01 October 2007

We fought the law, and...

Not really the law, per se, but the notoriously inefficient Chinese bureaucracy.

Here's the story: A trip like this takes a bit of forward planning (we thought...we may have been wrong). We started with a vague and overly-ambitious itinerary, and, step by step, it became more and more concrete. Those steps were pretty sequential—we planned Iceland, then Russia, Mongolia, and China. Central Asia didn't start getting planned until we'd figured out our trains across northern China, and for this we'd retained the services of a travel agent in China. We had agreed on an itinerary with him a few months ago.

You know where this is going.

As I write this, we're supposed to be on a train from Urumqi to Almaty, to start the Central Asian portion of our trip. We're obviously not. (Either that, or they've got some pretty swish computers on Chinese trains).

What our travel agent neglected to realize was that international tickets to Kazakhstan could only be issued against an original passport, and only to those passport holders themselves. And no amount of Chinese guan xi could circumvent that rule. This meant we spent our entire day yesterday in the clutches of his colleague in Urumqi, shuttled from train station to bus station to airline ticketing agency, in search of alternate means of transport into Almaty. This, only to find that—surprisingly on China's National Day holiday—all means of getting to Kazakhstan were booked. Or prohibitively expensive.

We were right stuck.

But that's travelling. Things change. What struck us most, though, was an (initial) appalling lack of any sense of personal responsibility. Throughout the entire day, we heard all sorts of excuses: this is naturally the fault of the government, who made the rule. Or of the railway station, who enforced it. Or of the October 1 holiday, just for existing. Or, even, our fault because we didn't know that this rule was in effect, and had been since 2005 (begging the question of what commissions are for).

Anyway...I know this post sounds extraordinarily negative, but, believe it or not, we're quite happy. Our travel agent, in the end, has shown himself to be a man of some integrity, working against a very flawed system. And, all of a sudden, we've had a month completely open up for us. We're spending more time in Xinjiang, which we love, avoiding Almaty, whose only purpose was to obtain an Uzbek visa, and planning a more sane tack across the Silk Road.

We're still in Urumqi, then. We've currently booked tickets down to Kashgar in a couple of days. We'll be in Kashgar for its infamous Sunday market (the oldest, biggest, hottest, craziest market in the world, we hear...you can even test-drive camels before purchasing them), and on Monday or Tuesday we'll attempt to cross the Irkeshtam pass, a 3600-meter cleft in the Tian Shan mountains leading into Kyrgyzstan, where we'll try again to obtain an Uzbek visa (provided our new letter of invitation comes through).

And hey, at least we no longer have to worry about finding places to stay in Almaty. More on Urumqi, which is a gem of a town, in a few days.

No comments: