Photojournalist B. A. Van Sise found Kazakhstan to be a land where the visitor is a treasured guest – just so long as you can get past the border guards.
I don’t speak Russian, but I’m great at pretending.
I signed up for Russian courses in my freshman year at Fordham University, where at the time I was a theology student with a photography hobby. I’d met a young Russian woman there—a beautiful, charming girl, who sat in the cafeteria looking like Michelangelo had liberated her out of marble, right down to the elbows. She drove me to deeply non-theological thoughts, and I enlisted in Russian 101 for the next semester in the hopes that I could drop a few phrases and electrify her with my impoverished vocabulary.
I ended up taking Russian for four years. Never got the girl.
The young woman is, to this day, one of the best-looking people I’ve ever seen in real life, but, in spite of all of it, she never really knew I was alive. But I did learn a good chunk of the Russian language, and it’s been one of the most useful talents I’ve absorbed in a lifetime of learning. I still don’t know how to define my fluency when asked on triplicate official forms, but thanks to that course, I can say I have exactly enough Russian to get me into trouble—but not back out of it—in St. Petersburg, Tbilisi, and one time even this one really crazy bar in Brooklyn.
It was worth it.
My practical Russian experience has been mixed. Once, in Moscow, I had an uncomfortable week being conspicuously tailed by an apparatus of the state; I admit he might have soured me to the place. It was funny, sure—the same fellow glancing over his shoulder at me in art museums, in city squares, in restaurants everywhere I went, faking interest in a number of books and magazines of all topics and sizes, looking like he’d been hired out of a James Bond villain central casting, with a black leather jacket and wet thrush of blonde hair swept back. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that none of the basic Russian phrases I’d learned in college – Where is the library? Nice to meet you! – would be very useful if and when he got around to slowly choking the pink life out of me in a bathroom.
I wasn’t particularly nervous on my long flight out to Kazakhstan: a 24-hour set of flights to get to Almaty, where I was to hang around for just 36 hours for work. The plane was mostly empty—maybe ten men, mostly stained, heavy American guys in sweatpants with sleazy demeanors and faces roughly as attractive as in most mining regions. I summarily decided that they were surely on their way to pick up mail-order brides, which was condescending, cruel, and almost certainly correct.
The plane landed on the snowy tarmac of a dark airport; a lone man stood on the side of the runway waiting for us to roll in. He gestured at the pilot and then waved a portable flashlight at the half-lit terminal, the rest of whose lights promptly switched on. I was the last off the plane and the last into the line to get luggage x-rayed and passports stamped. I had not packed much into my small canvas bag—a spare suit, a kitschy, furry Soviet hat, an extra pair of underwear, a toothbrush, my camera, and a small device called a GorillaPod, commonly used by travel photographers as an ersatz tripod. It’s small, about six inches tall, with legs made of small balls joined together to allow it to be fully bendable; you can bend it, rotate it, twist it around many surfaces to mount a camera on the fly. The Kazakh man at the X-Ray machine watched as one after another the greasy, tired passengers unsmilingly put their bags on the conveyor belt, waited for a stranger to see the internal atoms of their boxer shorts, and went on their way. His attention was piqued, however, when mine went through.
You can generally tell how well-founded and serious a country’s government is by the Inverse Hat rule; tiny, backwards nations will invariably have soldiers and policemen with a treasure chest of medals pinned to their uniform and gigantic hats to signal their importance to the unwise. I watched as each agent procured an additional man with a bigger hat, until finally five men with increasingly generous chapeaus called their leader, who I’ll call the Alpha Kazakh. The Alpha Kazakh had the biggest hat I’ve ever seen on a human being and was an ice-water, customary man who clearly took himself very seriously, even though he may very well have been hiding a bowling ball on top of his noggin.
He moved slowly, deliberately, as he pulled out my bag and motioned for me to open it. Do they think I have a weapon? I briefly wondered if they might be stopping me out of objection to my unquestionably tasteless, furry Soviet hat. Could they deport me for bad taste? There’s only one flight a week—where would they deport me to?
They pulled out my GorillaPod and held it up, the Alpha Kazakh grim and steady while the rest stifled their laughter.
