Day 26: In Almaty, after all

We were optimistic about continuing our trip next year. With Akelai’s help, we spent the day hunting for the central customs office. After three tries, we found the right location. I don’t even know how we would’ve found the place if Ryan hadn’t asked Akelai to come along with us.

We met a number of customs officials in order to convince them to allow our car to exit the country next year – way past the allowed deadline stamped into our customs papers. While everyone was positive that it would be possible, we hit a dead end in the Kyrgyz central customs head office. With the current laws in place we would only be able to extend the deadline by paying USD 1300 in fines. And it was unclear whether it would even be possible to extend beyond six months (we were not keen to try the Kangoo in the Kyrgyz winter).

Now that’s the current laws. At the beginning of the month, Kyrgyzstan had joined the Russian customs union. None of our contacts were able to tell us what would happen if in 2016 our handwritten 2015 customs paper would be good for anything – with or without the USD 1300 fine.

We contemplated even more daring plans such as crossing the border out of Kyrgyzstan but not entering into Kazakhstan on the other side, effectively leaving the car in no-man’s land. While Moritz considered it a ground-breaking idea, I had my concerns. The last thing we needed was the Interpol looking for us.

Luckily, we did not manage to find a border with enough space between the border posts and a good spot to hide it for a year in order to reduce the risk of enterprising locals using it as cheap donor car for parts. Other ideas included having someone drive the car across the border once a month for another month’s extension each time or registering the car with diplomatic license plates to avoid paying import taxes. The risk, time and effort involved for each of those options did not fare well under closer inspection.

We mulled over our predicament over a lunch of vegetarian laghman.

Time ran out. The car had to go. While we estimated we could push the Kangoo to make it across the border to Almaty, Kazakhstan had joined the customs union years before and was much stricter in handling imports and disposal of cars, making it much less difficult to handle the situation in Kyrgyzstan.

We stored the car in a parking lot and paid for one month. That should be plenty of time for Ryan to find a buyer. We packed all we could stand to carry, which was about 50kgs of equipment, dusted off the Renault logo, hugged our car and took off the license plates.

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It was a good car while it lasted. It got us through many a difficult road conditions, including multiple river crossings. I was sad to see it go.

We came back to Ryan’s office where we hugged Akelai goodbye. She put us on a taxi to the bus station, and gave her number to the taxi driver so that he could call her in case we ran into trouble.

When we got to the bus station, we realized that there were no proper buses heading to Almaty. But there were matrushkas, a minibus that is popular with locals. Our taxi driver helped us buy the tickets. A one-way ticket from Bishkek to Almaty cost about 400 Kyrgyz Som (around 5 EUR). It was our cheapest border crossing during the rally!

The matrushka that was about to depart didn’t want to take us as we had too much luggage. The taxi driver waited with us, and helped us communicate with the bus driver, with help from Akelai on the phone. The next matrushka driver agreed to take us. I was touched by the taxi driver staying with us until the bus departed at 16:53. He didn’t have to, but he showed us he cared.

We reached the border Korday in about 40 mins, but found a massive queue of cars. Our driver bypassed all the cars and dropped his passengers off at the crossing. We pushed and shoved to get in line. There was a large amount of people, mostly locals.

We finally managed to get to the Kyrgyz exit point but were told to go to another room. We were already nervous that they might ask about the car. We didn’t know if any records were made at passport control, or just at customs. The idea of absconding without our car made me feel like a criminal.

The Kazakh side was even busier, if possible. We pushed and shoved our way through, carrying our heavy luggage, through a narrow metal-caged space. Now I’m not one to feel claustrophobic, but I wondered if we’ d get out alive in the unlikely event of a fire. Something about a metal cage just doesn’t sit well with me.

While waiting in the queue, we met a nice Kazakh lady who spoke some German. She tried to help us get through quicker by explaining to the guards that we were tourists – which I’m sure was not evident at all!

We finally got to passport control. As always scrutinizing my Bangladeshi passport took ages. We were afraid our matrushka would leave without us. We were done at 19:00 and ran all the way to the bus. It had not left. In fact, we weren’t even the last ones.

The bus finally set off at 19:30, and we reached Almaty at 22:14.

It was late, and we still needed to find our way to a hostel. We changed some US dollars into Kazakh Tenge at the train station, where the bus dropped us off.

Finding a taxi was a bit confusing, but we convinced a semi-official looking taxi driver to take us to a hostel. As we approached the building, we discovered it was the right location but hostel had the wrong name. But we found 4 Mongol Rally team cars parked in the driveway. We figured it was the backpacker’s hostel we had been aiming for.

We were registered and given a room by the security guard despite not having any reservations. The room smelled funny and looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the last occupants left, judging by the uncleared trash. But the bed sheets were reasonably clean.

I discovered a millipede on the wall though. It was kind of cute from a distance, though I wasn’t keen on it as a roommate. I suppose that’s what you get for 30 EUR a night in Almaty.

We wanted to fly home on Saturday, which was 3 days away, but none of the booking attempts we made worked. All the flights were booked out. Flight comparison sites would show us the available flights and then would say it was all booked out after putting in the credit card details.

I gave up after the 4th try and fell into a deep sleep. Flight booking will have to wait until tomorrow.

This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.

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