Archive for the ‘kazakhstan’ Category

The last hurdle…

November 12th, 2009 11 comments

It was going to be my last day in Kazakhstan. I got into Astana by train in the morning, successfully picked up my passport from the office of the yogurt company DANONE (arranged through a new Kazakh friend!), visited the president’s mansion museum (where I particularly liked the Saudi’s gift of a 24k gold machine gun on display), met some locals through CouchSurfing, and went on a tour of Astana’s new capitol promenade (which is still under construction but aims to match the Washington Mall).

What I didn’t realize when I confirmed all of the details over the phone with my aunt and got into the train bound for Ekaterinburg was that my Kazakhstan visa was going to expire at midnight, and the train was not going to reach the Russian border until another 11 hours later.

This is the story of how I was removed from the train at the border checkpoint of Kairak by Kazakh border guards, arrested and charged with illegal trespass, handed over to the custody of immigration police, and the court case that followed…

Platzkart (Sardine Class)

For no particular reason, I got tickets in Platzkart (sardine class). This train runs a many day Almaty to Saint-Petersburg route so there aren’t any seating only tickets, but there does exists a class of train car where 6 people sleep in the space where 4 would fit were it a cabin. There are no doors or privacy, and this is a perfect time to learn the intimate details of your fellow travelers’ lives, which is what everyone naturally does.

Train ride from Astana

First discovery of expiring visa, and How I met Irlan.

On a dark service platform, several hours after we chugged out of Astana, the immigration police hopped aboard. They worked through the train. “Documents please!”

“Do you know your visa is about to expire?” This guy was so proud of himself and didn’t bother containing his glee. This was the first time I got a good look at Irlan. Tall, oafy, big flat round face, red in the cheeks from years of boozing, dark straight Asian hair, good natured yet tricky.

It was true, though I didn’t know it, my visa was about to expire. In another hour, I would be trespassing on Kazakhstan soil. I tried different responses: Is this a big deal? What time will we cross the border? Can you help me fudge the 15 into a 16 with a pencil perhaps? How may we resolve this?

He said, he’ll think about what to do with me the following morning, and so with a faint hope I climbed onto the rickety shelf which I outfitted into a bed, and went to sleep wondering what was going to be his next move.

Morning in “on a big map you will find here.”

The ear plugs, eye shields and the vibration of the train combined for an unexpectedly good night of sleep. Because it was closest to the passageway, Irlan decided to tug my toe to wake me. By morning, I was officially in violation of the visa. “Come, we need to copy documents.”

I already had copies of my visa and passport, so I brought them along trying to avoid getting off the train. He said, “No, we have to go copy them at the station. I have to turn you in. I caught you.”

“Where are we?”

“On a big map, you will find here,” he replied, then mentioned something about arrest, court, consulate, visa renewal, fines, jail time in a cell that’s worse than platzcart…

I’ve been in this situation with officials before. It’s as if he wanted the worst case scenario to settle in, to seem so palpably near, before finally… after a long pause… finally,

“Or …” he said and smiled. He looked around, closed the door, sat down, and crossed his hands.

“Let’s talk frankly.”

Oh, how choreographed and expected this all was! I was selectively ignoring all of those unnecessary complications such as arrest and reviewed my deck of cards. I had 140$ (a 100 and two 20s) in US cash. I had 3000 tenge (~20$). How much was I willing to spend and what was I intending to buy? That was the question.


“For 3,000 rubles (~100$) I will pretend that I did not see you on the train. When you get to the border, you will fend for yourself. I am not a border guard. My job is to catch you and turn you in here. That is what you are buying. For 6,000 rubles, we might be able to arrange something at the border.” He gave me a long hard look. “So what are we going to do? Think fast. Or should I turn you in?”

“Let’s keep going to the border.” I just needed to stay on the train, but I didn’t want to commit to anything yet.

“Ok, brother. Go back to your place. I will find you in a bit.”

This conversation left me on alert, but I tried not to show it as I lost myself in hobnobbing with the train passengers, most of whom were Russians. Most of the Kazakhs got off at this train station. Next stop was the border. The conversation focused on comparison of which nation drank more, which did more heroin, and who had more delinquents.

“Most of the children now days are imbeciles,” said Anya, a doctor born in Kazakhstan but educated in Saint Petersburg. “Religion used to keep the Kazakhs more conservative, but in the new economy they are catching up in all manner of depravity.” Galina, Anya’s 67 year old grandmother lamented about the absurdity of the border where none had been before, and the customs laws had appeared dictating which sausage she can or can’t carry between her and her daughter’s home.