I spoke to him in my broken Russian, even though the people of Kazakhstan speak, well, Kazakh. I was counting on—and I was right—that half a century of Soviet occupation would have left a linguistic legacy. В чем проблема? I said in Russian. What problem?
He frowned. “Big problem.”
He put the three-pronged, beaded tripod down on the table, and using non-verbal language, told me his concerns.
He adjusted his hat, which by this point, I figured, was probably beginning to develop emotions, perhaps its own gravity, and mimed to me—on the left, one closed first and, on the right, one moving, pointed finger—that he felt, quite surely, that I was going to shove this phallic-looking tripod straight up my ass while in his country. He thought I’d brought the kinkiest dildo any of them had ever seen as my sole piece of luggage, halfway around the world to Asia, for a 36-hour romp. The other guards, tilting their heads quizzically, were clearly trying to suss out into where or whom I might attempt to stick the other two legs.
Imagine the scene as I uncomfortably tried to explain to six uniformed men in a country I couldn’t find on a map, in a language I could not really speak, that I had not just flown halfway across the world only to rectally impale myself. On an X-Ray—I could see the screen—the tripod looked particularly threatening and disagreeable, yes, but their cogs were clearly turning, and their conclusion was obvious: I looked like an ambitious man, and anything can be a dildo if you’re brave enough.
I stumbled over my words for a solid fifteen minutes, trying to put together full sentences to talk my way out of it as the guards took an escalating this is it, boys, this is war physical stance until, eureka, I had the idea to hold up one palm and walk very slowly, to the bag, trying to tame the men back the way one might try to calm a barking Doberman or a pack of velociraptors.
I pulled out my camera, slowly, and screwed the tripod in. Oh, of course, the agents all nodded and laughed, but the Alpha Kazakh got even more serious. I had exposed myself as the only thing possibly worse than a self-sodomite.
“Are you a journalist?”
If I journalist, I said, I speak Russian. I no speak Russian.
He waved me through, welcoming me to his beloved Kazakhstan.
I was the last person to walk through that dim airport terminal that night, except for the tout following behind me, saying in Russian, “Taxi. Taxi. You want a taxi. Taxi. I have a taxi. You want taxi. Taxi. Taxi. Taxi. Taxi.” I waved him off.
“You want a taxi. Taxi. I have a taxi. You want a taxi. Where you want to go? Taxi. Taxi.”
I walked out to the official cab stand outside the terminal, where one lone green and white cab was waiting, its driver asleep inside, presumably having given up on that night’s flight and waiting for the one arriving on Thursday. I knocked on the window while the tout said, “Taxi. Taxi. Taxi. Taxi” right behind me, and the real cab driver roused. I want go this address, I said, holding up a piece of paper, and he nodded as I got in the back seat. The tout started screaming, fully screaming, in the tone used by boot camp drill sergeants, at the cab driver, who started screaming right back. Every word of their exchange was in Kazakh, unrelated to the Russian language or basically any other, and I couldn’t understand any of it, but it was very loud and, frankly, terrifying.
Finally, the cabbie just started pulling away from the curb as the tout opened the driver’s side door and held on to it, running alongside the car, the two men screaming at each other louder and louder until the cab finally swung hard to the left, checking the tout against a concrete wall at thirty miles an hour. He fell off in a tumbling roll behind us, and the cabbie sped on, never so much as looking in his rear-view mirror.
I sat in the back seat in shock. The cab was completely quiet—no conversation, no radio, no small talk, no why are you in Kazakhstan or do you mind that I just murdered a man?
The whole of Almaty is lit at night by old Soviet, low-pressure, sodium vapor lamps, yellow and unfriendly, that cast the whole city in shades of monochromatic piss. We passed houses and shops, factories and empty kiosks, all tarnished, all yellow under their man-made light. I fixed myself on the world outside the window, lonely and afraid, as we rode monotonously in that car, its windows closed, silent as an aquarium.
The driver stared straight ahead, motionless and emotionless, like Charon shuttling me across the Styx, dragging his oar through thick, dark water.
The road into town is a wide boulevard, six lanes, all empty at that hour. When we arrived at my hotel, we found a square, concrete building festooned with flags over and columns flanking its main mechanical sliding door, which no longer functioned automatically, if ever it did. An attendant in an immaculate uniform, but rank at any distance thanks to a heavy cigarette habit, was waiting at the desk. He was freshly shaven in his red uniform, two rows of vestigial gold buttons running up the pullover tunic. He was a handsome young man with rotting teeth.
