My ride in a Kazakhstan Police Car – Mongol Rally

August 26, 2011 18 Comments »

Busted in Kazakhstan

We had heard from other teams on Twitter that the police checkpoints outside of Astana were a bitch.  But we couldn’t stay in Astana forever – we had to press on.  Up until this point, we had avoided any real major run-ins with police and bribes by simply playing dumb and sometimes ignoring their points to pull over as if we didn’t understand or were looking the other way.  Plus, we had a theory that the police were less likely to shake down a female, so Deb and I would put our best ‘helpless woman act’, and it generally worked.

We left Astana with a plan…based on nothing but guesses and theories…but it was better than nothing.  We planned to leave very early… 7 AM in order to hopefully get out of the city before they had the police checkpoints operating.  And we planned on a female driving.

I got behind the wheel, and we swiftly left the city early in the morning.  We passed a few police and held our breath.  So far, so good.

Oh yeah – one more thing to know.  The real reason we were trying to avoid a pullover in Kazakhstan was because we didn’t have any insurance for Kazak.  Somehow, in our elation to get through the border into Kazakhstan, we forgot that we had to buy insurance.  Typically, they shake you down at the border and make you buy insurance, but no officials at the border mentioned anything, so we didn’t even think about it.  By the time we realized this, we had no idea how to get insurance any longer since we weren’t near the border and were halfway through the country…so we decided to risk it.

Then, near the Astana city limits, we came upon a proper checkpoint – one where they make you slow down to 5mph and roll through while watching you and deciding if they wanted to pull you over.  I had been trying to stay behind trucks or buses in hopes of ‘hiding’ and sliding through while the bigger vehicles distracted them – but no luck.  I was exposed with nothing to hide behind.

Learn about the culture of Mongolian nomads

We went through slowly and the officer looked at us, the car full of stickers, and waved his baton as if he were waving us through.  We were a bit confused by the baton movement; did he mean stop – did he mean go – what do we do?  Baton movements are often lost in translation.  So I just kept going slowly, waiting to hear a more familiar whistle sound, but there was nothing.  The whole team turned around and looked at him to ensure that he didn’t have any adverse reaction; Deb even gave him the universal ‘thumbs up’ signal, and he just kept waving the baton the same way in no alarming fashion as if we were doing anything wrong.

So I kept going!

We rejoiced that we had made it through!  In fact – shortly thereafter we came across 2 other Mongol Rally teams off the side of the road picking up their camp and getting ready to set out.  I honked the horn as I went by and we all waved. We were happy, elated, relaxed…and then I heard it…the siren behind me.

The police had chased us down about 4km past the checkpoint.  The policeman came to me and said in choppy English (but good enough to understand clearly) that I had done something very bad, I didn’t stop when he told me to stop at the checkpoint.  I tried to explain his baton movement to go through, but I knew I would get nowhere.  He took my passport and international license and told me to follow him back to the checkpoint.  So back we went…

As we passed by the other Mongol Rally team along the side of the road again, the policeman stopped and told me to go back to the checkpoint.  He obviously decided that he may be able to make more money if he drugs in three teams for trumped-up reasons.  I parked at the checkpoint and waited for him to return.  Camouflage officers with automatic weapons milled around the checkpoint looking at us with dollar signs in their eyes.  And the team collaborated on how to potentially handle the situation; play dumb, act like you don’t understand, baffle him with bullshit.  That was all good advice, but it was early in the morning, and I’m not a morning person.  I had PMS and it’s my nature to argue in a situation like this, not play the helpless ditzy woman…but I told my teammates I would try my best.

He came back with none of the other teams (whew!) and told me to come into his office.  He got me a chair and started to ask me for my papers.  I ruffled around the papers, trying to make them look more than they were, and handed them over one by one.  He asked right away at my paper bureaucracy and asked me where my Kazak insurance was.  I pointed to the papers and shuffled them around more and said “This is all they gave us at the border”.  A lot of back-and-forth choppy English about paperwork, borders, wrong insurance, and breaking rules ensued.

