Okay, so you’re probably aware that that photo displayed above is not actually of the man about whom I’m about to weave a story – but perhaps the man in the photo above should prepare to pass his title on to a worthy adversary. But we’ll get to that soon enough…
The day began with the early morning rising of a desperately tired Brett and Angie, waking early at 5am in our thin-walled room at the Turkestan Hotel in Almaty after having been kept awake late by the vocal harmonizing – vocal harmonizing which was no doubt the audible result of the physical harmonizing taking place between the old, rotund and hairy occupants of the room next to us. Yes, you read right, both of them were hairy. Good on them, but I’d have preferred some sleep that night.
We were down on the street by 5.50am to catch a taxi to the Sairun Bus Station and were fortunate that the drivers of both vehicles we were able to find on the streets at this time in Almaty were willing to drive us to the station. In central asia every car is a potential taxi and you need only hold out a hand and wait for a short while, someone will stop and a price can be established for a ride. The first car did not accept our price, but the second did.
We arrived at the station and boarded the sleeper bus, a bus that had a row of bunks along each side of the bus with a comfortable aisle up the middle and four bunks across the back of the bus. Each bunk is tilted up at the head so that the feet of the person behind you slide into a small tapered compartment beneath your torso. These bunks are not as comfortable as the trains sleeper cars, but they are significant improvement over the reclining airline-style seats on many buses.
The first part of our journey was fairly relaxing – the road climbs north and then west from Almaty eventually passing through the outskirts of the Tian Shan Mountains. There are wide sweeping green valleys here that gradually climb to gentle but high hilly mountains. In other places we pass through arid landscapes with small rocky hills that indicate the imposing Tian Shan on the horizon. This is a beautiful drive and as the bus passes through the Tian Shan at night, it is the scenic highlight of our trip.
After about seven or eight hours of travel and over-frequent toilet and meal stops, we finally reach the Kazakh customs complex near the Kazakh-China border. But just before we enter the customs area, we pick up two men off the roadside. They enter the bus and roll out on the carpeted floor already smelling of beer (you do not wear your shoes on the bus and the floor is extremely clean). One of these men soon picks us out as non-natives to the area and approaches us speaking English and offering to help us through customs, a very welcome offer as no one else on the bus has any English and we seriously doubt the border guards at either customs area will have any either. We thank this man for his offer and he introduces himself as Mikael, offering that “you can call me Michael though, it is the same name in your language as Mikael in Russia”.
In the Kazakh border area we get slightly ahead of Mikael in the customs line. As we are questioned in Kazakh by the Kazakh guards, questions which we do not understand, the rest of our bus seems to join in in Kazakh arguing with the guards to stop pestering us. Mikael, for his part, bellows from the back of the line but cannot hear enough to translate the guard’s questions. The guard seems annoyed and I see him reach for his pocket as he unhooks his dog from its leash. While waiting in line I had observed this guard playing with the dog and I watched him place a ball in his pocket, so when he reaches from behind me and tosses the ball behind my back at shoulder height I make a point of not reacting as the dog leaps towards me intent on the ball. The dog catches the ball without grazing my shoulder and I only can hope that the guard did not get any pleasure out of this intimidation tactic as I did not flinch.
The next line of Kazakh guards have a different demeanor altogether, as rather than being questioned I am asked to take a photo with the guard and an elderly Uigher merchant who is also passing through customs. I happily oblige this fairly common request and we pass through the rest of the Kazakh customs with ease, not requiring Mikael’s aid.
There is a short drive between the Kazakh and Chinese Customs areas and Mikael has rested himself on the floor of the bus just next to my lower bunk. I learn that this moderately overweight and fairly worn looking man has acted as a local host for Chevron oil employees stationed in Almaty. He is anxious to speak in English as he has not held this job for some time and therefore feels he is out of practice. He laments the lack of freedom allowed the Chevron employees while in Almaty: “I try to be nice, I offer to take them to the mountains for the day but the safety head says ‘Mikael, what are you doing? They cannot do that, please stop discussing these unapproved options with them.’ They cannot even go to restaurants that are not on the approved list. You know, they don’t even realize that this isn’t Africa or Bangladesh, they can’t do anything. Yes these guys make a lot of money, but they are slaves for the three or five years they are here, what life is that? And most of them want to go, they are excited about the mountains, but the safety head won’t allow it. And he is scum himself, he directs safety in five countries and has four families, one in each country except Kazakhstan. And he tells me he is looking for a Kazakh wife. What scum!”
In the Chinese customs area, the only help Mikael offers is a comment while I am standing at the customs desk with a photo of me alongside my passport photo shown on the screen: “This looks nothing like you!”. He is right, but this is perhaps not the kind of help I’d hoped for.
We are spit out from the Chinese customs offices onto the street into a horde of money changers and taxi drivers, the most aggressive we’ve seen. We clutch at our pockets as the hands of the money changers searches us, attempting to clean us of money as we pass through the crowd. The large Mikael moves through the crowd like a bowling ball through pins, laughing all the while and taunting the money changers. Once we have emerged from the crowd, he tells us that the bus will be in customs for at least a few hours and will then exit customs at a station 1km away – we can take the bus for 1 yuan ($0.18) or walk. We opt to walk with Mikael and his associate Alex who does not speak English.
Alex runs across the street and buys 500ml beers at 3 yuan each, and Mikael explains that this is somewhat of a routine for them. They both come to Urumqi once a month for business – unspecified business – as do most on the bus, and they take advantage of their weekends away from their families in Almaty to drink the cheap beer in China and act out a bit. This is their last trip to China as the Chinese Government has stopped granting multiple entry one-year visas to Kazakh merchants and their visas are set to expire.
