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Russian entry fails! Back in Kazakhstan.(9/11/05)

(CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES) I ate little, spoke little, and probably appeared a little bit out of it. My nerves were on edge because I knew that the border between Kazakhstan and Russia would be the first of many bureaucratic challenges on the way to Hungary. I had been preparing documents, getting the right vaccinations, blood analyse, and consulting with the Ministry of Agriculture who promised that they knew the requirements for entry into Russia with animals. The border officials on the Kazakstan side had all been given advanced warning of my arrival, I had contacts in Russia ready and waiting. But still, between immigration, vet checks, and customs, I knew that it would only take one bad apple, a bit of bad luck, or a missing document to ensure failure. These horses had been with me for more than a year, as had my dog. The thought of leaving them behind was too much. From an emotional, practical, and financial point of view I just had to get them across if it was at all possible. I left the village of Kuigen 8km near the border in a bad mood. My big stick of salami had been taken and eaten for dinner the night before, and some locals gathered to complain that they had not seen any gifts from me. Finally I was escorted out by two young men who begged for vodka money. In general, Myftagali and his family had done their utmost to look after my animals and the horses were looking 100 percent. I had given them all I could in addition to a generous payment and I was relieved to see that Myftagali did not just see this as a transaction. He had an interest and understanding of the journey. But Myftagali had gone into town early in the morning, and in my already nerve strung state of mind I couldn’t wait to leave these people who were sometimes bent on getting everything they could from me. Just out of the village I lost Ogonyok, my big strong pack horse. He cantered away with all my gear and it took an hour to catch him. All the horses were full of beans after three weeks of green pasture and 200kg of grain. To my relief the big iron gates at the border were swung open by grinning border guards. Two men who I had met previously and were now on duty in the veterinary customs department met me with handshakes. “What took you so long!” I tied my horses up inside border control and was taken out to lunch by the custom officials on duty. My worries faded. Later I passed smoothly through customs, where laughter and jokes prevailed. “So what model horse do you have? What is the chasis? The number plate? How big is the engine? What year is its release?” No one really knew which box to tick but it didn’t matter because they could see the journey for what it was. From there I was waved onto a barge, and we sailed across the river (one of the many parts of the Volga) into Russia. I rode two hours across lush green pasture where Tigon leapt about and rolled around in ecstasy. He loved being back on the road. It was dark by the time I reached the 10km distant Russian border control. Again the big gates were swung open by surprised guards and I tied the horses up outside the little guard post manned by immigration officials. After some confusion, the expressions of the officials shook their heads and stamped me in. From there Real Russia was just 70m or so away beyond a boom gate. I sailed into customs met by shouts and laughter. “Where are you from! You know we will have to remove your wheels to check for narcotics!” I was about to start with customs when a very nervous lady strutted out from the veterinary department. I tied the horses up and followed her into the little cabin that represented the ministry of agriculture. It was more like an old wagon really with no computer or telephone. I had been expecting this and handed over my documents. It became clear though that this lady was in panic mode. She twisted and turned, and without taking anything in of what I was saying she just repeated over and over. “I just don’t know what to do! What is this! This is a big problem! God look what problem has fallen on me tonight. It would have been better if I didn’t see you and you sailed past.” Without any grasp of what was going on we walked over to the little money exchange bureau where she borrowed a mobile phone. She then rang a superior for advice. “You know what problem I have tonight! I have a Hungarian travelling from Mongolia on horses and with a dog! And he doesn’t have papers!” “Oh what a nightmare! How terrible!” I could hear the lady repeat on the other end. We rushed back to the wagon where I tried to explain that I was Australian and that the horses were from Kazakhstan. The documents I had were especially made to prove that I was transiting Russia with the horses to the Ukraine and further. But this made no difference. “To me Kazakstan documents mean nothing. I need Russian documents. Where are you transit permits?” These transit permits it transpired had to be issued from Moscow, and this was all due to restrictions in 2004 relating to foot and mouth disease. Without these permits she ensured me that I was going nowhere and that even if she let me through then I would be turned around at the first police post in Russia. I begged her to think of another option. Surely there was a system of Quarantine, a place I could leave the horses while this problem was sorted out. But this lady was now totally stressed out. “I understand your position but I can’t detour this law. I am so tired. Oh how terrible!” In her panic she couldn’t find the right documents to prove this law, and then after another phone call decided that she would have to charge me with an order to forbid the horses into Russia and return them to Kazakstan. The only other option was to leave the horses in a warehouse and for me to enter Russia alone. The horses would then be destroyed. I phoned my contacts, Anna and Liudmilla, in Russia and they even sent a lovely man from nearby to greet me. I was able to talk to him over the boom gate, but no one could help me now. Customs wouldn’t even let me hand the dog over the border. The vet inspector lady was so stressed out that it was very, very difficult to get any sense out of her. By the time it was all over (about 6-8 hours duration) she was almost in tears and not responding. I walked back to immigration to discover that despite not being processed by customs I was officially in Russia. Departing would now mean that one of my two allowed entries into Russia had been used up. It was now midnight too, and I would not make it back to Kazakstan