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Hauled up in Ust-Kamenogorsk (27/2/05)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) “I’m afraid that you are in trouble Mr Cope. Either we deport you, or at the very least there will be a hefty fine. You will have to sit through a commission to find out which option is available.” I looked into this officer’s eyes, and it struck me that he didn’t have a clue what he had just said. He had just told me that two years of planning, eight months of sweat and tears, my whole life in fact was about to be chucked down the drain. What about my dog, if I couldn’t at least say goodbye it would be a disaster! “Oh…right” I fumbled. To be honest I had never truly understood my visa. I had been told that I had to register once with the police, and then again only if I stayed more than three days in one place. Since I would be travelling non-stop with the horses it seemed very convenient- I wouldn’t ever have to register again! I guess in my heart I knew that it was too good to be true. The result was that I had just travelled for four months over 2000km through some sensitive regions, been to Almaty on the train…and not once had an official asked for my documents, even hinted that I should have been registering with immigration police every month. Basically I had been roaming free unchecked. Fittingly they had only become aware of my crime now that I had visited the police myself to register in the city of Ust Kamenogorsk. It kind of irritated me that Misha, a local and good friend, seemed totally unfazed. “You will be right Tim. This is Kazakhstan! Just start talking to the officers about horse meat sausage and Bes Barmak (the national meal) and they will forgive you. It’s obvious that you’re not up to any dodgy business.” It did seem contradictory that after meeting with the immigration police for the second time they were all on a first name basis and had greeted me with smiles and handshakes. As it turned out on the day of my ‘commission’, the National News channel ‘Khabar’ had decided to run a story on me for the evening news. Funnily enough we borrowed horses from the Mounted Police and shot some film of me riding these poor animals that tried to bolt at first sight of the strange Australian. It didn’t help my nerves that were already close to snapping. In fact, due to this little entertainment we were an hour late to my commission hearing! Again I was a little irritated. The head reporter assured me. “Don’t worry Tim, it will all be OK, they always do this!” ‘Do what?’ I thought. Don’t these maniacs realise that my life is on the line here! Five hours ensued at police headquarters, most of these sitting around drinking tea and answering questions about my trip. Fortunately the reporter from Khabar had decided that this problem was personal. He eventually worked his way into the head office and came out looking rather pleased. We shook hands and he left. What had gone behind those doors? For one he had agreed to do a good positive story about the local police. By 6pm though I had been through a commission, been slapped on the wrists, had a great chat about Kazak food, and even been issued two months of registration! I left feeling like I was saying goodbye to friends, and was even invited to drop as a guest any time I wanted. Common sense had prevailed! At times I admit I was on the verge of complaining about these laws, and systems, and registration especially when I was not any threat to national security, or looking for tax free work…but then I remembered all too quickly that our own government in Australia operates some of the toughest immigration policies in the world, totally bypassing all common sense, flexibility and humanity at times. For a Kazak wanting to travel across Australia by horse, I imagine that he faces a far tougher bureaucratic road than I will ever have to, and most likely his dreams will not be realized. I am reminded again and again of the privileges afforded to us westerners. Interestingly, there was a Chechen in the office that day who had also missed his registration date, and there was none of the same friendliness being shown to him. With the registration problem dealt with I was able to begin relaxing and catching up on sleep. The temperature began to plummet in general and for most of my time in Ust Kamenogorsk it has not risen above –30 degrees Celsius. The coldest day here reached –47 degrees Celsius, indicative of one of the coldest snap in Kazakhstan in recent times. It was in these kinds of conditions that Mongol warriors would lather their faces in animal fat, and when hungry drink warm horse blood from their mounts. I have spent most of my time with Misha and Evgeniy, preparing things for the rest of my trip, putting on a bit of weight, and learning about Kazakhstan from the comfort of sedentary life for a change. The friendliness of the locals is astonishing, and their interest in my journey has given me a fresh perspective, and inspiration to keep going. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)