They are very pleasant company, Mikael the outrageous personality that scarcely stops speaking and Alexsei the quiet and kind friend who is willing to overlook his companion’s weaknesses as he recognizes the many strengths that lie a bit under the worn exterior, strengths that others might not take the time to identify. Mikael rails on a long story about being arrested by the Chinese police the last time they visited for punching and breaking of the tooth of a money changer who had shorted him, and how the man had taunted this time through the crowd by baring and pointing to his new artificial tooth. Mikael is the sort of storyteller that stacks details on top of eachother in a manner that suggests spur-of-the-moment exaggeration and fabrication and I don’t quite know what to make of this story. Perhaps he sees my questions or perhaps he knows the flaws of his flamboyant storytelling, but he is soon rifling through his bag and producing legal papers in Chinese bearing his thumbprint and signature. “But how did you know what these papers say”, I ask, to which he replies “I did not, but they would not release me until I signed”. I protest: “But how did you know you were not signing a murder confession? you could have been locked up still.” “Ah, but here I am”, says he, and this is the sort that Mikael is – the type that never questions the proceedings as long as the results are not catastrophic.
He waxes emotional, lamenting the limbo in which ethnic Russian Kazakhs live. They are outcasts of the Kazakh society that has painted the Russians and even darker shade than their history warrants (“the history books say we invaded. We did much bad, but Russia only came to Kazakhstan after the Kazakhs asked for their protection. Why lie about this?”). The Kazakhs will never accept his kind and when he goes to Russia, the Russians treat him as un-Russian. For this reason he has applied for a green card to move his family to America.
At the bus station we decide not to eat at the small restaurants instead opting for our dried fruits and almonds as planned. Alex does not accept this explanation and orders us a lamb stir fry dish which we could not pay for should he allow us to as we have no yuan yet. The lamb is delicious and we thank them, but their generosity is not done. They join us on the bus with a full bag of mandarins which they insist on us taking, and these are to date the best mandarins we’ve had on our trip.
The bus leaves the station in darkness and Mikael settles himself back at my side. Angie is not feeling well and has confined herself to her upper bunk intent on sleeping and Alex has retired for a nap as well, leaving me with Mikael and the three more 500ml beers he has just purchased.
And Mikael does not disappoint – he is full of stories, fables, myths and whims. I cannot tell which is which. I scarcely speak as he winds tales of his eventful life, a life of only 32 years that may as well be a century and has in fact left him looking like it has been at least half that. Let me count the feats which Mikael claims and discuss why I doubt each one. Note that the stories becoming more revealing and honest and less self glorifying as the beer disappears:
1. He claims to have been an MMA fighter in Russia for five years and to have only recently retired. I find this hard to believe because he is not fit and is in fact a bit rotund. Despite his size he does not look nearly as fit as many MMA fighters, though he does look worn.
2. He worked in Miami for two years. This is plausible though it is rare for Kazakhs to be able to afford to travel let alone live abroad. Combined with the next few claims, this one seems less and less likely to be true, and my hesitancy to accept any of the next three claims is sue to the same reasons I state here.
3. He imported cars to and lived in Germany for five years.
4. He bought a campervan and toured all of europe with his wife.
5. He has toured most of southeast asia with his wife and daughter.
6. His wife is a model. See my physical description of him above. He is in no way an attractive man.
7. His 11 year old daughter is a model. How would a man as unattractive as him beget something that someone would want to put in a magazine?
8. His grandparents moved to Kazakhstan for work – his grandpa being the head of Stalin’s deathsquad in Almaty which monitored the political exiles. His grandma was an english teacher – he tosses that in as if it were interesting after the former peice of information. I kind of believe this one – who would claim that unless it were true?
9. He built a house outside of Almaty after having $50,000 stolen out of his house in the city and becoming tired of crime. He recently spent $2,000 on a rare breed of cat that grows as big as a dog. I doubt these claims as they seem overly boastful and this is an absurd amount of money for a Kazakh to have laying around.
10. He recently was rushed to the hospital with heart issues, which he claims were caused by extreme stress, though the doctors also think he may have suffered many concussions as a fighter. This is by all means plausible, though I’d have thought that someone who claims to be fit enough to fit MMA for five years would be healthier.
11. He claims this stress was caused by only having $20 to his name on International Women’s day, which was clearly not enough to buy the required gifts for his wife, daughter and mother not to mention the nice dinner his wife expected. I doubt this claim based on his previous bragging about buying a $2,000 cat only a few months ago.
12. He is now on antidepressant and his wife has ordered him not get into anymore fights, but he thinks the antidepressants are working – “I don’t even feel like fighting!”, he claims happily as if this is the first moment in his life he could truthfully say this. This, if true, might explain a lot.
Just at the point when I am in my head saying “This guy is full of shit. He’s a nice guy but he’s completely full of shit”, Mikael pulls out his phone and produces photographic evidence of the truth of nearly every claim he’s made. There is a photo of him at an MMA fight, which he punctuates by showing me his knuckles which are warped after being constantly broken. Here is a photo of a much younger Mikael in Miami and another in a warehouse with cars which he explains was his place of work in Germany. There are photos of him and his wife in Italy, France, Morocco and Spain and his wife is every bit the blonde magazine cover he’d suggested, in fact he’d been perhaps too modest. Next he shows me his daughter’s modeling photos which appeared in a clothing catalog and photos of his family in Thailand. Next he shows me photos of a very nice modern house, and another from the backyard with a white cat the size of a small bear sitting on a picnic table (“Is just kitten” he explains). Last but not least is a photo of him in a hospital bed looking a fair bit worse even than he does right now. He does not produce a photo of his grandpa ordering someone put to death, but after the display he’s just put on I’m inclined to believe him on that point too. The man may not have told a lie in his life, and as big as he and his stories are his life itself overshadows it all.