“You cannot leave Kazakhstan”
You are in a small room, three floors below the concourse, in a former Soviet republic; there is a small desk and one chair, one harsh light. In the chair sits an imposing Kazakhstan policeman. He pushes his oversize hat back to the back of his head, leans back and sighs, “You cannot leave Kazakhstan,” he opens and closes his hands on the desk, palms up, palms down. The room echoes. I think I can hear Claire take shallow breaths. “Problem. Passport Control. You cannot leave.” The two days we spent “checking in” with the police in Almaty were apparently for naught; two small stamps were missing: A mistake, or a set-up?
After a few minutes of this to soften us up, “English coming,” he motions to the small door. A man arrives; his English is broken, but understandable, for the purpose; taking money from two terrified tourists. “Problem bad,” he said with a shake of his head. “Passport Control say no stamp;” then several versions of the dire straits we found ourselves in followed; finally, I asked the question they had been waiting for, “What can we do about this?”
He gestured to the policeman, “He can fix with Passport Control. $170 US,” he gestured to the both of us, “each.” He saw my surprise, “Not for him, no, no, not for him; fix problem with Passport Control, you leave tonight.”
“I wonder if I should call the US Embassy?” I suggested.
“Oh, yes, could do. Take one, two days, more, big fine also.” He paused, glanced at the policeman, who nodded. “He make special for you this day, $200 for both.” We looked at each other; Claire dove for the hidden stash of dollars they knew we had. Zippy and our luggage were both on the plane to Baku, and we wanted to be on that plane too, Russian rust bucket or no, we wanted out of Kazakhstan. The policeman took the two bills from me and deftly slipped them under a sheet of paper he had on the desk just for the purpose; it signified done deal.
Claire, ever the budget keeper said, “Can we get a receipt?”
“No, no,” said the English speaker, waving his hands, “unofficial, all unofficial!”
The policeman called in a young assistant (apprentice extortionist) who could not contain a smile as he took one of the two bills to deliver, along with us, to the head of Passport Control. We followed him up to the concourse, crowds watching us, knowing what had taken place; we followed in humiliation more than violation. We were helpless, and they knew it. These were not poor people; they are sucking at the teat of mother Kazakhstan, and still lining their pockets with the odd bribe, when the opportunity presents; we were the perfect opportunity: our bags and Zippy, tediously prepared, already on the plane, our visas about to expire.
This all made boarding the TU154 a little easier: better to risk death on an aging Soviet jet than stay another moment in Kazakhstan. Our fellow passengers brought on huge amounts of food for a four hour flight: what did they know that we didn’t? I had other worries: Headline: Jet Runs Off Runway At Almaty Due To 10,000 Liters Of Borscht In Carry-On. The loud sound of vibrating aluminum trying to tear itself apart made up for missing Muzak or an in-flight magazine. Stains in the empty literature pocket carbon dated to the late Pleistocene, and the smell was a heady mix of BO, cheap perfume, stale food and fly poop. Despite all the borscht, we managed to get off the ground and flew to Tashkent where we parked on the tarmac far away from any terminal. Our captains abandoned us to no doubt pay their local bribe, and we were joined by several bus loads of Russians carrying large amounts of food again. The tail of the plane sank, as did my hopes of us getting off the ground. The captains seemed cheerful when they returned, perhaps it was the toasts of vodka that followed the bribe, something we were denied in Almaty. The engines wound up, the wings shuddered, the few non-Russians turned toward Mecca; twenty minutes later we left the ground; people who had turned blue from holding their collective breath, began to regain color. Not long thereafter, we were served a surprise meal (surprisingly good) and the Russians wondered why they had brought all that borscht. We landed safely in Baku, and wondered what joys Azerbaijan had in store.
Boy, were we naive. We arrived at the Almaty airport a full six hours before our flight with plans to spend the afternoon cleaning and prepping Zippy for the flight to Baku, Azerbaijan.
A gaggle of guards and other men circled around with questions and curiosity. We showed photos and maps of where we’d been and what we were doing. Soon, we settled down to cleaning the bike, men wandered off. One young man stayed and watched a while, finally picking up a spare rag and starting to help clean the bike. “How nice,” we thought, “he wants to learn more about the tandem.” Bob showed how the pedals came off and the young man volunteered to take off the other set. We brought out the tape and plastic bags and covered any greasy parts. The young man took over the taping job while we held the bags in place. We finished a full two hours ahead of schedule and began to get uncomfortable when the young helper insisted on carrying bags for us. Yes, that’s right, he wanted money for the help we didn’t need. We made it clear we didn’t know he would be expecting money and when we handed over the last of our Tenge (what we’d planned to spend on dinner), he wanted more! .
Okay, it must have been just a misunderstanding. We were dopes.
But wait, there’s more…
Remember Bob’s joke about “zee passport problem”? No joke.
We followed the policeman through the security check points, all eyes following us. Click, click, click went his heels, downstairs to the isolated part of the airport, into a tiny room. Oh my God they don’t still really do this do they?
tsk, tsk, tsk, heavy sigh. He pointed to the phrase about the penalty for not registering. He used his cell phone to show the dates on the calendar of our violation. When we registered at OVIR, they gave us an unstamped registration card, meaning we had no proof of when we checked in.
A translator came in.
Breathe, breathe, don’t panic, breathe.
“There’s no receipt for this right?”
Baggage help: $20,
Bribe to Kazakh Passport Control: $200
Our freedom: Priceless
Lesson learned: Keep your bribe money in the sweatiest, stinkiest place you can think of.
But the day wasn’t over yet…
You can imagine Bob was pretty testy with the baggage handler at the Baku airport when, at 11:00 at night, he wanted “money, money, money” before he would let go of the bike. (Bob…”the first time I have ever considered using Zippy as a weapon!”) Mentioning the police loosened his grip. We had already paid an excess baggage fee at the other end. Another volunteer dropped the bike like a hot rock when we pleaded that we had no money. Didn’t these silly people realize we had just come from Kazakhstan, one of the most corrupt countries in the world? They had already turned us upside down and shaken us ’til all the money fell out.
We had to reserve two taxis to our hotel that night, one for Zippy. As we sped through the city on deserted streets, I had visions of the drivers taking us to some isolated part of town for yet another shakedown. They would have been disappointed.
We needed a day to recover.