Tag Archives: Kazakh visa registration

Almaty to Bishkek 11-21 September 2012

We are not alone!

Our illusions of being rather special and unique have been well and truly shattered. Bishkek is a fairly reliable place for getting visas to all sorts of other places, and is also at a bit of a pinch-point between mountain ranges and less easily traveled places like Afghanistan, and so it seems every other cyclist and backpacker filters through here at some point in their central Asian travels. So, here we are, along with about 20 other travellers, all waiting for various visas, in a guesthouse with a garage packed full of bikes (no other Pinos though). It’s lovely in many respects, but also a little deflating.

We left Almaty at rush hour (which is pretty much like any other hour of the day in that car-crowded city) and made our way in fits and starts through the choking smog, avoiding as best we could the more erratic and impatient of the many erratic and impatient drivers who have made Almaty the city where we’ve had the most near-misses in over 18,000km of cycling (2011 & 2012 trips). Eventually though, we cleared the city with only one car having nudged into our trailer, and headed west on a reasonably civilised main road. We only managed 30km before dusk fell, and camped up in a field next to an old land-fill site. Not ideal, but not as bad as we’d feared.

The next morning we had barely got going when we saw a touring bike parked up at a cafe and so we excitedly stopped to say hello. Juergen (near the end of his 5 week Central Asian holiday) was enjoying a pot of chai and a large plate of plov (rice with meat) so we ordered the same and joined him. 20 minutes later another loaded bike rolled into view and in came Charlie (in the middle of his 4 year cycling odyssey). Since we were all heading in the same direction we decided it would be pleasant to share the journey, and so our merry band of adventurers was formed.

It felt strange riding in a convoy, and was a bit of a blow to our egos to discover that solo bikes receive just as many toots and waves of encouragement as we do (we’d so enjoyed feeling special). But it was really nice to have company and fresh conversation at our wild camp that night. We camped out on the steppe with sun-dappled mountains behind us and in the morning entertained the first guests in our gigantic tent as Juergen and Charlie joined us to avoid the rain that suddenly blew in partway through breakfast.

The next day we met four other cyclists heading in the opposite direction and swapped travel tales and visa tips with them. They were on their way to stay with our Almay host, Tas. It’s a small world round here.

The climb between Almaty and Bishkek

We had a bit of a climb to get over the line of hills that separate Almaty and Bishkek, and Juergen and Charlie soon pulled away from us. We caught up with them on the descent though (although we suspect they’d sat up and coasted a little) and all rolled up to the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border together. First through was Juergen, who was travelling without a Kazakh visa and relying on a reciprocity agreement between the countries to allow him to travel for 5 days in Kazakhstan on his Kyrgyz visa. He’d printed out a piece of paper with the relevant rules written out in Russian and this had previously got him from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan, and he was hoping would see him pass smoothly back in the other direction. To our astonishment and relief he passed through with no problems.

Next up was Charlie, who hadn’t realised he needed to register his visa whilst staying in Kazakhstan. Once he’d been made aware of his mistake (long after the five day registration deadline was up) he’d gone to a provincial police station in a last-gasp attempt to register, but, for reasons we can only guess at, they hadn’t actually stamped his migration card. To no-one’s surprise the border guards were most displeased by this infringement and Charlie was led off, slouching for our benefit like a naughty school-boy, to be interrogated in some hidden room. Keith and I, with documents and stamps all in order, passed through with no problems, but didn’t know what to do about Charlie’s bike, which was lying forlornly on its side amidst the ebbing and flowing tide of people trying to push their passports to the front of the queue. We waited for half an hour or so, until one of the guards started to get rather brusque with us at which point we reluctantly left Charlie and his bike to their fate and moved through to the Kyrgyz side of the process where we had to go into a little room to get a stamp and then show our passports and the stamp to a guard who refused to let us walk through and insisted we mount up and ride so he could see the Pino in action. At this point Charlie caught up with us, having worn down his interrogators with his pleasant insistence that he had no money with which to pay a fine and a complete lack of concern at the threat of being held overnight.

Kyrgyz flag

Juergen was waiting for us in Kyrgyzstan and the four of us rode into Bishkek together. The other two had been told of a good hostel in Bishkek so we followed them straight to the Sakura Guesthouse and booked in, then Keith and I hot-footed it to the BaiMa visa agency recommended by Mary and Peter who we’d met on the road the day before to apply for our Chinese visas.  Annoyingly, it was 5.45pm, their office closed at 6 and their English speaker wasn’t in the office, so they told us to come back the following morning, which was a Friday.

