Flying in the post-9/11 era has become a rather stressful experience. Security is so strict these days that it would be easier to get into prison than most airports. Retina scans and biometric passport ID are fast becoming the norm for proving that you are indeed you, and not a pale imitation. Rules are made to be followed, and there are absolutely, positively no exceptions.
It was with this thought in mind that I sat uneasily in the aviakasse (ticket office) of the small airport at Osh.
The problem was this: we were in Osh, but our passports were in the Kazakh embassy in Bishkek, leaving us with only a stamped photocopy each as proof of identity. Had this been Belfast or anywhere in the west, such a flimsy excuse, true though it was, would never have been accepted. In fact, we’d have been laughed out of the airport. After all, anyone with a printer and a copy of Photoshop can rustle up a few fake passport images in about five minutes flat.
Of course, if you’re flying from an airport where it still seems to be the 1970s, the rules are a little different. After 30 seconds of looking at our papers and conferring with a policeman who had luckily been seated in the very same office, it was agreed that we would be allowed to fly.
Despite the apparent nod of approval, we were still feeling a bit of trepidation, and it was only after our papers were accepted a second time at the security check-in that we finally relaxed.
Our airplane was an old Russian one, an Antonov-24. After the flight, I looked on Wikipedia, and discovered that they stopped manufacturing this particular model in 1978. Hmm, it’s always comforting to fly on an airplane which is older than you are. The NATO codename for this particular aircraft was “Coke,” rather appropriate given the gallons of the stuff drunk by us so far on the trip.
Katie, I’m sure, was glad not to have been informed of this fact prior to the flight. She would have been slightly happier had I discovered this particular nugget of information AFTER our return flight to Osh.
Flying from a tiny airfield meant that we had no waiting time to obtain take-off clearance. The flight was relatively smooth, except for a few pockets of turbulence, and this was only to be expected in such a small aircraft. Our pilot had evidently once been in the air force, such was the steepness with which he banked the airplane into each turn. Perfectly safe, but perhaps a little unnerving for those used to more gentle turning.
The plane itself was sturdy but showing its vintage. The seats had a permanent degree of recline, even in the fully upright position. The once-white plastic of the overhead air vents was cracking and yellowed with age. The one above my head had actually been repaired with blue insulation tape.
Halfway through the flight, as we soared over the mountains of central Kyrgyzstan, the vents began to ice over a little from collected condensation. Glancing around, I noted that no one was screaming or running up and down the aisle [which would have been a rather short sprint, I suppose], and decided that this must be a fairly normal occurrence. I also decided that my definition of normal must have become rather hazy since embarking on this trip.
Our flight path took us over sections of the route we’d traveled by bike. It was very cool being able to pick out towns or mountain passes that we’d crossed only days before, and look down at the snowcapped peaks we’d previously craned our necks to look up at.
Landing at Manas airport, we were greeted by the sight of half a dozen lumbering refueling tankers belonging to the US Air Force, all lined up on the parking apron. The Americans pay the Kyrgyz government quite handsomely (about $200 million a year) for the privilege of stationing jets there as part of the war in Afhganstan. This newfound bling-bling went some way towards explaining the contrast in standards between the shiny new international airport facilities at Manas and the more antiquated offerings at Osh. Thank you, American taxpayers.
[Since writing this article, the BB team has successfully flown back to Osh with the same airline, ice-free this time]
Flights: 2250-2500 KGS one way
Taxis: Osh ? Osh airport: 200 KGS, Manas airport ? Bishkek: 400 KGS