When I went to the bathroom, I spotted how one of the train conductors removed a bolted metal panel bolted between the train cars and stuffed a whole sack of sausages in there. He looked at me looking at him but said nothing.

The Conditional Bribe of the real Kazakh-man handshake.

It was time. Irlan was ready for me. I walked into the small compartment at the end of the car which he commandeered into his office and locked the door. It came time to actually perform the bribe–to grease the proverbial palm. I had the bills distributed in my pockets so I’d know where to reach without giving away too much information. Irlan suggested thinking of the deal as two transactions, one to appease him, and another for the guards. My goal was singular, to get on the other side of the border without incident. For Russia, I had a completely valid visa.

We talked at length, which is how I got him to sympathize with me. You see, bribes are something you can bargain down, depending on your condition. “I’m a student. I’m traveling the world on my student stipend which I saved up for many years. I am a guest in your country. I’m trying to get home to my historic homeland, my hometown, where my aunt is waiting for me. I don’t have any money.” And so the price came down from $500, 400, 300 and at last we settled on something I actually had… one hundred dollars.

And this is when I said, “Irlan, I’m giving you this so I will not see you again. If I do not cross the border, it does not matter why, but I cannot say in such a case that you have deserved this bribe. This is what I am buying with this bill.” I reached out my hand and said, “This is a real Kazakh-man handshake.”

Irlan declared quizzically, “there are no women around here!” and shook my hand. “I will do my best.” He took my passport, instructed me to relax back at my seat and when the border guards get on the train, say “the immigration police have my passport.”

“Grab your things and get off the train.”

The customs officials got on and predictably took away Galina’s sausage. “You do this every time!” I told them about my passport and waited, and waited. When the border guards returned as a team, they didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. I was to pack my things and get off the train. I never stopped trying, but then I came to accept the fact that no amount of talking, pleading, conniving, was going to keep me on board this time.

When I was standing with my stuff on the train station, looking around for some understanding, Irlan appeared with a solemn face. You could see he wasn’t happy. He handed me back the passport with the hundred dollar bill folded inside. “I’m sorry. The problem is the computer! The computer knows your visa has expired. They cannot let you go because the computer will know they let you go. Unfortunately, we have to follow protocol and place you under arrest.”

Two important lessons came out of this interaction. (1) Electronic records actually reduce corruption. (2) A real Kazakh-man handshake is as good as a contract. With regards to the latter, it may now seem like I knew what I was doing back in the train compartment with the “Kazakh-man handshake” business, but the fact is I was just winging it.

Kairak, the Matryoshka Guard Post.

I was instructed to carry my things to the back room of the border guards’ quarters, and asked to write a confession. I treated it as an exercise in written Russian, and tried to write vaguely as to leave all of my options open. Within this small old wooden station, I observed a peculiar pattern in the hierarchy. There was one of each kind of guard based on their shoulder patches. One puny guy had a blank patch and a guard each sporting a patch with one arrow, two arrows, one star, two stars, and so on up to up to the big boss with four stars. That was Ermek.

What was most peculiar was that each superseding guard was larger than his/her subordinates. As a rule, the subordinate could completely fit inside the ranking officer, as if they were matryoshka (Russian nesting) dolls. And if there did exist anyone superior to Ermek that would be a logistical problem, because they would have to reframe all of the door posts. For such was Ermek, round faced, red nosed, pimply, broad shouldered and good humored.

When I walked into his office with the confession, he immediately liked my Lamy fountain pen and offered to trade it for a pencil. “I joke.”

How the border officials treated me.

Rinat, of three stars, a slightly smaller table and slightly less ostentatious demeanor reviewed my statement. He didn’t seem to care what was actually written. He only insisted, comically, that I add one more sentence at the bottom.

“I have no problems or objections to the way the officials at Kairak border station treated me.”

I asked why? He said it was important. We played like this for a bit and I realized I had some kind of weird power that I wasn’t sure how to use in this case. He wasn’t willing to trade that statement for my freedom, so eventually in exchange for lunch, I wrote what he wanted.

He told me the charge, showed me the statute in the legal code that specified a punishment of imprisonment of up to 15 days and fine up to $500. I played legal scholar and looked for other, applicable but more lenient statutes, but at this point it was all in the cards, whatever may be… I had a few hours while waiting for transport back to Kastanay, the regional immigration police center, and they were going to take over the case.

