Freedom of the press in Central Asia

I made the trip back from Bishkek to Almaty this afternoon. In fact, it was supposed to be this morning, but the first cab driver arranged by the hotel had a different idea of a fair price than the person who arranged the trip with the hotel. I can’t stress how important it is to verify the arranged price with the actual guy in the driver’s seat. I’ve had this misunderstanding quite a few times, and it’s better to check twice vs. getting left halfway there on the side of the road. After the “mix up” (hotel’s definition, not mine), I got the coolest driver ever. Not so much the guy, he was nice, and a good guy, but he knew this trip really well. Upon starting the car, he pulled out a sign that read “PRESS” in Russian and backed it up with a fake set of press credentials. The border would have taken four hours, but we went straight to the front of the line and were through the border in about 30 minutes. Entering Kazakhstan takes a lot longer than going the other way for sure. They had to inspect the vehicle (seriously inspect the vehicle – like pulling pieces of the interior off of it and checking the undercarriage for things) and I had to walk through the checkpoint separately and meet the car on the other side. While I was waiting, one of the border guards came over and asked me for my passport, and asked if I was from New York City. I replied, no, that I was from San Francisco. He grinned a huge smile and yelled “Schwartzenegger! Governor! Terminator!” This was really, really confusing to me. When i was in Beijing, people didn’t know where San Francisco was, but on the border of KZ and KGZ, the guy new what state it is in, and who the governor was. I wasn’t going to argue with the man with an AK-47, who was obviously happy about past California governance, or inform him that Ahnold was replaced by Moonbeam. The best thing to do when anyone with authority is excited about something is to share in their excitement. He quickly shuffled me to the front of the line I was in though. I resisted the urge to turn around and tell him that “I’d be back” but it made me laugh to think about. I’ll post the picture of the fake press pass after I’m back and can redact the name and picture of the driver to avoid any problems for him in the future. Apparently he writes for “Elite Women’s Vogue.” Seemed legit to me.

The trip itself is a mixture between boring and amazing. The Tian Shan mountain range is just to one side of the road, and the other side is endless flatness of grass. The mountains are amazing. Really amazing! I took four hours of mountain pictures while we drove. The road is better than any freeway than I’ve seen in California. The drivers all drive reasonably and carefully as well (no stupid passing around blind corners going on).

It’s nice to be heading in the general direction of home for sure. Tomorrow I’ll take the recommended walking tour of Almaty and see what there is to see…

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