The airport looked small from the distance but in reality, it was even smaller. After paying $4 to the unofficial taxi driver, we got off and entered the building. The airport, which operates 1-2 flights a week was dead empty and there was nothing happening there even though I got there exactly as I was told to when buying my paper ticket.
Since there was not a single official working there either, and it was something less then 2 hours before the plane departure time, Zharghan and I entered a buffet room consisting of 5-6 rubber cloth covered tables. Apart from some hot water and the sachet coffee, the buffet vendor, a nice lady actually, offers sweets and then only nothing else except for her presence. I ordered two powder cappuccinos and an empty cup to empty the vodka bottle I had bought for Zharghan on the way to the airport. As we were having our last drinks together there, I found out that the weight limit of a free on board luggage is 20kg and this also includes a carry-on bag. My big bag’s 17kg was fine, but I had to reduce the carry-on by stuffing all I could into my 2 jackets´ and pants´ pockets to get closer to a limit, and then, instead of paying off for every extra kilo, I gave the saved and the last Tughrik (Mongolian currency) to Zharghan to support his family for all his help over the last 2 weeks while being together.
Stepping out of the buffet, 19 minutes later, put me directly into a queue of 50 plus people. Even though there are only about 40 or so seats on the plane, the waiting/check- in room is packed and completely chaotic. There is no electronic booking of tickets, so all procedures involve papers and manual check-ins. The documents that you are required to fill in are in Kazakh language only, and ask you some uncomfortable and potentially problem causing questions, such as how much money you are carrying with you. People speak no English and the queue only seemed to be the only one at my first glance. Everyone’s pushing their way thru, relatives and others, who are here only to say bye, add up to the sardine-packed crazy situation. No matter how little I like it, and now, with all this vodka burden in my veins, I must undergo the same procedures, trying to mentally handle the reality to my very best. Being the only white tourist here, I only hope not to get into a situation, requiring bribes, so common in this corrupted country. Luckily, Zharghan knows one of the guys performing the check in and controlling the declaration papers plus me, leaning the backpack on my thigh to make it look lighter while on the scales. Last dosvidanias and a handshake with some cash handover to Zharghan closes another friendship chapter.
Baggage and 3 passport controls follow in less than a 15 meter distance. The place is small and continues to be ridiculously packed with officials, luggage and shifting people prepared to fly. I get to the waiting room relatively more quickly than the rest and go to the toilet (the check-in area and buffet place were sharing only an outdoor wooden squatter outside of the airport!). Since I was one of the first passengers to get thru, the place was all mine! I had to leave my bag and jacket on the seats outside, since the squatter room was way too small. Non existing toilet paper does not surprise me. The door to the only airport toilet doesn’t close, so I hold the knob while performing, and only pray for the flush to work. (It’d better!) I pull the metal chain and it does, but for 3 seconds only! “#*@! I am stuck, game over. The most ‘normal’ simple things back in the comfortland at home get so often (always?) uncontrollably complicated here. I worthlessly try pulling the chain 2-3 more times. Damn! Mongolia surely shows me its true face until the very last seconds. The brush in the corner helps me to make the place look as if all worked fine here. I appear back in the waiting room as if nothing strange happened and gulp down the whole coke I bought before coming here, easily anticipating there would be nothing here to purchase.
I am taking a guarana pill to get mentally and physically more balanced, and get over the stress from the last 51 or so minutes easier. I know there’s going to be some waiting time ahead, since we are already a few minutes past the planned departure time and there are still some people getting through the check-in gates. I feel the hardship would continue even after the planned arrival time in Almaty, which was scheduled for 8.20pm today.
We finally departed at 4:40pm, almost 2 hours later than planned. The tiny, 45 Scat Airline seater was somehow alright, we even got a lolly while the plane was letting the Mongolian ground go. The scenery was splendid, in some way made me sad I could not do this whole voyage inland. Shakes came sooner than my sleep and were pretty uncomfortable, especially due to knowing the fact that Central Asian planes have the highest rate of catastrophes and quite low safety parameters. We landed in two hours in Oskemen (KZ), where me, being the only non-Mongolian, non-Kazkakh, blocked one of the 2 queues for over a quarter of an hour. It’s funny how a person develops skills to speak and understands a foreign language (Russian) when in need. Luckily, a smile and a hairy face added a sparkle to my not-such-great Russian and helped to do a trick. I ran to the toilet to move all my money from one place (wallet) , where I had to put it just in case the officials required to see how much I carry (normal in Central Asia) and filled in back again all my secret places with different amounts. The toilet was a beautiful surprise, especially after not seeing any porcelain for almost 2 weeks. The paper roll there just confirmed I was back to a civilized world. Oskemen looked industrially dull and grey from the skies, and I was only glad to have taken a flight from there all the way to Almaty, instead of staying overnight and taking a 20+ hour train to Almaty the next morning.
