Sunday, April 24, 2011

K. is for Kazakhstan, Kafka and Potassium


Welcome to the village of Kazakhstan


K. is for Kafka, Kazakhstan and Potassium

The Trials and Tribulations of the Hapless Traveller in His Elusive Quest of a 30–day Tourist Visa for the Illustrious Republic of Kazakhstan”.

March 1 
From Feb 15 I was in Bangkok getting visas for my cycle trip through Central Asia and beyond. I’ll need 10 separate visas for this trans-Asian ride. The Burmese tourist visa was a breeze, albeit the queues - next day pick-up.

I then lodged my visa application for China – waited in a long queue one hour before the doors opened. Hoping for a 6 month double-entry tourist visa. Fingers crossed. Buena suerte amigo! (postscript- yes, I got my 6-month, double entry  visa!)

And last but not least, the visa for Kazakhstan, land of the boundless steppe, wild mutton-eating nomads, abundant potassium and Borat. I don't know now why there is an embassy here at all (the only one of the Stans which has one in Bangkok). Perhaps Borat is the Kazakh cultural attaché, sitting behind the desk, clad only in his man-kini. The home of this embassy is the antithesis of the bustling, crowded Chinese and Burmese embassies. I've been to the building 3 times now. On the first two occasions I got as far as the 6th floor (the embassy is on the 43rd.) Here you have to deposit photo ID before entering the hallowed halls of the inner sanctum. Because my passport was at the Burmese embassy I didn’t have any I.D to give to one of two yawning chewing-gum munching receptionists. "Must have ID. Must have photo!" she yelled through the glass. "But no have. Burma have." I replied. "But you has driver's laysence". "No have. No drive car", I said, shaking head and imitating bad Thai taxi driver (or me, as I don’t drive).  She just shook her tassled head, shrugged and said. " No ID. No go up". So, after the first attempt, I went down (not up) to the ground floor and back into the blazing Bangkok sun.

Next day, I came prepared with a photocopy of my passport. I got to the 6th floor and saw all the Thai staff buzzing their passes to get through the turnstiles. Oh, how so lucky, you privileged public servants. I shrugged my shoulders, feeling like a dispirited Mr. Bean being denied permission to the children’s sandpit. I went up to my Thai twin inquisitors and with a very friendly smile flashed a mint-condition coloured photocopy of the photo page of my passport. I waited for the response. "No copy!" she  cried. "Yes”, I pleaded, “I copy, over and out”. “No photo ID, no go up” she reiterated, looking disdainfully at the sweaty farang outside the glass. "I come back tomorrow with passport, then I go up", I said with renewed valour and defiance as I slunk back to the elevator and back down to tierra firma.

March 3
I now had my faded blue Australian passport in my hands and  I went back to the Thai Twin Towers, to the 6th floor, past the pint-sized, but polite security guards to the two gargantuan sisters, all dolled up today with heavy make-up. Feeling like an avenged and smug Mr. Bean now, I approached the counter and slipped my passport under the window to Thai Princess No.1. She scanned my passport, tossed it on a pile under her desk and gave me a plastic card with a number on it. "Now can go up" she says to the idiotic farang (i.e. me). She has my passport, I have a yellow plastic card. No ID, no idea! I tried my best to explain the impossible situation I found myself in. "But I must have my passport for visa stamp, for Kazakhstan. No passport, no stamp, no visa, no Kazakhstan". She gave me the oddest look just then, like when you are about tocrush a cockroach under your foot, but not quite sure if it's worth the effort. She heaved a sigh under her enormous bosom, and pointed up. Ohwell, I've come this far, the only way is up. So, I buzzed my card andthe tripod legs swung forward and propelled me in the direction of the elevators, but a bit too forcefully as I almost cartwheeled onto thefloor. When I gathered myself, I couldn't help looking around to see if anyone had seen my miraculous, if clumsy, entry (another Mr.Bean routine). But, alas, there were none, except the two twin humps gazing at me with a mixture of disgust and pity.

