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Central Asia Recap Part One: Kazakhstan


My Friends,
   Due to the unreliable internets access I have been made to endure as of late, I havent been the prolific bloggeur I normally am.  Let me perhaps rectify this by filling in some of the blanks of the last couple of weeks. 
   I left the balmy beach weather of Israel on 16 December.  This was a significant departure because it was my final good-bye to my beloved Mediterranean.  More than simply a sea to me, I had swam in its warm waters, interacted with its peoples and used its coastline as a navigational aid for months.  I treasured my last Mediterranean sunset walking on the beach in Tel Aviv and even got a lil’ misty.
   My plane from Israel took me first to Kiev, Ukraine for a 9-hour layover.  I had planned for this and I used the extended downtime to make a foray into the former Soviet-bloc city.  Luckily, by entering the country instead of simply waiting in the designated layover area I copped some pretty new bling (read: stamps) for my passport.  The bus ride to Kiev took awhile but I actually like the city a lot.  It was very beautiful and the people seemed really friendly.  The food and drinks were cheap and although wet, it was not too cold.  My only complaint was how cozy and warm all the little shops seemed: the Christmas spirit was in the air and watching happy couples gazing longingly into each others eyes over hot cocoa/coffee by a warm fire really drove home the point of my loneliness over the holidays.  It was far easier to stick to the cold air of the outdoors than torture myself by going into these shops and getting a closer look at what I was missing out on.  I have resolved that I will one day go back to Kiev with my woman during the Christmas season and enjoy it like I was not able to during this first visit.
   Went back to the airport, waited some and got on my plane for the four-hour flight to Astana, Kazakhstan.  I had heard from a chick in my hostel in Israel that Kazakhstan was like -20C and I joked that I was going to freeze my balls off although I was secretly concerned.  But having already submitted my passport for the visa I could do little with this knowledge except steel my nerves against the expected onslaught of cold weather.  I began to think to myself that -20C wasnt that cold.  After all, I have experienced that in Canada and survived.  If nothing else, the cold weather would be a boon; people would be more likely to take pity on this hitch-hiker and pick him up.  In retrospect, such imaginings and self-reassurances seem sheer folly, but you’d be surprised what you can convince yourself of when you need to.  So, “prepared” as I was for -20C, I was dismayed beyond words when, as we pulled into Astana airport at 530am, the captain said the weather was -27C.  I hadnt planned for this, and this extra 7 degrees of coldness may as well  have been an extra 50 degrees of coldness.  I took a glance around the airplane and saw everyone pulling on their bubblegooses (puffy coats) and furs, while all I had was a Von Dutch zip-up sweater and a wind-breaker.  What the F had I gotten myself into?
   Still, maybe -27C wasnt as cold as it was cracked up to be.  I hadnt experienced it since last winter so I really shouldnt be so quick to judge, as my faculties of memory might have been flawed.  They were not.  Just getting off the plane and feeling the slightest touch of outside air chilled me to the bone.  I realized this simply wouldn’t do.  I thought long and hard about my options after clearing customs and waiting in the front entrance of the airport, shivering in spite of myself every time the door opened and someone entered.  I resolved that I would get the fudge out of the city by means other than hitch-hiking and to the former capital of Almaty, as it was at least a manageable -7C or so.  So I cabbed it to the Astana train station (of course the cabby had to be parked at the other end of the parking lot) and got a ticket for that night’s train to Almaty.  Having to wait 15 hours in the Astana train station was a trying experience: the multitudinous police and security officers present were so unaccustomed to a Westerner that they took me aside and detained me while they looked through my passport and joked about my shoes, my manner of dress and prolly my facial hair.  This particular incident happened in the morning but I had passport checks all day and was continually harrassed about where I sat, lying on my foam mat while waiting and charging my ipod.  It got to the point that I started being a little bit of a prick and whenever they would make eye contact with me I would hold up my passport and ticket and insist they check it while cursing at them audibly (they didnt understand Englirsh anyway). 
   It was so bad that my only reprieve from this intrusiveness was the dreaded cold; I made the arduous 60 second trek to a nearby cafe, almost died in the process, and spent an hour or two there drinking coffee and keeping warm.  I noticed the sun (which had gingerly risen around 10 am) during the walk to this cafe.  It sat so low on the southern horizon even at “high noon” that I swore I had entered the Arctic circle (and who knows, maybe I had; I really didnt do much research on Kazakhstan before deciding to go there as foreknowledge and preparation often preclude wacky adventures).  I dont want to overstate the cold weather but you must understand my situation: My upper body and legs were perhaps warm enough to survive for protracted periods of time in the cold (not comfortably mind you), but my footwear of choice is Vibram Five Fingers KSO Treks.  These are a barefoot equivalent shoe which mimic the barefoot very well, particularly in their almost complete absence of resilience to cold weather.  There was only 6mm of rubber between me and the snow and my toes were separated which made them chill that much faster.  I literally may as well have been walking out there barefoot.
