When the Soviet Union broke up 20 years ago, its national airline Aeroflot suffered the same fate. From Baku to Bishkek, Tallinn to Tashkent, the governments of cash-strapped new republics seized the aircraft sitting on the tarmac, repainted them in the new national colors and hoped they could round up enough spare parts to keep them flying. National airlines have since modernized their fleets, adding Boeings and Airbuses for long-haul flights, but Soviet-era planes are still the standard on most domestic and some regional flights. Travelers still struggle with Soviet-style bureaucracy at ticket offices and airports. For the last 15 years, David Mould has been a frequent flier in Central Asia.
In the early years after independence, foreigners had to pay the "foreigner's price" for air tickets. It was usually at least 50 per cent higher than the regular fare and often had to be paid in Western hard currency. The only advantage, as far as I could tell, was that you entered the terminal through the special "foreigners' entrance," waited (often alone) in an area with an overpriced souvenir shop, had your passport inspected multiple times, and then were escorted to the plane by a uniformed official. At least you could choose your seat and stow your hand luggage before the other passengers boarded. Special treatment had nothing to do with being nice to foreigners. It was a holdover from Soviet times, when foreigners had to be controlled and segregated for undisclosed security reasons.
In 1998, I needed to fly from Osh, the main city in southern Kyrgyzstan, to the capital Bishkek. The airline ticket office was inconveniently located in a suburb, a 20-minute cab ride from downtown. After waiting another 20 minutes in line, the agent told me she could not sell me a ticket. "Only Gulmira is authorized to sell tickets to foreigners," she explained, "and she is at the airport today. You will have to come back tomorrow." I asked if I could go to the airport and buy a ticket. "That is impossible," said the agent. "Tickets are only sold here." I went to the airport anyway and found Gulmira who sold me a ticket at the foreigner's price with, um, a small commission. It was cheaper than another trip to the ticket office.
Foreigners' prices and entrances have largely disappeared, but buying tickets can still be a travel adventure. Although all international carriers and some national airlines now offer online booking, most tickets are still bought from travel agents or airline offices. In 2010, I needed a ticket from Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. The only direct flight was on "Air Company SCAT," a Kazakhstan regional airline with a few international flights and a booking service to match its ill-chosen name.
Although several travel agents in Astana displayed the SCAT sign in their windows, none could sell me a ticket. It was unclear why: either SCAT did not issue electronic tickets or its computer system wasn't working. I ended up at the large central ticket agency on Prospekt Respublika to buy a paper ticket. Several agents were serving customers and I joined the shortest line. When my turn came, the agent said she could not help me. "Only agents 1, 3 and 5 can sell SCAT tickets," she informed me. "But you're number 5!" I protested. "There's a chair missing-I'm number 6," she replied. It was back to the line, until agent number 1 was available.
Customs and security officials at Central Asian airports have a well-earned reputation for trying to shake down weary travelers by inventing airport taxes, selling transit visas you don't need, and charging for excess baggage both on departure and arrival. Some travelers have had their luggage impounded for weeks by corrupt customs officials, demanding thousands of dollars in import duties or fines. Other scams involve currency controls. Because of capital flight, Central Asian countries imposed strict limits on the export of currency. However, the official inquiry "How much money are you carrying?" can be the prelude to a search and an on-the-spot and undocumented fine.
Fortunately, most attempted shakedowns are minor, and often played like a game. Arriving at Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial capital, for a flight to Europe, I was stopped by two policemen who inspected my passport. One noticed that my local registration stamp had expired two days earlier. "That's a $100 fine," he declared with triumph. I figured that fines in the Kazakhstan Civil Code were denominated in the national currency, the tenge , not in dollars, so I asked him to show me the regulation. As he skimmed through papers, failing to find the one that described my offense, I became impatient. "Even if you're right, I don't have $100," I said, not entirely truthfully. The policemen looked crestfallen. "How much money do you have?" the other asked. "One thousand tenge [at that time, about $8]," I replied. "That will do," the first policemen said. "Have a nice flight, and if anyone else in the airport asks, please don't tell them this happened." I handed over the money, shook hands, accepted a shot of vodka and went on my way. In a country where the police do not earn a living wage and routinely stop drivers to extract small fines, it was an additional, and not unexpected, travel expense.
The secret to shakedowns is to apply (or invent) obscure regulations. On another departure from Almaty, customs officials emptied the contents of my two suitcases. They pulled out three large Soviet-era school maps I had bought at a bookstore in Bishkek. The map of the United States was an ideological gem; instead of state boundaries, major cities or physical geography, it featured locations of labor unrest. Soviet schoolchildren might not be able to find Miami or San Francisco, but they could pinpoint the 1892 Homestead, Pennsylvania steelworkers' strike and the 1913 Colorado miners' strike. "It is forbidden to export rare cultural artifacts, including historical maps," declared the customs official. I pointed out that maps like this hung on the walls of schoolrooms all over the Soviet Union. They were neither rare, nor valuable. "Show me the regulation on historic maps" I insisted. "Anyway, what am I going to do with it? Invade the United States?" That seemed to settle the issue.