I got into the elevator. I was the only inhabitant of this shiny metal space capsule and it shot upwards like the Sputnik. Then it spat me out ontothe polished tiles of the 43rd floor, the home of the Embassy of theRepublic of Kazakhstan. In the catacombs I found the entrance to theembassy. On the glass doors was posted the opening hours -  Monday10-12am, Wednesday 10-12am, Friday 10-12am. It was Thursday 4pm. My first thought was, 'When do these people get time to eat?". "Perhaps they have to go out onto the steppes faraway and hunt for shashlik”, my second thought replied philosophically. Hmmm, I mused. I was contemplating all things Kazakh as I looked around at the empty souless corridors. Then, suddenly it occurred to me. I was K., the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s Castle, and this building was the surreal and labyrinthine edifice he found himself in. Like K., I too was struggling against an invisible bureaucratic system and was on an endless and futile pursuit of an unobtainable goal. So, feeling a little crestfallen but with a dash of Kafka, I got back in the Sputnik and plummeted back to Earth. The guards smiled as I buzzed and pushed through the barrier. I returned the magic card to Thai Princess No.2. She was doing her seventh layer of make-up for the afternoon. In her now famous nonchalant (i.e. don’t give a rat’s arse) manner, she slipped my passport under the glass.

It was just then I thought I should get a little enthusiastic and theatrical (mistake no.1) and demonstrate to her (and anyone else who wanted to listen) how much I wanted to visit the much-fabled land of Kazakhstan, the land of bountiful potassium and mutton, but how inaccessible it had become to weary travellers like myself. I held up my passport, then grabbed a rubber stamp from under the window (her stamp, her window- mistake no. 2). Then I pointed skywards to the 43rd floor and started stabbing the passport with the stamp (passport closed, of course, clever thinking). I left the passport by the window (under the careful eyes of TP2 -mistake no.3), took the stamp far away (but not quite as far as the steppe, more clever thinking) and positioned myself between the two (more or less). In this small pantomime I was trying to show TP2, the little soldier men and anyone else who was interested, how elusive my quest for a 30-day tourist visa to Kazakhstan had become. "How is it possible?" I wanted to yell. But nobody was really listening. So, in a final act of submission, I picked up my passport, retrieved the stamp from out near the frozen Kazakh steppe (which took some time I might add), brought it back to the counter and crept away disconsolately toward the elevators. In the reflection of the metal doors I could see TP2’s face twisted in a grimace as she scraped her nails with a file, almost like a Kazakh nomad would sharpen his knife before plunging it into the neck of a young goat. With this image floating in my mind I stepped into the elevator and hurtled back down to the din and the heat of Silom Road.

March 4
Another trial run before I left for Burma. I was hungry for some inside information and I returned to the embassy. There was a small queue waiting to lodge visa applications, including two very disgruntled foreign businessman. Each had a similar story to mine. Their visas had been delayed by a public holiday and one had travelled all the way from Scotland as it was an 'easy' embassy..

I, however, was in a very positive mood. My turn came and I went through the glass doors which locked with a heavy clunk. I was now in the inner sanctum and one steppe closer to Kazakhstan.  The clerk behind the glass partition smiled. I told him I wanted a visa application form, which he provided. Then I explained my predicament, of not being able to get into the embassy with my passport. He replied that when I returned with my visa application at the end of March, a clerk would follow me down to the 6th floor to retieve my passport from the front counter so I could lodge it with my application. Too easy!
March 28
I returned to Bangkok after a month in Burma,  to try once again for the elusive visa. I arrived early on Monday morning. Now an expert at this, I left my passport under watchful eyes on the 6th floor and back to the 43rd. I was first in the queue, 30 minutes before opening hours. Off to a good start.

It was here I met Angel and Tim, the Air Astana pilots and Angel's brother Julio. Julio needed a tourist visa. I told them with an omniscient air that it takes 2-3 days to process a visa, and that you need a passport photo, a photocopy of your passport, an application form, your passport (which I didn't have-see 6th floor), a receipt for the $40 visa fee from the Siam Bank 3 kms away (costing 500 baht I might add) and a generous dose of patience and humour. They only had 1 day and a passport. They were waiting for Patience and Humour to turn up (perhaps they were stuck in Bangkok traffic).