He spoke to me in German first, and then English. “You must be Mr. Van Sise?” I told him I was and looked at the wall of brass keys behind him, every single one of them still hanging on its hook. He took one off. “You are in room 313. The elevator is on the left. Please sign.” He handed me a piece of paper written entirely in Cyrillic, which I signed anywhere. He then turned over the key and pointed towards the elevator; happy pop music was playing somewhere else in the world, muffled through the wall, and as I walked towards the elevator, the attendant went through a door to the back, presumably to smoke ten cigarettes simultaneously.
In the room was a large bed, a beautiful desk, an old Yugoslavian television with a huge remote control, no less than a hundred buttons, deeply unclean and roughly the size of my torso. On the desk was an unopened bottle of vodka and a sealed yellow box with three condoms next to it. Underneath both was a note on white paper with a message handwritten in cursive: for our treasured guest.
I fell face forward into bed, sinking into it as an anchor into sea. I awoke five hours later, feeling like I’d slept a century.
That morning I went to see a church—an old, lemon-colored Orthodox cathedral near the center of town, supposedly built entirely without nails. Inside, old women and their children were lighting candles. It was deliriously cold—January in bleak central Asia delivers the product one expects—and I watched as endothermic ladies shifted themselves along the walls into the beams of light perforating the upper windows, long columns of sunshine illuminated and widened by five centuries of dust, their light bouncing off millions of little specks of dancing skin passed down over twenty generations by the hopeful and hopeless alike, all set sail by curls of warm, living breath.
Other stragglers were dotted out, one each and unsharing among the pews, which were wooden and unusually wide, presumably just barely enough to hold one person and all their sins.
At the base of my hotel was a restaurant, a very ungrand place named “Le Grand.” I walked in to find a small, confused woman who asked me what I wanted like she was accusing me of a crime. I asked for a menu, and she brought one, short and to the point: they offered horse steak, horse burgers, horse milk, horse chocolate, and a few other things.
I got the chicken.
With a meeting to go to that afternoon, I stopped back into my room, hoping to rest briefly and maybe, if I could figure out how to use the gigantic remote, to watch whatever the heck it is Kazakhs watch on television: presumably horses being ridden, being groomed, being cooked.
I found the room just as I left it—sheets gently tousled, pillow with an indent of my face still molded in, vodka bottle, the note on the desk. The condom box, however, had been opened, with exactly one condom removed from it in my morning absence. No matter what the note said, presumably a maid or a manager had found another guest that they treasured, well, just a little bit more.
The thermometer read just one degree—the air of Kazakhstan had even less degrees than I do—but I was the only person in the nation who seemed to mind. I brought an open cup of hot coffee out of the hotel, and it turned to caffeinated snow within seconds. I was about to toss it out onto the curb when two children in the lightest of jackets came running past.
On my way to my afternoon meeting, bag in hand, I passed a massive Soviet monument with a fantastically large inscription in Kazakh, no doubtedly praising the glorious victors of some war or mourning the defeated of another. It had what appeared to be graves in front of it and a large round ball with three playing children at the top. I decided it would be high time to make a Kazakh selfie and began mounting the camera on the GorillaPod, and then wrapping the GorillaPod around a fence post to secure it while I put the camera on a timer to run in front of the monument and pose in glory.
Just after pressing the shutter, as I started to run, I saw a small, Asian-looking man of clearly little importance out of the corner of my eye. I wasn’t particularly worried—his hat wasn’t nearly over-sized enough to command respect in any former SSR—but he had an incredibly sour expression. He walked up, staring at me like he’d just caught me holding his sister’s underpants, and halfheartedly began to lift his hand, after I extended mine to shake his in warm greetings. The shutter on the camera tripped, and we both glanced quickly towards it before finding each other.
HELLO! I said with ebullience. How I help you today?
Keeping his hand out, and upwards, he informed me quite matter of factly and in very simple vocabulary that foreigners can’t take pictures in Kazakhstan and that I must pay a heavy fine.