We returned bright and early on the Friday morning, anxious to get the process started as we knew that the Chinese embassy only processed visa applications on Wednesday and Friday mornings. The English speaker still hadn’t arrived so we sat and waited, and then Keith realised that of the four passport-size photos he possessed, no two were alike and indeed only one showed him with a beard and long hair, so we shot off to get some new photos taken. When we returned the English speaker was in and took our passports and photos, but said it would be too late to take them to the embassy that morning – she could only hand them in the following Wednesday and then it would take a week to get the visa. This was very bad news for our schedule so Keith pleaded and cajoled and she eventually said if we paid $20 extra each we could have a fast-track service which would mean the visas would be ready five days sooner on the Friday. She then phoned the embassy and said it was still OK to get the application in today if she hurried and so we could have our visas the following Friday without paying the $20 supplement….all she needed from us was $150 each, in US dollars. Aaaargh. Luckily, ATMs in Bishkek dispense cash in either Kyrgyz Som or US dollars, so we took out the required amount and flew back down the hill to the agency….but sadly the delay meant it was too late to get the application in that morning and we ended up having to pay the $20 supplement for a fast-track after all. Still, that was one job done and we could now relax and enjoy our week in Bishkek.

Statue of Manas, Ala-Too Square, Bishkek

We toyed with the idea of going trekking for a few days, but have decided to save our knees for the arduous ascents that lie ahead of us and so have spent a lot of our time lounging in the pleasant little courtyard at Sakura Guesthouse, chatting to other travellers and sharing maps, travel plans and bike maintenance tips. The only downside to this otherwise lovely little hostel is its proximity to a mosque, which means the tranquility of the little courtyard is shattered at regular intervals by the amplified calling of the imam…particularly irksome for us infidels at 5.30am.

Bishkek’s a nice city to spend time in. Compact enough to walk round easily and without too much traffic, it’s got plenty of cheap cafes and bars, decent enough shops, lots of parks and a few museums and theatres.

We expanded our cultural horizons one evening with a trip to the Philharmonia to hear some traditional Kyrgyz music. The programme ranged from a sublimely talented solo performance on the komuz (a small 3-stringed lute-like instrument with a sound not dissimilar to a muffled banjo) to some traditional singing which was something of an acquired taste and sounded to our ears like very nasal shouting rather than singing. It was clearly a crowd-pleaser for the rest of the audience though so we clapped along with the best of them. In front of us were two elderly ladies who were having the time of their lives, clapping enthusiastically and completely out of time with the music and the rest of the audience. The performance was being filmed and when the cameraman panned round to show the audience he had the temerity to pass over these ladies, so one of them grabbed him by the sleeve and dragged him back to take their picture properly. I suspect we will be seen giggling helplessly in the background at that point.

Keith has bought a rather nice felt hat to keep his head warm on the high mountain passes, I’ve bought some extravagant down booties to keep my tootsies warm and we managed to find a map of Xinjiang province (northwest China) that helpfully has both English and Chinese place names marked on it. For anyone else travelling this way, the map was from a travel agency called Novi Nomad.

We should be receiving our Chinese visas on Friday 21 September and will then be setting off through the mountains to cross the Irkeshtam pass into China. In our initial route-planning we anticipated reaching the pass on the 4th of October, but we’ve just discovered (from some other cyclists here in the guesthouse and confirmed on the interweb) that the frontier is closed for a Chinese holiday from 30 September to 7 October, so we now have a good excuse to take things easy on the climbs with a view to crossing into China on the 8th.

Vino with a Pino!

One of the parks in Bishkek

Pink drink and tasty (cheap) food in a Bishkek cafe


Bread at Bishkek bazaar


Buying spices at the bazaar in Bishkek

Lake Burabay to Almaty 27 to 31 August 2012

We’d been beginning to feel left out….we’d heard so many stories of other travellers having to pay ‘fines’ or ‘supplements’ to ensure their paperwork was correct and yet there we were travelling along relatively smoothly and beginning to wonder if it was all an exaggeration of some outdated stereotype.

But we can now report that we have officially been fleeced by the migration police. You may recall from the last blog entry the difficulty we’d had in getting our visa registered in Petropavlovsk, where they initially refused to register us and said we’d have to pedal a further 200km to Kokshetau, and how grateful we were when they agreed to grant us a 10 day registration that would see us through to Astana or perhaps even Almaty.