WELCOME TO DUSHANBE
Soviet-era airports in Central Asia were not built to handle large numbers of arriving passengers, and certainly not passengers with passports. There's usually a long line at the one or two foreign citizens' passport booths. And the line can sometimes turn ugly.
Until the late 1990s, Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, was not on the business (and certainly not the tourist) itinerary. A five year-long civil war meant that the airport was periodically "closed for fighting" (which was about as routine in Tajikistan as "closed for construction" anywhere else.) With the return of peace, if not prosperity (Tajikistan is the poorest of the Central Asian republics), the airport is open, if not exactly ready, for business.
The arrivals hall, a ramshackle building separated by a few city blocks from the main airport terminal, has limited staff and a single baggage carousel. When three flights (including mine) arrived within a half-hour period, the fragile infrastructure was quickly overwhelmed. Only one passport booth for foreigners was open, and it took the officer at least five minutes to review and stamp each passport. And there were many foreigners-most of the passengers on my flight were Kazakhstan citizens. Occasionally, a policeman would climb over the barrier, wade into the crowd and push some people around but it seemed to make no difference. The only way to get ahead was to slip some money and your documents to a policeman who would go into the booth and have the officer process the passport (while the person at the booth waited).
The foreigners' "line" became more unruly when a group of Tajiks, tired of waiting in their equally slow-moving nationals' line, decided to join us (but at the front, not the back of the line). People clambered over barriers and passed papers back and forth. Meanwhile, baggage from the three flights was arriving on the single carousel. All bags had to pass through a scanner; however, it was not connected to a computer, so no one actually inspected what was inside. Two airport staff collected baggage tags, but did not match them to the bags you were carrying. The trip had taken four hours-a two-hour flight and a two-hour ordeal in the arrivals hall.
ACROSS THE PAMIRS IN AN ANTONOV 24
There's little to match the spectacular mountain scenery of Central Asia-the towering Pamirs of Tajikistan, extending west from the Himalayas, and the Tien Shan mountains, which occupy over 90 per cent of the land area of Kyrgyzstan and run northeast through Kazakhstan to the borders with Russia and Mongolia. They are best viewed from a window seat on a Yak-40 or an Antonov-24, the small, Soviet-era prop-engine planes that ply the routes between Dushanbe, Osh and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, and Almaty. Flying at about 20,000 feet on a clear day, you seem to skim the tops of the snow-capped peaks. The Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia describes the approach to Dushanbe as through-that's through, not over-the Pamirs.
I missed the views on my first flight to Dushanbe on a medium haul jet, cruising at 35,000 feet. There were occasional glimpses of snow-capped mountains through the haze, but I had little time to look out the window because I was fully occupied in my struggle with Tajik Air in-flight catering. The tray consisted of a bewildering array of small and hard-to-open items which turned out to be meat paste (not sure what meat), a fruit cup (not sure what fruit), a small slice of brown bread, a piece of resolutely shrink-wrapped Russian cheese, a cookie and at least six condiments-in sum, an assortment of condiments with very little food.
The return flight on SCAT on an Antonov-24 more than made up for missed views and plastic-wrapped condiments. The 44-seater turboprop, which made its debut in 1959, was designed to take off and land on rough air strips in remote locations; over 800 of the aircraft manufactured are still in service, mostly in the former Soviet Union and Africa. The SCAT plane looked as if it had had a tough life and was ready to retire to an aircraft museum. Despite cosmetic surgery on the wings and fuselage, the dents were visible; I hoped the ground crew had tightened up the bolts and kicked the tires before take-off. The noise of the engines drowns out most conversation, and definitely the standard safety messages on tinny speakers; all I caught was "Uvazhayemy passazheri .Spasibo za vinimaniye" ("Dear passengers .thank you for your attention.")
The interior décor is standard Soviet, circa 1970-fluorescent lights, faded curtains and worn carpet runners that look as if they were salvaged from the remnant section. The seats have only two positions-slightly reclined (when occupied) and fully forward. When the plane lands the backs of all seats without passengers crash forward. The overhead luggage bins are like those on trains and long-distance buses-shallow with no doors. The standard warning about opening the bins carefully "because luggage may have shifted during flight" is irrelevant. If the plane banks abruptly, all of the luggage on one side will fall out anyway.
Of course, there's no in-flight entertainment, but on the flight from Dushanbe the real show is outside the window. We circled three times over the city so that the pilot could gain enough altitude to take on the Pamir Mountains. And then we were over them-just a few thousand feet above snowy peaks, glaciers shining bright in the morning sun, and deep in the valleys, winding dirt roads and scattered dwellings. We crossed the Tien Shan range and then turned northeast, parallel to the mountains, for the rest of the trip to Almaty. It had taken almost twice as long as the outbound trip, but it was the most spectacular flight I've ever experienced. It almost makes you hope they keep the Antonov 24 in service.