After twenty years of travel, I don’t mind a bribe. There are even times when I think bribery systems are better than honest ones; wouldn’t everything at the DMV be better if you could just slip a clerk a twenty and walk out with your license five minutes later? I’ve been asked for bribes, and paid bribes, all over the world. The farther you get from America, in fact, the more people seem to understand their American obligation to make as much money as possible.
That said, I can’t stand poorly executed corruption—I once spent over 18 hours locked up in Nigeria because I refused to pay some lame bozo ten bucks—and pushed back when somebody tried to pass off some phony baloney photography law they’d just made up on the fly.
No, I told him. That not correct.
In any negotiation, it’s crucial that both parties understand where their leverage is: namely, which side needs more critically to meet their objective. When you’re in a souk buying silverware, who has the greater need: you for the silverware or the seller for your money? When you’re at a hospital, which are you more willing to give up forever: your life savings or your pancreas?
I knew that I was right. The Omega Kazakh knew that I was also freezing. At 1 degree Fahrenheit, he just had to express his point for twenty minutes until I dropped dead of hypothermia, and he’d get to rifle through my pockets.
I didn’t know how much cold it would take to kill me, but I knew precisely how much he was gonna use.
All of a sudden, I heard a man bellowing, at the top of his lungs, in Kazakh. He was a small but striking fellow with an unspeakably weathered face, like a canvas atlas after decades on the road. He was dressed neatly and simply, in black slacks and a light brown, suede jacket. Wagging his finger, he marched up and yelled linguistically incomprehensible but plainly obvious things: surely he questioned the cop’s improper relationship with his mother; surely he informed this fine officer of the state that he, a scoundrel, was the reason Kazakhstan was not allowed to have nice things.
Frowning, the Omega Kazakh shuffled away with neither my life nor my money to his credit, and the man turned to me. “Hey, how ya doin’?” he asked in clear and stunning English.
Why… why do you talk like that?
He told me that he’d spent ten years living in Passaic County, New Jersey working as a cab driver. I resisted my urge to ask him if he’d ever body-checked a competitor against the Palisades.
“I’m Yermak,” he said, and I shook his hand. I’m Brenno.
“That’s a strange name,” Yermak said, before introducing me to his wife, Gulasyl.
We chatted for a few minutes—foreign visitors are unusual in Almaty, and he was curious to know what I was doing there. He was stunned to find out that I’d dropped in from the opposite side of the planet to visit for just a day and a half, and when he said it like that, well, so was I.
“Hey,” he paused. “Do you wanna come ice skating with us?”
Almaty, Kazakhstan, it turns out, is home to one of the largest ice-skating rinks in the world, called the Medeu. Built in 1950, it’s filled with 113,000 square feet of ice and is frequently used as a training facility for the nation’s many professional ice skaters, who cut ice there for years before being exported throughout the globe as national treasures.
I remembered the meeting I was headed to, which I had flown 6,400 miles just to attend, and then forgot it.
“Of course,” I said, and I followed them a couple blocks to Yermak’s green and white taxi and got in.
By the time we arrived, it was already late afternoon, the light getting low, the shadows long; Yermak and Gulaysl took their skates out of their trunk, and I walked with them into the reception area for the arena. At the counter, I pointed at shoes and briefly wondered where that girl was, the one from college all those years ago, out there undoubtedly stopping hearts and traffic. It was a shame, I thought, that she’d never know that she caused all this.
Yes, I said to the young lady here behind this counter in Kazakhstan, with piercing blue eyes, I want shoes with knifes. Big shoes with knives. I have the big feet.
She smiled as wide as I have ever seen a person smile—for a moment I lost my composure—and then turned serious when she saw the manager, in his very large hat, glowering at her from the lockers. She stepped into the back and returned with a giant pair of dark red shoes with knives, which were clearly the perfect fit for what must be an unspeakably impressive other man.
The three of us trudged out onto the ice and set to it; I fancy myself a good skater, but I was nothing compared to my new friends, who glid as easily as water through fingers across that ice.
My body grew warmer as I swept and bobbed, dodging through the crowd.
I lingered until the sun set, making loose circles around the giant rink as young children fell over, teenagers made eyes at one another, and elderly couples moseyed around the corners. Making a wide loop, the warm sunbeams to my back, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, Yermak stealing the tiniest of kisses from his wife. They caught me looking and both waved; I realized that I was finally, just as always, a treasured guest.
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