Having successfully got my visa, pausing only to smile smugly at the angry South African outside the Kazakhstan embassy, I journeyed to Gatwick where the charter flight to Uralsk was departing that evening. I picked up my ticket, checked in etc. and proceeded to wait for the flight to be called. As anyone who has traveled outside what are normally described as first world countries can attest, one of the tricks to doing so successfully and with the least hassle of any kind is to adopt a completely open attitude to timetables and how long any particular process may take. True to form, we boarded the plane and sat on the tarmac for a little while. Eventually the pilot came on to say that we did not have ATC clearance for Kazak airspace. It’s worth noting at this stage the charter had been flying on the same plane every week for four years but Kazak ATC were feigning complete ignorance of the plane and everyone on it.
“We’re trying to get the paperwork sorted in Kazakhstan and we leave as soon as possible” announced the pilot.
“We’re going nowhere tonight” thought the passengers, knowing full well it was four hours ahead and thus past midnight in Uralsk. Sure enough, after making us wait for another hour or so (just for form) we were all booked into Gatwick Hilton for the night, one of the less well known Hilton daughters.
The charter was only for employees and contractors of an oil company, a joint venture formed between the Kazak government and several big Oil Co’s to exploit a very large oil, gas and condensate field in the North-West of Kazakhstan near, well, nowhere. As such, we all promptly went to the bar where I learnt that the most likely explanation for the delay was a local operator trying to muscle in the charter business which was currently held by an English low cost airline. The English company had won the business after a number of incidents (cracking windows/engine shutdowns etc.) with the local operator had led to a demand for a change. However, as can be seen, in true free market style the local boys were not letting these “minor safety issues” get in the way of encouraging the company to switch back.
Next morning, we got to take off with no doubt the right amount of paperwork having been filed in the correct brown envelope and delivered right into the hands of the appropriate official. It was a direct flight to Uralsk, made pleasant by the fact that the plane was less than half full. It was dark when we began our descent into Uralsk and thus came the first real evidence of the remoteness of this part of the world: as we descended there was no signs of electric light at all. Bearing in mind that the skies were clear, this gives you some idea of how sparsely populated the region is.
We bounced down the runway (uneven but thankfully no potholes) and were eventually let off the plane to begin stage two characteristic of customs & passport control in LDC’s and, from recently, the U.S. This is the weirdly long customs wait combined with much pointless filling out of forms.
Amongst other forms (Are you a terrorist? Yes or No – if you answered “Yes” are you not a very good terrorist or just an idiot? etc.), I filled out a customs declaration form on which you must list anything of value that you have with you and much it is worth in US dollars. This includes such things as wedding rings etc. If it’s not on the list you’ll run a real chance of having it “confiscated” permanently.
We came down the stairs of the plane to de greeted by an unsmiling woman in Military uniform (army, customs, police – who knows?) who gave us each a numbered card. This was to hand to passport control so they could work out if any passenger did a runner in the freezing cold darkness to the middle of nowhere, in a bid to break into Kazakhstan which should be a whole new concept from their point of view. We then went over to the terminal, which was a small two story building. We then sat & stood in the standard bare room on plastic seats queuing to go through passport control & customs which for 70 people has been known to take up to four hours. Nobody knows why.
Perversely, having been through many similar situations, once you get to the relevant official or whatever it never seems to really take very long. Eventually I got to the counter of the plywood booth containing an unsmiling woman in military uniform who took my passport, opened it, compared the photo, did some furious typing on her computer, asked me my date of birth, checked it on my passport to make sure vanity hadn’t got the best of me, more furious typing, asked me what company had sponsored my visit (there’s no such thing as an unsponsored visa – somebody in the country has to sponsor your visit), yet more typing, checked to make sure it was the same answer as everybody else on the private flight chartered by the local company and that I was not just some thrill seeker coming to the empty steppes of Kazakhstan, maybe she’s taking the opportunity to type a novel at work to make up for an undemanding job?
Picked up my luggage by climbing over the unmoving luggage conveyer & went on to customs which consisted of four trestle tables in a small room, two each side, leaving very little room for us and our luggage. Behind each table was an unsmiling man or woman in military uniform.
I opened it and he made a very desultory show of looking in it.
Gave him the customs form. He clearly could read neither English nor my handwriting. That said, I can’t read my handwriting.
I showed him the $200 I had with me. He looked a little disappointed.
“Nope” He’s looking even more disappointed now.
“No” I almost said sorry – he looked so terribly sad.
He then dismissed me with that universal “you no longer exist to me, so please fuck off” air that custom officials the world over do so well. I went to the exit door where a pretty young woman jumped out at me, thrust a plastic bag into my hands containing an apple, water and sweets and wished me a “Welcome to Kazakhstan”.
I stepped out into the cold and dark.