There are three borders around Tashkent, two that are close to the city, and one that is far away. Predictably, the two that are close are pedestrian only, forcing us to drive about 70 kilometres back west in order to cross the border into Kazakhstan and again head east.
Also predictably, because the B. Konysbayeva-Yalama border is the only crossing open to vehicles, it’s crowded as shit. We arrived through two checkpoints and parked the car near the customs bays. There was an enormous crowd of people standing outside of the immigration building, and only small groups were let in at a time. Everyone must fill out a customs exit form, declaring how much money you’re taking out of the country and where you’re going. We’d read online that these forms are only available in cyrillic, and that some women run small rackets offering to fill out the forms for foreigners for $1 or $2. Sure enough, the forms were in cyrillic, but we tried our best to fill them out ourselves. A young Kazakh carpet trader ahead of us noticed our struggling and squeezed the three of us into the building ahead of the crowd to ask the customs dudes what to do. She was young and had an awesomely sassy attitude, and the border dudes seemed to tolerate her, so we were in.
The room wasn’t very large, but there was a metal detector and X-ray along with two short desks behind which two customs officers sat, yelling at the crowd. “Shut up!” “Stand in a straight line!” “Put your bags through the machine!” “You idiot, go fill out a new form!” In Central Asia, the border guards really seem to enjoy yelling at the local people, though they always seem to treat us Western foreigners politely, and it’s always embarrassing to watch the abuse.
The Uzbeki customs officers looked like they really meant business, and were going so far as to check USB sticks and CDs. For what, we had no idea, but I began to imagine a horror story of being detained by Uzbeki police because I had a cracked version of Photoshop on my USB stick (turns out I didn’t). On the wall were posters written in Russian, warning that people who offered bribe money could be put in jail.
The wait was tedious but after a while we were through, and Mook quickly and smoothly completed the typical bullshit customs inspection (“What is this?” “It’s a Kinder Egg toy…”). There was no money paid to anyone, and we weren’t asked for any bribes.
We hopped in the car and drove up to the gate between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. On the other side the road was split with large concrete dividers. On the right side was a huge queue of transport trucks waiting to go through. The left side was empty. The border guard motioned us to drive on the left into Kazakhstan, so we did.
Passing the long row of trucks, we reached another gate and a booth. Inside were two Kazakh guards, dressed in winter jackets and with military ushanka hats. They greeted us in friendly English, took a look at our passports, and asked why were driving on the wrong side of the road. Mook pointed at the row of driverless trucks and explained that the Uzbeki guards had told him to drive this way.
The older guard handed my passport back and told me to go to the car. The younger one came out of the booth, slung his semi-automatic over his shoulder and laughed. “He wants to talk man-to-man.”
I sat back in the car and watched the exchange. It was obvious that the border guard was explaining, “You have to go to the back of the line and wait. Unless you want to pay to go to the front….”. I couldn’t remember if I’d read online that private cars get to jump ahead of the queue or not, but if we had to go to the back we’d be waiting for a good couple of hours. Either way, Mook kept refusing. He opened up his wallet and showed the guard his 600 Uzbeki som saying, “I have no money to give you, see?”
After a while, the guard told Mook to go sit in the car and pointed at the queue. The younger border guard with the AK just stood in front of the gate, smiling maliciously. We didn’t really know what to do so we just sat there in the car staring at them for a few seconds, but finally they motioned for us to drive onto the right side of the road and sit in the queue next to the first truck. After a few minutes the gate lifted and we were in.
The immigration hall was almost empty and everything went smoothly. They seemed incredibly used to handling foreign overlanders, probably because of the Mongol Rally. Everyone kept asking, “Oh! You’re driving to Mongolia, right?!” Not this time..
Customs was smooth as well; another form and another bullshit inspection. The only thing that was really different about the Kazakhstan border was that the guards absolutely insisted that driver and passenger go through separately. Unlike every other crossing, where I could sit and watch them dig through our belongings for narcotics or machine guns, the Kazakh guards got super angry when I tried to approach the car. Go figure.
We both left the border area through our separate gates, and emerged out into a dusty, chaotic mess of money changers, marshrutka drivers, insurance salesmen, TIR trucks, dogs, and cows. We had finally entered the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and it was exactly how we had expected it.