Beneath crackling power lines in the stifling, prison-barred queues of Kazakh immigration, giving an inch meant a wave of people shoving past. Standing my ground, I blocked off the space with my luggage. Attempts to climb over it eventually desisted.
It soon became clear why they’d been so eager to get past. The woman on the Kyrgyz side having stamped the wrong date in my passport, it was clear that I was the first Westerner of the day; but at least she’d cocked it up with a smile, correcting her error with a biro she borrowed.
The name sign at the window on the Kazakh side read “Passport Control Makes Corporal Telemov
Termhamedikov”. Obviously Mr. Termhamedikov was nothing without passport control.
“Russki?” the Corporal demanded.
“Niet,” I replied.
“Niet Russki?” he spluttered in astonishment, utterly bamboozled by the fact that anyone could possibly not speak Russian.
Clearly Comrade Termhamedikov couldn’t comprehend what my nationality was or the meaning of the Kazakh visa, and was unaware that there was no longer a Kyrgyz visa requirement.
The disgruntled queue behind me grew whilst, confused by even the dust-jacket on my passport, he milled methodically back and forth through the dizzying array of unintelligible stamps and visas, borrowing a pen to take notes.
“Cigarette?” he asked weakly, but I didn’t have any.
Finally, with a gesture akin to defeat, he stamped me through, his disappointment compounded when I indicated that I’d like my biro back.
The worst was yet to come, however, at the green ‘Nothing to declare’ channel of customs where the bald, sweaty Officer became extremely animated about my laptop.
“Laptop! Computer!” he shouted, springing to his feet and motioning insistently for me to turn it on.
“Islamic materials?” he sneered, half-question, half-accusation.
That was the extent of his English.
He first chanced upon a book I’d written, the cover of which was an illustration of a skeleton wearing a General’s uniform. He didn’t like this one jot.
“Problem!” he barked disapprovingly, shaking his flabby jowls, which swung like udders.
I scrolled down to show him the text, attempting to explain. Pointing at myself, I mimed typing and writing.
His brow settling into a cavernous, befuddled frown, I struck upon an idea and, pulling a book from my bag, used it as a prop.
“Me,” I said, pointing at myself and making a writing motion.
“Da,” he said.
I had the feeling we were making headway.
Opening the book, the Customs Officer landed upon a picture of William Kotzwinkle.
The frown returned. Not looking a bit like William Kotzwinkle, I was obviously a fraud.
Continuing to worm his way through my files, he then struck gold, chancing upon a folder full of downloaded pictures of Central Asian Dictators, Militias and Polygon sites. His face contorted in suspicion and rage as he babbled furiously at me. Finally seeming to accept that repeating himself in a language I didn’t understand would bear no fruit, the Customs Officer decided it was time to move this up the food chain.
Handed a phone I was put on to a man who spoke a little English.
“What is your purpose?” he asked in a flat monotone.
I explained that I was a tourist and had a transit visa.
“Hmm,” he grunted disbelievingly. “Pass phone my friend”.
This scenario repeatedly itself three times. On the fourth occasion the heavily accented voice became more adamant.
“Now I must ask your exact purpose. Why you come my country? What is your job in your country? You must tell me everything,” he insisted.
“I’m a tourist and I’m in transit. In my country I’m a market trader,” I said, but was met by silence broken only by crackling on the line. “I buy and sell things,” I elucidated.
“Da. Like goats?” he asked.
“Yes, I sell goats,” I agreed.
“Da,” the official chirped, his tone warming now he had something which fit within his frame of reference.
“I’m also a student,” I lied to account for the suspicious photographs. “I study Asian History and Development”.
“Da,” the voice said. “Now I speak my friend”.
“Stu-dent. His-to-ry,” the sweaty Customs Officer repeated, phone pressed tight to his hairy earlobe.
At this juncture a man in a long robe with a skullcap and a long, mildew coloured Mullah Omar beard appeared.
“Islamic materials,” the Customs Officer shouted, vigorously beckoning and indicating his suitcase.
Dismissed disparagingly, I was finally forgotten, disappearing into the vast, flat emptiness of the