We had far too many encounters with the Kazakh police. Sometimes friendly, sometimes harrassing, often corrupt, they were everywhere.
The day Chuck and I left Burabay would be the day of far too many police encounters. The first time we were pulled over sounded like this:
“Where are you from?” they asked.
“Ahh kangaroo!” they responded with laughter. “Ahh piva, piva!”One of them flicked his neck with his thumb (the sign for drinking). But then they told me they were going to arrest me.
“As long as it’s just for the day” I said, hoping it was a joke.
“Yes” said the young officer in the front. “We will arrest you and you can be my girlfriend!”
After this first, perhaps too friendly encounter in Burabay we were stopped again on our way out of Astana. On the edge of the major cities there are security check points you must drive through at 20km per hour so that the police can check you out and if they feel like it, stop you. As we crawled through the check point they spied our foreign vehicle and a policeman pointed his bright orange baton at us. We pulled over and had the usual “We’re tourists from Australia and England” conversation. We told him we were going to Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve to see the flamingos.
demanded the man with authority. I kept smiling but was secretly concerned by the fact that all the car documents are in Phil’s name, and Phil was in England. We were directed into the office with our documents to be checked by another policeman. The first officer followed us in. The man behind the desk looked at our passports and my licence and then his attention turned to the Japanese registration document for the car. I held my breath as he stared at it. Thankfully, as it is mostly in Japanese, he put it aside without much scrutiny. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was short lived.
“Car insurance document”
Oh dear, that was one of the things we had meant to do in Astana, buy car insurance. We didn’t have any. I fumbled through all our documents pretending like I didn’t really understand and eventually pulled out our insurance document for Russia and tried to use this.
“No” he said “This is for Russia. You must have one for Kazakhstan.”
Well it was worth a try! I tried to explain that we didn’t know we needed a separate one, and that they had not asked at the border when they allowed our car entry. The first policeman suddenly spotted a suspicious looking vehicle coming through the check point and dashed outside with his orange baton at the ready. I continued fumbling through our collection of documents and showed the man behind the desk all the Russian ones we had.
“No, no Kazakhstan.” He said.
The officer looked bored and as we waited for the one with the baton to return he began staring at the car registration document again. Then he noticed Phil’s name on the document. He pointed this out to me and then pointed to our passports.
“Woodland. You are not Woodland.”
Here we go! Chuck and I began trying to explain that Woodland was the third member of our party and that he had flown out of Astana to England and would fly back to Astana in a few days. We showed him a copy of Phil’s passport and photos of the three of us to prove he did exist and that we hadn’t stolen the car. The other officer returned and we went through it all again.
“This is problem.”
He said. The man behind the desk pulled out his infringement notice papers and motioned that he was going to write me a fine for driving a car that wasn’t registered to me. He said he would write the ticket and I must go to the bank to pay it and he would keep my license until I had done this. He went through this explanation several times without actually writing out the ticket. The other officer said we must go back to Astana and get car insurance too. He wrote down the street where we could get insurance, no street number though, and it just happened to be the longest street in Astana, god only knows how long that would take to find. It was already after midday and we wondered if we would even make it to the nature reserve that day. The officers explained everything a couple more times to be sure we understood. After maybe an hour spent in the office they handed back all our documents, including my license, and said
“Ok, goodbye. Go to Korgalzhyn and see the flamingos.”
So they had basically just wasted an hour of our time and then didn’t actually fine us, or insist we go and get car insurance. Slightly confused, we got back in the car. We decided to go back to Astana anyway and get the car insurance to avoid any future problems.
By some amazing stroke of luck we pulled up on the longest street in Astana about 300m from an office that sold car insurance. It took about an hour for them to prepare the documents and then we were off on our second attempt to get to the nature reserve. Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve is made up of a number of wetlands and salt lakes and is home to over 300 species of birds including the greater pink flamingo. It is located 130km south west of Astana and as it was only 3pm we decided we could still make it.
The roads were not the best and we arrived at the information centre in Korgalzhyn at about 5:45pm. The main gates were closed but a small side gate was slightly ajar so we strolled up to the seemingly abandoned building. A woman exited the building from a side door. She was on her way home but we stopped her and asked where we could buy a permit for the national park. She took us inside and upstairs to an office. There was a Russian woman in the office who could speak a little bit of English. She showed us a map of the park but unfortunately there had been too much rain and we couldn’t actually get into the main park where the campsites were. She showed us another lake where we might find flamingos. We could go there tomorrow if it wasn’t raining. She suggested we camp back out of town by the river, but maybe it was not so safe because it was so close to town.
We set off to inspect the river 3km out of town. There were lots of people fishing but it was very exposed with no good campsites. We carried on another 10km or so out of town. The landscape was vast steppe with barely a knee high bush in sight. All we could find was a track that led about 20m off the road with a couple of bushes on one side. The sun was setting so we decided that this would have to do and that we would cook dinner and then sleep in the car. After a quick dinner and a game of cards we set up our sleeping bags in the front seats, settled in to a film on the ipad and dozed.
TAP TAP TAP
We were suddenly blinded by headlights. We realised a car was blocking the path and three men were tapping on the passenger window. A little bit frightened, we were relieved to discover they were police officers.
“WHAT YOU DO HERE?”
They interrogated us but seemed to relax a little when they realised we were just tourists sleeping on the side of the road. Seemingly unsure about the situation, they returned to their vehicle and started to reverse. We expected them to drive off but they stopped at the main road and sat there for about ten minutes before walking back to us with flashlights.
Were we doing something illegal? Surely this was too much for one day! As it turned out the police were actually just concerned for our safety. They wrote down all our passport details and told us to lock our doors because the kids around here were crazy. They made sure we had their phone number in case we needed help. I was touched by their concern but the whole experience left us feeling very uneasy and unable to sleep very well that night. Thankfully we made it through the night with no more visitors. We woke to a glorious sunny day and we set off to see some flamingos.
*This picture does not depict a real Kazakh policeman and is for reference only