My Kyrgyz visa expires today and there is no other thing I can do but to go to Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are separated by Chuy River, located not far north of Bishkek. I took a minibus as it cost only 800 Som to cover the 4 hour journey to Almaty.
The Kyrgyz – Kazakh border is also a strict one. The people of the two countries are very closely related ethnically, linguistically, historically and culturally. The Kazakh were called as Kyrgyz and the Kyrgyz were called as Kara Kyrgyz (Black Kyrgyz). Kazakh and Kyrgyz also share many poets and national hero. Creation of Kazakh and Kyrgyz in the Soviet time was actually slicing the same people of two different variants: mountainous (the Kyrgyz) and steppe (Kazakhstan).
But now the border crossing has reflected that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are indeed two different countries. The border post of Kyrgyzstan was made from oil tank transformed to be a small office. The border guards only took a glance on the passports of the border crossers as Kazakh and Kyrgyz, the most people who cross the border, don’t need visa to cross. It took me more time to cross. I have an Indonesian passport, with a Kyrgyz visa expiring on the same day, and, bigger problem, I don’t have entry stamp to prove when I came to Kyrgyzstan. This was due to the Kyrgyz border in Bör Döbö said they didn’t have any stamp. But I showed them my exit stamp from Tajikistan that proved I came through that land border far in south, thus entering legally. The border guards, though, asked for some money before giving me the stamp.
“Don’t you see this?” said me pointing “Inviting Organization” column on my visa which was filled “The Embassy of Republic of Indonesia.”
They stopped to hassle me and let me pass.
The Kazakh border is much more modern. It is a huge office and some officers were distributing ‘Migration Card’. All foreigners entering Kazakhstan should keep this Migration Card together with the passport and it will be revoked when exiting the country. For people who stay more than 5 days, a registration is needed and the Migration Card will get a special stamp for it. All the bureaucracy here needs money. Only the Migration Card is free.
Kazakhstan is rich country, and it is keeping its border tightly. Such a land border like this is equipped by camera. All people who cross the border are photographed by a digital camera in front of the immigration officer. They want to keep the picture of all people entering their country. I wonder whether they also have fingerprint scanner. But anyway, it is really a contrast compared to the tiny Kyrgyzstan.
The huge land of Kazakhstan has promised much for the future of the nation. The country is a huge mass, it is the 9th biggest country in the world, but with only less than 20 million populations, about half is ethnic Kazakh. The country is so big that it is divided into 3 time zones and it crossed continents of Asia and Europe.
The giant empty mass of Kazakhstan bears huge deposit of oil, gas, gold, and anything which attracts rains of hard cash currency in the country. I felt shocked since the first hour in Kazakhstan. The minibus stopped in a small canteen. The food looks simple and cheap. I only chose two menus: rice and vegetable, and even with that I was not filled. The portion was very small. I was surprised when I got the bill. It was 500 Tenge (1 US$ = 130 Tenge, so it is about 4 $). It is not cheap at all.
I arrived in Almaty’s Sayran Bus Station. This is the biggest bus station in the city. I know Almaty is a very expensive place to stay, and my friend in Bishkek recommended me to stay in a gostinitsa (hotel) on the Töle Bi street, the main road of Almaty. It might be the cheapest place in town, which cost 1500 Tenge (12 $) for a bed in a dark, smelly dormitory and with comparable uninviting dirty toilet and shower. After a long journey from Bishkek with heavy backpack, I felt so submissive.
It was almost dark already. I went out to make some phone calls to contact some friends. This is another shock. After a long search I got a telephone card, for 250T (about 2 $ for 25 units), I made a phone call, saying about ‘Hello, How are you’ stuff, and the card already finished. 2$ phone card only last for 1 minute!
Crossing from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan suddenly I felt so poor. It was a great shock. I have been in Almaty in 2004 and I was shocked that time. Now I had the same feeling even with stronger mental preparation when I was in Bishkek. Kazakhstan economy grows much faster than my mental preparation.
Tonight, as I have finished my entire budget for today, I decided not to take dinner, despite the cold weather. It is snowing, and the only color I see of Kazakhstan today is white and grey. There is a huge Christmas tree in front of the Old Parliament House in City Center. There is big proportion of Russians, German, Korean, and other non-Kazakh, non-Muslim ethnics in Kazakhstan, so I guessed that the Christmas tree was to celebrate the Christian Holiday. I was wrong.
There were a number of people around the giant Christmas tree. Loud music was played from the giant loud speakers. And the pedestrians stopped and danced a while, waiting for concert. Today is the first day the lamps of the Christmas tree will be turned on, and there will be open dance concert around the tree. Yes, in this cold, freezing, snowing evening.
And this was actually not a ‘Christmas tree’. This was ‘New Year tree’, and the Kazakh people I talked to, said they were Muslims and they celebrated New Year, not Christmas.
Kolya, a 20 year old cook Kazakh boy I met near the Christmas tree, brought me for a short walk around the area. He works in Hotel Almaty as bread maker. And he said he earned so less money, and it was difficult to live in the city with that amount. He earned 350 dollars per month, and it was about the lowest salary one can get in Almaty today. 350 $! Compared to Bishkek lowest salary rate of 4$/month, it is about 9000% higher.
Kolya said he was so interested about Afghanistan. The name that his father gave him was actually ‘Kabul’, because his father was serving military service in Kabul during Soviet occupation on Afghanistan. But he changed his name to trendier, more popular Russian name, Kolya. I bet having name ‘Kabul’ in Almaty is not something to be proud of. Kolya said that Kazakhstan was getting richer and richer, slowly but sure the country will be modern. We walked for a while in the dark park. Kolya was thinking of getting me dinner, but we couldn’t find anything cheap.
The first day in Kazakhstan, I just can say nothing but, the Kazakh now are really rich. While now I am sleeping on my hard bed in the tiny, cold, dark, smelly room, under thin blanket. It was not comfortable night at all. I know I am not part of this newly prosperous country.