2020 Asia People & Encounters Travelling

That Time in Kazakhstan…..

Thanks to Covid-19 I have been grounded in Australia, unable to fly anywhere. And last week I reached a personal milestone of sorts: I have now slept in the same bed for more than 120 nights in a row. This is a big deal for me, seeing that this has not happened since my university days, more than 25 years ago.

Being earth-bound in this way has represented a major shift to my way of life, and a challenge to my way of thinking. Still, I have found it surprisingly easy to make the adjustment, and there have been some interesting side-benefits of being on a forced travel diet: I have spent a lot of quality time with family and friends; I have lost weight; I am sleeping eight hours a night and no longer feel permanently jet-lagged. Plus, as a bonus, I have found myself falling in love with my home town again, enjoying more than I ever thought possible the wonderful lifestyle that Sydney has to offer.

Also, over the past few months I have completely redesigned this blog – I hope you like the new look. At the same I took a three-month vacation from writing. It seemed that it would be a bit hard for a road warrior to write anything when there is no actual road warrior-ing going on….

But now, I feel the need to put pen to paper again. Although given that I am unlikely to be doing any travel for at least another six months, I will use this period of standing still to go back in time and tell (or retell) some of my favourite stories from 20 years of life on the road. Especially those stories that, for various reasons, never made it onto this blog first time round.

***

So, let’s start with Kazakhstan, a massive, resource-rich country in Central Asia that is one of the more far-flung, off-the-beaten path places I have ever visited.

Way back in 2012, in one of my very first blog pieces, I wrote about an embarrassing travel moment that happened in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city (read about it here). I had travelled there to participate in some commercial negotiations relating to a potential gas project in that country. As I wrote it then:

“One lunchtime I’d found myself sitting in a swish restaurant, flanked on the left by my Kazakh legal adviser, and on the right by my Kazakh commercial adviser. Opposite us sat two Government officials and two senior representatives of Kazakhstan’s state-owned gas company. We were enjoying the finest banquet of dishes based solely on horse-meat that I have ever had in my life (I can say this with some certainty because it was and remains the only horse-meat banquet I have ever had in my life).

During the meal the conversation got round to talking about the many wonders of Australia that my Kazakh hosts had seen on television – the beauty of Sydney Harbour, the Great Barrier Reef, the outback. The conversation somehow then moved on to the fact that Australia, for a country with a relatively small population, seems to have produced a disproportionate number of famous people – actors, singers and sportspeople in particular. Names were thrown onto the table like cards at a poker game: Kylie Minogue, Mel Gibson, Harry Kewell, Nicole Kidman, Greg Norman, Hugh Jackman, and so on.

Trying to endear myself to my Kazakh hosts, I chose that moment to lift my foot and jam it firmly into my mouth, when I said:

Kazakhstan has also produced famous people, like Borat for example”.

The instant I uttered these words, I realised how insulting my comment was, but it was too late. A chilly silence descended over the table for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 15 seconds. When conversation resumed, it was clipped and uncomfortable, and it suddenly seemed to me like everyone just wanted to finish up their horse-meat and leave as fast as possible.”

***

Anyway, while at the time I did blog about this little tale of personal shame, I never got round to writing Part II to my ‘Adventures in Kazakhstan’ series, which was equally memorable, if not also downright terrifying – to put it mildly.

It happened about six months later, when I returned to Kazakhstan. Despite fears that my entry visa would be revoked in retaliation for “Borat-gate”, I was in fact invited to go back once negotiations for the gas project had been concluded. A colleague and I had flown to Astana, the purpose-built futuristic Kazakh capital city, where we were slated to attend a formal event to mark the signing of the deal.

(As an aside – many countries like to make elaborate fusses out of announcing new energy projects. It presents an opportunity to throw a banquet, to wheel out the local press, and for all manner of Government officials to big-note themselves. Over the years I have been a part of quite a few such signing fiesta. But this one, I had been assured, would be well worth the trip – to be broadcast live on Kazakh national TV, and attended by no less than the supreme leader – aka the President – of Kazakhstan.)

The signing ceremony was scheduled for a Wednesday afternoon, at 2 pm. We landed on the Monday evening, and the next morning, Tuesday, at around 10 am, we met in the lobby of the swish hotel at which we were staying with the smooth-talking Kazakh who had acted as the lawyer, broker, intermediary and “go-between” extraordinaire on the project. Let’s call him “Arman”.

