Pat’s Post, Life on the Border: Installment 1

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October 26th 2006

Things have been a bit hectic since I've been home, and thus getting my post up about the "border incident" has been harder than actually navigating my way across Kazakhstan. However, I've finally forced myself to post after having to recite the story about 1 kajillion times. I told Seth I would have this up 2 weeks ago, and when he questioned me again a week later I told him, "You can't rush perfection" (Which is just a more poetic way of saying "I'm being lazy"). Then of course I had to take a few days off to mourn the death of my hero Mr. Steve Irwin (Included is a pic of me in Khaki in honor of the Croc Hunter {note from Seth: I have yet to receive the alleged photo}). Anyway, I finally sat down and after checking my e-mail 247 times I wrote the whole damn story down, so enjoy...

Before I delve into it, I just want to say thanks to everyone who showed their concern and offered their assistance, sorry if I freaked anybody out too much.

Adventure #1
I suppose this all started with an e-mail I received before boarding my plane to Moscow. Seth wrote me saying that our rendezvous in Saratov Russia was not going to happen as planned, as they had been delayed with, what else, border issues. He asked that I try to find my way to Kiev, Ukraine after landing in Moscow. I was a bit pessimistic about my chances of finding a flight to meet them, especially since the airport in Moscow and most of the people working there were designed in conjunction with one-another to "suck really bad." I stuck out like the proverbial injured stubby digit, and attracted the attention of an undergrad from Texas A&M who was in Moscow on his abroad semester. He seemed relieved to talk to someone from the U.S., and as he spoke fluent Russian it worked out for me quite nice as well. He directed me to a woman who could help me get a ticket, and after really pissing her off by asking questions in English, she directed me to another woman who seemed to have taken some heavy sedatives a few minutes prior to me arriving at her ticket window. Fortunately the Russian Sloth spoke a bit of English, and eventually I purchased a ticket to Kiev, which conveniently departed about ten minutes after I bought the ticket. In a bit of a panic, I let it be clear to Slothy that she had better get me on the plane or I would be a much larger annoyance to her than I had already been. She led me through some lines, pushed me through some gates, I may have even taken a ride on that trippy boat from Willy Wonka's chocolate factory... I dunno, it was kinda a blur, all I know is that I got on the plane just as they were closing the door (I was lucky, the plane had been delayed because they had to reattach the wing and the glue took longer to dry than they had anticipated). In the end, I had spent about 1 hour in Moscow, and in no time I was in Kiev meeting up with Seth and Dom who seemed a bit surprised to see me so soon, or at all for that matter. Despite it being complete luck that I had gotten there, I got a little full of myself pretending as if my arrival in Kiev had something to do with my savvy skills at traveling internationally.

My first adventure was over and I thought I had come out no worse for the wear, but after inspecting my passport I realized that the Slothinator had led me through a customs line at one point where they stamped my visa, nullifying one of my entries. This was partly their fault, and I suppose partly mine (though it's taken a while for me to admit that), because if you travel through an international airport you don't necessarily need a visa for that country, and if you spend less than four hours there you definitely don't need a visa. Seth, Dom, Vaughn, and I discussed the potential visa issue; I now needed to get back into Russia two separate times with a visa that may no longer have 2 entries. We decided to wait for the Russian border to ask the guards there if the visa was no longer valid, and since that would not happen for a few days yet we all let the issue fall by the wayside a bit as there were constantly more pressing matters to deal with along the way. Later on at the Russian border, I asked a seemingly helpful, pleasant, English-speaking guard if the visa stamp from the airport (which had an airplane on it) nullified one of my entries. He looked at the times of my entry and exit in the airport, and reported back to me that it was simply a transit stamp and that I would be fine for another entry. Now I don't want to suggest that we were naive enough to fully trust a Russian soldier, but at that time it was exactly what we wanted to hear and it made it a bit easier to rationalize pushing on and deal with any potential problems later. In hindsight this may not have been the best choice, but there was little we could do anyway and with the Kazakhstan desert looming ahead it was easy to again push this problem to the back of our minds.

