I made three significant border crossings during my trip to Central Asia in May 2019. The first was from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan. The second was from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan. And the last was back from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan. This report details the first, and most hectic, border crossing from Tashkent to Shymkent via Chernayevka/Zhibek Zholy.
That morning, I arrived at Tashkent’s main bus station, located near Olmazor metro station (formerly called Sobir Rahimov, confusing, I know) via a Yandex taxi. As the driver helped me unload my luggage from the boot, I searched for the ticket booths in the parking lot. The station was cordoned off as I remembered it three days ago. There were makeshift booths selling bus tickets that day, but I was told, through much calendar-pointing, that they could only be purchased up to two days in advance.
As I had been away in Samarkand for the past two days, getting tickets in advance had no longer been an option, so I prayed there would be tickets left today.
However, I had hit my first hurdle already. The ticket-selling booths were nowhere to be seen. In fact the parking lot looked deserted, bar some buses using it as a depot. In mild panic, I used the few Russian words I knew to ask one of the many gruff-looking touts hovering around the station.
He pointed in the direction of the metro station.
Bloody hell. Three days ago the booths had been at the bus station, but I had come by metro so I had to walk across a number of main roads with crazy drivers and clouds of dust to get there. Now, today, when I had purposely taken a taxi to the bus station, the booths were for some inexplicable reason parked next to the metro station. Which meant I had to do the same dusty trek again.
I thanked him and began making my way over, swatting off the countless touts on the way who kept asking if I needed a ride to Samarkand.
Finally, I reached the parking lot near the metro station and saw the familiar booths. I strode over to the one that had Шымкент (which is how “Shymkent” is written in Kazakh) pasted on its front, and held up my smartphone screen. I had written the destination and time down, so I didn’t have to struggle with my non-existent Russian skills.
The two ladies said something in Russian I didn’t understand, then shook their heads and held up one hand and a thumb to indicate the number “six”. I got the message.
“What?! There are no more seats till 6pm?! That’s too late,” I protested. It was currently just before 9am.
The lady shrugged and then acted like I no longer existed.
Time for Plan B
I wheeled my suitcase to stand to the side and consider my options. I actually had read that tickets sell out fast and feared this would happen, so I did have a contingency plan. Although the cross-border bus takes passengers directly to the bus station in Shymkent, it is also possible to cross the border using a combination of taxis on either side. It would just cost more and was less convenient.
As I was researching a reasonable price for a taxi to the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border crossing at Chernayevka/Zhibek Zholy, drivers kept approaching me asking “Samarkand? Samarkand?” I was beyond irritated now, so shook my head and mostly ignored them. One burly Russian-looking man then asked me where I was heading (I could only pick out the word “где” [gde], which is “where” in Russian), and I said “Shymkent.”
He pointed to the booth I was just at, and I tried to explain to him the next available bus wasn’t until 6pm, but he didn’t understand me. Trying to be helpful, he went to the booth to ask for me, but was told pretty much the same thing I was, except this time it was 4pm. (The booth ladies had likely meant 16:00 not 6pm with the fingers). I then tried to convey that the time was too late, but he again did not understand and instead roped a lady selling tickets in another booth to help me.
She was a kind motherly type but also did not speak a lick of English. She enquired at the same damn booth, and told me what I already knew. At this point I was trying to type a message in Google Translate, asking if she could help me negotiate a taxi to the border instead. She said something and went back to her booth to make a phone call. Just as I thought she had given up dealing with me, a younger woman with a round face suddenly appeared. The booth lady came out again and indicated I should speak to her friend.
“Yes, can I help you?” her friend said in accented English.
Someone who spoke English! Thank God. I then realised the booth lady had specially called her English-speaking friend over to help me. I felt touched.
I explained my issue and asked if she could help me find a driver who would take me to the border.
She talked with a tall lanky guy who offered me a price of 25,000 soum. I thought it was a ridiculously cheap, since the bus ticket would have cost 40,000 soum. There had to be a catch, but I agreed for now. I thanked the English-speaking lady and booth lady for their help. Before I proceeded to follow the guy, the booth lady handed me a card with her number I could call, in case there were any issues. Although with the language barrier I don’t know how I could have a made use of it, I was still grateful for the sentiment.
When the guy led me to the car of a typically Russian-looking man with a pot belly and loaded my luggage into the boot, he said the price would be 80,000 soum.
My luggage still in the car, he brought me back to the English-speaking lady. She clarified it was 25,000 soum per person if there were four persons. That meant I had to wait for three other random people who wanted to go the border, and they couldn’t guarantee there would be. If I wanted to leave now by myself, it would be 80,000.
Ah. So that was the catch.
“Can you ask if he will take me for 60,000 soum?” I said to the English-speaking lady. I had read on Caravanistan that a traveller had gotten to the border for 50,000 soum, so I knew it wasn’t unreasonable.
