Have you ever watched the news and witnessed escaping refugees at a border crossing, crushed against iron bars like animals in a cage? You know the scene. Now superimpose two backpack-laden white faces onto that newsreel, throw in a few cries of “Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan” amongst the shrieks of old women and children being squashed in a sea of madness, and you would just begin to understand what we went through at the Uzbek-Kazakh border yesterday.
To our pleasant surprise, exiting Uzbekistan customs and passport control couldn’t have been easier. Then – our real test – the Kazakh side. The combined wisdom of Soviet and Asian queuing techniques conspired to produce large clouds of humanity everywhere, rendering it impossible to determine where things started and where they might end.
We joined the queue at the rear of an anxious mob – some carrying shoulder bags, many lugging sagging Chinese sacks of vegetables and melons, and others laden with all of their worldly possessions. The gate in front of this herd of hundreds was locked. As people escaped and climbed back to the Uzbek side (for what we’re not certain), the remaining crowd swelled and swayed. Those around us hung onto our backpacks and tried to maneuver where they could, even though there was nowhere to go. In amazement, Audrey asked a Russian-Uzbek woman who seemed to look comfortable in this setting. “Is this normal? Is it like this every day?” The woman smiled, and nodded “Yes. Don’t worry, a few more pushes and we’ll make it to the front.”
As the full force of Uzbek-Kazakh rush hour hit, what little space existed disappeared and the real crush began. What air remained became almost too hot to breathe. We could feel our lungs taking on the pressure and slowly collapsing under the weight of bodies around us. In one of our most physically challenging travel moments yet, fainting was a distinct possibility. Injury was certain.
We were worried. The scene was something like a mosh pit, minus the order, joy and human decency. This was humanity and human misery at its worst: everyone tries to get in and ahead and no one realizes that the system crushes everyone under its own weight. This is the worst Russified post-Soviet Central Asian madness and behavior that we could imagine.
We looked around into the eyes of the herd and we could see normal people transformed into mutants consumed by anger, their faces twisting in smiles of fatigue. And there was no reason for this madness – no war, no shortages, no violence. What was going on here? Pretty simple: this is what happens when poor organization and perfect corruption conspire to bring human misery where it simply doesn’t belong. If this represents the combined wisdom of the Uzbek and Kazakh governments, life can only get worse before it gets better.
In an effort to stay together, we locked arms. But the shifting human mass stripped us of our ability to move on our own and we eventually separated and drifted into the crowd. More people arriving from behind meant increased pressure, sandwiching the crowd more tightly forward towards the locked gate.
Dan struggled to move beyond an old man with an overflowing sack of watermelons and a group of Kazakh women built like linebackers. Women around us yelled, “Kazakhstan. It’s our Kazakhstan. I’m Kazakh, let me in. Kazakhstan is for us.” Angry Uzbek women replied that they were just as entitled to enter. Fortunately, no serious fights broke out, but everyone’s animal instincts were turned on full blast.
After three hours in this angry steam bath of humanity, Audrey made it to the front gate and caught the eye of a Kazakh border guard. Just moments earlier, he had allowed a group of Kazakh citizens to pass due to their conveniently money-stuffed passports. Armed with her American passport and a look of helplessness, she implored him to let her through. As he opened the gate he smiled ironically, “Welcome to Kazakhstan.” The teeming masses tried to follow. The guard barked at them hinting that his gun was handy and tried to slam the gate. He perched himself against a metal fence and tried to close it against the weight of the mob with the force of his legs.
The final challenge: to find and extract Dan. The guard was not up for this challenge. Dan was still several rows back in the angry crowd. Audrey tried with another guard, assuming the role of a distraught woman in search of her husband. Dan raised his hand to indicate where he was. The guard yelled and motioned to let him through. No one moved. Even if they could, would they? As a trickle escaped through the front gate, the crowd rocked back and forth in waves. Undeterred, the guard gave his best effort and reached in. In what little energy remained, Dan surged forward. His bags twisted in the crowd and he nearly went horizontal in an unintended crowd surf. He handed his passport to Audrey over the gate and reached to the outstretched hands of the guard, who helped to pull him – scratching and scraping just like the others – over and through the mob.
We were both covered in sweat, dehydrated and exhausted, but we still had one more hurdle to cross – getting our passports and immigration cards stamped by the Kazakh police. The corruption factory had apparently spawned another group of lowlife entrepreneurial women who collected money-loaded passports and handed them to the front of this queue, thereby expediting them to the colluding border guard at the window. Families huddled behind, unraveling wads of money (usually between $1-$3) to tuck into each passport. Having come this far without paying a bribe, we stuck to our principles and waited it out. When we arrived at the window, we were shown to a more civilized “foreigner’s line.”
Like all perfectly corrupt systems, there is an alternative to the experience above. Apparently, for around $8 (perhaps more for non-Kazakhs), middlemen touts have an arrangement with Kazakh border guards to allow people to enter through another gate, thereby fast-forwarding them to the front of the passport queue. We had considered this, but decided on principle not to contribute to the corruption; we subjected ourselves to the madness instead. By the time we’d figured this out, extracting ourselves was not an option anyhow. And in truth, we needed a really good story after enjoying so many uneventful days drinking lattes in Tashkent.
Next time, would we pay to avoid the crowd? Having woken up with our share of cuts and bruises, it’s hard to say. For those of you who have ever paid a bribe (either directly or through a company that acts as a bribe-paying middleman or fixer), you are aware how systems that embrace endemic corruption have a way of wearing down your principles.
Cuts, bruises, and reflection aside, we were very fortunate to be carrying American passports.
Otherwise, we might still be at the border.