“[The Bishkek Chinese] embassy is open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays… The embassy recommends a travel agent – well, just a lady really – by the name of Liu who has an office on Toktogul Street, who can do everything for you…”
– MFletch, Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forums
“Can’t recommend Ms Liu enough. Just got [my Chinese visa] through her. I had been refused in London and was worried I wouldn’t be able to get it at all, but she’s such a legend it was no problems. Watching her do her magic in the embassy was a sight to behold…”
– Fantoraygun, Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forums
It was a marvelously warm August morning in Karakol, and the Boys tucked cheerfully into their fellow guesthouse guests’ substantial breakfast while charming hoards of bees hovered with delightful menace all around. Between munches of audaciously sweet watermelon, they proclaimed their future plans to their mysterious foreign companions, a bicycle-bound Belgian couple with overdeveloped thigh muscles who lived in a tent, and a French hitchhiker who was very French indeed. “I believe that after we see Kazakhstan,” slurped Steve, bits of bread clinging to his tender, month-old moustache, “we shall most certainly travel onwards to China, armed with a visa we plan to procure in Almaty, the former capital of that selfsame Central Asian state.”
“Oh heavens no!” bewailed the more male of the Belgians, “It’s much easier to get your Chinese Visa in Bishkek! The bureaucracy in Almaty is terrible, and they often deny visas to travelers!”
“Oui oui!” chirped the French hitchhiker adjacent to the boys, “I have the contact information of a magnifique visa agent in Bishkek, recommended by two friends of mine – also French! Her name is Liu!”
“Well,” sighed the Boys, “to return to the capital now would greatly interfere with our planned route through Kyrgyzstan. But if this Liu character can get our Visas for us quickly, perhaps a brief return to Bishkek won’t be too much of a bother.”
“In that case,” the Frenchman interjected with a salacious bob of his Gallic head, “I am headed in that very direction tonight on a cheap bus. Perhaps you’d like to join me?”
And do you know what? They did!
The threesome spent the better part of an hour that night navigating the bodily-fluid sodden pathways of The Magical Forest of Drunk and Abusive Taxi Drivers, then arrived at the gates of a shimmering, decrepit bus station, only to find to their great dismay that the bus tickets they sought had been gobbled up by the local populace. A minibus driver with “Bishkek” boldly festooned across his windshield stood idly on the curb. When asked if he was going to Bishkek that night, he responded with a vociferous “NYET!!!” But nary fifteen minutes later, he hurriedly shoved them into the back of his cramped chariot and careened away to Bishkek. “My,” the boys thought to themselves as they didn’t sleep one moment the entire drive because their seats were peculiarly designed to recline to an exact 88 degree angle, “what a strange and frustrating riddle that was!”
But the puzzles had only just begun for our Boys, and as they passed from the dusty outskirts of Bishkek into its weed-strewn heart, they surely had not the inkiest of an inkling of the adventures that awaited them.
The next morning they set out for the office of Ms. Liu. Trudging along the floral displays and pretty, pockmarked concrete of Toktogul street, the Boys discussed their imminent rendezvous.
“She’s expecting us,” said Devon, “This should be both a simple and painless procedure.” “And guess what Devon? According to one website I’ve seen and am trusting wholeheartedly, it’s only $140 for a two year, multiple entry Visa! What luck we have!” Steve trilled.
But as they grew closer to her address, the arrow-straight lane of Toktogul and the numbers of its houses grew blurry and nonsensical, and exploded into a nebula of perplexing fractal shapes, twisting and writhing all around. By leaping into the nearest building the Boys were able to escape this kaleidoscopic cosmic collapse. They looked around at the flurry of staircases unfolding before them, and spent the next week or so scaling and descending them, opening doors, falling down pits, flying up dumbwaiters, getting locked in and escaping from dungeons, and crying, before they came to the door of Ms. Liu. In other words, it took a long time to find her.
Behind a desk, before a bold P.R.C. flag, beside a computer, beneath a bun of black hair, sat Ms. Liu. A not-quite slender woman with a not-quite pretty Chinese face with not-quite fully purple glasses that didn’t quite match her purple shirt. They presented their case to her, and did she understand them? Not quite! She spoke in a sing-song language, much like a crow, and cawed on and on, flapping her arms all the while, “My English no good! My English no good!” “Oh lordy,” thought the Boys. Yet on she went, into a fontanelle of all things –
“Come, come inside and take a chair
You want a Chinese visa quick?
Let’s see if we can get you there
You want to go to China, where
You’ll dine on dog steak lean (yet thick)
Let’s do our best to get you there
Now once we start, avoid such errors
As reason, clarity, and logic
Ok? Now come in here and take a chair!
Dealing with me, it’ll soon be clear
Is akin to discourse with a brick
But have no fear! Let’s possibly never get you there.
For those with fuses short, beware
This journey with your mind will dick
Now have a seat, oh where’s my chair?
Let’s bungle the process of getting you there”
Collecting pieces of Russian and English, the Boys were able to put together a picture of why they had come to her. Her demeanor grew authoritative, yet retained substantial traces of puzzlement, “Visa!(?!)” she belted, “Yes,” said the Boys, “Tourist!(?!)” “Yes!” “One month!(?!) $220!(?!)”