   Whatever though, I survived the day and made it to the train (although the walk on the platform was another trying experience).  The compartment I was in had two young guys and two old ladies on it who became essentially my Kazakh aunts, insisting that I eat with them and drink tea with them.  It was a very pleasant train ride considering noone spoke English.  Also, I finally got warm.  The train itself bears some mention because it was incredibly old-looking and it seemed to me that it was very possibly a Soviet relic which I thought was kinda cool.
   We arrived in Almaty the next night and one of my aunties insisted on taking me to the international bus station so I could buy a ticket to Urumqi, China.  Almaty was warmer but still not as warm as I would have liked, and I was forced to walk outside for over half an hour, poorly-equipped.  We got me set up for a bus leaving the following night and I stayed in the bus-station dorm.  It was a fun night as I got invited to drink with some Kazakh taxi drivers taking a “vodka break” in the kitchen of my hotel (I didn’t write that last bit as a joke, but its actually kinda funny).  We crushed their whole bottle (smoothe stuff) then I figured “fuck it”, and busted out my bottle of cheap scotch from the Kiev duty-free.  We crushed that too and smoked my pipe and I woke up feeling like shit the next morning.  My wake-up was even worse because it was conducted by the Kazakh cleaning lady who was yelling at me to get out in a voice that sounded like a cross between a cat being strangled and a little girl being raped.  I had to kill the day in Almaty waiting for my night-time bus departure.  I spent a good three hours internetting across from the station.  It was during this time that I learned from FB friends that Kazakhstan had declared a state of emergency in response to unruly labourers in the Southwest who were protesting the government for something (higher wages, better hours, more jobs, etc…).  We had passed near this region en route to Almaty while I was sleeping on the train two nights before.  Leave it to me to sleep through a conflict. 
   Around 10 pm on my third day in Kazakhstan I boarded my overnight bus to Urumqi, China.  It was awesome because I was expecting to be sitting up for the whole 24+ hour ride but it was a sleeper bus stocked with thick fleecy blankets.  I dwelt on the cleanliness of the blankets for less than an instant and got to the business of sleep real quick.  My awakening the next morning was a rude one: my busmates telling me to get my passport out because we were getting boarded by the Kazakh miltary.  Fortunately this was no random passport check; it was the first (of several) passport checks to go through the border to China.  The border crossing took about two hours as all the bus companies seemed not to co-ordinate their schedules, so there was a surfeit of people trying to get through the border, and these people had seemingly not grasped the concept of “a line:” I literally had to occupy my whole border lane to prevent little Asians from pushing past me.  In this instance my backpack came in handy for occupying space as it is roughly the size of a small Asian.
   Much more pleasant than exiting Kazakhstan was entering China.  There was a 5km or so “no mans land” between the two countries which was traversed only by my bus apparently.  What this meant in practice was that all of those people from the various buses that came through all piled onto my bus and I almost didnt even get a spot.  Plus this old man who was mad that he didnt get on the bus before me kept pushing me from behind.  It took all of my patience not to clock the Kazakh fuck.  But like I said, entering China was fine: in fact because I was so conspicuous in the crowd of Asians, the Chinese authorities pushed me to the front of the line which happened to be right on front of the pushiest fucks from the bus ride over, much to their Kazakh chagrin.  It was a small victory but a victory nonetheless.  The process was delayed a little by passport control who kept looking back and forth between me and my passport pic.  He even called a friend over to get his opinion on if it was really me.  That was really the only hiccup. 
   Clearing customs was a lot like clearing customs in Egypt though; as soon as I was free of security the hustlers and hucksters wanted a piece of me.  Many were holding wads of Chinese money to change but I had read about rampant counterfeiting in China and opted not to change my money with these disreputable seeming characters.  We had a quick lunch China-side and were on our way.  It wasn’t until after midnight that we reached Urumqi, and the bus saw fit to drop us off at a hotel instead of the bus station.  This was problematic because Urumqi was not much warmer than Almaty and I really wanted to be on my way further south to the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan province.  In the next few hours I had one of my weirdest experiences thus far, but alas, that’s a story for the sequel.
Stay Thirsty
-Andre Guantanamo 
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Holdıng ın a Fart for Chına

My Friends,
   I am playıng the waıtıng game rıght now ın Ankara;: I always suspected that applyıng for a vısa was an arduous process, thus my comparıson to ıt beıng lıke wıtholdıng flatulence; I cant be bothered.  Sımply put, and thıs ıs perhaps my arrogance talkıng, but ıf a foreıgn government wants me to jump through hoops to enter theır country then ıts theır loss.  Stıll, not all countrıes are created equal, and whıle there are many countrıes requırıng entrance vısas I would be happy to say nukka peace to, Chına ıs not one of those countrıes.
   Thıs ıs for two reasons: fırst ın practıcal terms, ıt ıs sımply rıght there where I need to be.  Whıle ıt ıs technıcally possıble to move through Asıa wıthout hıttıng Chına, havıng a vısa there allows you greater movement through the contınent because ıt ıs essentıally the frıggın contınent.  Second, there ıs so much hıstory and beauty there that I would be derelıct ın my duty as a professed traveler ıf I skıpped ıt.
