09.07.07 – 17:05 Kizl Orda, Kazakhstan. We bribe our way onto the Almaty-Moscow train. The conductor pockets a 500T note from each of us to go as far as Turitam, the train station for the town of Baikonur, a Russian territory, a walled enclave, in the midst of the Kazakh steppe. Kazakh trains do not have closed cabins – its one long moving picnic. We are thrown in with of a group of college kids returning to their villages from university in Almaty, all studying to be petro-engineers. The only westerners on the train, we immediately become the center of attention, the entertainment for the next leg of the journey. Kazakh people are curious and helpful and friendly to a fault. With varying levels of English proficiency they ascertain our destination. Baikonur. “Baikonur?” they question, as if perhaps we’ve made a mistake. Why Baikonur? Jeff makes a gesture with his index finger pointed up and raises his hand toward the sky while making a long slow whistle. The boys laugh. Crazy Americans.
We can’t believe our luck. One of our moving picnic companions lives in the mythic town and will also disembark at Turitam. After a much longer confusing mix of sign language and English we realize there is the question of documents. We produce passports with double entry Russian visas. The boys pass them around, examining every page. Everyone in the near vicinity wants to see. After some debate it seems with the words ?????????? ?? all are convinced we should have no problem visiting our new friend Alan and his family inside the walled city.
Turitam is a one bar dustbowl. The train station is the most appealing place. We are met by Alan’s uncle who is yelling into a cell phone at some other relative about being late with the car. Finally the car appears. We pile in for a ride that takes a number of hard turns but lasts only five minutes. We could have walked. We are at the Russian version of Checkpoint Charlie, but the wall is whitewashed instead of grey. Russian guards approach both sides of each vehicle in front of us to check IDs. We sit motionless in the car. Alan and his uncle seem to be preparing their story to explain why they have two Americans and a Portuguese ‘friend’ in the back seat. “No problem, No problem” Alan reassures, before hushing us. One round-faced Slav wears the requisite mirrored shades. Alan hands off the two Baikonur Resident ID cards and their Kazak passports. It seems like it might be possible to brush by unnoticed. All Kazakh cars have tinted widows, to keep the heat out, among other things. Then the mirrored Slav pokes his head in the front window. He eyes first Alan and his uncle almost acting as if he’s going to conspicuously ignore us. And then with a bit too much pomp he slowly moves his eyes to the to back seat and stares at each of us consecutively for a good 20 seconds. He moves his fat round face out of the car and barks “PASSPORTS”. We hurriedly produce our documents and hand them out the open sliver of the tinted glass. His eyes ricochet between the three invaluable little blue books and us, as if he’s watching an imaginary tennis game reflected in the car window. The young Russian is a mix of all powerful and complete confusion. After an interminable silence he stares us down and exclaims with the slowest possible annunciation, (taking an entire second per syllable) in a tone that can only be described as “schandenfreude”: “U–NITE-ED–STAATES–OF–A–MEAR–EECA”. It seems as if he also can’t believe his luck.
White on White