Home > kazakhstan > “This a border zone and given that you don’t have any papers, you are in violation of code [such and such]. You are now placed under detention.”

“This a border zone and given that you don’t have any papers, you are in violation of code [such and such]. You are now placed under detention.”


I met James just a few days before. We chatted on an organized tour to the Charyn Canyon. He’s in Kazakhstan on a Fulbright, investigating the construction of the national identity on foreign relations. It’s an interesting subject. There is a lot of national identity construction going on everywhere in the post-Soviet block, in countries that have never been countries — in nations that never really really thought of themselves in that way.

A few days later we met for coffee and hung out the rest of the day, agreeing to meet on Wednesday for a hike in the mountains south of Almaty up to the Big Almatynskoe Ozero, visit the Tien Shan Observatory, the Kosmostantsija (11,500 ft altitude), and descend into the Alma-Arasan valley. We knew it was a long haul with over 3000 ft of ascent (then descent) and a total distance approaching 20 miles, and so we packed our bags and set out early.


Bolshoe Almatynskoe Ozero

From the nearest bus station, we hitched a ride with a passing car. We offered 200 Tenge (1.33$) and while he accepted, the driver called us “as cheap as the cats from Shimkent.” He worked as a guard in a villa belonging to a “serious buzinessman” though we later found out it was the general director of Government Hospital #13.

From there, only a serious 4×4 could pass anyways (we saw a few with military personnel pass us on the way.) We took the short cut, a deathly steep hike up the main water line into Almaty, figuring it will take us to the reservoir (Big Almaty Lake = Bolshoe Almatynskoe Ozero). Chug, chug, one leg in front of (and above) the other and eventually we stumbled on a man squatting on a rock near a wooden cabin, in a tracksuit, a permanent wince imprinted into his face. He was smoking.

“Hello, we’ve come to visit the lake. Do you live here? What is your official position?”

He was the guard for the lake, which is actually a reservoir. “From here half of Almaty gets its drink.” I feel stupid that I neglected to inquire about the other half. As a member of one of the organs of the government strategic object protection police, he stayed here in one week two person shifts.

“Can we swim?”

“One half of Almaty drinks from here … NO!”

“Can we wash our feet?”

“One half of …

“Ok, ok, can we walk around the lake”

“One half of Almaty …

“What can we do then?”

“You can look at the lake.”

From that vantage, we actually couldn’t yet see the lake. And so we thanked him and climbed up 50 more feet, and here is what we saw. Where it wasn’t clear, it was pristine blue:

Watchtower in middle of Big Almaty Lake

Tien Shan Observatory

Another steep ascent led us to the Tien Shan Observatory which used to be a fully functioning Soviet Era observatory called the GOSh (Government Observatory of Shteynberg) but when the Union fell apart, the money wasn’t coming, it lay dilapidated, until well, now… It is still dilapidated and in a perpetual state of repair, among heaps of broken beer and vodka bottles.

A few experiments are starting to run there. A radio telescope was tracking the sun collecting data on solar flares. Volodya the engineer told us that the following object is used to determine the polarization of a communication signal with a satellites. When I told him it looks like a cannon for fighting alien space craft, he joked that “it has this purpose too, but only on Fridays, when the suckers regularly show up.”

Tien Shan Observatory

Sasha and Valentin

The engineer pointed to a wooden shack and said, “those guys can answer your questions.” As we walked towards it, an older gentleman with a balding head of grey hair and a full beard was hurrying past in the opposite directions.

“Can we ask you some questions?”

Sasha said, “of course you can ask questions, I just have to run out for an hour.”


“To get some Vodka.”

Another gentleman appeared on the porch on the house. “Sasha, don’t be too long! One hour maximum, khorosho?”

“You can ask him questions. That’s Valentin.”

And Valentin from the porch, “Who is there?”

When he invited us in, he first apologized for not having some vodka and then asked if we per chance did. Nope, we’re climbing mountains today, though it probably didn’t seem like a reasonable explanation to him.

What he actually said was, “Do you have goruche’e (fuel)?” and as he was already cooking on a functional stove, I realized what he meant and was immediately proud of myself.

