Much to the disappointment of Kazakhstan, we didn’t stay long. One night in a cheap-o Shymkent hotel and we were on our way to Kyrgyzstan. Two borders in two days isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but we steeled ourselves up for another round of pushing and shoving, corrupt officials, and stupid customs inspections. And at the Chaldybar crossing, we weren’t disappointed.
We rolled up to the border and sat in a small queue of private vehicles, some marshrutka, and some trucks. Remembering how pissed off the border guards were at the crossing the day before, I obediently hopped out and went through the pedestrian entrance when Mook drove in to the customs yard. The border guards here seemed to have a bit of an obnoxious negative attitude, but the hoards of people going through the border were pushy and angry as well. Both sides sneered at each other.
There were a series of booths, all with a big group of people scrummed up to the windows shouting and sucking air through their teeth. I joined the least pushy one and ended up at the front after about 10 minutes. The young immigration officer was in a bad mood, but surprised to see an American. He paged through my passport slowly and asked what I was doing travelling alone, if I need a visa to visit Kazakhstan, and if I’m going to Kyrgyzstan for work (I’m not, no and no). I got my stamp quickly and was shooed out the door into the empty yard between customs and the border gate.
Mook got through easily as well. The guards let drivers jump the immigration queue, so he was in and out quickly, and the customs exit procedures were smooth as well. Then there was the customs drill. Everything out of the trunk; do you have narcotics? Weapons? It was all over pretty quickly, after which he rolled the car into the yard and waited for them to open the gate to Kyrgyzstan.
I had been watching from the yard, because I didn’t really want to go through in case something happened, but one of the Kazakh border guards told me to wait on the other side of the border gate. So I went through the pedestrian entrance, and emerged into chaos on the other side.
What was on the Kazakh side an empty, quiet yard with border guards patrolling, was on the Kyrgyzside a manic, dirty shipping yard. There was crap everywhere. Rickshaws and trollies full of product—maybe clothes or shoes or rugs or food or something—were strewn haphazardly around the yard, some piled over two-metres high. There were flocks of people, sitting on the ground or atop the boxes and bundles, smoking, eating, chatting and talking on their phones. There were piles of rubbish leaking into puddles. And in the very centre of the chaos sat a huge eighteen wheeler, waiting to go into Kazakhstan. If there was a cow, some chickens and a few dogs wandering around, it would have been perfect.
Finally the large gate opened and the semi truck creeped through. Some people from the Kyrgyz side tried to cross as well, but the border guards shouted furiously and pushed them back in. When the large truck had passed Mook was allowed to come through. The look on his face after his first glimpse of gentle Kyrgyzstan was priceless.
The customs area was empty, so he edged slowly through the crowd and into a bay. Since Turkmenistan, all the customs inspection bays we’ve passed through have had the recessed floors to check beneath the car, but in Kyrgyzstan it was just a normal driveway. We’ve returned to the part of the world where people just Don’t Give A Fuck.
I continued on the pedestrian route into immigration. A smiley woman took my passport. “What are you here for? Tourism?” I nodded. “Where are you going? Bishkek?” I nodded. She stamped my passport and told me to have a good time.
On the other side of the fence, Mook seemed to be getting chummy with the customs officials, laughing and shaking hands. He disappeared into the customs office for what seemed like ages, but in the end the paperwork was smooth and no one asked for any money. While waiting, I watched the border guards practice their judo throws and bully the traders, who rolled their enormously heavy-looking carts full of bundled stuff back and forth.
The bullshit customs inspection was quick and easy, but when Mook rolled up to the final gate, the border guard sneered at his passport and customs documents. He radioed over to the customs dudes (or pretended to), and didn’t get any response. The guard held Mook’s passport in one hand, using it to shield the other. Then he made the universal sign for GIVE ME MONEY.
“For what?” Mook motioned, “To open the gate? Come on, I have no money.” But the guy was persistent, demanding dollars, euro, tenge, som, anything. The exchange went on for about two or three minutes, but finally someone on the other side of the gate started yelling that they wanted to get through. The guard gave up, and Mook rolled through victorious.
This was our last border crossing with our lovely car, and while we won’t miss all the customs bullshit, we will definitely miss cruising around in our own awesome vehicle.