Kazakhstan Visit, Issue 1

My good colleague Prof Coenrad Fourie and I were recently invited for a short trip as visiting professors to the Karaganda State Technical University in Kazakhstan. This has already been a very unique experience, and I’ll try to do a few short posts over the next couple of weeks to journal some of this.

If, like me, you knew nothing of Kazakhstan: first some background. (And just to get it out of the way, no, the country does not feature in a movie that might be your only exposure to the word “Kazakhstan”. Different countries,  in fact.) Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country, and is nestled in a southern alcove of the Russian border, with China to the east, and doing a pinky-shake with Mongolia (have a look). Most of the people are Kazakh, which means they largely stem from the Turkic hordes like the Huns. The ancient Silk Road which connected the Orient and the Occident of the old world, ran through Kazakhstan.

Travelling is part of my job (remind me to write about the reasons for this some time, will you?) but this particular trip was trickier than usual, because South Africans can’t easily obtain visas for Kazakhstan before travelling – there’s no Kazakhstan consulate in South Africa. Consulates in other countries told us that it would be illegal to try to obtain a visa by sending our passports by courier. So we had to travel to our destination without a visa, but with lots and lots of documentation, including a document from their Foreign Affairs ministry with a “visa support number” as reference, and a letter from our own embassy in Kazakhstan.

It’s a bit nerve-racking to travel 22 hours by plane without knowing whether you’ll be let into your destination country. It turned out that the final border entry (where we got our visas issued at Almaty airport) was much easier than getting onto planes at your departure points, where carriers check your documents before issuing a boarding pass. At Delhi airport, an official disappeared with our passports and supporting documents for more than an hour before letting us out of what seemed like a little passenger containment area.

Fortunately, we arrived in our destination country safe and sound. A visit to one of the modernest cities I’ve ever seen, a meal of horsemeat, a 3-hour roadtrip in the dead of night, Google’s babel fish and a mind-boggling tour of a post-soviet city later, we’re finally in Karaganda. But more about this in the next post!

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