Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Central Asia – a postscript

July 23rd, 2010

It’d been a brief foray into Central Asia, a region, for much of its history, closed to foreigners. Azerbaijan, endemic corruption, nepotism. Across the Caspian, relatively prosperous, stable Kazakhstan, the nation others aspired to be. Probably. Kyrgyzstan. A country still trying to find its feet. Enthralled by barren steppe, imposing mountain ranges. Intrigued by politics, the recent ousting of a President, forced to flee into exile. Fascinated as to how vast oil and gas revenues had influenced things. Humbled, always, by a warm and generous people.

I’d learnt a little along the way of nearby Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Time, and to some extent restrictive visa requirements, had precluded a visit, for now at least. Quite distinct from the other Central Asian countries I’d passed through. I’d met a few Uzbeks, garnered quite a bit about their homeland, shaped as much by the Silk Roads as arbitrary Soviet era borders. But no Turkmen.

In fact, my only insight into Turkmenistan came from their TV channels I’d picked up in Kazakhstan. North Korea meets Michael Jackson’s Neverland. Lots of young children entertaining their Leader. Something of a Presidential personality cult in evidence. Seems a journalist had actually made a documentary along these lines, but it was difficult to confirm this. She’d died in prison. And no ATMs. It’d have to be worth a visit. Assuming their Secret Police don’t get to me first.

[Author’s note: Some debate as to whether Azerbaijan is in Central Asia, geographically at least. But culturally, linguistically, and ethnically, I thought so. Besides, it ends in Stan. Sort of…]

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Fruitful but footsore

July 11th, 2010

Her name was Yan – pronounced Yen she explained. And there was good news. Chances are she’d be able to secure me a fresh Chinese visa for ninety days, sufficient to reach Hong Kong without having to seek a further extension on the way. I’d quite enjoyed visiting the Kazakhstan Consulate, queuing mostly amongst couriers, observing the camaraderie, listening to the banter, the stories. Just the odd individual applicant. Adding to the richness of this venture. But I’d already visited two Chinese Consulates and really didn’t find the thought of a third that appealing. So I’d decided to use an agent.

Earlier in the day I’d retrieved my passport, complete with a fresh visa, from the Kazakhstan Consulate. A brief coffee to revive myself, still struggling with the time difference, and I’d headed off to an appointment at a non-descript Government office across the city. I’d a plan to sort out some travel papers whilst I’d some time on my hands, but success would depend largely on my ability to plead my case. Hadn’t exactly worked at the Chinese Consulate.

I’d found the building without too much difficulty, picking my way towards the entrance through people milling around outside, presumably waiting for their turn to enter. Inside, a lengthy queue, bag search, another line to join, a ticket, more waiting, then eventually my turn to make my request.

It started badly and seemed to get worse. None of my paperwork was in order, the letter of support I had wasn’t acceptable, passport photographs the wrong background. But I was quite convinced my case had genuine merit, so I stuck at it. Then a glimmer of hope. The official would at least discuss the matter with her supervisor, see if anything could be done. A lengthy wait, which I took to be a good thing. The woman – her name was Krishna – returned. Yes, there were exceptional circumstances, yours was a charitable venture. Others would have to consider your request further, no guarantees, but there was a good chance it would be accepted.

I left the office feeling content, a sense of progress being made, even if it had been a little tortuous, the outcome not entirely certain. And even if my request was eventually denied, I’d at least gleaned enough to know how to couch a further go in more favourable terms. I’d then headed off to visit a Chinese visa agent.

So, with my passport entrusted to Yan at the agency for a few days, I was off to meet an old friend with extensive experience of living under oppressive regimes, revolution, frequently travelling to countries devastated by conflict. Wanted to know what she made of this place.

[Author’s note: Using an agent to obtain visas incurs a fee, but saves time and hassle, especially if you have quite a few to obtain. But if you can afford the time, or your funds preclude you doing otherwise, going along to the various Consulates in person is quite a fascinating experience. Sometimes a little frustrating, but an enriching one nevertheless]

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One down…

July 10th, 2010

One down… from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

With his Kazakhstan visa now in the bag, Ken outlines his next move.

[Author’s note: This clip will shortly be featuring in a short film about Plan B, the securing of fresh visas… shot on location around the nation’s Capital]

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Waiting patiently

July 9th, 2010

Consulate front

Sparked quite a debate. Last week they’d been a punch up at the Algerian Consulate. And sometimes they’d be trouble at the Iranian one, especially as Jordan would no longer allow the Kurds to enter Iraq across its territory. I’d been waiting patiently in line to apply for a fresh Kazakhstan entry permit, mostly with couriers or handlers from the various visa agents around the city. I’d simply asked which was their favourite Consulate. And their most disliked. China and India the most efficient. Nigeria and Angola the most random, unpredicatable. And Iran just required a lot of perseverance. But squabbles always brightened up the day.