To say Arman was a bit of a caricature was a bit of an understatement. He turned up in a shiny dark suit, the labels still attached to the cuffs, so we could tell it was a designer number. He had on big gold-rimmed sunglasses, a heavy gold watch around his wrist, and a prominent gold ring on his pinkie. His hair was slicked back, he was quite small of stature, and spoke with a slightly whiny, high-pitched voice. All in all, he kind of resembled Joe Pesci, in any one of Joe Pesci’s gangster movie roles, only with a heavy-duty Russian accent.

Ostensibly, the purpose of meeting with Arman that morning was to go over the terms of the contract, one last time, before the signing ceremony the following day.

We ordered coffees, and got to work, flicking through the thick document one page at a time. Pretty soon we had gone right the way through, and all seemed in order. “I guess we’re done,” I said, signalling for the check.

Excuse me please”, Arman said, grease positively dripping from his voice as he spoke. “There is one small change that we did not discuss. The contract says the parties to the deal are your company and the Government of the province. We need to change this. Just a little bit. It should be your company and the Governor of the province. It is a very small matter. Not complicated. I am sure you will agree?

Um, no. Actually, this makes it very complicated, Arman.

You see, after less than ten minutes of probing into Arman’s proposed “change” (I have simplified things a little for the sake of the story) it became very clear that he was, at the last minute, seeking to amend the transaction such that our company would be making a cash payments not to a foreign government to secure gas exploration rights, but rather to a foreign government official to secure those rights.

Which, in the world of international business, is a complete no-no: entirely immoral and unethical. Not to mention also a serious crime under foreign corrupt practices legislation in Australia, the UK and USA, such that had we agreed to this, I would personally be liable for prison-time once I got back home.

So, I told Arman pretty bluntly: “no”. I explained that what he was proposing was a major problem. More than that, I told him that in even proposing it he had now put me and my colleague in a very compromised position, because we now knew that something potentially illegal was going on.

Arman seemed completely shocked, and spent the next hour trying to convince us that what he was suggesting was entirely normal – “this is how we do business in Kazakhstan” was his basic argument. Which in turn made me even more resolute in refusing to comply – definitely something unkosher was afoot, and with the benefit of that knowledge there was no way I could agree to any deal with Arman.

Eventually, when Arman realized I would not budge, he proposed we take a break, and reconvene at 10am the following morning. “I must speak with the Governor”, he said in a harsh whisper as he left.

That afternoon, my colleague and I called back to our head office, to report what had happened. A quick chat with some lawyers confirmed what I already suspected: the mere suggestion of foreign corrupt practice meant that any transaction was now considered high-risk and tainted. The instructions I got were pretty clear: do not sign anything – we would need to regroup first, and undertake more due diligence to make sure that everything was legit.

The next morning, Arman arrived to meet us in the hotel lobby. “I have fixed everything,” he enthused. “We leave the contract as it was, you sign it, and the Governor will arrange everything himself.

So basically, Arman was confirming that graft was indeed the plan, but that it was OK because it would now be happening behind the scenes with a wink and a nod. He seemed jubilant that he had found a workable “solution”. So, when I told Arman that this new plan was not going to fix anything, and that I had in fact been ordered to not proceed with the signing ceremony, he seemed utterly crestfallen.

You cannot do this! TV will be there! And the President is coming!” His seemed very distressed – like he might cry.

Another hour followed of Arman trying to convince us of the serious mistake we were making; another hour of me saying “nyet”, again and again and again. Eventually his shoulders slumped. “OK,” he sighed. “Let me go make some calls, and we will meet again in an hour.

That, I thought, was the end of it. He had got the message.

But an hour later, Arman – now with an angry scowl on his face – marched back into the hotel lobby, and plonked down into the plush armchair across the table from where my colleague and I were sitting.

Only now, Arman was not alone. Trailing a few feet behind him were two of the biggest, scariest-looking motherfuckers I have ever seen – a pair of man mountains each well over six-foot-four, bearded, in sunglasses, their muscles practically bursting out of their ill-fitting black suits. One of them even had a tattoo snaking out onto the back of his hand from under his shirt cuff. They looked like renegades from the Men in Black film franchise, and it would probably have been comical had these two giants not taken up tactical positions on either side of the chair on which I was sitting. They towered above me, almost blocking out the light.

Arman, who are these gentlemen?” I asked, trying to stay calm.

