Tuesday, August 24, 2010

From There To Here

Just to remind me from the start that small mistakes can be very costly, I realized as I was emptying my pockets at the airport that for the first time ever I had forgotten to bring along my little bottle of headache and allergy pills. Buying the smallest box of each at the airport newsstand set me back $18.

I've learned my other lessons, though, and slotted three hours for between planes. The Atlanta airport was filled with miserable people who hadn't done that and who had missed their connections due to thunderstorms in the area.

As the crowd coalesced for the Dubai flight I started talking to a military contractor who was going over to Afghanistan to fix helicopters. He pointed out that at least a third of the flight were other military contractors. A lot of Type A personalities who were constantly surrounded by really loud machines spitting out lots of firepower. Given those parameters, I understood how, even with the best of intentions, it would be nearly impossible for peace to somehow emerge from such a situation.

Every seat in the 777 was full. For fourteen hours. Two years ago when I took a fancy Emirates flight to Dubai I was amazed by the 100 movies on demand at my personal seat video. Now the deal was old hat even on a crappy airline like Delta. I alternated between choosing movies and trying to sleep in my locked and upright position.

We flew right over Baghdad, but the dust and haze was such that you couldn't see anything. It was dark again when we landed. A zip through customs and then the culture shock of being in Dubai.

The main part of which was in how happy everybody was. After all, over 80% of the population is from India, Pakistan, or the Philippines, and to them a life where things were neat and clean and stuff actually worked was pretty much Heaven on Earth.

An official airport taxi to Sharjah (about a half hour away) would have cost over $50. So I paid $1 to take the spanking new automated Dubai Metro to its next stop, got off, and then got a regular taxi for $17.

The 4 star hotel turned out to be only about 2.7 stars. But it was the size of an apartment, complete with a full kitchen and a washing machine. To sleep at 11 and then up at 6:30 and my free 10 mile lift to the Sharjah airport for the 9 am discount flight to Almaty. Surrounded by new freeways and buildings and all, I concluded that even with the economic downturn it was still impressive as hell what the UAE had accomplished from absolutely nothing in the middle of a flat, brown, ugly sand desert. And all of this without the slightest hint of democracy.

At 2:30 local time, surrounded by a bunch of Russians and Kazakhs, I deplaned onto the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. Immigration was a breeze. And then I was surrounded by a bunch of predatory taxi drivers wanting absurd amounts of money to go into town. Even though I knew the rate should be 1500 Tenge, I told them I would pay 2000 (about $12). One guy went for it, so I went to his car.

Big mistake. It turned out that he had no idea where the (pretty obvious) address I had given him was. For the next hour and a half he drove around and around and around. He didn't speak a word of English. He wasn't very bright. And he was probably the only person left in the entire world who didn't have a cell phone. Around and around and around. Then when he finally found it he wanted 4000 Tenge. I told him not a chance. But I didn't have 2000 Tenge to throw in his face. Because the ATM at the airport had only spit out one 10,000 Tenge note. So now I had to find someone on the empty street to have change. Which would be like getting a stranger to change a $300 bill in the States. But I finally found a guy, changed the bill, and gave him the choice of 2000 or nothing. He took the 2000.

Now I had to find a mobile phone so that I could call my new Couchsurfer friend John, an American guy my age who teaches at a university here in Almaty. I got a hold of him and he directed me to his apartment, where a Hungarian backpacking couple who were already staying with him let me in. As I somehow knew it would be, his apartment was up six long flights of stairs. A little later he showed up, and we walked around Almaty a bit. I could immediately tell that it was one of the better examples of a Soviet city, with relatively decent stone buildings of four or five floors and lots and lots of trees.

The next morning I woke myself up so that I could seriously walk around Almaty. The city of over a million is at the base of a semi-impressive mountain range, so it slopes from south to north from up to down. I headed up south. A quiet tree lined street up to the usual semi-Soviet independence monument, then over to an overpriced cable car up to a little park overlooking the city. In several directions there were a smattering of new fancy, schmancy office and apartment towers. Kazakhstan has lots and lots of oil, so it has done about the best of all the former Soviet republics. The President is somewhat of a benevolent despot, and is well respected for what he has accomplished. This is by no means a police state. In fact, you rarely see any signs of authority.

Back down the cable car, and then wandering north down the hill to Prokofiev Park, the city's main green space. The big attraction here was the 1908 Russian cathedral, brightly painted and domed like St. Basil's in Moscow. Then west along the main shopping street to find the office where I could buy my ticket for the Charyn Canyon tour. By now it was four and I hadn't eaten yet, so I found a Turkish joint where I got an ersatz pizza. After that it was back up the hill towards John's apartment.

John is an ex-hippie and a Quaker, and when he found out about the Couchsurfer thing earlier this year he got really into the idea of providing a place for people to stay. So he's turned almost no one away, and at one point he had 16 people crashing on his floor. Last night it was 7, but today it was back down to 3.

Present day backpackers are considerate and polite. But they also need to be checking their email four hours a day, and they need to go to a bar or disco every night until the wee hours. A new academic year was starting for John at the university, so he was working really long hours. Still he found time to hand out with me for a while in the evening.

Then it can time for me to go online and post this blog. But apparently blogger.com is blocked by the authorities here in Kasakhstan. What??!! I mean, I certainly approve of censoring other people's thoughts. After all, they're almost always wrong. But MY thoughts? Now that's pretty creepy.

Nevertheless, I finally realized that if I send this as an attachment to wife Maureen, and she remembers how to cut and paste, this all important blog post can still get published in a timely manner.

The gong of freedom will not go silent! Stifle me they shall not!


At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Maureen! Would you like to 'cut and paste' Michael?


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