But the Consulate I liked the sound of the most was for a small West African country. No large town house, just a small unit on an industrial estate north of the Capital. But a very personal service. The Ambassador was an Englishman, former head of the nation’s Civil Service. Pop in and he’d make you a cup of tea, and if there were any problems with your application, he’d give the President a call. Straight away.

It had been a fairly lengthy wait to submit my documents for a new Kazakh visa, but good humoured. I’d joked they might stop for a tea break as I approached the counter. Actually it was a short meeting, but they’d at least had the decency to explain this. Brief check of my papers, payment, and a ticket to return in three days. Then back outside, the temperature already creeping up towards the high twenties. I needed a coffee. Hoped there might be a cheap cafe nearby.

[With especially thanks to Steve for sharing the West African story]

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Into the city

July 8th, 2010

“You have to move inside” he said. Italian. Possibly. “Why?” I asked, abruptly. “Because the sign on the wall says you must” he replied. I laughed loudly. I’d been sat quietly, catching up on a few e-mails, in the courtyard of a hostel I’d found in the capital. By now dark, just the glow of my netbook screen to reveal my presence. Didn’t think that was disturbing anything. No more than the opera in a large marquee nearby. Wearily, and slowly, I gathered my belongings together and wandered off.

Hostel front

Despite the unwarranted interruption, the hostel was pleasant enough. Reminded me of the small workers hotels in Kazakhstan normally run by ethnic Russian women. Basic but always clean. No cockroaches. But where they differed is cost. Mine wasn’t cheap, just the least expensive option I could find. And simple things you’d often find included, towels or even wireless internet, would increase the cost by almost half. Not the most expensive city I’d visited, certainly not Baku in Azerbaijan with its eye watering prices, but still tough on the budget.

Hostel grounds

I’d travelled into the city a few hours earlier, a little jaded by the journey from Almaty, but not sufficiently tired to sleep. The train almost empty, the streets, the metro system quieter than I’d expected. Flags draped from windows, mostly as we’d passed through the suburbs. Nationalistic celebration? Perhaps. But a subdued atmosphere, as if in defeat.

A third country where I hoped to be able to secure fresh visas sufficient to cross uninterrupted across China, and return to Kazakhstan. And a few other things besides. With little realistic prospect of securing a workable Chinese visa before my Kazakhstan one expired, I’d had to travel further afield. Nevertheless, elements of the Stans I thought. Plentiful parks and green spaces reminded me of Bishkek a few weeks earlier. And the man’s insistence last night on rigid adherence to rules, without proper explanation? Shades of the old Soviet Union?

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Outbound

July 6th, 2010

Almaty international airport. Kazakhstan. Early. Passport. Immigration card. Copy of the border rules and regulations. In English. After my albeit short-lived detention by Kazakhstan border guards a few weeks earlier, I reckoned I was ready for all eventualities. Knew my papers were all in order. My imminent departure on a flight to a third country to secure a fresh Chinese visa wasn’t going to force the payment of any suspicious fines.

The Customs Declaration form – I eventually found one in English – seemed contradictory, and I thought unnecessary for the Green Channel. Not carrying anything I shouldn’t be. Left the pepper spray, knives, petrol and local anesthetic behind. And the form? Sterling effort at translation, or a potential trap for the unwary? You do wonder sometimes.

I’d done the usual things – expensive electronics in my hand luggage, spent a little money getting it wrapped in resilient plastic film until I’d boarded. Protects the external fittings on the front pannier I was using as luggage, and deters officials from wanting to inspect the contents. Nothing to hide, just couldn’t be bothered with the hassle. And dispersed the contents of my wallet about my person. Never like to reveal exactly how much cash I might be carrying to noisy officials.

Customs. Green Channel. Just ahead of a large group. Deliberately. Smiled. Said good morning in Kazakh. Through. Skirted around the X-ray machines. Nobody seemed bothered, and they’d be a few more before I boarded the aircraft. Check-in. Helpful assistant from the airline I’d chosen. One I’d heard of before, unlike SCAT, the small Kazakh operation I’d used to enter from Azerbaijan.

Passport Control. I’d last entered through a land crossing from Kyrgyzstan, had to insist on an extra stamp on my immigration card to show my passport was properly registered with the authorities. Would that be accepted or had I to remind them that all the formalities had been completed when I obtained my visa back in Georgia? But no, a quick check, another stamp, in the passport this time, and off to the departure lounge. Outbound.

