Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Getting on the train to China proved to be a very interesting experience in corruption. The ticket clerk in Almaty, Kazakhstan told me that train tickets from Almaty to Urumqi were sold out for a week. Knowing that there was sure to be ticket sellers lurking outside the train station, I went out and started asking everyone loitering around "bilet, bilet" (ticket) while Tim watched the bags. Many people came forward with tickets, wanting 2X the normal price! Most of them would not bargain, but finally, after some stiff negotiation, I found someone who told me he could get the tickets for only slightly higher than the actual rate. At this point I got my bags and Tim and I went outside together, after which we and the man were surrounded by a small mob, including three women who tried to drag me off to God knows where. To escape them the man punched the women's arm -hard- and when she let go, he dragged me at a run through the train station and past the guards to the train yard, followed by Tim and then the women. One of the women fell flat on her face chasing us! I am amazed that the guards did not try to figure out what was going on. At this point we had no idea what was going on ourselves, only that the man had promised us tickets. It was only later, when a railroad employee showed up that we realized that we would have no tickets and would be taking the staff berth of one of the train cars. We boarded the train several hours early in the dark and waited while cars were being added and removed and the car was being prepared. Our two person train berth was very comfortable and private and it was a relief not to have to try to make conversation in a language we barely understand. Of course, the train staff who gave up their beds and slept sitting in the stewards compartment keep all the money except the commission they paid to the man who made the arrangements, and possibly any bribes paid to border officials. At the border, a border guard who spoke excellent English told us that there was available space on the train but that since we were foreigners with most likely little time and lots of money that the ticket lady would not sell us the tickets. This way the ticket brokers that buy lots of tickets could have a crack at us! The brokers charge double and pay the ticket agents a commission to do this. Of course, all this is not entirely legal but no one pays any attention to it, at least not in Kazakhstan. When we reached Urumqi, the passengers on our train car all began to gather outside of the car. They were talking about us; I kept hearing Biz Bilet, Biz Bilet (without ticket). We were made to understand that we should wait for the group to leave the station. Soon we found out why: the Chinese check passenger tickets on exit from the train station. With the whole train car knowing we did not have tickets, they all grouped together to keep the officials busy while Tim and I slipped past them. Overall it was an interesting experience and fortunately worked out well for us. It certainly would not have happened like this in the US. If tickets were sold out for a week, we would have had to wait a week! Of course, we probably would not have been lied to about ticket availability in the first place.