Almaty Kazakhstan 2
Zharkent Kazakhstan 2
Urumqi China 3
Zhang Ye China
Wu Wei China
Lanzhou China 2
Hello from Zharkent Kazakhstan,
Zharkent is the last town before the border with China and one of the few places where a road crossing is permitted. As I like to get an early start when heading into unknown territory, I decided to make the three hour drive up to Zharkent from Almaty the day before. This is the "real" Kazakhstan; most commerce is done in the permanent open air markets crowding the dusty dirt streets around what passes for the center of town. There are a few restaurants and grocery stores and even one Internet Club.
The hotels are a joke for the most part. On arrival I started my usual hike to find someplace to sleep for the night. Grim, grim best describes the first two hotels I checked: filthy broken toilet and bath fixtures, grungy gray towels, grubby frayed bed clothes, etc. Unasked, the owner of the second place indicated the room rate would be about $4. Finally, I made one of the young female staff understand I wanted to spend a lot of money for a room and she joined in an elaborate game of Charades to provide directions to the newest "motel" in town. After seeing the other possibilities I had low expectations for the suggested Motel Atlantico. Located several blocks off the highway, finding it proved to be a challenge. Most locals could not understand my pidgin-Russian, nor "hotel atlantico." To my great surprise and relief the place actually turned out to be a very modern attractive structure, the newest thing built in this rural border town. A combination disco, special events dining hall and six spotless modern guest rooms on the top floor made this the venue of choice for well healed Kazakhs in the area... and finicky foreigners able to locate the place. The owner's daughter spoke a little English and soon we had arranged the $22 cash rent payment with a combination of Dollars and Tenges.
I finished the final draft of this postcard the night before I expected to cross the border back into China where I planned to get it "posted." So much for the best-laid plans of mice and men. After waiting at two Kazakh police check points twenty minutes each and then almost two hours at the gates of the Korghos Chinese Immigration border station, I learned with immense surprise my double entry Chinese visa had expired, this after multiple questions along the way of Chinese PSB officials regarding the conditions of my second entry! It seems no one noted the first entry date had long passed and that this date also applies to the second entry as well as the first!
Professional, but stone firm officials tried to explain the situation as I continued to assume they misunderstood that I only wanted to use my approved second entry. Slowly, additional guards and officers surrounded me, one holding an automatic weapon off to the side. A lone Chinese Immigration interpreter tried his best to make both sides understand what we were saying to each other. Eventually the commander appeared on the scene, three stars shining on her shoulder epaulets. She listened patiently as the others explain their understanding of the problem and then my explanation... through the translator. Having heard enough she spoke to me in understandable English: "You must go back." That ended the debate.
Now desperate to find a solution that didn't involve returning to Kazakhstan, I remembered my several Chinese contacts that had invited me to call them if I ever had a problem. My cell phone! Oh, no. I had left it in the bag completely discharged. Quickly I located the thing and the charger gesturing frantically that I needed to recharge the phone in order to make a call. One of the young guards walked me back to a semi-private area in the building where they hold illegals and found an electrical outlet. As the phone started charging I checked my remaining prepaid Chinese wireless service air-minutes; 18 minutes available. The helpful staff at the five stars Hotel HoiTak in Urumqi came first to mind and got my first calls. Several calls later, Muhammad Turusn, the hotel's Chief Concierge spoke to one of the immigration officials and then helped me understand the actual situation. After that I stopped trying to convince the immigration people they had made a mistake and walked peaceably back across the border into Kazakhstan. A car waited conveniently at the border and whisked me back to Almaty in under three hours: $30 cash and none of the time consuming border check point delays in this direction. More when I get this all sorted out.
PS: After finally getting a new Chinese visa in Almaty I returned to this charming little border town on the Kazakh side to try again to cross into China the following morning after a good night's rest in the $22 cash only, but quite modern Motel Atlantico. Clearly the fanciest facility in town, the owners behaved like they knew it.
PPS: Finally put the GPS gadget I've been carrying all over Asia to use. Not that anyone cares, but Zharkent is at [44deg 10.469' North & 80deg 01.799' East]. F
PPPS: Anyone putting together a C.A.R.E. package for me is encouraged to include a couple cans of Dr. Pepper, a package of TUMS, a bottle of ordinary aspirin, at least one Payday candy-bar, a real Big Mac hamburger (freeze dried might be O.K.) and a copy of Microsoft FrontPage; all of which are unavailable in this part of the world. F