"It becomes clear that, despite the
border guards’ protestations, visas are obtainable at the
crossing – for a price. The bargaining – affecting only two of
us since Russians do not need visas to travel anywhere in the
CIS – begins at $1,000."
It’s eight o’clock on the Thursday
evening, and the sun has by now very definitely set. We have
been sitting in the no-man’s-land on the border between
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for the past couple of hours, doing
battle with the local bureaucracy. Despite our having been
assured by the Kyrgyz embassies in London and Moscow that
tourist visas can be obtained at border crossings as well as
at Bishkek’s Manas airport, the reality here on the border
seems very different.
Thankfully I’m travelling with two investors
well versed in the practicalities of doing business in the
After a series of circular and increasingly
futile discussions about the difference between the visa
regulations in theory and practice, we are told to sit back in
our car and wait for the arrival of the border guards’ “big
boss”, who eventually pulls up in his own smart shiny car. We
produce our flight tickets out of Bishkek, explain earnestly
that we are due to fly out less than 36 hours later, and wait
for the latest instalment in the saga to unfold.
As we sit in the darkness, the passing traffic
consists mostly of beaten-up Ladas and occasional horse-drawn
carts driven by children barely into their teens. Sitting in a
highly visible and shiny Mercedes, even one several years old,
won’t help the eventual price negotiations that the impasse is
surely drifting towards.
Another difficulty is the distinctive Almaty
number plates that our car carries; they previously belonged
to Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s brother and were
bought by our driver to keep the officious and frequently
bribe-seeking traffic police from bothering him in Kazakhstan.
But they will have an opposite effect should we actually
manage to make it across the border to Kyrgyzstan. We have
been warned that we are likely to be stopped multiple times on
the short journey from border crossing to Bishkek.
The problem is this. We cannot get the
necessary visa to pass through the Kyrgyz controls; neither,
though, can we go back to Kazakhstan as our single-entry visas
expired when we left Kazakh soil. Nevertheless the two
investors are confident that we will finally get through. In
the meantime, though, we must abide by the rules of the
It becomes clear that, despite the border
guards’ protestations, visas are obtainable at the crossing –
for a price. The bargaining – affecting only two of us since
Russians do not need visas to travel anywhere in the CIS –
begins at $1,000.
We laugh. For this price, we explain, we could
return to Almaty, hire a presidential suite at the best hotel
in town, and dine out royally at the most expensive
restaurant. We have done our research, and work out that a
visa purchased legitimately at Manas airport would set us back
about $50 a head. So we come in with an opening bid of $200
for the two of us.
The border guard chief explains that to obtain
the visas one of his underlings will have to drive to the
airport himself with our passports and air tickets, get hold
of the necessary stamps, and drive back again. We must
therefore pay for this level of “service”. Eventually, a price
of $300, $150 a head, is agreed. We settle back to wait while
our travel documents are whisked away, with no absolute
certainty that they will return.
Several hours later, after several cold beers
in a soulless border bar – where we are entertained by groups
of mainly large, mainly drunk ladies of a certain age singing
and gyrating to cheesy Asian karaoke tunes – we are relieved
to see our passports return, now bearing the official stamps
we were lacking.
We jump in the car, grateful for the cover of
darkness that with luck will prevent us from being stopped by
over-eager traffic police and head along the bumpy road for
the security of Bishkek.