Unexpected Encounters – Moscow to Bishkek part 1

This is a re-post of an article that was written by Jiddu Alexander for traliving.com. The original can be found here.

The train was to depart from Moscow and would carry me through Russian forests and Kazakhstan’s dry plains. It was supposed to drop me 72 hours later in a valley surrounded by high mountains that is home to the capitol of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek. To get all the journey’s preparations done was a demanding challenge for the eleventh hour traveler that I am. Two expensive and hard to obtain visas secured, but even so I was worried about the border crossing. A book – Common Wealth by Jeffrey D. Sachs – and about enough water and food supplies to feed a school, because one day earlier my ever concerned mother informed me about the lack of restaurants on these trains.

I entered my shared compartment. Cramped. My new ‘room mates’ were already there. The platform had looked so empty that I didn’t expect a full house. That’s a pity. “Hello.”
Three Kazakhstanis smiled back at me. They probably don’t speak any English, I guess Jeffrey Sachs will be my best friend for the ride.

The first hours of a long haul are always easy; there are plenty of distractions at first. But boredom always kicks in at some point, I started taking notes. First note: Border crossing into Kazakhstan. No problem. I took some more notes on general Russian train travel, for next time.

A dozen Kazakhstan nationals join and leave my 4 person shared cabin during the first two days. They are nothing like the seemingly uncaring inhabitants of Moscow. I had a conversation with a lovely mother figure, Valentina. Simply by pointing to translations in the language section of the Lonely Planet we had hours of fun.

Most fellow passengers were puzzled by my reasons for catching this train. ‘Why travel here?’ or ‘how did you get the funds?’ were very common questions. However, they were all kind enough to share advice, wish me all the luck in the world or urge me to write a book about it.

I got to the last 12 hours of my journey, the Kyrgyzstan border crossing was just ahead. I had handed my passport to an officer and I was on my own when four border patrols decided to sit down with me in my cabin. Nedin was the only one that spoke any English.“Pushkin, you know?” Nedin asks.
“Pushkin.” I reply “From the poem Ruslan and .. eh.”
“Ludmilla.” He continues:  “Yes, my friend name is Ruslan.” He points at the soldier next to him.
We speak about my hometown Amsterdam, Moscow, Bishkek and my travels. A loud voice comes from next door. Ruslan and his friend guide me to the other cabin. There is Hedin, the officer collecting visas earlier. The four of us sit there and Hedin digs his way through a stack of passports. He has computer with a monitor three times ticker than the screen is wide. It displays the traveller’s information in Matrix style as he scans their documents. The scan looks more like a games console from the early nineties. We are laughing, having general chit chat and jokes. I realise my passport is lying separately, on the side.

“Where is your visa for Kyrgyzstan” He asks in a friendly way.
Only a few months earlier Kyrgyzstan modified its tourist visa policy for most Europeans to ‘visa on arrival’, but this news never made it to Hedin it seems. Does this mean I am the only European to cross this particular border in the last 5 months? No, surely not.
I try 3 times to convince him that I’m speaking the truth. Finally he makes a phone call.Yes Hedin, please check with head office. He hangs up and looks at me straight. The air turns from jolly to serious. What is going on?

 “You!” He points at me. “Deport back to Amsterdam.” He puts his arms in the air and flies like a plane. “No Kyrgyzstan.”
I freeze. I pause. “Real-ly?” I stutter. I don’t know what to say.
Hevin looks over at Nedin and Ruslan, points at me and then starts laughing. “No, no. You go. Is joke.” Pfffff. Hedin returns to finish his job and everybody is quiet. All kinds of stress related toxins are still rushing through my veins. Slowly, I calm down.

He points at my face and says: “Funny.” The others had made fun of my frizzy curls earlier, so I grab my semi afro and ask: “My hair, funny?”“No.” He replies. “Hair nice, me funny, my joke.”
“You make me stress.” I say with a smile. “Then laugh.”
“Good” he ends.

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