He used to work in the Kosmostantsija way back and now just started working week long shifts at the observatory. “Some science is starting up,” he said. He was making plov for himself and Sasha, offered us tea, whipped out his guitar and started singing some Beatles songs to which he made up lyrics in Russian. He asked me if I knew the actual lyrics so he could compare how accurate his intuited work was, and I whipped out the iPhone and as the GPRS packets began to arrive over B-Line, I translated him several songs. I also played his favorite songs on my phone. “Ah, this is my youth,” he almost cried and again apologized for not having any vodka. “Oh how clear it is that my best is behind me.”

It also turned out that he was an amateur mathematician and wrote up an manuscript on Prime Numbers. He told me that he heard of some repository where you can put your articles for public comment. I wrote down the web address for arXiv.org and also gave him my email address. We really needed to move on, (also before the vodka arrived) as the day was bound to be long and it is already autumn and sunlight is limited. He bid us farewell, and pointed a path out of the back of the observatory which led towards the Kosmostantsiya a few hours later, and so we set out.

Border Guards

We did not walk very far past the boundary of the observatory, when across the field we heard a loud whistle, then a man in camo waving us over. It was the border guard station.

The Senior Lieutenant in charge of the station introduced himself and asked for our documents. The only document I had was my California Driver’s License, since my passport is currently taking a detour to the states to the Russian Embassy for a visa. James had a copy of his passport.

“This a border zone (just a few kilometers from Kyrgyzstan) and given that you don’t have any papers, you are in violation of code [such and such]. You are now placed under detention for six hours. You will be transported back to Almaty where you will be written up, cited and fined.”

“What’s with all this stuff? We’re going for a hike. If there is somewhere we cannot go, Senior Sgt. why don’t you just tell us?”

“Unfortunately you are already in the zone, and I can do no such thing? If you go by and another unit stops you, this will be on my head.”

“I have an idea, I can tell you where we want to go — the Kosmostantsiya and the valley beyond — why don’t you just send someone to accompany us there to make sure we clear the guarded area?”

“No, we’re going to have to wait for the chief commander to come and review your case.”

“When is he coming?”

“Dunno, any time really. Maybe six hours.”

“Six hours doesn’t work for us, it’ll be too dark to continue our trip. We have a plan of where to be and friends waiting for us back home.”

“Your trip ends here.”

“I dunno.”

“I know.”

“How about this? You are saying we don’t have documents, right? Well, why don’t we make a document? If you can’t write it, I will, then you will put some kind of border stamp on it, and then the other unit won’t give us any trouble.”

“I don’t have a stamp.”

“Then we have to get creative…. Aha, you have a thumb and it has a print. I can prick it and you can seal it with your blood. The border guards should have technology to tell this apart from a fraud,” I think I got away with this because I kept a straight face, looked him in the eyes, talked kindly and calmly.

He stayed on course, “We are on elevated alert today. If it was yesterday, you could probably just walk by here without problem. Today, after lunch, I am going to go and detain every person I see.”

“You guys have lunch? What are you having for lunch?”

“Are you hungry?”

“It depends, what do you have?”

“Milk, rice, noodles, border guard style.”

“Sounds good.”

“You’re just unlucky. Narsultan Nazerbayev is coming here for a retreat in his mountain home, and so we are on elevated alert.”

“You know, Narsultan and me, don’t really have anything against each other. And he didn’t tell me he was coming. So as far as I know, and as this book [Lonely Planet] tells me, I don’t need any kind of special permission to hike here, so can you give us some food and then let us go?”

“You are not Russian.”

“I am not Russian. I am a Russian Jew, but I was raised in America.”

“No, you are not like Russians.”

“Ok, what do you mean?”

“A Russian would just shove some money at me and tell me not to powder his brain.” This is a literal translation from a Russian expression. “Europeans and Americans are not like that. They want a kvitantzija (receipt) or citation. You have to write them up. It has to be official. I don’t like that and there could be problems later.”

“Yeah, like for example they could complain to their embassies and there will be problems later.”


“Yeah, we understand each other?”

“Let’s have some lunch first. I’ll think about it.”

And then he ushered us inside their top secret cabin where we weren’t allowed to look at the top secret map or take pictures (I did) and sat us around the lunch table.

“You… get these guys some milky noodles. And you, Cheese, Bread, here.” Then turning to us, “you guys want tea, or you probably want coffee?”