   Now Ive never been one for plannıng except when ıt comes to parenthood, so naturally I dıdnt purchase any vısas before I left Canada.  However the research I dıd before I left ındıcated that I would be able to purchase a vısa upon entrance lıke I dıd ın Turkey.  Yet I thought ıt prudent to check the Chınese embassy ın Ankara to confırm that before I left the cıty.  Sure enough I would have been ın for a nasty surprıse ıf I trıed to land there wıthout prıor approval.  So thıs left me ın a bıt of tıght spot because ıt was thursday at around 1030 am, I had to get a letter of confırmatıon of ıdentıty from the Canadıan Embassy stıll, and the Chınese embassy ıs only open Mondays Wednesdays and Thursdays untıl noon.  Quıckly I fılled out all the forms as best I could then set out for the Canadıan embassy runnıng as fast as I could wıth my backpack.  Luckıly I had passed the Canadıan embassy earlıer searchıng for the Chınese one and I headed back there to get my confırmatıon letter but they wouldnt let me ın.  In fact the guards couldnt even speak Englısh.  I started flashıng my passport and makıng demands lıke get me someone who speaks Englısh.  That they responded to my demands was lıkely due more to theır seeıng my desperate state rather than any bass ın my voıce.  They got a dude on the phone who ınstructed me I was at the Embassy Resıdence and not the Embassy.
   The guards called me a cab and I got to the rıght embassy a few mınutes later.  By the tıme I made ıt through securıty I was dıshevelled to say the least.  I had to waıt for some couple to fınısh theır ıntervıew as I watched the mınutes race by.  FInally ıt was my turn and to the guys credıt he typed up my letter of confırrmatıon pretty quıck but then lıke a douche he charged me 50 bucks for ıt (Note: one thıng that has been made paınfully obvıous to me ın the last couple of months ıs that consular servıces are not cheap.  I prolly could have saved a ton by stayıng home, throwıng my backpack ın the garbage, tuckıng my passport ınto my ass and hıdıng behınd a tree.  Lesson learned).
   I made haste back to the Chınese embassy and handed the lady my passport, vısa applıcatıon form and letter of confırmatıon wıth 15 mınutes to spare.  Her next words were lıke a dagger ın my heart: Do you have a passport photo?  WHAT PART OF THE GAME IS THAT, LADY?  Then I remembered I had had pıcs taken for my replacement passport ın Lısbon and they had gıven sıx when I only needed two.  I searched through my stuff but they were not there.  I was at a loss.  Sensıng my desparatıon and takıng pıty on me the lady formulated a plan of actıon whıch ıncluded her helpıng me beyond regularly scheduled embassy hours and holdıng onto my passport ın lıeu of pıcs, a detaıl whıch I glazed over at the tıme as I was payıng heed to her ınstructıons and quıte frazzled by thıs poınt.
   So off I went to book accommodatıon for one more nıght and secure some passport photos, happy ın the knowledge that I was gettıng specıal treatment and all I had to do was have a mını nervous breakdown.  The detaıl of the passport she was holdıng onto came up not long after though when I pulled out my wallet to show a dude what I meant by passport photograph cause he spoke no Englısh and I needed dırectıons.  I realızed ıt was gone.  I mını-panıcked but I remembered exactly what I had done wıth ıt so that kept my manıa at sub-crıtıcal levels.  I ran back to the hotel I had stayed at to book another nıght and call the embassy to confırm that she had ıt.  The hotel was full but they let me use the phone and when I called her she seemed annoyed at my further questıonıng because ın truth she was already goıng above and beyond for me by seeıng ıf she could get me rushed servıce so I get my vısa by today.   Nonetheless she confırmed that she had my passport, although her words carrıed the ımplıcatıon that I was somethıng less than a man to her.
   I cursed myself for a fool, havıng lost track of the one pıece of ID I have ın thıs world.  Frazzled or not ıt was an unacceptable lapse.  But then the sun peeked out from the clouds and I was suddenly overcome by a sense of mırth.  After all, as long as Im alıve Im alrıght, rıght?  If I get my Chınese vısa ın one day of frantıc runnıng around and ın spıte of the ınadequacıes of my applıcatıon ıt wıll be a great moment ın travel hıstory.  If not, I spend the weekend ın Ankara; not the worst thıng ın the world as the new hotel Im stayıng at ıs cheap enough and the guy who drove me ınto the cıty mentıoned a hıkıng club whıch hıkes the beautıful mountaıns around the cıty that only meets on weekends, so even faılure could be a blessıng ın dısguıse.  Perhaps the latter outcome ıs even better because as my woman can attest to, I have thıs notıon ın my head that I can get by ın any sıtuatıon wıth no plannıng by just pullıng a wın out of my ass at the 11th hour wıth persuasıve arguıng (or cryıng as the case may be); a notıon that I sorely need to be dısabused of.  However, ıf I get my vısa today that wıll only bolster my confıdence and who knows what sıtuatıons I mıght then get myself ınto.
   Heres hopıng I get the vısa today.
Stay Thirsty,
Andre Guantanamo

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