Enter the Heartland: Visa Purgatory in Almaty & Bishkek


Almaty, Kazakhstan & Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Searching for excitement amid the burdens of beauracracy

The Tien Shen Mountains near Almaty.

The Tien Shen Mountains near Almaty.


Enter the Heartland

I'd long had my eye on the 'Stans - a region described by the great geopolitical theorist Halford MacKinder as 'the Heartland'. 

It's a region that has fascinated me since my undergraduate History days. Long romanticised, this Silk Road region is still defined by its ancient history. It was the subject of my Master's thesis - a cluttered tome about Russia's quest to reclaim economic hegemony over the five Central Asian republics .

More recently, my poorly informed commentary about the region had opened doors for me: my first ever publication in a news site was a sloppy prognostication of Tajikistan's long-term future. I'd since opined about Uzbekistan's tentative political thaw in the wake of the death of Islam Karimov - its horrid dictator - in 2016.

Simply, the obscurity of the region - and my self-professed understanding of it - had long provided me with an opportunity to tally up more bylines - despite the nasty little secret that, in truth, I didn't have a clue what I was writing about. I was, really, a charlatan. It showed in my writing. Instead of substance and originality, my pieces tended to be dominated by cliches and stereotypes harvested from other pretenders: an all too often justified criticism of the media writ-large, and something I guiltily, if subconsciously, have contributed to. 

So, with that in mind, a field trip to a region that I'd personally profited off was long-overdue. It was time to get a sense of a place that I'd more or less pretended to be familiar with for the best part of three years. 

With China's oppressive Xinjiang state behind me, I was enthusiastic to enter Kazakhstan and begin a 5 week crossing en route to Iran. 

First signs were positive: an easy border crossing, polite guards, an easy and cheap taxi ($20) 400 kilometers West to my destination. I entered Almaty enthusiastically, and nestled my way into a beautifully affordable, utterly welcoming hostel in the center of town. 

I was quickly enamoured of Almaty. I usually tire of large cities rather quickly - I didn't of Almaty. It was beautiful - grid streets, incredibly green, cosmopolitan, and surrounded by soaring snow capped peaks, grazing goats and farmland. 

Almaty is a city where French patisseries sit side-by-side with Turkish kebab joints, where Old Soviet sophistication brushes alongside contemporary Western excesses in a way that just works

I was in Almaty working on my Iran visa - but adored being held up. I pressed pause, ate gloriously and went for a day hike in the Tien Shen Mountains, just an hour's bus ride out of the center of town. I found a tasteful French cafe near where I was staying, where I enjoyed long lazy mornings drinking French press and reading Edith Durham and Patrick Leigh Fermour novels under the shade of leafy eucalyptis. 

After a few days, my Iranian paperwork had cleared, and I was presented with a beautiful freshly minted pass into the Islamic Republic, and reluctantly pushed on. 


Birthdays & Bureaucrats of Bishkek

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in early summer.

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I crossed the border down to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for similarly administrative pursuits: it was here that I'd be hunting for the Uzbek and Turkmen visas. Though just a few hundred kilometers away from Almaty, Bishkek struck a different note. It is considerably poorer, far more Indigenous (Kazakshtan has an enormous Russian disapora compared with Kyrgyzstan), and wears its Soviet past much more openly. It is a city where Lenin statues and effigies of Marx still stand proudly, center stage in the region's most successful democracy. 

Underwhelmed by the city, I still endeavoured to make the most of my time there. 

Through a contact in Australia, I managed to nab an invite to a 6th birthday party, courtesy of Rufia, a 29 year old mother of two who's sister now lives in Sydney. They welcomed me like family to an entirely normal birthday party for Daniel, a young terrier who beamed with energy, caused havoc at dinner energised by too many glasses of cordial. 

We ate plovd and shared stories. No one really spoke English other than Rufia, but I exchanged pleasantries with everyone. There were around a dozen folks there - doting grandparents, tired mums and dads, shy kids, and a big rotweiler named Tyson. 

These events only reiterate that fundamental truth: everyone is, in the end, the same. The family dynamic here in Bishkek was no different to that in Adelaide or New York or London. They even sang Happy Birthday in English. Soon, the children tired, and we enjoyed a nightcap, before I wandered back to my hostel to hear of Anthony Bourdain's death. It was interesting that that very evening, I was engaged in a very Bourdain-esque pursuit: breaking bread with locals, tearing down any sense of abnormality about my surroundings and discovering the opposite: just how normal - how mundane, almost - it really was. And what a refreshing insight that was. I gathered my thoughts into a small dispatch, and sauntered off to bed. 

During this period, I'd been emailing Aida Kasymalieva, a Kyrgyz politician who'd been at the forefront of one of Kyrgyzstan's most ghastly issues: bride kidnapping. 

Bride kidnapping is one of the few things the western media knows about Kyrgyzstan. While often over-blown (ie, some commentary tends to refer to this is an accepted epidemic - when in fact the vast majority of Kyrgyz utterly condemn such barbaric behaviour) it remains too common in a country otherwise progressing in terms of its social and economic outcomes. A week before I arrived, a horrific murder of a kidnapped young woman occurred. 

On May 27, Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, 20, was kidnapped in Sokuluk, 20 kilometers west of Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek.

It was the second time in as many months the med-school graduate had been abducted a man who is alleged to have been forcing her hand in marriage.

Found by police, the two were held together at a station, where Burulai was brutally murdered by the very man who had stolen her.

“He stabbed my daughter with a knife right after we talked on the phone. Why did the investigator not handcuff the suspect?”, Burulai’s inconsolable father told local media.

The tragedy shocked Kyrgyzstan. Bride kidnappings are often ignored by politicians and local media. But the nature of the crime - and its demonstration of gross police negligence regarding women’s safety - has people taking notice. I wanted to write a story on the case, so contacted Aida, who quickly invited me to parliament house for an interview.

I passed security and walked through the labyrinthine parliament to discuss the case with Aida. 

“Buralia’s case will change things”, she told me. 

“It will be investigated to the very end - in the courts, and in the parliament”.

With my Uzbek visa in hand, and my Turkmenistan visa applied for, it was soon time to begin my real Central Asian adventure: the Pamir and the Wakhan, deep in Tajikistan's east.