I had the good fortune of visiting the biggest city in Kazakhstan, Almaty, on a work trip and though it was the usual routine work trip (well , not exactly), the trip from Mumbai to Almaty was an experience, I could never forget. Since I am recalling the trip after many years, my apologies for any befuddling of facts.
The entire trip was put together by those who had organised the Exhibition Show at Almaty. My colleague and me were representing our Company in the exhibition. Since this was my first trip out of India, I was totally dependent upon my more experienced colleague, since he was a veteran in Export matters with lots of air miles under his belt. The tour was planned in two stages; from Mumbai to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, by flight and then a long road trip from Bishkek to Almaty. Soon it was apparent to us that it was a very ‘Economical’ trip.
The flight was by some airline, I don’t remember which one, but what I certainly remember is that all the seats were not in their normal upright position but all were folded down and looked fragile. Anyway we sat in our allotted seats, and suddenly we were sweating. We realised that the plane AC was not on, and when we queried with the others, came to know that it will come on, once the plane takes flight. The beautifully painted borders framing the windows, gave an exotic look to the inside of the plane. Sweating profusely, we waited for the flight to take off. As promised, the AC did come on, once the flight took off, and we had an uneventful flight.
Since it was a hopping flight via Delhi, after a stopover of about an hour the flight took off again. And finally we landed in Bishkek after a long flight, at three in the morning. Expecting to get out of the Airport as soon as the baggage was out, I was flummoxed to see all the passengers being made to stand in two lines, awaiting questioning by the Customs Authorities of Kyrgyzstan. At least the guards at the airport were mostly of the fairer sex, so all was not grey. Finally after spending almost 2.5 hours inside the airport, answering silly questions, we were finally out in the nippy outdoors, and were shepherded into a bus.
This bus too, was quite stuffy and we had to spend 45 minutes inside the bus, waiting for the last of the passengers to join us. It had started raining but finally our bus left the airport premises at 6.30 am. on a journey to the neighbouring country of Kazakhstan.
Most of the traveling world inside the bus was catching 40 winks for the first few minutes of the travel. I too, was very tired, standing at the Customs counter at the airport, and had a good nap. After waking up, I busied myself in watching the Kyrgyz landscape running by. Most of the land appeared arid, with very few trees lining the road. But I must say, the road was quite smooth with hardly any pot holes. The landscape slowly changed from desert-like to hilly and beautiful vistas opened up before us. Now all of us were feeling hungry, somebody told the driver to stop at the next hotel or restaurant. A few minutes later, the bus left the main road and entered a quaint little place. It was a proper restaurant but nothing like those found in Indian cities. A family was running the restaurant, and it appeared that nothing was ready. A lot of time was spent in arranging the tables and serving. Ordering for anything was a pain, since the menu was in Kyrgyz language, but I think the alphabet was Russian. Finally , in sign language we managed to order bread, omelette and packaged drinking water. Suddenly we realised that we had not converted our dollars to Kyrgyz currency, the Som. So the next few minutes were spent in convincing the event organisers to make payment on our behalf and save us from the ignominy of washing dishes.
We continued on the journey to the border and I was struck by the stark landscape with very few trees. In the entire journey we could not see any western cars or any of the models seen in India. Most of the cars on road were Russian, or so we were told. These cars were not easy on the eyes, looked like tin boxes, but did their job, alright. And they were in dull colours, in different hues of grey and black. Almost the entire journey was through a stark landscape, which was hardly interspersed with small villages. The village houses were quite small but very well decorated with beautiful flowers and adorned with flowering creepers, very different from simple Indian villages.
Finally we approached the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and the traffic increased, slowing down our bus. Passing through the border was the worst part of the long journey since it consumed 2 hours. First, the event organisers collected all our passports which were then submitted at the checkpoint. Then we were made to wait for a long time to get them back. We were all hungry too, but there were no eateries nearby. Since it was quite stuffy inside the bus, we were all standing outside, under the hot Sun. Our organisers were trying to keep up our spirits by assuring us that we will get the passports and resume the journey “very shortly”. We waited…and waited, but in vain. Finally the organisers had to go inside the check post to enquire. All of us were lined up and asked to enter inside, where they matched our physical faces with those on the passport with the help of the two ocular cameras on their own faces. At last, after a tiring 2 hours we were out and on our way to Almaty. This time, we were experienced enough to convert some dollars to Tenge, which is the currency of Kazakhstan.
With the bus going to the other side of the border, the car models on the road, changed to the latest versions though the Russian cars continued to dominate the roads. Here too there were villages, but the cottages were replaced by drab buildings in grey hues. The roads continued to be in great condition and statues of various Russian dignitaries from the Tzar’s time, adorned the sides of the road, at intervals. Finally, we entered the city of Almaty, with its wide roads, lined with trees on both sides, with smaller service roads on either side. The buildings were typical Russian, with Art Décor facades. Our Hotel was situated on a corner of a street, and it was like any other hotel you might find in any city. After a very long and tiring day, it was a huge relief to enter the hotel for rest and recuperation.