“Tea is nice.”

“Hey you, you hear? Tea over here.”

And then we settled to our meal and it stopped being the border guards and us but just a normal Central Asian table banter. “I bet border guards make lots of money in the states? How much?” “I don’t know.” “How much? … How much does a new car cost, like a 2007 Toyota Highlander? How about a loaf of bread? At least a dollar?” He told me about his friend Norton who lives in Boston and works for 911, “Do you know him?” He told me that I should rent out the observatory and refurbish it and charge tourists lots of money for stargazing. He told me I should marry a Kazakh girl like many foreigners he knows “since they are obedient and pretty, not like those bossy Turskish girls who came here a few weeks ago.” I thanked him for his sage advice and said we really need to go.

He said, “ok, let’s just chat for a bit more while we smoke.” We went outside. “Do you guys have marijuhana or heroin?”


“Are you sure?”


“What if I look in your bag?”

“You can look in my bag but you won’t find anything that would interst you. I can offer you a pomegranate or grapefruit, but that’s it.”

“You know I am a border guard?”


“I’m a psychologist. You are a psychologist. I went to border guard academy. We understand each other?”

“Yeah. Can we have our documents back?”

“What these? I was hoping to keep them,” as he examined them one last time and handed them back.

“So did we.”

“Listen, you aren’t going to make it where you are going and I’m going to get in trouble. Why don’t we give you a ride back down?”

“Nah, we got to march forward. Ahead. Forward we go.”

“Ok, but if I catch you on the mountain tomorrow. If you sleep here. Remember, I will find you and I will kill you,” a clenched jaw.

“Rahmat” Thank you in Kazakh.


On ward ho. Steep steep ascent among fallen boulders, a wash, a colorful mountainface, and up into another little village of abandoned buildings, surrounded by a crown of snow covered mountains (not capped, but we’re basically in the snow). A sparse snow is cascading. A helicopter flew through the valley we just ascended. The puddles are frozen ice. One building seems like it has life in it. Music … and I can recognize it — Victor Tzoi — is emanating. We walk through the door marked “Entrance to oursiders strongly forbidden” and down the hallway to the music. I knock. “Who is there?” “Us, ahem, we just have some questions.” A boy in his 20s opens the door, invites us inside, a bit surprised. We ask the way. He says he’ll show us but he doubts we’ll make it. Parts are blocked off and dangerous. His name is Titon, “The call me the Kazakh Jew.” “Why?” “Dunno, really. Since my grandparents are from an orphanage and I don’t really look Kazakh.”

Titan, Kosmostantsiya nuclear physics engineer

He’s from Uralsk, studied Nuclear Physics at Almaty and has been working at the Kosmostantsija for 3 years. What do you do at the Kosmostantsija? “We study the Kosmos!” How? “With counters and detectors. We have lots of them.” He was kind of a loner, didn’t go to the city much, but looked young, modern, urbanite, had a laptop in his room which looked pretty much like a college dorm in the US, but at 11,500 ft! Do you have matches? He gave us matches but instructed us not to make fires, except in an emergency. Ok, ok, let’s go. He got on his camo jacket and large boots and took us to the top of our path down. Write down my email address. Come back if you need to. We’ll put you up. You know my room now. I said, “Yes, it’s the one with Tzoi playing.” He smiled, “but Tzoi might not be playing, so just remember 106. Respect for knowing Tsoi.” And some advice/ Walk a measured pace. A few topological/navigational pointers. I hope you’ll make it. I said, I think we will. He reiterated, I hope. And with that Titon disappeared.


We walked down a steep steep path. Actually there was no path for the first couple of hours. We saw mountain goats on a cliff above us. At many times the path was cut by land slides, but eventually, eventually, we made it down to the trailhead from below. We could tell we were close because there was a rusty bathtub in the river.

James and I shook hands when we actually made it to the trail head righ before dusk. We walked along the road as the light subsided. We passed a hot springs that we badly needed but only later learned about. Caught at ride in the back of the pickup. And sore, sore and sweaty, yet energized emotionally by an unusual hike, I made it home for Chicken and Plov, salad and a mountain of deserts that Al’ya, Mishka, and Xeniya, “like good eastern girls” had set out on the table. Tea, tea, and and a well deserved bed time.

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