Madina, the runaway.

I sat across from Madina while writing my “confession” but during lunch we no longer had an enforced silence, and her tears dried up a little, and she seemed ready for some small talk. She looked frail. Her bitten nails were covered with black nail polish. Later when we rode in back of the same car, she spoke to me more frankly. I’m just going to tell it how it is, as I have to practice writing about the darker side of things I saw for future posts.

Madina, she smeared cover up over her hikies

Madina, 18, ran away from her lycee in Fedorovka where she was in her first year studying to be a chef. She bought a ticket to the border, got off the train and started walking along the tracks towards Russia when the guards caught up with her. She was raped the night before by her ex-boyfriend. She broke up with him before after having an abortion. Seeing as she was bruised, covered in hickies, and without a good explanation of what she had been doing the night before, she couldn’t face heading back to the dorms where they keep tight control over student’s comings and goings. She also didn’t want to tell anyone about her ex-boyfriend as she deemed it was going to lead to even more problems. So as unprepared as she was to run away — no money, no documents, cell phone but no cell phone charger, no change of clothes, just a bag full of makeup — she decided that morning that it was a better option than facing the school director.


Now that she had time to think about it, she was relieved that she was caught and spending time in the company of someone actually willing to listen to her. She wanted me to listen to her sing, and asked me to take lots of pictures of her for my memory. She told me it was going to be boring without me. We went out in the yard and exercised using the border guards’ equipment.

Drama and dysfunction of the guard station.

When I asked for permission to tour the town, the guards laughed and said “just don’t go too far.” The joke was there wasn’t much to tour as surrounding the 5 shacks, the free roaming chickens pecking a piles of trash, an angry suicidal dog on a metal leash, and a puzzling park bench with a mushroom styled umbrella colored like amanita muscaria, there was just flat flat steppe in every direction, and the largest geographical features were the occasional slightly taller tufts of discolored straw.

When I came back, Madina told me that one of the guards (one star) gave her a piece of chocolate and asked for her phone number. Said he seemed pretty nice, but then she accidentally walked in on him kissing with one of the female guards (one arrow). I write this just to underline the drama and dysfunction of the guard station.

“It’s statistics brother.”

Another guard (two arrows) called me over and we talked about his wife. He told me that the best way to keep a woman honest is to get her pregnant. “I was watching this Russian TV show about adultery and I noticed how most of the women who were cheating didn’t have children.” He also said that having a child helped calm him down. “You know how you come home, angry from a day of work and you want to take it out on your wife.” He made a gesture as if grabbing someone and bending them over to beat them. He got into the act, yelling at his virtual wife, “Where have you been? What have you been doing?” Now he says, when he sees the baby, it helps to suppress that urge, since he knows his wife has been busy tending to the baby, as there is no other choice — it’s just that much of a time drain. I nodded and told him that I understood his advice. “It’s not me, it’s statistics brother,” he said, referring back to his observations on the television show.

Collective Booking

Madina was delivered to her lycee, and I was taken to the city of Kastanay. I was handed over into the custody of none other than Irlan, and the first thing he asked me was whether I told anyone about our financial interaction. When I convinced him I didn’t, he became my best friend. From then on, I was his and the whole of immigration police departments pet project.

They booked me collectively. Initially, I was behind bars, but there were three people tending to me. One was now writing a new confession from my perspective. They strategized amongst themselves about the best way to phrase it as to make me seem most innocent. The last line was “I do not have any problems or objections to the way the Karabalyk Immigration Police employees treated me.”

Another was writing up the official charge against me from the police perspective and he too was asking for everyone’s input of how exactly to phrase it. The argument and crosstalk was rolling. At the same time I requested one of their cell phones to SMS my aunt in Ekaterinburg who was getting ready for my imminent arrival, and when she called back, I was trying to outshout the noise they were making so she would hear me.

It was an ant farm, and I felt like the queen. One of the guards took my train ticket and passport to photocopy them and run to the train station to get me a refund on the unused fare. Irlan stressed that he make sure they give me as much as possible. He was now my advocate and financial advisor. “He is a student and traveling on his saved up student stipend.” And to me, “you have to conserve your money.” It was touching but I wasn’t sure where this was leading.