He was frustrated with my apparent lack of understanding of the insurance issue (yet I knew fully well what was going on – apparently, my ditzy, helpless woman act was working).  He told me to come with him, and he took me outside and told me to get in his police car. I continued the act and said, “Why?  Are you taking me to jail?” At that he actually smiled and quickly said no. He said, “We go, British friends, Kazak Insurance.” We took off at high speeds, I pulled on my seatbelt, told him I wasn’t British, and decided to complement him on his nice, fast car.

He went back to the other team along the side of the road and pulled up.  These other ralliers, whom I had never met before, all huddled around the police car as it pulled up and looked at me in the passenger seat in confusion.  Basically, the officer knew they had the proper insurance because he had just seen it – so he took me there so I could see it and understand that I had done something wrong.  He asked the Brit, David, to sit with me in the car, show me his insurance, and tell me that I did something very bad by not having insurance.  Poor David looked confused and shyly sat in the car while the officer got out and left us in there together.  David looked at me and I quickly said to him “Look, I know that we don’t have the right insurance, just tell the officer that you were told to buy yours at the border and they didn’t sell us any at the border.”  Poor David had walked into the middle of a game of ‘translation bribe’ – he was now the middle man trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

David backed up my story to the officer, and the officer got back in the car with me and drove me away.  The other teams looked at me with empathetic eyes as I was driven off again to the checkpoint and where my team was.  In the car, the officer said to me that I had done a very bad ‘foul’ and he was going to take my license/passport away.

And this is when I decided to pull at his male heartstrings…in my best timid woman act I could, I asked him again if I was going to go to jail.  I went on to say that if I went to jail, my mother would be very, very worried about me.  I continued to talk about my mother and let him know that she was very old and very concerned about my safety.  I figured bringing up one’s mother couldn’t hurt in the situation.  He asked me where my mother lived and I told him America.  I told him that maybe she would have to fly here to get me out of jail.  He clearly didn’t like this line of conversation and stopped talking to me.

We went back to the office, and he started to go through the process of a bribe request, telling me how I had committed a ‘foul’ and that he would take my passport/license.  I pretended like I didn’t understand the word foul, and I kept asking him if I would have to go to the police station in Astana to get my passport back.  I knew that he didn’t want to get other police involved – as taking bribes was not part of the protocol for the police – so the mention of me going to the police station wasn’t too well received either.

We continued to dance this bribery dance with me acting stupid and helpless and him getting more and more frustrated by me…which was our plan.  He showed me what the fines were for my offenses (not stopping when asked and having no insurance) – Of course all of the writing was in Kazak so I understood none of it except for the fact that he wrote  $300+ USD on a piece of paper and pushed it over to me.

I acted shocked and concerned and continued to play my role while telling him I didn’t have that kind of money.  He took it down to $100USD.  We danced around some more and finally after about 20 minutes of this he told me to go get my friends.

I went outside to my teammates and he leaned out his office window and said, “Sherry – you stay.” – so I briefed my teammates quickly on the situation and sent them in.  However he sent Deb back out.  He was clearly done dealing with women as I had done my job of frustrating the hell out of him and making him think of about my poor old mother.

He started negotiating with the guys, telling them that I had made very bad fouls.  After about 10 minutes, they came back out and said that he wanted $ 80 USD.  We acted like we were all going through various money and decided to go back in with $ 53 USD plus about $6 in Russian rubles(the $3 US and the rubles were just to make it look that we had dug as deep as we could).

He bit.

Corrupt officials are the norm in this part of the world.  The trumped-up charge of us not pulling over when he didn’t really indicate that we needed to pull over was his little ‘sting’ operation.  However when he realized that we didn’t have insurance, he knew he hit the jackpot.  We had actually been really lucky up to this point every time we had been pulled over.  Most police didn’t know enough English to communicate with us, and we just continued to frustrate them by acting like we didn’t understand.  Yet this man knew the word for insurance…so we had nowhere to hide!

He gave the guys back my passport, license, and car paperwork and made them the guys leave.  We happily drove off…no jail, no missing paperwork…just $53 dollars poorer.

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