After a short waiting time, I am boarding the second, the same size plane. Instead of the planned 2 hour flight, we will fly for 3 hours, which seems really odd. However, nothing is impossible here and by now I should be used to not to being surprised by anything here anymore. The start of the flight was seriously uncomfortable and I felt literally as if sitting on a bumpy road taken by a bus. I munched on my new lollies, knowing there is no chance to sleep. All the tiredness gathered in Mongolia topped up the airport stress, and all those vodka shots somehow stunned heavily and at once. I feel exhausted, knowing the arrival time will be delayed at least by a couple of hours.
Travelling in Central Asia, in comparison to South America for example, requires more discipline and far more proactive planning and organizing in advance. It’s not wise to travel in this region and leave accommodation to be sorted for you upon arrival, which is a thing you can always do in South America or South East Asia, no matter what time you arrive. The same thing here applies to bus and train tickets, many of which you need to purchase days in advance. On top of it all, you have to be very careful to have valid visas and register your presence upon arrival in some of the countries at the Government run Visa/Immigration Offices (OVIR). There is no way (especially if you are on some kind of a budget) to let things go by themselves, without at least some prep, or just to hope things will come to you alone and simply without any effort.
There is a driver pre arranged to wait for me at the Almata airport. I was so glad I did this quick accommodation hunt 2 days ago in the Olgyi’s i-net café right upon my arrival. If you type Almaty into the hostelworld.com to find a budget accommodation, you get an absolute zero result. There are no budget/backpackers/guesthouse/hostel accommodation options in Kazakhstan (since there is no demand, of course) which makes your travel less easy and more expensive, and if you don’t want to end up paying at least 50e a night (Almata), you need to search for other alternatives. The cheapest option I found on some travel forums was a 25e night, but the place was a 1 hour ride from the city center. I contacted them (Victoria Guesthouse) and thru them got another offer, a 30e/night stay in a flat centrally situated in a downtown Almaty City.
It was almost 11pm when I stepped out into the lit waiting room of the Almata airport. Heaps of unofficial drivers jumped to the scene and offered to please my needs. The driver I booked online, called Marat, waited as agreed. He spoke fluent English and knew my name, so I felt more sure that He is the One, even though following him and walking thru a dark park a couple of hundred meters let really weird thoughts enter my mind. We came to a small, no lamp parking place. A few men in the corner were minding their own business carrying something heavy into the boot of the truck. Marat’s Russian Lada jeep moves us forward and away from the airport area. The guy is cool and now I am sure he is really the one. A close to 40 year old dude even speaks some Slovak and quite good Czech, having experience of smuggling some electronics from Prague to Moscow back in the 80s. He explains how things in Almata city work and I get more info than I could obtain from any guidebook.
We cruise around some flats, waiting for a landlady to give us the keys from her flat, in which I am meant to stay for one night (or possibly two – depending on my feeling and the fact, how much I will enjoy the place once I see it). Not having even a 4 minute conversation with the landlady, a skinny but tough looking short haired boy dressed in a 3 stripe sportswear comes close to the Lada’s door asking the landlady if all was fine. Marat later says mafia watches its investments and compares it to Prague (Prague years ago I am guessing). We park the jeep not far from the entrance that lacks any street lamps.
A 2×1 meter Soviet style elevator lifts me from the ground to my new home. I should feel quite home, since, in some ways, the building with the lift reminds me the structures we still have in Slovakia from the CSSR times, but I don’t feel that homey somehow. It’s spooky and definitely looks dodgy at this time of the day. The corridor to my flat on the 6th floor is long, open air and many of the lights are short of working bulbs. Marat acts normal and I seem or try to look so, too. The flat is not modern, but it’s clean and has a double padlock from the inside. I feel strange, since I have never before (during my travels) got this kind of accommodation, but I know it will be fine. In this country it’s a normal and a commonly used way of living. It’s a shame I am alone, since being with some co-traveler, I would absolutely love it all, not mentioning the price would have stayed the same. No matter if it’s one or 3+ person, you simply pay a fixed amount for the flat. Marat says burglary is very strongly punished in Kazakhstan and no one would bother trying to get into the flat, even when knowing there was a thousand dollar bill lying on the table. I do some quick money exchange with Marat to get the local currency quickly and step out to the convenience shop ( products of which also look like ours back at home) located right in front of the flat on the main street. I buy some cheese, sausage, bread and two Czech Kozel’s that are finding their way even before I reach a shower. I feel I deserve a rest and sleep like a baby for 6 hours.