It was with a heavy heart that I bid adieu to Olgii. Japur collected me that morning and insisted on seeing me off. I was feeling morose about having to say farewell to a such good friend. I do hope to return and see him again. We drove the dusty road to the airport and I felt a sudden surge of excitement about heading off to a strange land I knew so little about.
Japur helped me with all my luggage and fended off the rude individual at the check in counter. He charged me $20 for excess luggage weight, grrr, soft target money if you ask me. All too suddenly that was it, goodbye Japur 😦 security check and in the waiting lounge in a matter of seconds. There seemed to be all sorts of dribs and drabs in the waiting lounge. No one cracked a smile and the awkward silence one succumbs to in an elevator was tenfold in this room. The officers were not particularly happy with me. Being the only foreigner in the room, I was subject to constant staring. I was constantly asked to hand over my passport by all sorts of officials. In total my passport was thoroughly examined close to 10 times by impatient and concerned looking officials. After suspicious looks from all the room, I wasn’t sure if I’d be making it on to the plane after all.
As the plane landed, “Jesus H Christ!” was my first reaction. I’d read horror stories about SCAT and this was no exception. Lonely Planet recommends against air travel in Central Asia, and for good reason. This was a SCAT classic, an old Soviet relic called an Antonov which was produced in the USSR in 1969–1985. Well SCAT eloquently call it a ‘cargo configured aircraft’ i.e. it’s a hunk of junk trying to dress up as a passenger carrier. It’s a twin-engined turboprop and was used by the ruskies as a civilian and military transport aircraft. I can only imagine the stories she has to tell.
As we lumbered on to the runway, every thought in my head told me to “run, run away Kerry while you can, this can only end in tears.” Reluctantly as I climbed the rusty rickety staircase to get onboard I recognised the ticket salesman I met when I first arrived in Olgii. Charming as ever with those green eyes, he and the pilot conversed animatedly. The pilot seemed drunk to me, an old ruskie with hazy blue eyes…and no sight of a co-pilot. Ticket salesman dude climbed on board afer us , wished us well and chuckled off. Well, unreserved seating (which explained the relentless counting of heads at the airport),no seatbelts, no overhead compartments (just shelves), no food or inflight entertainment, no English hell and I lost my iPod. At times like this I start singing “Living on a prayer” and “I’ll see you when we get there, if we ever get there..” to myself.
FYI, SCAT is blacklisted from flying in EU airspace. The airline has just suffered its second fatal air crash on Jan 29 2013 😦 . Don’t fly with them it if you can help it. It’s impossible to cross from Mongolia to Kazakhstan overland, you have to pass through a tiny speck of Russia. Unless you can get through the horror and nightmarish paperwork and visa restrictions, one has no alternative but to fly.
Well, leaving Mongolia is one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Watching a documentary last night about this great land just makes me want to pack up and go nomad for a while. Back on board, I was on tenterhooks and sat on the edge of the seat as we took off. I noticed a huge gaping chunk of rubber missing from the plane’s right wheel, that instilled a vote of no confidence. Once we got airborne I felt better about things, and wrote a note to loved ones. It went something like this: “Dear mom, dad and loved ones. If this plane crashes, please know that I love you and I died living my dream. There’s no other way to die.”
In in all, it was pretty awesome flying over the Altai mountains, they are spectacular and a privilege to behold. I soon realised we hit Kazakhstan when I saw the never-ending steppe begin to unfurl from the mountains beneath us. Organised farms with vast crops sprawled across the landscape, such contrast to the nomadic lifestyle of the forgotten Kazakhs in the east. These farms immediately reminded me of the glorious soviet propaganda posters I’m so fond of.
I didn’t realise that we had to land first in us -kamenogorsk (isn’t that the coolest name?) It was the typical situation of “everyone knows what to do, and what’s going on except Kerry” this sense of bewilderment prevailed during my travels. One can only embrace such scenarios and try ask for help. The lady seated next to me could read the signs of distress from my frown and somehow managed to convey to me that we must get off the plan and take all luggage. This was a customs check in what felt like Soviet Russia. The Kazakh officers looked like they were hangovers from the USSR, dressed in silly old school uniforms with sill old school attitudes. They were desperately trying to grasp onto the prestige that they must have held in years bygone. All suitcases were scanned thrice over, and papers checked and re-checked. They liked my visa thankfully and sent me through. One important red tape piece of advice is, if you land in Kazakhstan BY AIR you can register at the airport. In fact you MUST register at the airport with the police once you enter the country. Keep every scrap of paper from your Letter of Invitation, copies of passport and visa to receipts you name it. If you enter overland, you have to register at the nearest police station within 3-5 days of entering. It was horrendous having to wait in several queues for more security checks, they wanted to have a look at my camera, the cute Kazakh official approved of my Canon thank goodness. At another checkpoint I had to do the unthinkable and unpack my daypack, bleh. At one stage I thought I’d miss my flight to Almaty. Again more nonsense with registering chez polizia. The line was helluva long, everyone had a dollar or two to spare in order to get ahead, push in and get in front. Finally my turn came, my passport disappeared with a fat cross-eyed official for quite some time. I was the last one to make to through to the departure lounge where boarding had already commenced. Starving and with no prospects of an on board meal it back on the Antonov and on to ALMATY- if the plane lasted that long!