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Today’s Silk Route traders struggle with Kazakh customs


We emerged from under the heavy, stale blankets to stagger out into a dark, grey car park.

We were nearly at the border. Unsure of what was next, I followed some of the other passengers over to a road side café. I pointed at the hot, Chinese tea and a couple of greasy dumplings that apparently were ‘meat’ and then sat down on my own to worry about whether the ‘meat’ dumplings were really a good idea. As I was hungry and I couldn’t find anything else, I ate them up anyway. Not knowing how long we would be stopping here, I tried to keep an eye on the other passengers to see what was happening. When I walked around to the toilets at the side of the café, it wasn’t with high expectations. After paying the attendant, I braced myself and strode manfully in. After being greeted with high pitched shrieks, I then walked straight back out again. The next time I opted for the gents. On entering the right toilets I was also tempted to shriek but managed to resist. None of the Chinese seemed particularly bothered about squatting amongst all the shit while everybody looked on but I really wasn’t up to it. I limited myself to a quick as possible piss before escaping to the car park where some of the other Kazakh passengers invited me along for a meal. One of these Kazakh women had been squatting down over the first of a line of holes when I walked into the wrong toilet. She was called Aisha. We both pretended to be meeting for the first time.

I followed them out of the car park and up the street. I was a bit worried about going too far from our bus but figured that I’d be alright as long as I stuck with some other passengers. Uridin was the only other man in our group and spoke fairly decent English. He was tall and looked European apart from slightly slanted eyes. Like many Kazakhs he was a bit of a mixture. The women all just looked Eastern European apart from one who had a head scarf and a mouth full of gold teeth. Apparently this was a popular look for Kazakh women of a certain class and age. She couldn’t speak any English and when she spoke to the others I had to try hard not to keep staring at her teeth. I’m really not sure that having a mouth full of gold teeth is a good idea in poor countries. What if you got mugged? They had all been buying cheap goods in Urumchi to take back to Almaty and Aisha was their trip organizer. Every week she would take out groups (‘all inclusive’) from Almaty to Urumchi and back again. She knew all the best places to go and all the right people. She was a modern day Silk Road trader and tour guide. As well as her customers, she was also taking back a variety of goods that her Almaty contacts had ordered, such as a huge plasma TV. Ina still looked like she was in her twenties and had her own business selling children’s clothes. Every few months she would make the trip to buy up new stock. Uridin also dabbled in some trading but had mainly come to buy a new kitchen for his flat in Almaty. Certain luxury goods could still be ridiculously expensive in Kazakhstan and he reckoned that he would be saving a lot of money by buying the kitchen himself in China. He also had a sealed up box with a picture of a gun on it – they must have been cheaper in China as well.

We went into a Chinese restaurant further up the street, where they all seemed to know Aisha, and where they led us into a private room. As I had already had my greasy ‘meat’ dumplings for breakfast and really wasn’t up for what looked like it was going to be a full Chinese banquet for breakfast, I made my excuses and left them to their feast. As I had been talking all the time I hadn’t been paying enough attention as to where we had been going and wasn’t sure how to get back. This was worrying enough but when I did get back to what I thought was our car park there were no longer any coaches in it. I wandered around a bit trying to find it but it had definitely gone. When I eventually found somebody who spoke some English, he said that all the coaches had left for the border. My bag was still locked up underneath our coach and all the other passengers had also disappeared. I rushed back towards the Chinese restaurant to try and catch Uridin and Aisha while they were still there but then I couldn’t remember where it was. I cursed myself for talking too much rubbish and not paying attention to what was going on around me. When I eventually found them again in a back room of the restaurant they were just finishing off and about to leave. They bundled me into a taxi with them and we were off to the border. Apparently we had to make our own way there where we would meet up with the coach once it had made its way through customs.

