Friday, 13 July 2012

   In bright sunshine on Saturday 18th June, a feast in honour of Roman martyrs SS Mark and Marcellian, i walked back to the main road from Temirtau, before deciding to hitch a ride to Astana. Having said that Kazakhstan didn’t feel dangerous, i had a genuinely life-threatening experience in the car that picked me up, driven by a young man in his 20s, though it was largely my fault. The thing was, like many motor cars in Kazakhstan, this one was Japanese, and therefore right-wheel drive, in a country where cars drive on the right. In theory then, it should have been useful to have someone like me on the passenger seat, to let the driver know when it was safe to overtake the various trucks and slowcoaches, and this worked fine in the first instances. However, on one occasion, trailing behind some lorry or other, when he asked about overtaking, we were nearing the crest of a hill, so i was completely unsighted. I could have used the Russian for “I can’t see”, but it seemed more natural to say, “I don’t see”, which he took to mean, “I don’t see [anything coming]”(!) He swung out and past the lorry, at which i was simply dumbfounded, not knowing why he hadn’t paid any attention to what i said! Thanks be to God and our Guardian angels, nothing came in the opposite direction at that moment, and we were granted an opportunity to sort out the confusion.

   Returning to Astana, part of that Saturday evening was spent on the internet again, followed by a fairly successful sleep under the first floor balcony of a tower block, grateful at least to be dry when rain fell in the morning. After Mass to mark Holy Trinity Sunday at the cathedral, i found a place to nap under a walkway, but was discovered, and asked to move along by a local resident, without menaces. I then visited the internet cafe and wrote an entry for the blog entitled ‘No Go Mongolia’ among other things, before an urchin-like forage around, in search of a decent sleeping place. Eventually i snuck inside a block of flats and slept well under a flight of stairs.
   On the Monday i made for the consular department of the Russian embassy again, and it worked out well, because the doors closed just before my turn came, on a day when they didn’t deal with visas anyway – i’d be near the front of the queue next day. Some time was spent on the internet again, and mercifully i was able to get a full refund for the train ticket i’d bought but could no longer use, from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator (Mongolia). I spent the night comfortably, at the hostel in the train station.
   On the feast of St Aloysius Gonzaga, Tuesday 21st of June, i was among the first people to enter the Russian consulate, armed with the rail and plane tickets which i hoped would smooth my way to a transit visa. My downfall came when the official asked why i needed as many as seven days in Irkutsk, Siberia. Telling him that “it has long been my dream to see Lake Baikal” would have been fine if i was applying for a tourist visa, but a transit visa is not issued so that people can go sightseeing. Although a Russian transit visa can be up to 10 days, the interval between arrival and departure must be kept to the absolute minimum – and consular staff will check timetables to see that this is the case. Still, this fellow had previously taken a photocopy of my Evening Post article, and his reserves of goodwill were not exhausted. I needed to catch a bus back to the station and change my train ticket, preferably to leave Kazakhstan on or near the very last day of my visa, the 27th June (i actually changed it to the 26th), in order to minimise the intervening period before my flight, on 1st July. Several things seemed providential about the circumstances surrounding my to-ing and fro-ing that day. I changed the ticket at the station, but came back to the consulate shortly before it was due to close. With people queuing outside i was almost resigned to coming back on the next day, but i filled out the application form, and thought i’d try following the example of a young Frenchman and a US citizen, who were using the intercom. Before doing this the American had confided, somewhat smugly; “English is power”, but although he got through the gate, i passed him coming back out, after i’d used Russian to tell the person that i’d already been inside that morning. Most extraordinary though; i hadn’t been aware that the visa would be so expensive, but because of the refund for my train ticket from the previous day, i had exactly the right amount on me, with about 50p to spare. There was still the matter of my health insurance certificate which they needed to see, so i arranged to retrieve that from my bag, which was being looked after at the internet cafe, and fax it to them. Thanks be to God, at 6pm i came back to the consulate and collected my passport, heavier to the tune of one Russian transit visa.

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