Week 14

August 5 to August 11

I booted my laptop, fired up the GIMP and Inkscape and started what I hope to become an illustrious career in document forgery.

Since the officials in the Russian embassy had demanded the originals of the letter of invitation, I had earlier gone to the supermarket and bought thick drawing paper and a semi-transparent document binder featuring a version of Ariel the Little Mermaid with asian features.

Having the letter of invitation which had been dispatched via e-mail by a German visa agency sent to me via DHL was costly, a great hassle and, quite frankly, a lot less exciting than wandering in the footsteps of Adolfo Kaminsky and Konrad Kujau.

Soon, the signature had disappeared from the document and the stamp had been colored in a beautiful shade of marine blue worthy of the former Soviet Union.

The first few print shops were kind of suspicious of a man with dirty jeans, heavy boots and bloodshot eyes demanding to have what looked like official documents printed on his own paper and outright refused to offer their services to me.

After a few hours I found what is probably the only print shop in Kazakhstan that does not give a damn about the law saying that you can’t print stamped documents in color, since the 50 cents per page were just too good of a deal to pass up on.

Back at the hostel I practiced the signature and put it onto both documents in a move so swift and elegant that my handwriting teacher from primary school would have been proud.

Satisfied with the work of the day, I went to the mall and had a horrible chicken burger with a tasteless sauce and pulpy cucumbers.

I wasted the next day browsing the internet and admiring the forgeries. In the afternoon, I went to the mall. As usual, it was completely empty, presumably because no-one can afford to buy anything here. The only people I met were the plentiful cashiers and security guards. The shelves were fully stocked with fresh goods: bread, meat, fish, cheese, vegetables. I have no idea what they do with all these products in the evening.

On Friday afternoon I went to the embassy.

Since I had once again got lost in the Minoan labyrinth that is Almaty I was half an hour late which meant that a sizable queue had formed.

When I was finally at the counter I was asked for my passport. My heart was racing, and light tremors, nervous fiddling with a pencil, a twitching eyebrow and dilated pupils were the only signs that could have given me away as a potential criminal.

“Original Letter of Invitation.” the official demanded. Casually I dug the Ariel the little Mermaid binder out of my backpack, opened it and carefully pushed the heavy paper through the slit under the glass separating the office from the waiting room.

I pretended to sort through my documents while the thick index finger of the official jumped back and forth between the thin black-and-white printout and the thick color papers. He looked up and said “It is copy. I think it is copy.” I shrugged, paralyzed by the thought of having wrecked the trip to Mongolia by sheer stupidity and laziness. Then his finger jumped to the signature and his brow tightened. He looked back up and nodded approvingly. “It is OK.”

I took the passport and went back to the hostel.

A new neighbor, Mike from Australia, had arrived in the morning. Mike had the energetic persona of a Buddha on Valium, and indeed he soon told me that during his travels through Burma and India he had started studying of Siddhartha Gautama’s life and philosophy.

Mike, Ruslan, a French man and two hostel employees were drinking vodka outside the entrance of the hostel. Eager to celebrate the acquisition of the visa, I joined them.

The 28 year-old self-proclaimed “lion” Ruslan lectured us on the benefits of being a family man. In the next sentence, he casually mentioned that while his wife and baby daughter were waiting for his return in Astana, he had sold the family car in Almaty, spent some 20% of the proceedings in the local Hard Rock Café which boasts western prices and was using the rest to rent a flat with his local girlfriend.

Soon, he steered the conversation towards the existence of god. The Frenchman jokingly said that he’d prefer god to be female, since otherwise huge testicles dangling from the heavens like giant penduli would hit unsuspecting believers in the face at the most inconvenient of times. Ruslan was outraged by this obvious mockery of allah and threatened to kill the Frenchman. Mike tried to defuse the situation, saying that god was not a “he” or a “she”, but an “it”. Ruslan misunderstood “it” for “eat” and immediately assumed a sexual context. He got even angrier and threatened to kill the Mike as well.

I finished my vodka and went to sleep, hearing them shout and argue from below for some more time.

At 08:00 AM, I fled the mental asylum that is the Yes Hostel in Almaty and headed north.

On the road I met Susan and John from England who are traveling the world in their beautifully restored 1988 VW T3 Syncro with a marvelous orange-and-black, Tigger inspired paint job. I immediately liked them and we drove part of the way together, but then I realized that I was running out of fuel in the middle of the steppe and went to a town to find something combustible while they headed further north. Finding fuel a town of 200 people is not easy. Everyone was eager to help: “lieva, naprava, straight aheada!” they advised me. In the end some kids selling melons took me to a place that sold fuel for the outrageous price of 80 eurocents per liter.

Endless nothingness in Kazakhstan.

I left the town and found a nice and exquisitely dry place to camp. I gathered some branches and without great effort managed to build a sizable campfire which spread to the steppe while I was taking a leak. Stomping the flames like Rumpelstiltskin I just barely avoided burning down Kazakhstan.

The next day I headed further north and soon met John and Susan again. We found a nice spot to camp. Susan cooked a formidable omelet in the fully featured kitchen of the van while I cooked potatoes and herrings over an obscenely large campfire.

Tigger’s Travels: Susan and John’s T3 Syncro.

In the morning we had tea together and headed for the Russian border. I stopped in Semey, also known as Semipalatinsk, which used to be a test base for nuclear tests of the USSR. There must have been a sizable industry in Semipalatinsk. Today only abandoned factories with rusting, tilted chimneys and facades full of broken windows are witnesses of a glorious past.

Rocinante and her big sister T-34.

Monument in Semipalatinsk.

Soldier slipping on a banana peel.

Semipalatinsk in the evening.

I took the first shower in days and went to bed.

Crossing into Russia was surprisingly easy. There was a perfect queue and everything seemed efficient and well organized. The customs officer asked me to open my boxes. I showed him an apple and said “yablaka”, one of the five Russian words I know, grinning like a complete idiot. He told me to close the suitcase and drive on.

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