We managed to get out through customs quite easily but then having officially left China, were just left standing on the other side with hundreds of others. I was the only tourist. Everybody else seemed to be from Kazakhstan and be transporting enough Chinese goods to set up a chain of shops. I hadn’t realized but the border post had only just opened up again after a four day bank holiday in China and as the trains still wouldn’t start running again for another couple of days the border post was even more crowded. I knew that there were often delays but this didn’t look good. We would just have to wait here with the hundreds of other passengers – and the single chemical toilet – until the bus was allowed through. We took turns to rush over to the coffee stall in the rain and buy each other sweet cups of weak instant coffee and whatever snacks remained. Someone got stuck in the portaloo until someone hurried through the puddles to release them. The rain made the hot coffee spill out over the edge of my polystyrene cup and burnt my fingers. We stood around our bags and chatted, waiting for something to happen. Several hours later we were still all there, waiting. Even Aisha, who seemed to know all the customs officials, couldn’t find out what was happening, but she did persuade them to let us go back to our bus for a ‘business lunch’. Aisha led us into the back section of the bus, which effectively made up a triple bunk bed, and we all sat down around the lower one while Aisha unpacked a group picnic. I wasn’t sure if I should really be eating their food when I wasn’t even a member of their tour group but I kept being told that it was ‘all inclusive’. If they hadn’t all befriended me I’d probably have never have known how to get through the border, let alone of had a proper meal. We munched away on our ‘business lunch’ while chatting about our experiences in Urumchi. Uridin wanted to know if I had been to ‘Foowkin Beach’ while I was in Urumchi. I had never heard of it. It could hardly be a real beach when Urumchi was supposedly the furthest city in the world from any sea. I assumed that the ‘beach’ must have actually have been by one of the nearby scenic lakes. According to Uridin it was ‘very cheapy’ and there were ‘many sexy girls’. It sounded like a great value holiday resort with plenty of attractive young women. I was amazed that I hadn’t heard of it even if it was still far too cold for gallivanting around on a ‘beach’ – I was quite sure it hadn’t been mentioned in any of the guide books. Apparently Urumchi was famous for it. Whenever Kazakh men visited Urumchi the always went to ‘Foowkin Beach’ as they were ‘very cheapy and very sexy’. This time when he said ‘Foowkin’ he made a lewd gesture and then it finally clicked. Apparently, healthy red-blooded Kazakh men never went long without ‘foowkin’ a ‘beach’. Uridin seemed both amazed and alarmed that I had failed to take advantage of such great value entertainment. When he announced to all the ladies that I hadn’t ‘foowked’ a single ‘beach’ in Urumchi, they were equally taken aback. They were both surprised and disappointed. I felt like I’d let them all down.

Over six hours after arriving at the border post, our bus was finally allowed through customs. I really don’t know why it took so long. Not a single one of the hundreds of boxes and bags that were stuffed under the coaches appeared to have been opened or checked. Everybody just made an appropriate payment to the customs officials and they let you take whatever you wanted in. Not a single box was unpacked or a single zip unzipped. They could have been taking anything through. Even Uridin’s box with a picture of a gun on it passed through without comment. Aisha dealt directly with the custom guards ‘payments’ – it was ‘all inclusive’. It was probably this avoidance of import taxes on luxury goods that made the whole trip worthwhile – it was only by avoiding the ‘official’ payments that the small traders and ordinary people could make a living through their trade along the modern ‘Silk Road’ trade routes. Even after the coach had been let through we still had to spend another hour or so loading everything back under the bus. This time around it didn’t quite seem to fit in. After a lot of packing and re-packing and swearing both at and from the driver, we were eventually on our way again. To my surprise, it immediately seemed different. Only a few minutes over the border, the roads, buildings and people all seemed to have changed. Cowboy type figures were even riding around the fields on horses. Everything seemed more spaced out. So many borders are arbitrary but there was a remarkably clear difference between what was now officially Central Asia and what, only a few miles away – despite being a part of Greater Turkestan – was still very much China.

Panfilov Park, Almaty

Panfilov Park, Almaty

By the time that we finally got into the bus station in Almaty, it was already late at night. Everybody else seemed to have phoned through on their mobiles so that somebody was there to help unload all their purchases and drive them home. Uridin’s blonde Russian wife had turned up with his father-in-law to help take home their new kitchen. As soon as I got off the bus I made the mistake of speaking English and was immediately surrounded by predatory taxi drivers. When Uridin saw what was happening he pulled me away and made me sit in their car. I didn’t even have a chance to talk to any of the drivers but apparently they had been asking for silly amounts of money as they knew that I was new to town, and that it was late at night and no public buses were still running. We all bundled into the car together along with the flat packed kitchen. Rather embarrassingly I was guided into the front passenger seat while Uridin’s father-in-law was made to crawl into the boot (once he had finished loading in everything else). Uridin lived towards the top of one of the high rise flats not far from the bus station. All around it, similar high rise buildings were being constructed. Even approaching midnight, massive cranes were still piling up the new floors into the floodlit city sky. The recent oil boom in Kazakhstan had inevitably resulted in a property and construction boom in Almaty. Although many construction projects had recently ground to a halt following something of a financial crisis, there still seemed to be plenty of new money pouring into the city, making Almaty probably the most expensive city for thousands of miles. Uridin’s high rise two bedroom flat was only around two years old and much nicer on the inside that the institutional looking foyer and corridors would suggest. From his eighteenth floor balcony there was a great view over much of the city, including the bus station that we had just come from. Uridin’s young son was delighted with his gift of a machine gun – I assumed it was a toy one although I wasn’t entirely sure – and his slightly older daughter was equally pleased with some bright pink roller blades. A few minutes later she rolled out of the bedroom with them on only to fall flat down on to her arse. For a minute I thought she was going to burst into tears but then she decided not to and more cautiously rose back to her feet. One of their many business lines seemed to be importing the kind of seeds that made popular snacks. Their bedroom had boxes of them stacked up high either side of a large wall mounted plasma TV. The kitchen had already been removed in preparation for the new one so they seemed to be making do with a kind of camping set up. Uridin’s wife had plenty of food prepared for us. As the sink was currently missing from the kitchen, we went through to the bathroom – also full of cardboard boxes full of seeds – and washed our hands in a large hot tub style bath. I pushed the wrong button and squirted water all over the floor and Uridin’s leg.