She relayed the message, and he agreed. So back to the Russian guy’s car we went.
The Russian driver spoke no English but was friendly and tried to make conversation in the 45-minute drive to the border. He pulled off to the side of the road every time I tried to communicate with him using Google Translate, so in the end I gave up.
While in the car, I called the guide in Shymkent I had previously booked and asked if he could pick me up from the Uzbekistan border. He agreed but said it would take him 1.5 hours to get there from the city centre. I said it would probably take me another 40 minutes before I would reach the border, and I would wait for him on the Kazakhstan side.
The Russian driver faithfully deposited me a few hundred metres from the checkpoint, as this was the furthest cars could go. He pointed that I needed to walk the rest of the way. I paid him the 60,000 soum and waved goodbye.
Crossing the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border
The border was not crowded at all, and the process took less than 30 minutes. Exiting Uzbekistan was relatively smooth, although every time a guard looked at my passport they read my name out loud, as if testing the pronunciation. On the Kazakhstan side, immigration officers looked at my passport in great interest and asked me a few questions. I think they had trouble wrapping their heads around why someone with an Asian face had an Australian passport.
“Where are you from?” the Caucasian-looking officer asked in heavily-accented English.
“Australia.” I replied.
“PERTH.” I pointed to the text in my passport.
I suspect he didn’t know how my home city was pronounced, so thought I was saying something else.
He continued examining my passport. At this point, another officer patrolling the back of the booths had noticed his colleague was taking an unusually long time with me. He stepped into the booth and they spoke to each other in Russian. I heard the word “Australia” being thrown around a few times.
The new officer, who had darker features and looked typically Central Asian, turned to me and asked in broken English “Where are you from?”
“Australia,” I said.
He placed a hand on his chest said, “I, Kazakh. You?”
“Australian,” I said.
He didn’t seem convinced. “Japanese?” he enquired.
“Well, I live in Japan now but my family is Chinese,” I said exasperated. “But I’m Australian.”
This seemed to confuse them even more, and they talked amongst themselves in Russian again. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of them inspecting my passport, the original officer stamped it, stamped my immigration card twice and handed both back to me with a smile.
“Welcome to Kazakhstan.”
As soon as I had crossed, there was the usual touts hovering around the entrance, bombarding travellers with “Taxi? Shymkent? Taxi?”
Pushing past them, I was met with another frontier. Now there were women trying to do currency exchange. “Tenge? Tenge?” they shouted, waving wads of cash in my face.
As I stopped at a corner to gather my wits in the sweltering heat, an old lady sitting under an makeshift umbrella booth said something to me in Russian (or Kazakh). I didn’t understand but from the wads of cash in her hand I knew she also wanted to swap money.
I did want to get rid of my soum for some tenge, so I leaned over and tried to ask the rate. She punched some numbers on the calculator, but they didn’t seem to make much sense. All of a sudden, a large guy with strong Asian features bounced over and asked in English “Sister, can I help you?” I explained I wanted to swap some soum, and he relayed it to the old lady. With him as the interpreter, I managed to exchange most of my remaining soum for tenge.
He then asked if I needed a taxi. Central Asians are forever enterprising, as I discovered on this trip. I replied that I was waiting for someone to pick me up.
“Where is he?” he asked.
“On the way,” I replied truthfully.
“Do you have his number? I can call and check for you.”
I’m not sure if he didn’t believe me, or was just trying to be helpful, but there was no harm either way. I gave him the number and he called. I heard him talking briefly with my guide in what I presume was Kazakh before hanging up.
“He’s on his way,” he said.
See? I told you, I almost wanted to say, but instead I said “Thanks. Do you know where I can wait? It’s kinda hot here.” I surveyed the dusty desert-like surroundings with a chaotic mess of touts and cars.
He pointed across the road. “Try the tourist information centre.”
The tourist information centre
After paying 50 tenge to use one of the most rancid toilets ever, I dodged more touts trying to offer me a ride and took refuge in the tourist information center. It was more like a one of those temporary offices you see set up on construction sites than a solid building, but looked cleaner than the hodgepodge of sun-bleached food stalls behind it.
I entered and saw two men sitting at a desk each. The one on the left was a skinny middle-aged man sitting with his arms crossed and staring intently at his screen. I later discovered he was watching Game of Thrones. The one closest to the door, a younger fleshy guy who looked almost Korean, greeted me enquiringly.
“Po-anglijski?” I asked in broken Russian. English?
He shook his head. So much for being a tourist information centre. Still, he gestured for me to sit down as he took out his phone. We ended up having an entire conversation using Google Translate, since he was kind enough to let me wait there for over an hour. The GoT-watcher even turned on the air-con for me.
Just when it seemed like I would have to spend the whole day in this place, my guide finally came through the door. He shook the Korean-looking dude’s hand and thanked him on my behalf.
Finally, thanks to the help of many locals on the road, I could start my adventures in Kazakhstan.