“What?(!?)” the Boys wailed back in their own version of her language. Through some manner of communication sorcery, Liu was able to convey to them that because they had failed to obtain their Chinese visas from the embassy in America, they would not be able to get two year visas, but only a one month visa that they could renew up to three months. And because of her agency fees, it would cost $220, which they would have to obtain in American currency from a nearby bank. Unfortunately her clarity spell wore off right as she was giving them directions to the bank, so the boys were cast from her den in consummate confusion, on the first of many tasks.
A bank was quickly located, but blocking its door was plopped a gruff and plum-shaped woman. With a finger bulged by years of shashlik and boiled bread ingestion, she indicated to a sign that proclaimed, “Lunch – 12:00 – 14:00”. “But it’s 2:14 right now!” Steve protested. “Nyet!” “What do you mean, it’s not 2:14?” And with that, she growled a growl so immeasurably resonant of post-Soviet rage that the Boys hastily located an alternative bank. At the second stop, the puzzles only multipled – while Devon was able to quickly obtain his $220 with a debit card and a copy of his passport, Steve was denied this same exact service because – as the diminutive women behind the thick glass explained – he only had a debit card and a copy of his passport. Much shouting on the part of the Boys inspired these employees to alter their demands, and, pockets proudly packed with $440, they finally returned to Liu’s office before she too absconded for her lunch break. They all shook hands vigorously, and agreed to meet again at 10:00 the next morning. In the meantime, Steve had to go have a terrible passport photo taken.
Friday, bright and early, the Boys set out for Liu’s office, planning out their weekend and how fun it was going to be to see exotic places like the collapsed mining village of Tashkomur, and the ethnic hatred-filled rubble piles of Osh. This time, Ms. Liu’s den was located and confidently entered. “You!(?!) Wait, ok!(?!)” was her greeting. And for the next forty minutes, they did. In fact, they waited so long that by the time they arrived at the Chinese Consulate, a heavily fortified castle at the Southernmost point in town, they only had thirty minutes to push through their paperwork until everything closed down for lunch and visa applications would no longer be accepted for the next three days. Now, you might say to yourself, why would a woman whose job is to have visas made, who goes to the Chinese Consulate three times a week, not give herself more time to account for any issues that may arise in the application process? A fine question indeed, dear inquisitive reader, but I fear this is one of the many questions in life that simply lacks an answer. But fear not, it will all be made clear soon.
The Boys sat on their hard bench seats enraptured , the polished white walls, ceiling, and floor of the Chinese embassy blurring their peripheries, as Ms. Liu performed her famous “magic” before the glass wall that separated her from the scurrying denizens of the PRC’s KGZ H.Q. All of a sudden, she swiveled in her seat and beckoned the Boys over, “Talk!(?!)” she hesitatingly yet boldly commanded. A face within the glass told the Boys that their passports, crimpled and crompled and abused after three months on the road, were suspicious-looking and would require a letter of certification from the U.S. Embassy.
“No problem,” the Boys said, “We have certified copies here, that proves that our embassy believes these passports to be valid.”
“No good. This is copy.”
“…Yes, we know, a certified copy… Issued and embossed by our consul, who found our passports authentic enough to make a certified copy of.”
“No. This is copy.”
And so the debate continued thusly for several minutes, with various other faces appearing in the glass to explain that the passports were “not good” and “not real”, despite the Boys showing off the many stamps and visas from other governments and officials who had deemed their wrinkly passports to be neither not good nor illusory. But the faces wouldn’t have it. Finally, a chubby, bespectacled fish-like male visage seized control of the discussion and spit out the concluding judgment before turning off the consul’s Official Microphone.
“Uhh, lemme explain something to you – WE ARE THE CONSUL.”
Unable to respond to such a logical and thoroughly explanatory answer – which quickly transformed into an inside joke par excellence – and even more unable to answer because the girl in front of the window was now pretending to not see them, the Boys turned around to seek the assistance of their guide. But alas, Ms. Liu had disappeared in a sense most absolute, leaving the Boys to their own devices.
“Well, the U.S. Consulate is just across this barren field behind the Chinese consulate… I guess we should just run over there.” Steve offered.
“But it’s 11:00 right now – the Chinese consulate closes for the day at 12:00, and after that we wouldn’t be able to turn in our documents!” Devon very knowledgeably responded.
“Which means we’d have to stay in Bishkek the entire weekend, and even all of Monday!-”
“Hacking our amount of time in the south of Kyrgyzstan, like a troublesome vine, down to a mere five days!”
“Essentially sinking the ship that is our trip to this thus far beautiful, friendly and totally not shitty at all nation of Kyrgyzstan!”
The Boys wisely jettisoned their flowery language and sprinted to the U.S. Embassy. They met with their similarly-initialed Consular Officer, who, shaking his head as if he’d never before been asked such a request, exclaimed “I’ve never before been asked such a request!”
