa costs much less here in Kazakhstan than it does in The Netherlands.

Tim, Wim and Aselya met me at the Indian embassy afterwards. There was another thing we had to do: registration. Every person staying in Kazakhstan for more than five days needs to register with the Immigration Police (OVIR). Despite being the most modern, most advanced and richest of the Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan has not yet been able to shake off this stupid remnant from the Soviet era, something which the other countries in the region have managed to do much better (Turkmenistan: no registration required for transit visas, for tourist visa holders it is mandatory to have a guide, who will handle the registration process. Uzbekistan: hotels will do the daily registration. Tajikistan: no registration needed for stays up to 30 days. Kyrgyzstan: no registration required for people on a tourist visa).

Aselya came with us to translate and possibly help us in case they needed someone to stand surety for us. The latter didn't make much sense to me, since most tourists come to Kazakhstan without meeting locals crazy enough to help them through the registration. We soon learned that most people do the registration via a hotel, which happily charges between $30 and $50 for the luxury. By doing it ourselves we only had to pay $5 - hey, we're still travelling on a budget, you know!

It did cost us the best part of the day though. First we had to queue at a window in order to get the registration papers. Then we had to make photo copies of our passport, visa AND the registration form which we had just filled in. There was a copy shop conveniently located opposite the OVIR, where we had to queue once again. Once everything was filled out and copied we had to queue again at the same window in order to hand in the paperwork.

Then we had to pay, for which we had to queue at a different window again. Actually, it was a bank inside the OVIR building where we had to pay the $5 per person. For that kind of money you can't really have a cash register, right? We were 22nd in line...
Aselya was clever enough to ask if we couldn't pay at a different branch of the same bank. This turned out to be possible and there was another branch two blocks away, so Aselya and I jumped into a cab, while Tim and Wim stayed in the queue at the OVIR branch, just in case. At the bank Aselya had to show her identification and quote her tax number in order to pay for the registration fee for Tim, Wim and myself. Tax number? So what would have happened if Aselya had not been here with us? “Oh, simple,” the lady at the bank explained. “We just use the tax number from the last transaction in the system.” Wow... isn't the whole idea of tax numbers to prevent things like, erm, well, tax fraud?

Anyway, we got back at OVIR just before they would close for lunch. We handed in our passports, paper works, photo copies and proof of payment from the bank. Everything in order? “Yup, come back tomorrow afternoon to pick up your passports.”
Wow, wait, we can't wait until tomorrow. We have a train to catch. Besides, it is mandatory in this country to carry your passport at all times! For the latter the lady had a wonderful solution of handing us the copy of our registration form, which, apparently, is enough for the scrupulous police. For the former she was kind enough to process our registrations as priority and we could come back at 17:00 the same day.

Well, that was only three hours later - we'd spent all morning at OVIR. So we had a quick lunch with Aselya, after which she had to go back to work (yes, apparently people do work here from time to time) while Tim, Wim and I spent the rest of the day doing some some necessary shopping (had to buy a new polarization filter for my camera, as the one I had bought in Holland had not survived the first half of my trip) and hanging around at Coffeedelia. We'd been in Almaty for four days now and not seen anything of the city yet. We'd seen some of the surrounding area, but inside the city we hadn't done any sightseeing. Ah well, I'll be back here next weekend anyway, so I will leave the sightseeing for then.

At the end of the afternoon we went back to the OVIR office where we could queue again to get our passports back. Fortunately this went a lot faster than any of the queueing this morning. In the queue we met some more poor souls who were in the same boat. A Dutch couple, Gijs and Saskia, an Irishman, Darragh and two Canadian blokes whose name I've forgotten.
Once everybody had their passports back we went for a couple of beers to celebrate having survived the ordeal.

We agreed to meet up again for some more drinks in the evening. We met up at Tinkoff, a three-story restaurant/bar with its own brewery attached. We made sure to test all six beers they have on draught (well, five, we skipped the non-alcoholic variety). Somehow we had lost the two Canadians, but we were joined by Aselya instead, who had wanted to see Tim and Wim one more time before they would leave tomorrow.

Having Aselya and Darragh meet each other also resulted in an interesting conversation. Aselya is an ethnic Kazakh, yet she doesn't speak Kazakh. When she was young Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union and her parents had not bothered to teach her the Kazakh language. Obviously she didn't learn any in school, until she was in her teens and Kazakhstan became independent (and Kazakh became the official language all of a sudden). President Nazarbaev (another native Russian speaker, by the way) is trying to ban the use of Russian completely, in an attempt to preserve the Kazakh culture. A noble cause, though far more people speak Russian than Kazakh. It is estimated less than 50% of the population speaks Kazakh (almost half of the population being ethnic Russians, Uzbeks or Kyrgyz), while more than 90% speaks Russian as either first or second language. Darragh is from Ireland where a similar thing has happened. Everybody in Ireland speaks English, yet the Irish language is becoming rarer and rarer these days. A tragic loss, no doubt, but can it be prevented by forcing everybody to speak the ethnic language? An interesting question to which there is no easy answer.

This was really the final night Tim, Wim and I were together. Our ways would split tomorrow and there is no way we will see each other again elsewhere en route, as they head north towards Russia and I go south to India. We will see each other in Holland/Belgium again though, I'm sure of it.

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photo by: Alfiya