The Lenient Judge

I was amused to a point, but I really wanted to know what was going to happen to me next. I read yet again from the Kazakhstan legal code what the maximal punishment for my transgression was, but what was the minimal one and who decided? Where was this court they were talking about? What was the plan for tomorrow (Saturday)? Where was I going to sleep? When was I going to get to Russia?

They merely told me to relax. Things were going to work themselves out. I knew I had the option of calling the US embassy for help, but from experience I knew that this help is occasionally useless. So I kept that card in my hand for the now.

When the police chief left, Irlan and his buddy at the station motioned to me to come out of the cell. They said something to the others, took me down the hall and we walked out of the station. “How about some beer,” said Iryukhan, and in the same breath he asked Irlan whether he could spot him 1000 tenge (6.5$) until his next paycheck.

By then, they were changed into their civilian clothes. We got into Iryukhan’s car and took a short ride around the small town. They pointed out monuments to me which I could care less about, as I was set on only one thing, “Is court open on Saturday?”

“We’ll try to wake up the judge and the prosecutor”

“How do the judge and prosecutor feel about being woken up? Does that make them angry?”

“We’ll try to wake up the lenient judge.”

The lenient judge?”

Iryukhan told me there were three judges. The two male judges were not preferable. One doesn’t like foreign transgressors of Kazakh law and the other really doesn’t like foreigners at all. The woman was preferable. She was the lenient judge. He told me not to worry too much as we had little control, and for now, we were just going to have some beers and concentrate on getting to know each other.

“Never forget that you have friends here in Kazakhstan.”

Irlan still seemed concerned about my finances as he bought us several liter bottles of beer filled from the tap and some smoked fish to snack on. We went to the juvenile detention quarters in the back of the train station, put our feet up on the table and had a good chat over beer and fish.

Irlan made me promise I wasn’t going to tell their police chief tomorrow anything about this, and when he was happy with my assurances he told me, “never forget that you have friends here in Kazakhstan.” It turned out that we are the same age and were born in the same Soviet Union and this touched him so sincerely that he almost shed a tear with the final toast. But he restrained himself and said they had to go, that I was going to get a shower and a bed at the train station hotel, but they were going to hold on to my passport, and that I would be seeing him tomorrow at 7AM, when he was going to come to wake me so that I’d have enough time to wash up before we started our long drive at 7:30AM to court.

“Soon, we’ll be living like Arabs!”

Irlan was prompt. He waited for me to wash up, then took me out for breakfast of coffee, yogurt and some crackers (which he paid for). Iryukhan and the police chief pulled up promptly at 7:30AM and motioned us in. They briefly joked about the gas savings of leaving Irlan behind, and seeing as he really wanted to go, they said he has to pitch in for gas.

We drove about a 100 miles to court in Karabalyk. We left that early as we needed to make it before 10AM. We drove through empty fields and desolation. They told me about a recent accident where a drunk truck driver with load of fuel forgot he had two segments when he tried to race across the train tracks. We drove by Fedorovka where Madina was probably still asleep. Her lycee looked like a cinderblock, but so did much of the rest.

They asked me what I think of Kazakhstan, and before I really got a chance to answer, the police chief said, “Well, take a good look at it now. It looks nothing like it did 10 years ago. If you come back in another 10, you will see, we’ll be living like Arabs.”


We waited for a while for the judge to show up. The prosecutor arrived first. He was 21 but looked like a teenager. It was his first case he said, and then we found out he was the equivalent of an intern at the prosecutor’s office.

Then the judge walked in. Her name was, Honorable SS Usenko. To me she was just, “the lenient judge”.

I waved my right to a translator and to an attorney and represented myself in court. I spoke as eloquently and as obsequiously as I could, taking responsibility for the trespass, while underlining my efforts to actually make it out of the country, and only failing by 11 hours. I told her of my recent PhD defense, of my long journey through Central Asia where I have loved the land and enjoyed the hospitality of the people, of my current pilgrimage to my “historic homeland” where my aunt is madly worried about me, about how I always, always obey the law, and how I very sincerely, on behalf of my country and Obama, my state and Arnold Schwarzenegger, myself and my family beseech her to be lenient in her judgment.

I don’t know what got into me. It even sounded good to me. I spoke calmly, with a measured voice, a clearer Russian than I have heard myself speak since ever. I don’t know if my speech needed to be as elaborate as it was, but such it was, and the chief of police patted me on the back afterwards.

