“Ever since childhood, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it,” writes Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar. I feel the same way – usually.
In 2008, I embarked upon a three-day train journey from Karaganda, Kazakhstan to Moscow, Russia to attend a conference about helping at-risk kids. First, I needed a visa. I was told to bring train tickets, confirmed hotel reservations and an official letter of invitation to the visa appointment. At the railway station, the agent said she couldn’t sell me a ticket without seeing my Russian visa! I should have sensed border-crossing trouble ahead.
Our little party of four set out one bright spring morning on train number 83, two Americans, visas in hand, along with two Kazakhstani friends, national ID cards in hand, in our comfy compartment. The day passed uneventfully. As late afternoon approached, it was time for a break to stretch our legs. Our last stop before Russia, Petropavl, included sufficient time for ice cream. However, this was also the spot where Kazakhstan immigration officials boarded the train for the obligatory passport check.
I have a theory that little boys who dream of being pirates grow up to be taxi drivers. I’m not sure who dreams of growing up to be passport control officers. Some are nice. Others are not.
As someone old enough to remember vividly the Cold War, I expected scrutiny when entering Russia, but not when leaving Kazakhstan. Before we could detrain, two serious-looking uniformed men entered our compartment asking for documents. We promptly produced our passports.
At this point, I must mention the typographical error on my Kazakhstan business visa, an incorrect number that our lawyer had noticed upon registering my visa after being resident in the country for 90 days. Because the mistake happened in America upon visa issuance, it couldn’t easily be corrected in Kazakhstan. After escalating the issue all the way to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Astana, a head official decided to cancel the defective visa and issue a new, albeit handwritten, one.
You can imagine the rarity of two Americans traveling by train on this route. Now throw in the fact that I had a canceled visa still stuck in my passport. It was not looking good.
“What are you doing here with a cancelled visa?” demanded the lead officer.
“I have a replacement visa, as you can see here,” I explained.
“How is it that you have canceled visa?”
“Look, my wife’s passport number was mistakenly entered on my visa. Here’s her passport. We entered the country together last year on the same flight.”
Here our traveling companion Svetlana attempted to intervene on our behalf.
“These are Americans. They have a full-time lawyer working for them. They always have everything perfectly in order from A to Z!” she challenged.
“May I see your airline tickets and boarding passes from when you entered Kazakhstan?” asked the man.
“Do you really expect them to carry around an extra suitcase full of old travel documents?” Svetlana fired back.
This was not helpful. Perhaps she didn’t really want that ice cream after all. I gave her the international hand signal for HUSH and tried to think of a way out of this.
Meanwhile, my wife put on her reading glasses, opened her Bible and began reading quietly. I asked if one of us could please step out to buy ice cream before the train departed.
“Is not possible as your compartment is being detained,” was the reply.
Now, the junior officer, who previously had been busily occupied in side discussions on his walkie-talkie, joined the fray.
“You say that you and your wife both entered Kazakhstan on the same flight? Then how is it that your passport stamp shows November 17 while your wife’s shows the 18th?” he implored, plopping both passports back in front of me.
“I honestly don’t know,” I said truthfully.
“Didn’t our flight arrive around midnight?” my wife offered cheerfully.
“Yes, perhaps we went through the immigration lines at different times as the midnight date changed,” I supposed.
“Perhaps,” mumbled the senior official.
Though the sky had darkened outside, I sensed some daylight inside as the tension seemed to ease. At last, the officer reached for his ink pad and stamped our passports. Huge sighs of relief and even a few smiles appeared.
“Have a good trip,” the officers said as they waved goodbye.
Our ice cream would have to wait for another day. Across the border.
This tale is the first of a three -part series. For more border crossing adventures, please follow this blog. Thank you!