Trouble at the Border - Tonka gets arrested!

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Russia  , Orenburg,
Friday, May 11, 2007

We got an early start on the 11th to head for the Kazakh border, but got stopped by a policeman at a checkpoint and asked for our documents and to show our passports.  Uh-oh!  Everything I've heard about Russia indicates situations like this will eventually end up costing money, as the man in uniform will inevitibly find something wrong with your documentation and charge you a fine (to supplement his own income, of course).  This friendly officer, though, spoke some English, told us he had never seen a group of foreigners like this passing through before, and asked only for a few souvenirs from our home countries to show his children.  We managed to come up with a small Union Jack flag, a postcard of Sydney Harbor, one of thosemaple leaf patches Canadians sew onto everything they own to show the world they're not American, and a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Border crossings are always a big nuisance, but this one went horribly wrong, throwing a real monkey wrench into the vague plans we had to spend the next several days crossing the western Kazakh steppes to the Aral Sea, camping en route and stopping for provisions in settlements along the way.  We arrived at the border to wait and wait on the Russian side while the border guards reviewed the truck's documentation.  Apparently one of the multitude of pieces of paperwork that was issued for the truck when it entered Russia only permitted a two week stay in the country rather than the two months that was needed.  Thus, they said the truck was in Russia illegally and began the process of impounding it.  It turned out to be a very uncomfortable day since we arrived at the border at 11:00 A.M. and were not permitted to get off the truck other than to go to the bathroom one by one escorted by an armed guard.  At one point we were told we could have lunch beside the truck, but as soon as we started setting up another guard came out and told us "Nyet!"  As far as I know, Charlie made several offers to "Pay the fine", but in this highly unusual situation these border guards decided to go strictly by the book.

I suppose you can't fault the border guards in this case.  When a big orange thing the likes of which they never saw before arrived with imperfect paperwork and filled with loud foreigners who act like they own the place, you make sure you don't do your job incorrectly.  Rather, it's the fault of a particularly bureaucratic system that remains from the Soviet era in which there was no one present and apparently no one who could be contacted at that time with the decision making authority to work the situation out.

By the time we knew for certain around 7:00 P.M. that Tonka would be impounded, there were no more public buses heading in the direction of Uralsk and our request to camp overnight just inside the border to catch the first bus to Uralsk in the morning was also denied.  The only thing we were allowed to do was to return on the last bus back to Samara at 8:30, a very crowded, uncomfortable five hour ride after which we ended up back at the Hotel Volga.

There wasn't a lot to do the second time in Samara, especially since it was Saturday this time and Stalin's bunker was closed again.  There wasn't a lot to do besides drink coffee, play on the Internet, and give young Ben a Mohawk haircut for his 19th birthday after an evening update on the revised plans for the days ahead.  The plan was to continue on by public transportation while Charlie and Sasha sorted out the truck situation; they'd catch up with us when ethings were worked out.  Most of us ended the day at a nice Sushi restaurant, a style of food that seems to be all the rage in Russian cities based on the number of Sushi bars around.

The next morning we all piled into six taxis to go back to the bus station for the public bus ride back to the border post and on to Uralsk, Kazakhstan.  I didn't think I had paid to be in a Formula 1 race that Sunday morning, but it was quite a white knuckle ride as the six taxis raced each other at top speed through the wide, mostly empty boulevards of Samara.  It's things like this and the risk of vehicular accidents that really worry me about traveling, not the greatly exaggerated risk of being the victim of some kind of terrorist activity.  Even without the truck, the bureaucracy of getting out of Russia took three hours.  I count this as the longest border crossing of my life since in total it took 55 hours from the first time we arrived at the Russian side of the border until the point we cleared immigration on the Kazakh side.  The Kazakh border guards were far more relaxed and seemed to enjoy joking around with the strange foreigners to practice their English as they were processing our visas and passports.
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