The judge thanked me and turned to the prosecutor for his remarks. “I seek a guilty verdict and a punishment of one day in jail and a fine of $500.” Honorable SS Usenko then turned to me and asked me to leave the courtroom.

My Boys

The three cops and me collapsed into the couches outside. They all took out their cell phones to text or talk. We refocused when the prosecutor came out. They called him over. “So what did the judge say?”

Pause. Consider the scene. I am the defendant, sitting with three police officers. The chief of police is pulling over the 21 year old prosecutor and asking him on my behalf…

“It seems like she might actually let him off,” the boy said without emotion. My boys, for so I started to think of the cops by this point were of mixed feelings. They were happy for me that I was getting out of this, but they were also kind of sad that we didn’t get to drive around to more monuments, drink more beer, maybe go fishing on Sunday.

The Verdict, A Verbal Warning.

The judge delivered her written verdict. She cited a statute (68) that allows the judge to let the defendant off with a verbal warning in the case where the magnitude of the transgression is not in correspondence to the severity of the punishment suggested in the legal code. And so, upon the wisdom of the Kazakh legal code, I was free to continue my travels.

Irlan invited me out for a coffee and éclairs while we waited for the judges declaration to be copied and stamped with the official seal. They also called ahead to the auto border post and warned the chief of patrol that I was to be let through on account of this declaration.

You sucker, you got me...


My boys drove me to the station in Karabalyk where a bus was just about to leave. Irlan ran in and bought me a ticket to Chelyabinsk, Russia as I boarded the bus. All three of them stood besides the window and waved until the bus pulled away. “It’s going to be boring without you,” was the last thing that Irlan told me.

On the bus, I sat next to a border guard who was getting a ride to the post. His name was Vas’ja, and unlike the others, he let me take a picture of him. He told me the story of a schoolmate of his that moved to San Francisco ten years ago and married an American. “She did the absolute right thing for herself and I don’t blame her, but the guy she was engaged to Kazakhstan, completely lost his mind after that.”

Vas'ja the border guard

He told me her name, and though he didn’t want me to try too hard. “If you meet her in San Francisco, say hello from Vas’ja.”


And so I cleared the last hurdle before entering my historic homeland.   And so, to my mind, ended OffSilkRoadin’.

Russian border
Categories: kazakhstan Tags:

Farewell Tristan, Farewell Astrid … and then there was one ;(

October 6th, 2009 No comments

Last Friday Tristan and I sold Astrid to Asylbek in Bishkek (on the condition that he send us pictures of her during all Kyrgyz national holidays) and took a Marshrutka (route taxi) to Almaty. Arriving in the middle of the night, we spent our final hours together in massage chairs at the airport napping. Then Tristan got aboard a big British (BMI) bird and flew away. Thus, in one day, I lost two companions. Here is our last photo with Astrid:

Farewell Astrid!

Schastlivo T$! You’ve been a great travel companion. I wish you a smooth encorporation into Langton and into your biomembrane research. Congratulations on your fellowship! Thank KC for letting you travel with me for an extra three weeks! Say hello to Carolina from me 😉

Accept this gift. There should be enough photos here for your profile and lab website pictures for some time to come!

With reduced mobility and freedom on the roads, I turn to the people. At present, I am being very kindly hosted by someone I met on Couchsurfing, and I’ve already immersed myself into the stream of Kazakshtan though Xeniya’s and her friends’ help.

I have not been blogging much — Oi, I really haven’t told you anything from this side of the Casipan! — but this let this not let your faith lapse in my blogging competance. I have been having more adventures on your behalf.

Though I have told you but a fraction, my diligently kept diary knows them all, from the methodolgy of eagle hunting, to how to raise and train an eagle, our ferry ride across the Caspian in the company of an English Lord, our several dozen stops by various authorities (and our strategies developed to avoid paying bribes), breaking down in the middle of the ancient city of Merv in Turkmenistan, dozens of hitchhikers, a half dozen border crossings, a drive across the desert of Kara-Kum where the major obsticles are camels, yurt stays at alpine lakes…. and many more.

They are all coming here. I just need some more time to breathe and rest. My hometown of Ekaterinburg is calling from several thousand more kilometers in the north, and there I will set myself to the project of thorough divulging. In the meanwhile, eat a few more crumbs … This is an interesting rock formation at Charyn Canyon in southeast Kazakhstan:

Charyn Canyon - Dali'esque

Categories: kazakhstan, kyrgyzstan Tags:

“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.”

October 5th, 2009 No comments


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 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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