These are my drivers,” Arman said with a theatrical wave of his hand. “They will drive us to the signing ceremony.” As he spoke, Arman’s “drivers” shuffled in a way that seemed designed to remind me of how big they were and also how, if required, they could probably tear me into pieces with their bare hands.

I swallowed hard. “I thought I told you we would not be going,” I said.

I know, but I think it would be best if you did,” Arman said. “The President will be there, and it would be very embarrassing if we do not attend. Very bad for me, and very, very bad for you.” His meaning was clear. As he spoke one of the “drivers” rocked his head side-to-side like he was trying to crack his neck. A gentle motion that in any other circumstance would have been entirely innocuous, but in this setting seem menacing in the extreme.

Right-o,” I said, slapping my hands down on the table, my mind calculating furiously how to put some space between me and Arman’s henchmen. “I guess that settles it – we will be going! But we need to go to our rooms and get ready. How about we meet back here in the lobby at 1 pm, and we can go.

Arman nodded. “Very well. I am glad we understand each other. My drivers will be here to collect you at 1 pm exactly.” I could swear he was sneering, in a very Dr. Evil kind of way.

In any case, my colleague and I gathered up our things, said goodbye as politely as we could – my colleague even shook hands with one of the heavies – and we hot-footed it back to our rooms on the top floor of the hotel. We were both more than a little bit freaked out.

I immediately rang our CEO, and told him what had happened. Thankfully, in a past job he had worked in Russia for many years, so this scenario was not nearly as unusual to him as you might otherwise think.

Fellers,” the CEO said, his voice totally calm, “first things first, your safety is all that matters. If there is no safe way out of this situation, then go to the ceremony, sign the contract and smile for the cameras, and we can deal with things later. But, if you can safely leave before Arman gets back, exit the hotel immediately, get to the airport, and get the fuck out of there asap.

All of which explains how in less than ten minutes my work colleague and I packed our bags, descended the elevator, stealthily slipped out the back door of the hotel (without checking out), hailed the first passing cab, and told him to get us to the airport, fast. It felt like we were agents in a Cold War spy flick, trying to escape from enemy territory before the KGB arrived to arrest us.

Twenty minutes later I was standing at the ticketing desk at Astana’s international airport. The information board indicated that the next flight leaving Kazakhstan was in 90 minutes, with Lufthansa, heading to Frankfurt.

Can I get two tickets on the flight to Frankfurt?” I asked the clerk.

She pecked at her computer. “Sir, there are only business class seats left, and they are very expensive. But there is another flight to Frankfurt in 3 hours with many reasonable price seats left – would you prefer that?

No, we want the first flight out of here,” I said, whipping out my credit card. The ticket clerk looked at me like I had lost my marbles. Still, she booked us the tickets, we checked our bags, went through passport and customs without incident, and took up seats as close to the departure gate as possible.

Fifteen minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave my phone rang. I don’t know what prompted me to answer it, but I did. It was Arman.

Where are you?” he snapped. “My drivers are waiting in the hotel lobby for you.

Unfortunately, we had an emergency, and we have had to leave Kazakhstan right away,” I replied. As I spoke, the airport PA system sounded to announce that boarding of our plane was about to commence – immediately giving away where I was.

You are at the airport?” Arman asked. He sounded furious.

Um, well, yes, we are…” I replied hesitantly.

Don’t leave,” he barked. “I will be there in 30 minutes. We can have a coffee and talk about things.

Yes, OK, I suppose so, see you then,” I said. I was lying, of course – I was literally already walking onto the plane. And Arman knew I was lying. And I knew that he knew I was lying, so I just hung up, found my seat, and prayed.

In less than 30 minutes the plane doors had been closed, we had taxied, and we were barrelling down the runway to take off. The whole time I had my nose glued to the window, staring out – I half expecting to see some gun-toting soldiers in open top jeeps speed onto the runway, to chase us down to stop the plane, like always seems to happen in the movies.

But dramatic as it would have been, that didn’t happen. And, as the wheels of the plane lifted off the tarmac, I let out a huge, audible sigh of relief.

***

So there you have it: the story of ‘that time in Kazakhstan’, where I quite literally fled the country. We never did hear from Arman again, and with the passage of time the whole incident has become a dinner party favourite – Arman a lot shiftier than he probably was, the “drivers” a whole lot bigger than they may actually have been, and the threat to our personal safety a lot more dangerous than the reality of the moment.

Still, I haven’t ever been back to Kazakhstan. And I don’t think I ever will – even when regular flights resume.

Which, I guess, says something….


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