We took the 11:58pm train from Urumqi to Almaty, a 36 hour adventure across the Chinese border to Kazakhstan. Arriving early (as is my custom) we waiting outside a bit before being allowed into the terminal. You can only bring 36kg on board the train, and everyone’s bags were weighed, X-rayed and probed at the station. Once on board (car 5, room 6, bunks 23 and 24) we discovered that this was the nicest train we’d ever been on in China. The bunks actually left enough room for you to sit up straight and the hooks were facing up, instead of down and the toilet actually flushed! We fell asleep almost immediately and slept well because the rooms have doors (another improvement)!
At 7:00am I awoke knowing I should get up before we got to the border. I must have fallen back asleep because promptly at 9:00am a Chinese military official swung open the door to our room and motioned me off my bed. Thirty seconds later, when I was still blinking away sleep he came back and motioned again, a bit less humored than before. A second uniformed set of officers came in after the military cleared out. These men (in blue) collected our passports and put them in a metal briefcase and then sauntered off to a nearby building. After a moment, a third string of officials came through. These I did not recognize.
A Chinese official in white and blue walked up to Mike and held a small, white machine up to his forehead. It displayed a red dot directly above and between his eyes. Another official did the same thing to the woman across from Mike in her bunk. No one seemed perturbed by this. I was a bit terrified though, and when the guy came at me with the mystery devise I jerked back until he started laughing and pulled a thermometer out of the inside of the machine to demonstrate that he was only taking my temperature. Apparently (and, my guess would be from fear and paranoia) my temperature was a bit high. No kidding, officer?! He saw that we were American and then began to freak out a bit, he pulled out extra thermometers and made us stick them under our arms. The lady in our cabin motioned for us to remove them when he turned his back, so we did. When they came back they were at 36 and 37 degrees and then, suddenly, the officer spoke. I responded in Chinese and he nervously laughed, “I didn’t know you understood!” after a pause he added, “Excuse me, do you have the swine flu?” We said no, and a group of five officers showed up to listen to our story. We explained that we had been living in China since December and thus had not been in proximity to Mexico.
I’m impressed, honestly, with the way the government organized for mass border health checks including training the officers and explaining the origins of the flu. They did it professionally and quickly, and targeted the correct people for further inspection. I applaud. Its no small thing to halt a pandemic, and the government does away with PC measures to get stuff done.
After the swine flu check we had a baggage check. Here, I give a one thumb up, one thumb down. The Chinese guards only searched our bags and no one else’s. They made a big show of making us unpack every item in our bags. I suppose it is their job, but while we were showing them how an electronic toothbrush works the lady in our cabin was subtly kicking a duct-tapped bag under her bed. Whatever she was transporting was not 100% legit.
We finally chugged along only to stop five minutes later while they changed the wheels. Apparently Russian tracks are not the same distance apart as Chinese tracks, and this means all the wheels have to be replaced when entering Kazakhstan (also true with Russia and Mongolia).
Now to go through Kazakh customs. While the Chinese side had been entirely large, intimidating but finely groomed males the Kazakh customs officials were petite, gorgeous women in fish-net stocking, mini skirts and fluffy white blouses. A brunette came directly to our cabin and batted her big brown eyes, “You are American?” she asked. Mike nearly fell over himself as his jaw dropped and I responded, “yes.” She told us to give up our passports and show our bags to her friend, a red-head in a shorter skirt and more elaborate fish-net stockings. Mike responded with, “whatever you say!” and they walked away. However, after two hours of waiting, much to Mike’s disappointment they never came back. A burley alcoholic-smelling man came to return our passports and, after picking up new Kazakhs we headed on towards Almaty after one very successful and ultimately hassle free border crossing.