With a puzzled look she showed me my passport, pointing to the visa and then to the two stamps already present. I looked as if I had no idea what she was talking about

Border Incident
I'm not sure how long it was from when we left Russia to when we attempted to get back in, but let's just say we're skipping ahead about two weeks. We've just come out of our second trip across the desolate expanses of the Kazakhstan desert, and we're nearing the border of Russia near the city of Barnoule. We decide to camp just before the border such that we can hit it early the next morning, and that night there's a bit of talk about my visa as the reality of the potential problem is suddenly very close. That morning we woke to a bitter cold (at least in relation to the desert) and were eager to get the cars rolling and the heat cranked. In no time we were at the Kazak side of the border, and things started out as smooth as possible (aside from me having to bump start Dom past the gate, which was more embarrassing than anything else... I got stuck in a rut and ended up more-or-less ramming his car a couple times instead of gently nudging it forward). We blew through the car registration process and soon found ourselves in passport control, awaiting our exit stamps from Kazakhstan so that we could go to the Russian side of the border and repeat the whole process.

We figured that if there was going to be a problem with my visa, it would happen here. Seth began with the charm, which both Dom and Vaughn followed up on so that when I stepped up to the window the stampy-guard was all smiles. She glanced at the passport quickly and looked up at me as her face registered the awkward frown I had become accustomed to at border crossings. I was sixteen when my passport photo was taken, and I had a buzz cut, a fat lip, and an odd arrangement of braces that make me look as if I'm missing my front two teeth. She looked quizzically back and forth between me and the photo, chuckled a bit to herself (which had also been a common reaction), then gave me a smile and a stamp while pointing the way to the exit.

No-Man's-Land is the term commonly used for the stretch of land between two border stations, each one varying in length, width, and amenities. This particular stretch happened to fall short on all three of these. The total area may have equaled roughly a football field, in the basic shape of an hourglass, harboring only a single gate in the middle operated by a single Russian guard. Before this gate laid the old passport control building for the Kazaks, and beyond it was the russian's border station. I've drawn a rough sketch below of this unclaimed, lawless territory that later became known as McLaughlistan.

Soon enough we passed through the middle-gate and were in passport control on the Russian side. Again, I went last so that maybe we could lull them into an oversight of any possible errors with my visa, though at this point we all seemed relatively confident I would get through. With my luck I got this tall blonde russian stampy-guard who seemed to belong in a Bond flick. A real ice queen, no smiles or chit-chat (not that we would be able to say much to one another anyway) and she looked as if she could kick my ass in about 2 seconds. She looked over the passport, the papers, and began typing away as if everything was normal, but just as she reached for the magical stamp she stopped short. With a puzzled look she showed me my passport, pointing to the visa and then to the two stamps already present. I looked as if I had no idea what she was talking about, inspected it a moment, and as if I suddenly realized what she meant I simply smiled and nodded my head. I handed it back to her assuring that it was okay, as if it were up to me somehow. Seth, Vaughn, and Dom were watching from behind me, and later we all agreed that after I gave it back to her there was a moment where it seemed as if she had bought it. Unfortunately she decided to consult her superior on the matter, and by doing so set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the creation of a new country, a human smuggling, drinking crappy vodka, and ultimately a journey that was almost as ridiculous as it was unbelievable.

I tried being angry, sad, confident, dejected, irate/crazy, depressed, angry again, apologetic for being so angry, angry again that this did not work, and desperately pitiful.

What happened after the initial rejection is a bit hazy for me, and I'm sure each of us remember it a bit differently... however the basic notion that we might be royally screwed was shared by all. For a few hours I went back and forth with the guards, trying in vain to plead my story and finally trying to simply get someone to listen to me. I tried being angry, sad, confident, dejected, irate/crazy, depressed, angry again, apologetic for being so angry, angry again that this did not work, and desperately pitiful. I tried with my sunglasses on, sunglasses off, hat on, hat off, hat sideways, in a jacket, in a t-shirt, in my boxers, drunk, with a southern accent, and every combination of these possible. Okay, all I'm trying to say is that short of accosting a guard we tried everything and in the end they sent me packing, literally. The guys were asked to please move on with the cars, and I was asked to please go back towards the Kazak side of No-Man's Land. I gathered a few things from the car: camping stove, pasta, water, pringles, some clothes, sleeping bag, $240 dollars, and a few other basics. We all sorta looked at each other not really knowing what to say, because the only plan was that they would make some calls to the embassy and I would sit tight. It was a weird feeling for me and certainly for the guys. I didn't really know what was going to happen to me, and I think that because of this I was actually pretty indifferent about the whole situation. That is to say I surely was a wee bit concerned but this paled in comparison to what the guys were feeling, as my position was an easier one to be in than theirs. I could see in their faces the reality of leaving me behind was making them quite uncomfortable. On top of that, I knew they were also nervous at the prospect of having to call home to my cousin Carrie and tell her they lost me. Let's just say that if anyone could figure out how to reach through a phone and strangle someone at the other end, it would be Carrie (Carrie is great and very nice, but don't mess with her family). As we parted ways I gave them a smile and assured them I was going to be alright... obviously this was a complete lie.

