I was originally scheduled to fly out of Almaty to Frankfurt early on 25 March. Plans changed and I pushed back my departure to 01:50 on 26 March. Although my Kazakhstan transit visa was valid through 25 March, my Kyrgyzstan tourist visa was valid through 23 April. Under a 2007 bilateral agreement visas are valid for egress in both counties, meaning my Kyrzyk visa was valid for entrance and exit into Kazakhstan and vice-versa.
One report after another verified this law on Lonely Planet so with numerous reports of success and no reports of failure, I did not worry about it, deliberating deciding not to get to the airport before midnight on 26 March just to play it safe. That would prove to be a costly choice, though I would not label it a blunder or error knowing what I did at the time.
Almaty is, well, not much of a city, but I did have an exceptional stay at the Intercontinental Almaty (review coming) and part of that great service included a complimentary shuttle to the airport in a private van with my own butler onboard–a jovial lad named Roman–to serve refreshments and keep me company during the 20 minute journey to the airport. Never had that before, but it was better than sitting in silence.
I checked in for my Lufthansa flight, then proceeded to immigration (time was now 00:20) where a female agents took my passport, adjusted a camera to snap my picture, then began typing away. She typed and typed, then raised her stamp and froze…
Still carefully examining my visa, she says, “This good 25 March. Today 26. You have other visa?” I point to the Kyrzyk visa on the next page and she shakes her head and gets up to fetch a supervisor–her English skills were very limited.
A portly woman (think Kazakh version of the Wendy’s Choice commercial at 0:10) in a green uniform far too tight for her walks over. She speaks English, but is not in a good mood. She shakes her head and tells me my visa is no good. I explain to her that that my visa from Kyrzgstan is valid for almost another month and that under a 2007 law it should allow me to enter and exit Kazakhstan.
She shakes here head, saying I was wrong. I tell her I am absolutely correct and reach into my bag for my laptop, where I had downloaded a version of the law in Russian. She stops me and suddenly “remembers” the law, but says my visa does not apply because it isn’t a tourist visa.
I open my eyes wide and say, “Of course it is a tourist visa. I just got it a few days ago.” Nope–it is a “private visa” she says. That is ridiculous–a private visa is issued for relatives or friends who receive an invitation from a local. I don’t know any locals or have in friends in Kyrgyzstan.
She’s done with me and hands me off to a supervisor and this is where the fun starts. The soldier, who could not have been more than 30 years old, looks at my visa, shakes his head, and says, “Your visa is cancelled. You are not flying. Go back to your embassy.”
My mouth drops and I begin to plead with him. I try explaining the reciprocal visa recognition act to him, but he’s not listening. I pull the Bambi eyes look, tell him I am a student who needs to get back to class, and plead with him to help me out.
With a gleam in his eyes, he leans toward me and whispers, “There might be a way.”
I look at him, he looks at me, and I say, “And what may that be?” knowing full what is going on.
He whispers, “Go the bathroom. Make sure no one is looking. Put $1,000USD in your passport and come back to me.”
I nod my head in agreement and retreat to the men’s room, where I take out two $20 bills, fold them, and place them in my passport. I did not have a $1,000 and even if I did, was certainly not going to give it to a dirt bag like him.
Back in the line for passport control, I have to think the soldiers around were in on this too, because my “friend’ was shooing people to other border agents to keep his lane open for me. I got up to the booth, slipped him my passport, and he quickly slid it under a secluded part of his desk. He took a look at his takings, but a frown quickly spread across his face.
“I told you $1,000! This is not enough.”
I pleaded with him again, telling him I was a student and that I did not have any more money. He wasn’t impressed.
“Go the the bank, then. Go to automatic. Don’t come back with less than $300.”
Again, I retreated to the men’s room where I pulled out the rest of my money–several hundred dollars–to contemplate what to do next. Boarding was scheduled to begin soon and I thought this would be now or never. I considered asking the Lufthansa folks to intercede, but they were local rent-a-agents who were not at all friendly during check-in, so I decided I would have to take care of the matter myself.
I pulled out a 100 Hong Kong Dollar note and a EUR50 note, adding them to the $40 already in the passport (I’m surprised he did not keep the $40…). I had more, but was still unwilling to part with it–especially in this circumstance.
Back at the check-in desk, I waited off to a distance for a break in the crowds. It soon came and I marched up to my amigo. He again took my passport, placed it under his desk, and pulled out the money. Thankfully, he seemed satisfied and began to work on my passport. He probably did not know what the Hong Kong Dollar exchange rate was and thought he had more than $13. Next time, I’ll have to bring Colombian pesos…
He first pulled out a paper clip to scrape off the exit date on my Kazakh visa (I should have thought of that). He tried that for about 30 seconds, did not appear to make much progress, and soon moved on to his keyboard. He typed away for over three minutes, often stopping to wipe his sweaty brow. I don’t know what he was doing, but eventually he pulled out his stamp, but then stopped.
He stared at my visa and decided not to stamp me out on the visa itself, but to stamp me out on a separate page. He handed me back my passport and boarding pass, then had the nerve to reach out his hand to shake mine. Fearing a reprisal for non-compliance, I shook back and smiled at him. He laughed. I have to admit, I chuckled myself.
Out about $120, I soon boarded my Lufthansa flight to Germany. Warmly greeted by two smiling Germans, it was good to be out of Kazakhstan.