Crunch time. 60 days before our big trip and lots to do such as finishing house projects, setting up automatic bill pay, deciding about mail forwarding, getting off all catalog lists. The latter is easier said than done as I feel like the catalogs are reproducing in my mailbox… it’s just never ending. Also, I’m spending time reviewing our packing lists, buying the last few items and examining how best to use our new packing cubes, my favorite no-tech travel “gadget” (more in a separate post). I’ve also been booking many of our air tickets now that our itinerary is largely set. And here’s where the latest hitch occurs…. please allow me to vent!
The bane of my travel planning existence is Kazakhstan. We are going to this former Soviet country because our son was born there and later adopted by us at the age of seven months.
We plan to show him something about his early life and birth heritage. He’ll see the maternity hospital where he was born, the children’s hospital where he spent two weeks as a newborn and the baby house (orphanage) where he lived for more than half a year before we showed up to claim him. In Uralsk, where he was born, he’ll find a melting pot of ethnicities and a growing city with a modern shopping mall, Western-style supermarket, men with cell phones and fashionably-dressed ladies. He’ll also see side streets that are unpaved and muddy, above ground pipes, water hand pumps, lots of stray animals, typical-Soviet era apartment blocks and a population that isn’t really ready for tourists as so few people come their way. The bottom line is that we’ve got an important reason to go there, but darn, the logistics are hard.
For those not familiar with Kazakhstan (and, no, having seen Borat does not count), it’s a large landlocked country in Central Asia that is below Russia. On the west is the Caspian Sea, to the east is China. In spite of its breadth, it’s an isolated place, especially outside of the two main cities of Almaty and Astana. Unfortunately for us, we need to be on the opposite side of the country from those urban centers and we’re headed to an area largely devoid of international airports for more than a thousand miles! To be fair, there are well-served airports in nearby Russia but we can’t get Russian visas – grrr!! – so we are stuck moving around in Kazakhstan only. This is difficult given large distances, lack of air routes, decrepit airports and travel agents, as a whole, that don’t seem to care about customer service (with one exception, but more on that later).
Our main stop before Kazakhstan is Nepal. As the crow flies, it would be a couple hour flight from Nepal, to Almaty, Kazakhstan, but there are no direct flights. The only options are through India with some long layovers or the Middle East, which requires a lot of extra flying. We opted for the latter and are laying over in Dubai before flying to Almaty. OK, that part is easy enough. We plan to spend a week in and around Almaty (SE Kaz) before flying to Uralsk – the Kazakh name is Oral - in the NW of the country. Easier said than done as the country’s main airline, Air Astana, doesn’t fly that route anymore as the Uralsk runway is in disrepair. That leaves only the sub-par local airlines, with names such as SCAT. I can’t make this stuff up! We’re trying to fly on SCAT to a crappy airport with a broken-down runway, but there is no info in English for SCAT and in any case, the schedules usually only come out a month in advance, so we wait. Then, once we get to Uralsk, it’s impossible to continue our Westward journey as no international airlines fly in or out of Uralsk! So, more backtracking out of there in order to leave.
Our initial thought on exiting the country was to fly to Astana, in the Northern-Center of the country, and onward to to Prague, through the Ukraine. Yes, that actually seemed like the most viable option! Then found out that that baggage handlers in Ukraine love to steal bags or pilfer anything of value from them, leading to tens of thousands of baggage thefts annually! This is just about the worst place in the world to stop or transit though for this reason. Wanting to mitigate our risk, we looked at other options and found that the rates were excessive (about US$5,000 for the four of us to fly one-way from Astana to Europe). How can we get out of this country and continue our trip?
So, we’ve settled on flying all the way back to Almaty and flying out from there. This will mean significant extra flying…. more bored kids and butt-kicking jetlag. It also so inefficient. I hate that we can’t just keep travelling west, but international travel doesn’t always work that way. We just have to make the best of what’s on offer. From Almaty, we explored our options and we pleased to find a super cheap airfare on Pegasus Airlines, a cheap upstart from Turkey that aims to marry low fares and decent customer service. It’s perfect at just US$1,000 for four one way tickets to Europe. Unfortunately, gone from our itin is the beautiful and romantic city of Prague, but added are parts of Austria and a short side trip to Venice, Italy. These are all good options!
In sum, after hours of research and ample amounts of frustration, we’re getting to Almaty, Kazakhstan from Abu Dhabi (near Dubai), take a couple very long flights within Kazakhstan and then fly out of Almaty to Munich, Germany. From there we will head to Salzburg, Austria, to begin the European leg of our trip. OK, I’m done venting. Phew!