I walked into the station and immediately drew the stares of three or four border guards. Their body language told me they knew something was up without me saying a word

I was escorted to the middle gate where the Russians left me as I crossed over toward the Kazak side. I walked with a purpose, as if I knew where I was going, so as not to give the impression to anyone watching me that I had no idea what the hell I was going to do (not that I had too many options). I scoped out an old abandoned building which I later found to be the old Kazak border station. I slipped into the main entrance but soon found the second set of doors to be locked. Stashing my bags there, I ran around the side of the building and found a side entrance. This connected to two rooms, one with a large metal door and a window overlooking the roadway between the two stations. The room was about 8 ft. by 10 ft. and there was a large metal latch on the door's inside. I pulled my gear inside, set up my sleeping bag, and pieced together a small stool out of some scrap bricks and a plank I found outside. The metal door locked with a large metal latch from the inside, giving me a safe place to retreat to. The window provided a lookout towards the traffic of people and cars going between the borders. The room was perfect for giving me a safe place to sleep and protect me from the elements, and I put a note in the window with the Bad Colonies logo on it that could be identified from outside if the guys came looking for me. Happy with my progress I sat down and ate my pringles, thinking of what next to do.

Unfortunately my room did not have HBO or a decent WiFi connection, so after half a can of pringles I decided I couldn't just sit around and wait. The Kazaks still did not know what had happened with me at the Russian side, so I thought I'd see what I could find out from them. Their station was well lit and heated which were welcoming amenities as it started to get dark, cold, and windy. I walked into the station and immediately drew the stares of three or four border guards. Their body language told me they knew something was up without me saying a word, and a few minutes later I was greeted by a young guard who spoke some broken English. We hashed out the details of my problem quickly, and the younger female guard who had originally stamped me through was brought over to be included. Eventually I realized that the error here was on her part, and they were not hesitant to let her know. Apparently before letting me through the border she has to make sure my Russian visa is valid. If it is not then they don't allow me to leave the country until I secure a valid visa. Now I felt bad for her because she was getting in trouble, when little did they know that I had laid on the old charm such that she would be so overwhelmed with my presence she would stamp away and let me through (Apparently the female Russian guards are immune to my charm). Other possibilities are that it was simply an oversight on her part, but I'm sure we can all agree that is probably the least likely of the two possibilities, more of a conspiracy theory than anything else. Whatever the reason, this leads us the the crux of this seemingly insignificant little hiccup in my visas- MAGICAL VISA STAMPS!!!

A semi-logical and rationale person may not see this problem as insurmountable. Obviously they made a mistake by letting me in, and seeing as they had recognized their mistake it would be a simple task to negate my entry stamp to allow me back into Kazakhstan to obtain the necessary documentation. Maybe they might even help me to seek out said documentation, seeing as I was in such an unusual predicament...

***PAUSE FOR LONG DEEP SIGH***, as it turns out, these things aren't all that simple. You might be asking, as I did, why can't they just negate the stamp? They are the ones who issued it, they know who I was and where I went, they know they made a mistake, why not simply correct it so that we could all be happy? Well, I was never given a good answer to this question, but after observing their behavior and reactions to such a request led me to only one conclusion... these stamps have some sort of magical power. Voiding a stamp must upset some sort of stampy-god who looks over the borders, and I'm guessing his wrath is not to be reckoned with. These stamps actually hold more authority than the officials who dole them out. Even the mere suggestion of changing my visa brought about a stern and poignant retort in the negative, with no amount of discussion as to why. At this point I was able to fully realize the depth of the shit I had stepped into.

Coming soon... The conclusion of Border Incident along with Adventure #2
(P.S.- "soon" is a relative term {note from Seth: don't hold your breath})