tonight. Officially I was supposed to be escorted back to Kazakstan but no one was willing to do that and I passed back the way I came promising to return. We stumbled along for an hour in darkness until I found some decent grass and made camp. Now I was in an interesting position. I was officially neither in Russia or Kazakstan. Technically all I needed was right here- good grass and water. It occurred to me that maybe I should stay put for a while. In the morning I made several phone calls to the ministry of agriculture in Kazakhstan and to Russia. I discovered that within this no-mans zone there was a Russian village. Perhaps I could get papers there? But it all seemed to risky. Getting caught staying on here could in the end jeopardize any chance of getting back into Russia. Not wanting to even think about the gauntlet ahead I met the barge on the river and loaded the horses. I was now coming back from the other direction and there were no promises of the same treatment. The look on the guards faces made me feel cold. They gave me the contemptuous look of someone not ready to trust or be in the slight friendly. I was forced to wait for more than an hour before they even let me through the gates. No one smiled, no one shook my extended hand, and the laughing of yesterday was now more of a snigger. Overnight the shift had changed and no one on duty knew me. Three hours later having taken the horses inside and passed through immigration, I was ordered to take my horses back out. A plump man in his mid thirties met me with a scowl and called me into his office. He refused to shake my hand and made me talk to him through a window the size of a letterbox slit. His look was one of deep contempt, and I could tell that he was bent on trying to prove that I was not well intentioned. “Where are your documents!!” he demanded. I had already handed all of them over. “No, your customs documents!” He then proceeded to tell me that I had illegally exported the horses and the dog, and that he could not let my horses pass. They would have to be impounded and I would have to sign an act that I had broken customs law. This was bordering on the ludicrous. “But I don’t understand what the problem is! Yesterday I passed out of here through this same office, I never made it to Russia, and now I am merely passing back through to wait for more documents. I never exported anything anyway.” He then proceeded to tell me that my horses and dog must be considered commercial because I would write a book. I argued and argued and became furious but he was all about creating problems and not solving them. If anything I explained, it was his department that was at fault because they had let me through in the first place and should have known that I required a transit permit from Moscow. If it wasn’t for his department I would never be in this mess. In any case I was sure that he had no right to punish me in retrospect when I had not exported the horses anywhere and was coming back in. He called his superiors on the phone in a scene similar to the night before, but they hung up on him. No one really knew how to interpret me. I looked for help from the veterinary department but felt colder still. There playing cards sat the huge steam roller of a man that I knew from the village of Kuigen. My horses by chance had been grazing on his land while I had been in the city. He sat safe within his huge bulk and with open crafty eyes barked at me: “If you give me your dog, and your saddle then I will solve all your problems!” then he just turned back to the table to play another round of cards. Further, he wanted to know why he hadn’t seen any money despite my horses grazing on his land. I was now close to my wits end. Nothing I said, no one I knew could help me and the horses had now stood for another six hours with the loads on their back. No one was making sense. There was finally one polite old man from the veterinary department who did his best to help me, calling to all of the contacts possible in the ministry of agriculture. Eventually it was decided that I would leave a photocopy of my documents with customs, and the local vet station would organise a customs declaration for the horses as ‘export’ as well as some faxed receipts of purchase which I didn’t have. The customs official had also tried to suggest that I had stolen the horses. The sun was nearing the horizon by the time our caravan got moving again. One last time I was stopped by the big fat veterinary inspector. He fondled my bridle and told me contemptuously that I was greedy for not giving away more of my gear as gifts. With that back we went into Kazakhstan, back through the same gauntlet, up the pipe I had just come down, and back into the core of problems that I thought I had escaped. I knew that I would have to get re-registered in Kazakhstan, that there would be endless hurdles ahead that were well beyond my control. The weather was cooling fast and soon winter would be here. My money was starting to seriously dwindle, my Russian visa was diminishing every day, and god knows whether I would really be let back into Russia even if I did get the right documents. As I rode though I felt relieved at least after a very unpleasant 24 hours. I had known in my gut that this was just an experiment, that the border would be one of the toughest hurdles. Now at least I knew the terrain, the reality, what I needed, and I had learnt a lot. A landcruiser stopped suddenly beside me. The driver passed me a note with his number and name. “If you want a free hotel room in the town of Ganushkina, you have one. Its my hotel. Just give me a call.” And that pretty much summed up Kazakstan for me. People are either openly generous, or openly callous. Customs and immigration are just people. If they want to be arbitrary they can, if they want to be kind they can. To the respect of the Russian officials I understood however that laws were laws, and the prevention of foot and mouth disease spreading showed at least some common sense. Late in the evening I trotted back into Kuigen. Muftagali greeted me with his toothless grin. “I tell you what you have to do Tim. Leave the horses and go home for winter.” That is exactly what the herder had told me in Akbakai almost a year earlier. PS If anyone who receives this email thinks that they can help in any way to process and receive the necessary ‘Transit permits for horses in the Russian federation from the veterinary department in Moscow’ then please send me an email. My Kazak visa expires on the 12 of December, so I have until then to sort everything out. Thanking you in advance Tim. (CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES)