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Post-Soviet Travel on the Turkmen-­Kazakh Border

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Erika Fatland: “The whole world will soon be wearing jeans made in China.”

The no-man’s land between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan was wider than it looked. The sun shone down from a clear, blue sky, but there was a touch of winter in the desert air. On the other side of the barbed wire fences, the brown, barren soil stretched out in every direction. Apart from the two border stations, there were no buildings here, no people, only wolves, and mile upon mile of poorly maintained Soviet roads.

About halfway across, a lorry passed me. So I was not, after all, the only person wanting to cross the border that day. The driver stopped and offered me a lift for the last few hundred meters. As soon as I had climbed up into the driver’s cab and closed the door, he started to complain.

“They’re not normal, that lot,” he hissed in Russian, and waved a thick wodge of papers. He was a Kazakh and had to cross the border several times a month. “They do this every bloody time, it takes hours. Before, when we were part of the Soviet Union, no-one thought twice about crossing the border between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, no one stopped you, you just drove through. Now they want to check every single bloody document!”

In the time of the Soviet Union people could, in principle at least, travel freely within the vast empire, from Tallinn in the west to Vladivostok in the east. With independence came border controls. While Europe has gone the opposite way, towards freedom of movement, hundreds of new border checkpoints have been built in Central Asia. Thousands of soldiers, officers and customs officers are employed to protect the borders that were drawn up under Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s. People who previously crossed these invisible lines without thinking about it now have to be prepared for detailed questioning, lengthy form-filling and nitpicking inspections of their luggage before they are allowed to pass through the barbed wire barriers. If they are lucky.

Fortunately it was easier to enter Kazakhstan than it was to leave Turkmenistan. The Kazakh passport control officers were cheerful and efficient, and within minutes all the paperwork was done and my visa stamped and signed according to the rules.

‘”Are there any taxis here?” I said.

“Taxi? Here?” The young border guard looked at me, incredulous.

“Do you know how far it is to the nearest town?”

“Unfortunately, yes, I do.”

The guard took off his cap and scratched his head.

“There are some trucks outside,” he said. “Perhaps you could hitch a ride part of the way with one of them. Hold on a minute,  I’ll ask.” He disappeared out of the very basic office. And there I stood, passport in hand, visa stamped, ready, but unable to pass Go. Luckily, the guard did not take long.

“Damiar, who works here, is going into Aktau. You can get a lift with him. But first we would like to offer you some lunch.”

The border guards ate their meals in the basement. They were served by two matronly women with lacy aprons and white headscarves. The men, about a dozen of them, slurped down the salted meat soup with undisguised pleasure. The tea flowed freely.

“Do you have a king in Norway?” the oldest guard said. I nodded.

“So he’s in charge, then?”

I explained that it was not the king who made the decisions but the politicians.

“But he must decide some things,” the grey-haired man objected. “Otherwise, what’s the point of being king?”

“He’s an important national figurehead,” I said. “And people love him.”

The man shook his head in disbelief. He seemed to feel sorry for the king. The short-sighted man sitting next to me then leaned over and asked in a conspiratorial whisper: “Do you have many Negros in Norway?”

“Not many,” I said.

“That’s good,” he nodded with approval.

“But we do have quite a lot of Pakistanis,” I told him.

“Oh, Pakistanis are not good,” he said, and pulled a face. “Nor are the Chinese,” he added, but more to himself.

For a long time there was nothing to be heard but the slurping of a dozen men finishing their bowls of soup. I had only walked a few hundred meters, but everything was different. The faces around me did not have the European features of the Turkmens, they were more Mongolian, with narrow eyes, and high, round cheeks. The tone was more relaxed, a little rougher. Even the soup tasted different.

But the green tea was the same. And the roads. Those first hours on the road in Kazakhstan were much like my final hours on the road in Turkmenistan. It was, after all, the same road, built by Soviet engineers long before the checkpoints were built. The Turkmen-­Kazakh border was clearly not a priority for either country, and the road surface was such that for the first part of the journey we had to zigzag to avoid the worst potholes. But we had the road to ourselves. On either side of the tarmac, the desert stretched as far as the eye could see, flat and devoid of color.

“I killed that wolf yesterday,” Damiar said, pointing to a furry tail hanging from the rear view mirror.

“Did you shoot it?”

“No, I was driving the car. It tried to get away, but I chased it and hit it in the end. When I get home and show the tail to my neighbors, they’ll give me a present or some money. You’re always well rewarded if you kill a wolf. There are far too many of them here, they’re a pest.”

Damiar then seamlessly switched to complaining about the Kazakh president. Those who dared criticize the president on the Turkmen side of the border had done so in hushed voices, no matter how far we were from listening ears. Damiar said what he thought, outright, without my even asking.

“He’s been in office far too long, since 1991!” he shouted. “Nazarbayev is frightened to let young people have a say, that’s the problem. I don’t bother voting in the elections, it’s all rigged anyway. The whole system is corrupt. We ordinary folk don’t earn anything near enough, scarcely 300 to 400 dollars a month. You can’t live off that.”

“Do you ever accept small gifts from people crossing the border?”

“Of course not!” He grinned. “What do you take me for?”

According to Transparency International’s annual overview, Kazakhstan is the least corrupt of the post-Soviet states in Central Asia, but that says more about its neighbors than about Kazakhstan itself. It is still towards the bottom of the list, 140th out of 177 countries, 13 places behind Russia. Like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan has major oil and gas reserves, and is without a doubt the strongest economy in Central Asia. For a long time, Kazakhstan was also deemed to be the most democratic republic in the region, but, again, that says more about the neighboring regimes. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been head of state since he was appointed by Gorbachev in 1989, and shows no sign of wanting to step down. With each year that has passed, he has become more and more authoritarian and autocratic, and there is no real political opposition. Freedom of expression is under threat: in the past few years, a good number of independent newspapers and websites have been closed down by the regime. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan feels likes a bastion of liberty compared with Turkmenistan.

Damiar’s mobile rings.

“Is that you, sweetheart?- Sorry, darling, but I can’t get away this evening. – Yes, I know I promised to come home this evening, but I have to work, there’s so much to do here. – See you tomorrow, give my love to the kids!”

He had barely ended the call before his mobile rang again. “Yes, babe, I’m on my way. – No, I didn’t call you yesterday. – Yes, I know I promised to call every day, but I didn’t have any reception yester­day, you know what it’s like. – I’ll be there in an hour, beautiful. – No, not before, I won’t make it. – Yes, I’ll come straight to you.”

Damiar gave a dramatic sigh and then winked at me. “Women, eh . . . nothing but trouble.”

When we got to Aktau, he parked his car in a residential area full of apartment blocks some way from the center of town. We had to take a taxi from there. He explained that he did not want his friends to see his car and find out that he was in town already. He wanted “a night off with no hassle.” Before he went off to see his girlfriend, who had rung every five minutes for the past hour to make sure he was on his way, he dropped me off by a big shopping center in the the center of town.

“Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, my wife and I have a lot of respect for each other,” he said in parting. “Perhaps we could meet up for a drink later this evening, when I’m free again, just you and me?”

*

The shopping center in Aktau was a revelation, a fata morgana, an oasis of western civilization. Familiar brand names greeted me. The shops were full of people, all in jeans, miniskirts, leather jackets, high heels, trainers. Adele’s latest hit was playing over the loud­ speakers. And, in a corner, I came across a whole row of ATM’s. I put my card in one of them and pressed 30,000 tenge, which was a little more than 100 pounds. Like magic, the machine started to count the notes.

The restaurant on the ground floor had sushi and pasta on the menu. I ordered both. One of the waiters gave me the Wi-Fi code, and before I could say Open Sesame, all that had been forbidden in Turkmenistan was there. Twitter. Facebook. YouTube. As I gorged on maki rolls and ravioli, I caught up with what friends and acquaintances had been doing on Facebook. One friend had cut her hair. My boyfriend was lonely. An old school friend had had a baby. Spring had sprung in Oslo, judging by all the images of sunglasses and the first outdoor beer. Traveling in the age of Internet, one seldom feels far from home. Even in Turkmenistan, where it is still a fairly new thing, I had occasionally been able to read some of the Norwegian papers online. Here, I was spoilt for choice.

At the same time that your local newspaper is just a click away, the whole world will soon be wearing jeans made in China. Even though the Mongolian features around me were unfamiliar, I no longer felt so far from home. The reference points were known; this was a system I understood.

Back in a culture that resembled that of the West, I could see the peculiarities of Turkmenistan more clearly: the country remains outside the market economy. Even though the authorities have abandoned Communism and the grey concrete apartment blocks have been replaced by gleaming white marble buildings, the economy is still hermetically sealed and as regulated as it was during the Soviet era. Western brand names are rare, and there is no real competition to speak of, let alone free competition.

*

“I want to go to Hotel Chagala,” I told the taxi driver. “What’s the address?”

“I couldn’t find the street name on the Internet, but it’s in the first microdistrict.”

“Oh, I’ll find it then,” the driver assures me. “Apart from the President’s Avenue, we don’t have street names in Aktau. The city is divided up into microdistricts, and every building and apartment has a number. I live in the eighth microdistrict, building fifty, flat nine. Eight, fifty, nine. Practical, isn’t it?”

Any illusion of western culture was dispelled. I was back in the Soviet Union.

We drove through the broad, open streets. On each side were low, functional apartment blocks, painted in bright colors, surrounded by lawns and trees. Aktau is a city built according to Soviet principles. It is hard to identify a center or heart. Every so often, there are grand brick houses, built in a more American style, which bear witness to the current oil boom: this is one of the richest—and most expensive—cities in Kazakhstan.

Aktau was established in the 1960s, following the discovery of uranium deposits in the vicinity. A few years later it became clear that the area was also rich in oil and metal, and the town started to grow. It was called Shevchenko from 1964 to 1991, after the famous Ukrainian poet who was exiled here by Tsar Nicholas I in the 1840s. At the time, it must have seemed like the end of the world, far from anywhere, with few buildings other than the Russian fortress that stood here.

At regular intervals we drove past large posters of a grey-haired man in a suit, surrounded by smiling children holding balloons.

I pointed at the colorful posters. “Is that the president?”

“Of course,” the driver said, casually, without even looking up.

(1) Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation as President of Kazakhstan on 19 March 2019.

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Post-Soviet Travel on the Turkmen-­Kazakh Border
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