Escape from Kazakhstan. Sounds like an old Cold War radio serial, doesn't it? "Two Roads to Samarra" with Major G.G.A. Keen of MI5. Except that this is a story from modern day, post-Soviet (though still bureaucratic), free market entrepreneurship.
Kazakhstan is the largest (bigger than all of western Europe) and richest of all the ‘Stans. Caspian Sea oil and gas is behind most of it. They have built a brand new, futuristic capital city, Astana, to replace former capital Almaty, a charming European–style town itself, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and perpetual views of the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains to the south. The Kazakh professional cycling team, Astana, won the 2014 Tour de France, led by Italian Vincenzo Nibali. Forget Borat, Kazakhstan is on the up.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union free markets have flourished. Our Bondi to the Baltic crew experienced some of the effects. Read on.
The plan was to set out from Almaty on Monday 25 May on the 2015 leg of our drive from Bondi to the Baltic. We had arrived a couple of weeks earlier to start clearing the paperwork to drive the cars out of Kazakhstan. We were then planning to take the Toyota for a tour in Kyrgyzstan. Liz Amann’s blog post here (“WAGs on tour in Kyrgyzstan”) tells what happened to that plan.
Back in Almaty the Kazakh authorities weren’t satisfied with our papers. They wanted originals, registration papers, and a TAX FILE number. Our contact man was working on it. Then we were taken to their tax office to PAY a FINE. After a 4 hour wait it was too late, we again didn’t have the right papers, and there was no procedure for payment! Come back tomorrow.
The next day, Gerry’s birthday, after another long wait, we learned it wasn’t possible to pay a fine, instead we would have to pay registration fees, about $20,000 for each car! Their concern is that cheap cars are smuggled in from Kyrgyzstan. Cheap cars!! Horace, my beautiful 1920 Dodge! Bill’s Whippet maybe, but not Horace.
Plan B, it was suggested to us, was to get someone (familiar with the Kyrgyzstan car trade?), to take us to the border and help us across. Plan C was to drive to the border, show our documents and see what happened.
At 4pm we heard that things were in place for us to get across the border at midnight. Plan B. Naturally there was a “considerable cost” for the organisation. Considering that our top speed is 60 km/hr and the border is over 200km away, we bade a quick but emotional farewell to Sansibay who had looked after the cars like a steel wall keeping people out for the last 8 months, and set out through peak hour traffic.
The sun was going down on the beautiful snow capped hills so it was a lovely evening. The Dodge went perfectly, the Whippet not so. Bill took off fuel control so it used all its petrol in 50km instead of 150. Neither was it pulling well, with the timing out. 2014 revisited.
With our very weak headlights we have always avoided driving at night. Even tunnels cause anxiety. We eventually cleared the city, and city lights, and hit cruising speed, 60 kph, among countless buses passing at 100. We had the side curtains on in the wind, further reducing vision but all went well, except for the Whippet running out of fuel and having to call on us every 50km.
We managed to reach the border at midnight and our man went off, with the money, and we waited. “You can cross the border at 4am”. So back to cars in a side park for some rest, as best we could in the cold wind. Tea in the café, with Russian porn films, provided some sustenance. The tea that is.
At 4am things started moving. More stamps, more photos, and copies of documents. You never quite have enough. Our contact did his job, along with the off-duty policeman who rode with us from Almaty, smoothing the way with traffic police who only stopped us once. I doubt they will forget the experience of travelling in the slow moving vintage cars, pushed by buses and in the dark.
We got through the border using 2014 registration papers without a drama. I’ll put the 2015 ones on when I get a chance. Correctness is not a problem, just complete the process. Got to our Bishkek hotel at 6am in time for breakfast. Good hotel, big rooms, parking, clean, and wifi.