10 am arrived, the welcoming buzzer went off and I entered the chamber. The same clerk was facing me so I repeated my story. I had everything except my passport. He took all my papers, read them and told me to wait outside for the clerk. I followed this official down to the 6th floor and we retrieved my passport in return for my security card. No worries. Back to the embassy where I handed over my passport and was given a receipt and a vague promise my visa would be processed by Wednesday morning (my flight to China was at 6pm that night).

Out of the elevators, I approached the turnstiles to exit the building. I went to the guards to explain that my security card was with those lovely ladies over there (5 metres way). They said I needed a security pass and wouldn't allow me to pass. I scratched my bald noggin and contemplated leaping the turnstiles and I made a half-hearted attempt - the guards quickly aproached and their body language told me that this could end ugly. So, with my loyal buddies, Patience and Humour, I went over to the elevators, lay on the cool tiled floor and feigned sleep. I would spend the rest of the day here. This might work, I thought. ......but after 10 minutes of this I got a little distraught (my buddies P&T had pissed off, of course). I remonstrated with the head security guard but he would have nothing of it.

Then, I saw a face in the lunch-time crowd which looked like it had just emerged from the Central Asian steppe. I asked him if he was from the embassy. "Nyet", was the answer, but he did come from Kazakhstan. Worth pursuing, I thought, so I told him about being trapped in this tiled limbo. He too tried his pass but the guards wouldn't allow him to help me out. We mused over this for a while and he told me about all things Kazakh, which took my mind off my predicament and back out onto the boundless steppe.
After 20 minutes of nomadic novelties, he decided to call the clerk at the embassy and then the consul himself. The reply came - somebody was coming down from the 43rd floor to get me out. 20 more minutes out on the frozen steppe, and still no-one arrived. Then out of the blue, a crowd of Korean gem-buyers spilled out from the elevators (this building is devoted to the gem trade, hence the existence of tight security and, as I later learned,  the Kazakh embassy). Their guide was a security guard and as he flashed his electronic pass, the gates parted and I dropped to the height of a Korean and squeezed out with my newly-found  raucous compatriots, undected by the guards. I was free at last! But, only temporarily. I still had to return on Wednesday for my passport and visa. When I got out and onto Silom Road, Patience and Humour were nowhere to be found. They had left me for good. (probably down on the corner pub, laughing at me). 

March 30
The big day had arrived- visa pick-up day. I was getting anxious about the visa and getting access and exit so I begged some Thai friends for their help. Mem arrived at the staion with her photo ID, a drivers licence and we went to the 6th floor.  After a brief discussion, we were able to proceed to the illustrious domain. We waited for aeons as the clerk went looking for my passport. He returned to say they hadn't received the visa from Kazakhstan. Where was my passport? He said to return at 2pm in the afternoon. But, as I knew the embassy closed at 12 noon and the Kazakhs would be out on the steppe hearding sheep until Friday I pleaded with him to make it 1pm. My flight out of Bangkok was at 6pm. Questions  flooded my mind. Would my visa arrive in time?Would they answer my call at the embassy at 1pm? Would the Thai twins accept my Thai drivers licence with the portrait of a slim, long-haired 33-year old Thai woman?

So, still without passport or visa I slunk away with Mem (who, I must say, had plenty of patience and humour). Mem explained to the ladies-in-waiting & grooming that I had to go up to the embassy at 1pm. Could I use her photo ID? Luckily, Mem's charm and experience as a persuasive tour guide did the job.

I had lunch with my Thai friends, Mem, Uan and Nit and they consoled me and tried to ease my Kazakhian anxiety. Uan put her hands on my shoulder and told me to be more patient. Do it the Thai way. After lunch I rushed  back to the Twin Towers by taxi and MRT, up to the 6th floor to find.....................
....the clerk standing there with his briefcase, a smile on his face and my passport with a freshly minted 30 day tourist visa for Kazakhstan. So, after 7 visits, 2 lock-outs, 1 lock-in, $40, I was now the proud owner of this unique stamp.

To think of the effort to get this visa and I only spent 8 days in the country! I also had to register at the migration police in Almaty within 5 days of arrival. This was another story, this one with the help of Angel, a bit of queue-jumping and an an ounce of frivolity (no patience this time around).

This is my collection of Kazakh memorabilia - my hard-won 30-day visa, mregistration certificate, and a badge of honour presented to me by Alina for my perserverance in all things Kazakh.

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