Imagine our surprise then, when we went to register in Astana and the official, who spoke perfect English, told us that registration was FREE, that we should not have paid any money to the police in Petropavlovsk, and that they should have automatically registered us for the full 30 days of our visa and not the 10 days they graciously allowed us. So, at least we now have a genuine travellers’ tale to tell and can report that corruption is indeed alive and well in the rank and file of Kazakhstan officialdom, and we can no longer complain of being cheated of the complete Central Asia experience.

After posting our last blog entry (through cunning and sneaky methods to get round the block on WordPress that seems to be in place here) we realised that we’d have to make haste to Astana as although our registration lasted until 31 August, there was a bank holiday on the 30th and the registration office was likely to be shut on 30th AND 31st. So we decided to take the shortest route, along the boring, but beautifully smooth-surfaced main road. And luck was on our side with a strong tailwind. We sailed along at 30+kph and got to Astana early on 29th August. Our first stop was at the train station to see if we could get a train to Almaty that evening, but they were fully booked so we booked ourselves on the 10am train on the 30th, to arrive in Almaty at 6am on the 31st. So that meant we’d a) need accommodation that evening in Astana, and b) definitely need to register our visas in Astana and not wait until Almaty.


The guest rooms at the train station were expensive and could not accommodate the Pino, so we approached one of the several people outside the station who were advertising rooms. The lady we approached was one who had previously handed us her card when we’d been locking the bike before buying the tickets and had seemed friendly enough albeit perhaps a little eccentric.

Oh deary, dear though. We really must get better at judging people. Alma turned out to be as mad as a box of frogs! At first we put the confusing communication down to the fact that our Russian is really not very good, but after a while it dawned on us that our landlady was excessively garrulous and incoherent even to other Kazakhs, but by that time we felt we’d wasted so much time with her we needed to stick with the decision to just get the room sorted so we could go and get registered, which we absolutely HAD to do that day as it would be too late by the time we got to Almaty.

NOT our apartment block in case you were wondering.

So, after much confusion and debate about where the bike would be stored (eventually in our 5th-floor apartment and not in the outdoor public car-park that Alma initially had sold to us as a secure police-guarded park) and many spurious side-trackings on topics that we did not understand and, indeed, suspected had scant relevance to the business in hand, we agreed to take the apartment and asked Alma for the address which we would need to give to the migration police. Matters got even more frustrating at that point when Alma insisted she would need to come and register us as our landlady. We suspected this was not the case, but our knowledge of the intricacies of Kazakh visa registration were insufficient to be positive on this point, and in any case it would have taken more than our feeble protests to deter Alma from her mission to be as helpful as possible to us. So, instead of hopping on the Pino to nip into town we had to take a taxi with Alma to her apartment to pick up her passport and paperwork (and also to allow her to change her top and hat to another combination as mismatched and odd as her original attire) from there we proceeded to the migration police where Alma, after dawdling and digressing all morning, suddenly became a whirlwind of anxiety and barged through the crowds to pick up the forms she insisted she needed to fill in for us. Six attempts later we were surrounded by torn up paper, Alma was muttering and mumbling and seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Keith and I were wondering how on earth we could take the situation back into our own control. Finally, forms completed to Alma’s satisfaction, she whirled off through to another room to hand everything over to the officials. A few minutes later she returned in high dudgeon, ranting something about us having tourist visas, and then disappeared again back to the officals whilst we stood dumbly waiting. Eventually she called us through to speak to the official, who spoke perfect English and enquired how we knew Alma who was making no sense at all. We explained we had just met her and were renting an apartment from her for our stay in Astana. The official took our passports and told us to return in 15 minutes. Alma threw a complete hissy-fit at this and stormed off to get herself something to eat and drink, trying also to drag us along with her. We refused to go and instead waited for our passports, which were returned to us as promised along with a printed out form completed with all our information, which we simply had to sign and that was it, job done. We went to pay the official and at that point discovered we’d been fleeced in Petropavlovsk.