Zenkov Cathedral, Almaty

Zenkov Cathedral, Almaty

When they turned the television on it seemed to be showing some kind of riot. It was happening just over the border in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city Bishkek. I had planned to be there in a few days time. We sat around the TV, munching on huge plates of chicken while the Kyrgyz soldiers randomly machine gunned the demonstrators. I was appalled – this was going to completely ruin my holiday plans. The opposition to President Bakiyev were claiming that his troops had gunned down over a hundred unarmed civilians (the number of deaths in the initial Bishkek uprising would later be thought to be 88 but hundreds more were badly injured). Uridin was seriously urging me to reconsider my holiday plans. Apparently there was nothing to see in Kyrgyzstan, anyway, and it was full of ‘very cheapy people’. Aisha had also been watching the news from her flat in Almaty. She phoned up Uridin and got her son to speak to me in his excellent English. He also strongly suggested that I amended my holiday plans and confirmed that there was nothing worth seeing in Kyrgyzstan apart from a few mountains and lakes. They made me write down their mobile numbers in case I got into any ‘trouble’. I was clearly a cause for concern. Uridin pulled off his shirt to reveal a back full of nasty looking burns. They were pulsing red, almost circular and evenly spaced. He had been to see an alternative therapist in Urumchi for ‘health reasons’ and she appeared to have overdone it with the hot stones treatment. He looked like a torture victim or an over enthusiastic masochist. I hoped that the ‘therapist’ had been ‘very cheapy’. While Uridin excused himself to visit the box filled bathroom – he hadn’t been able to face the ‘not very nice’ toilets on the way either – his wife plied me with enormous slices of cream covered cake while their kids ran around with their new toys. Before Uridin offered to take me to the hostel that I was planning to stay at, she presented me with some bananas as a present. I thanked them for their hospitality and kindness and was led down to the underground car park by Uridin. On the way we were met by an older man who seemed oddly deferential. Uridin explained that he was always treated with respect as he worked for the police. He flashed me an ID card. He hadn’t mentioned this before. Apparently he was some kind of police driver and had been especially trained to maneuver out of dangerous situations. He explained that there were some very bad people in Kazakhstan and that sometimes this was necessary. The main streets on the way were wide and well maintained but the side roads were full of pot holes and the pavements were cracked. There were plenty of new looking BMWs and Mercedes around but anywhere outside of the main thoroughfares they would be reduced to crawling just as slowly as the lowliest of Ladas. As the hotels in Almaty were notoriously expensive, I had planned to stay at the University’s 9th dormitory that was open to travellers. It was difficult to find but fortunately even in the early hours of the morning there were still some staff and students up and about. They showed me to a room full of single beds and warned me to be careful about locking the door properly and not leaving any valuables in the room. At least I had the room to myself. Uridin seemed less than impressed with my choice of accommodation but it was about as cheap as I was going to get in Almaty and by now I was far too tired to start looking for anywhere else. We said our goodbyes and I thanked Uridin for all his help – without his and the other’s kindness it could have been a very hard and frustrating journey.

Having held it in since this morning and the appalling road stop toilets, I now really had to go. In hindsight, I really ought to have asked Uridin if I could have used his nice clean Western toilet back at his apartment. The toilets I managed to find did at least have doors but there were no seats, and no light bulbs or windows, and as there wasn’t any bins either, piles of used toilet paper had simply been thrown all over the soaking floor. I had seen some depressing student accommodation in London but this was in a different class altogether. After traipsing up and down all the different floors I eventually found a single toilet that was equally sordid but at least had a working light bulb. I was tempted to try and wait until the morning when I could check into somewhere else with better facilities but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep with the stomach cramps that had now set in. My thigh muscles have never been strong enough to squat over Western toilets with no seats so I wiped the edge as clean as I could with my own supply of toilet paper – an absolute essential in this part of the world – and dared to rest my aching thighs down on it. I really didn’t want to make any kind of contact with the porcelain but by now I was exhausted. I would also have loved to have had a shower straight afterwards but I hadn’t been able to locate any during my search for a usable toilet and doubted if they’d be any more hygienic (I found out afterwards that you had to queue up downstairs in order to be handed over a key to the mysterious shower room). Unfortunately, all the travelling, irregular eating, and holding it in, had not been good for my piles. There was blood everywhere. By now, there was a queue of teenage Kazakh students starting to form outside the single toilet with a light bulb and I was feeling far from relaxed. I finished my business as quickly as I could manage and left my neatly folded used toilet paper in an orderly pile in the corner of the room. I’m not sure why I bothered as everyone else had just thrown their shit covered bog roll all over the place but I do think it’s important to keep up standards. After washing my hands and face as best as I could over what appeared to be a slime filled trough – using the remains of my mineral water for this as there was no running water – I finally collapsed into my hard, dusty bed.

Extract from ‘Tearing up the Silk Road’ by Tom Coote. Buy it now from Garnet Publications, or from Amazon UK or Amazon US. Much more by this author at www.tomcoote.net

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