Saturday, August 2, 2014

Days 19: Goodbye China

Day 19:

That morning I woke up early, took out my documents and packed my bike. During the 45 minute drive to the border I went over all the border experiences I'd read about online and planned for some difficult situations. I reminded myself not to get angry when dealing with any border control officers, which isn't really a problem for me actually, and I readied myself for a long frustrating day.

From what I'd learned you need to get a special document from your port of entry (I now know it's called an ATA) and pay a large deposit in order to cross the Chinese border with a vehicle. I didn't really want to do that so I figure I'd try to talk my way out of that. Others have done this before and along with the experience of the traffic police in Meichi under my belt I felt confident I could accomplish this.

So I arrived at the border and went straight for the vehicle exit zone. The police there told me I lacked the ATA document, which I figured to be that expensive document that I was trying to avoid, and asked me to go to the main customs office about 5 minutes away from the border. I walked into the large fancy official building and found the nearest group of female officers with multiple stars on their shoulders. I explained my situation and they started asking me questions. I was a bit nervous at this point and felt like the answers I was giving each carried the weight of the whole remainder of the trip. If I answered any incorrectly, I'd be stuck. One question seemed particularly important,

"Will you be coming back to China?"

I thought for a second thinking that maybe if I said I would return, they would care less about the deposit. But a lie might trap me so I joked,

"Well, I'd like to come back but the motorcycle is Chinese so I'm worried it wont make it much further."

This seemed to work. They laughed. Chinese people often joke about the quality of Chinese products.

Soon they left to discuss options. When they came back they told me I could take my bike to the passenger terminal and walk it through as if it were carry on baggage. They called and made all the arrangements but told me I could NOT bring the motorcycle back to China. I guess my answers were not that important.

 So I drove my motorcycle up to the passenger terminal and, still sitting on the saddle, walked it through the lines where people normally wait, past the x-ray machine and to the place where I'd get my passport stamped. Stamped and ready I drove over to the Kazakh border, which was much easier to get through, and soon found myself in a new country!

It was still early in the afternoon and I had a lot of day light left so I set off for Almaty. Immediately I missed the nice smooth Chinese roads and the slow Chinese drivers. The roads were full of giant ruts and potholes and the drivers made the Chinese look almost sane by comparison. The towns were now distinctly Russian. I saw my first cafes and hamburger stands and the cigarettes were brands that I recognized again. There I also started seeing my first naturally blonde people again. Now I was indistinguishable from the locals. The crowds were gone, no more questions, no more photo sessions with people's babies. As long as I didn't speak, I was once again nothing special to the locals. Even when I did speak, most people didn't care. It was actually quite relaxing.

The terrible road to Almaty was pretty boring especially after the unbelievable scenery of the Borohoro mountains near Urumqi. I arrived in the city near dusk and tried to find a hostel. Nothing. While I was searching for yet another place to stay it became dark and the drivers seemed to become even crazier, rushing out of stop lights and driving near highway speeds down the city roads. I decided to leave the city and camp somewhere on the outskirts but before I left I stopped in a gas station in the center of the city. I was getting pretty desperate so I asked in Turkish if there was a cheap hotel nearby. I could speak and be understood pretty well now using my half forgotten Turkish. They even more help than I could have imagined. First they walked me around to a few places but finding them closed they offered me a broom closet at the back of their 24 hour station. It was too late now to start looking for a rough camp site so I accepted.

That night there weren't very many customers so I treated the gas station attendants to burgers and beer in the near by park. I couldn't understand everything they said but the Kazakh language and Turkish were very similar so we could joke and have some basic conversations. After some photo sessions and notes in my journal I crawled into my broom closet still wearing my space suit and boots and had a pretty good nights sleep.

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