Norman Foster designed Khan Shatyr

In a blissfully Alma-free state and with all our paperwork complete, we were tempted to make our own way back to the apartment then and there, but decided we’d better wait to see if Alma re-appeared as we weren’t entirely sure if she’d understood we needed her to check us out of the apartment at 8.30 the following morning. She returned within a few minutes and we got another taxi back to the apartment where we tried to arrange for the morning’s key return then get rid of her as quickly as possible so we could go sight-seeing in what little remained of the day. No such luck. We first of all had a big argument about passports – she wanted to hold on to ours as security until we returned the key and we were under no circumstances prepared to relinquish them to her insane care – matters were eventually resolved when we wrote down our names and passport numbers and a mobile phone number (my UK PAYG one that doesn’t work here). She then tried to convince us that we must go to the train station together as she was sure we needed a separate ticket for our baggage and Keith had to be very firm in telling her that if there was a problem it was our problem. She then insisted on coming up to show us the workings of the flat (windows open and close, taps turn on and off, TV has a remote control…..nothing unusual or idiosyncratic in any of these items), and then, despite our increasingly impatient responses to her babbling, tried to drag us to the nearest shop so she could help us buy food. Despite our insistence that we’d been managing to buy food for ourselves in strange countries perfectly well for the last four months it was incomprehensible to her that we might be able to manage to do it by ourselves. We had by this time been in her mad and maddening company* for about 5 hours and despite our continued pleas that we wanted to go sight-seeing and thank you but we were quite sure we’d be able to manage on our own, in the end Keith had to be rude to her to by opening the door, cutting her off mid-sentence and saying firmly “Goodbye” in Russian. Eventually she left but it took us both quite a long time to feel calm again.

View from Khan Shatyr of the HQ of state energy company KazMunayGaz

Anyhow, craziness over and done with, there was still sufficient light in the day to go and see the sights of Astana. And what sights they were!

Bayterek Monument

Gleaming bronze, gold and green skyscrapers glittered and shimmered in the evening sun. The imposing block-shapes of fortress-like, Soviet-inspired buildings sat in sharp contrast with the futuristic curves of the Norman Foster designed shopping centre. Skyscrapers leaned quirkily like books on a shelf. Golden minarets nestled in a strange harmony amongst the mish-mash of classic colonnades, sleekly curved glass expanses and pagoda-style roofs. The city is barely twenty years old, and the newness lends it an energy, a feeling that anything is possible, and this energy and the diverse cultural heritage of its inhabitants are reflected in the extraordinary mix of architectural influences exhibited by its buildings.

The next morning we were dreading meeting Alma, but she seemed to have calmed down a bit and apparently bore no grudge against our rudeness the night before (if indeed she’d even registered it as such). We escaped her presence with relative ease and made our way to the train station to start the now familiar process of working out which platform we’d be on and how best to get the bike to it. As in Yekaterinburg there was no fixed platform, but luckily Astana only has three platforms, and platform one was occupied by a stationary train, and platform two and three were actually just different sides of the same platform, so we found the crossing point and wheeled across to await the train there (having already removed the chain linking the front and rear cranks, the front seat handles, both sets of pedals, and reversed one of the front cranks). It was still a mad scramble to complete the separation and wrap everything up when the train arrived and we could see where our carriage was, and once again we were reliant on the kindness of our fellow-passengers to accommodate all our belongings, but we’re getting the hang of it now and because we know what to expect the process doesn’t feel quite as stressful.

The journey itself was fairly uneventful, aside that is from my clumsiness whilst trying to clamber into the confines of the top bunk (we’d been allocated two top bunks). I was poised half-way up trying to work out how best to complete the manoeuvre in the absence of any grab rails that might assist one as vertiginously challenged as myself, when either the train swayed or my lack of co-ordination and balance overwhelmed me – the truth will never be known and isn’t really important as the outcome remained the same. One minute I was lightly remarking to Keith that it wasn’t as easy as it looked and contemplating my next move, and the next I was slipping through the air, thrashing madly and searching in vain for a foot-hold to step down to. Luckily the girl sitting in the adjacent seat kindly broke my fall a little (I hope her head is not too bruised) and I was uninjured but mortally embarrassed when my ass hit the floor. For subsequent ascents I misused the table as a step and ascended securely using adjacent bunks as hand supports rather than trying to clamber up the short end of the bunk using the step provided. Of course, instead of politely pretending it hadn’t happened, all the other passengers had to rush up the train to make sure I was all right, pat me on the head, and thus complete my mortification. Oh joy! Really, cycling is so much safer than setting foot on any form of public transport.

Crossing the steppe en route from Astana to Almaty

We are now staying in Almaty with Tas, an all-action, mountain-biking, adventure-racing airline pilot who is insisting that Keith enters a mountain bike race later this week (not on the Pino!) and threatening to take us mountaineering. I am drawn by the beautiful snowy peaks surrounding Almaty…..but can’t help but wonder if it mightn’t be safer for me to stay indoors with a good book.

*(the ‘mad and maddening’ phrase has been lifted directly from Keith’s diary – it just sums up Alma perfectly but I can’t take credit for it myself)