So he tried to call the Chinese consulate to explain that these passports were fine. It was 11:30. The Chinese weren’t answering the phone. When the paperwork was filled out, the Consul inquired as to whether the Boys had a blog, and he said he would check it out. When they wrote down the URL, the Boys didn’t realize he meant right now in front of them, or that he’d immediately click on Top Ten Toilets, the nastiest and presumably least-impressive-to-the-highest-ranking-American-government-official-for-a-thousand-miles corner of the Blog! Feeling embarrassed, then promptly remembering that poo is funny, then feeling embarrassed about being embarrassed, the Boys hurried back through the field, dodging pieces of metal and piles of less toilet-bound poo from indeterminate sources. But not before the consul handed them an official brochure on how to identify legal US documents. “Take this back as a little gift to the Chinese from us!”
But the consul’s doors had long closed for an early lunch. And Ms. Liu was still nowhere to be found.
The Boys were aghast at their situation, but after wiping away their tears they caught an offensively overpriced $4 taxi back to her abode, and found her behind her desk, thumbs twiddling productively.
“Where? You? Go?(!?)” she barked, her eyes glazing and reglazing themselves.
The Boys, sweaty, with both pride and passport integrity wounded, were in no mood to inquire the same of her. Well, actually they were very much in such a mood. As they were being baffled by bureaucrats, she had forgotten some papers, returned to her office to grab them, then returned to the consulate only to be very surprised that it was closed, at noon, as it always was. Now, you might say to yourself, why would a woman whose job is to have visas made, who goes to the Chinese Consulate three times a week, not give herself more time to account for any issues that may a– oh, we already did this? Ok, well, good.
The Boys explained what had happened and showed her their passport-certifying letters, and she found them to be in good working order. Except, she insisted, they were lacking “a stamp”. “Why no stamp?(!?)” she put forth, then bending the passports, “Why so thin?(!?)”.
The Boys explained the situation again, and said that everything should be fine considering that they did everything they were told to do. Yet still she badgered them about their passports’ emaciation and dearth of stamps. Finally, she said, “You! Come here! Threeeee! O’clock!(?!)” in order for them to return to the embassy, hopefully to quickly get their visas through. The Boys agreed upon this, and went off to eat away their worries.
A brief survey of the neighborhood offered no sign of interesting food, so the Boys went to a supermarket, which they couldn’t get enough of since arriving from India. With bread, yogurt, and a bag of peanuts, they plopped themselves outside of the store and began munching away peacefully, until out of the store’s doors burst a hulking gorilla-like woman who bellowed endless obscenities at them and violently shook Devon.
“Good heavens!” the Boys cried, “Whatever could be the matter?”
Thankfully, the beastly babushka was erudite enough to answer their query with the following lively verse,
“In wonderful Bishkek
You can be entertained
By whores and horse milk
Or by falling down drains
By burning down buildings
In rubble-strewn streets
Or learning ’bout Lenin
While eating goat-facey treats
But there’s one thing you can’t do
Of that I’m quite sure
And that’s munching on peanuts
Before my fair store
In fact you can place bets
That I’ll like peanuts never
And because I’m so clever
I call them PEA-NYETS!!!”
Unfortunately this was performed solely in Russian, so the Boys hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. Assuming her diatribe was in regards to the large pile of peanut shells they’d left on the ground, they politely obliged their tormentor by picking up their mess, but then impolitely baited her by loudly pointing out all the other rubbish in her parking lot.
At three o’clock the Boys came once again to Ms. Liu’s office, only to be forced to wait, once again. Before four they caught a bus to the Chinese Consulate, had a semblance of a conversation with Liu in which they learned that she may or may not have a son, then explained two more times, through a fortunately-located interpreter, why their passport certifying documents didn’t have “stamps,” at one point, when asked the reason for their passports being so thin, snapping, “Go ask America!” They were proud of that one.
At 4:00 the doors opened, and she went inside. The Boys waited anxiously, hoping that their passports would be accepted. Instead, Ms. Liu pottered back out to declare,
“They no take!(?!) Your passports!(?!) Now!(?!) They closed!(?!)”
To which Steve immediately screamed something rather rude, something rather like, “Why the fuck did you bring us here?!?” As a result, Devon took over, treading lightly and holding Steve back. But the puzzling aura of Ms. Liu was too thick to penetrate, and instead of assuaging the fears of the people whose money she’d taken the day before, she kept insisting upon discussing the thickness and stamplessness of their documents.
In the huffiest of huffs, Steve sprinted across the field once again to the U.S. Consul to get their documents punched with whatever stamps he could find. The Consul, wise beyond words, was unable to give the documents an embossed stamp as the papers were not truly “official state correspondence”, so he emblazoned them with three types of mailing stamps, sighing all the while. Steve found his way back to Ms. Liu’s and thrust the papers into her arms. Quite satisfied, she nearly rolled up into a ball and snuggled against the shiny new stamps. The Boys asked what they should do. And she said, in her splendid little way…
So naturally agreeing upon their course of action took some time. At long last, the Boys set out into Bishkek again, on a new mission to find Dima, their CouchSurfing host for the weekend. No matter what came next, they could both agree on one thing, and they did, together, at once, by saying, “My, what an interesting and in no way wholly incompetent character that Ms. Liu is!