I'd expected the 21-hour train journey from Semey to Almaty to be a trial of tedium during which I'd get to the end of my book and run my iPod's battery down to zero. Within a few minutes of boarding it had become clear that this wasn't to be the case at all: in no time all my neighbours had all realized that I was a foreigner - a pure-blooded Englishman no less - and I became the centre of attention. The fact that many people seemed unable to distinguish Britain from America (and to a lesser extent mainland Europe) in their minds was forgotten in the face of genuine friendliness, curiosity and generosity. My new friends showered me not just with nuggets of wisdom about Kazakhstan and questions about "my" country (the queen, the Channel Tunnel, football, Big Ben, the Thames, the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco, the Three Musketeers...) but also with food and tea. The hours until nightfall flew by in a blur of coversation, card games, hot tea, cold meat and Kazakh snacks, all as we rolled through the endless steppe.
The next morning we arrived in Almaty, where I was to stay only until evening, principally in order to sort out the bureaucratic headache of "registration" (foreign citizens who enter Kazakhstan by land border are required to register their presence with the "migration police" within five days of arrival). Having said my goodbyes to my fellow passengers I headed from the platform into the station, passing two smiley-faced policemen who conversationally asked me if I were a tourist. Thinking nothing of it, without breaking my stride, I returned their smiles and told them I was. Some 10-15 minutes later, when I'd deposited my rucksack at the baggage storage and was searching in vain for an information desk, one of the policemen reappeared, saluted me and introduced himself by name and rank. His smile was gone but his manner was polite and cordial. He asked where I was going and I explained my intention to register with the migration police and then continue to Shymkent that night. He was pleased and impressed by both my command of Russian and my diligence at doing everything by the book, and I thought that our conversation was about to end when he demanded to see my documents. My libertarian spirit was momentarily outraged by his acting so polite before doing something as dehumanizing and plainly rude as demanding to see my documents, but I reminded myself that in much of the world this is perfectly ordinary and I got out my passport. As he examined my papers he asked if I had any forbidden items, and thinking that he was joking, I laughed as I said no. Then, despite presumably having seen that everything was in order, he told me to follow him to his office so that he could search me. By now my outrage at the infringement of my civil liberties was being mixed with concern that he was going to try to extract a bribe from me somehow, but, knowing that I had nothing to hide, I politely complied. In the office there was another policeman, a fat little man who hovered behind me as I sat opposite the first, who had seated himself behind a bare desk. Their manner never wavering from polite and respectful - even friendly - they asked me about where I was from, what my plans were, why I had a beard and how I knew Russian, all while carefully inspecting my documents. Suddenly the fat one started asking me - still perfectly politely - why I hadn't registered. Unsure whether he was a genuine half-wit or if this was a half-hearted attempt to confuse or intimidate me, I patiently explained to him that I'd entered the country three days ago and thus still had two days left to register. After he'd slowly counted out the days on his fingers - suggesting that he was indeed a simpleton - he seemed satisfied that this was true. Then they searched my plastic bag, which contained nothing but snacks, made me empty my pockets and then patted me down not once but twice. They asked if I had any drugs, searched my wallet and even flicked through my guidebook before finally letting me go. Whether there's an official policy of harassing foreigners, whether these guys were hoping to extract a bribe or whether they were just bored and power-tripping, this whole incident convinced me that the Kazakhstani police are best avoided.
I hurried out of the station, hopped into the first taxi I could find and headed straight to the "migration police" headquarters. Registration was surprisingly painless and completely free of charge - I simply filled out a small form and handed over my passport and migration card, then an hour later was given them back with a new stamp confirming my registration. Nonetheless a morning of police harassment and bureaucracy dampened my spirits and spoiled my impression of Almaty. The streets, though pleasant and leafy, were all gridlocked with expensive-looking four-by-fours and after failing to find any appealing restaurants I ended up eating one of the worst döner kebabs I'd ever tasted. Although the Zenkov Cathedral (a 19th century Russian Orthodox cathedral made entirely of wood - apparently the second tallest wooden building in the world), the enormous WW2 memorial and the Central Mosque were all very impressive, the Green Bazaar lacked charm and I didn't feel as though the city had much general atmosphere.
After spending all afternoon tramping around in the blistering sun and then failing to find a bus heading to the train station, I got my second taxi of the day. Once at the station I was glad to see some of the Kazakhs I'd befriended on the train the night before. Waiting with them I felt somehow less conspicuous and safer from the police. With a sigh of relief I eventually boarded my westbound train without attraction any further attention from the authorities.