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Tour du Monde

July 5th, 2010

They were a rarity in Central Asia in two senses. Long distance cyclists. And French. We’d met whilst queuing for visas at the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan. And their situation made my present tussles attempting to enter China appear to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

Their Kazakhstan visas would expire in two days, and, contrary to the advice they’d been given, could not, as they’d now discovered, be extended. And they’d no visa for any of the neighbouring countries. All their hopes lay on securing entry to China, and in just a couple of days.

To be fair, seemed they’d been mis-advised by the Consulate when they’d been given their Kazakhstan visa. I’d not been surprised by this, as I’d found contradictory information about Kazakh immigration and visa rules on official websites. An understandable mistake.

Like most languages, other than English and a smattering of Welsh, my French was never great and hasn’t improved. But found I could make some sense of their website – www.freresquiroulent.fr – appeared they too were on an around-the-world trip, albeit skipping Australia and Africa. Assuming they don’t get detained or deported in Kazakhstan first.

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Plan B

July 4th, 2010

Plan B from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken explains the need for Plan B, a bold, decisive scheme to secure a fresh Chinese visa.

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Not yes

July 3rd, 2010

The lady in front smiled at me. A young man had approached the Policeman keeping order at the front of the queue, asking, in English, where foreigners waited to enter Almaty’s Chinese Consulate. I’d intervened, explaining you queued with everyone else. Just as I was doing. He wandered off, looking frustrated.

After a lengthy wait I was eventually allowed into the Embassy compound, to be greeted by a rather helpful man. Took me a few moments to ascertain he wasn’t a Chinese official but an agency tout, of no use to me. More waiting, then eventually allowed to approach a glass screen.

“Do you possibly speak English?” I asked. “No” said the official, without expression. I explained my circumstances, my just expired sixty day visa, showed him my application form, the supporting paperwork. Seemed I’d also need a letter of introduction, then perhaps thirty days might be possible. I’d explained I’d not needed this for my previous visa, a return flight confirmation being sufficient. But he wasn’t budging. It wasn’t a simple no, rather a not yes – a polite no.

I’d wandered back out into the compound, found the tout I’d spoken to earlier and enquired about a letter of introduction. Around a hundred US dollars, would take a week or so. Bit of mental arithmetic – week for a letter, allow a week for visa processing – with no assurance of success, and I’d get perilously close to the expiry of my current Kazakhstan visa. Which would mean, in practice, a last minute flight out to obtain a fresh one. More expense.

So what to do? I’d get nowhere today at the Consulate, so decided to contemplate my next move over a cup of tea. Objectively. Seemed I could spend a good deal of money, time and effort attempting to secure a fresh visa in Almaty, but with no guarantee of success. Far from it. And even if I did manage to obtain a thirty day visa, I’d struggle to work with that for crossing China in its entirety. Time for Plan B.

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Solo in the saddle

July 2nd, 2010

I’d returned at dusk to the house in the suburbs where I was staying. Busy day, mostly writing for the blog, the events of the past week, or scribbling notes as I sought to cajole my thoughts into a form I could properly grasp. If the Chinese Consulate in Almaty said no that was simple enough, go elsewhere. But if they said yes, but just thirty days entry, something of a dilemma. Accept, or go elsewhere in search of more. Costly. And no guarantee of success. I’d chatted to my parents earlier which had helped a lot, but it still remained my call.

I must still have been pre-occupied with my own thoughts, for I missed Olima’s parents, Ilkom and Shaiza, sat quietly on a covered wooden platform in the garden. They called me over. Welcome glass of red wine to enjoy as the light began to fail, rumblings of thunder in the background getting ever louder until the steady patter of rain could be heard on the roof above us.

We sat on long, thin cushions around a low table. They both spoke a little English, admittedly more than either my Kazakh or Russian, but far short of what you might imagine would be needed for a conversation. And yet we’d been able to communicate, and quite successfully. Ethnicity, language migration across Central Asia, troubles in Kyrgyzstan, topics no phrase book I’d ever seen prepared you for. Found myself explaining about the Norman Conquest, Angles and Saxons. Even the relationship between UK, Great Britain, England, Scotland and Wales. Learning about Farsi being spoken in Uzbekistan.

The failing light, refreshing rain, the relative tranquility of the garden, had put me in a contemplative mood. I’d often be asked if I was travelling alone, more so as I’d headed east, and I usually said yes. Truth was I might be solo in the saddle, but I was far from independent. On the contrary, I was entirely dependent on others. Family and friends, people I sometimes met only fleetingly, Olima and her family for their generous hospitality in Almaty, so many others. Without whose support I’ve have scarcely left the UK, never mind reached the eastern edge of Kazakhstan.

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