With more than 80 trips to Almaty from London (and an equal number of return flights), I have had more than a few ‘interesting’ flights.
Pothole: We had an unremarkable flight from Frankfurt to Almaty and were coming in for a smooth landing. The wheels touched down. Almost there. And then a jarring noise and a rumbling from under the plane. An abrupt stop in the middle of the airfield. The pilot announced that we had encountered a pothole on the runway and that we would have to wait for a tractor to tow us to the terminal building. He had tried but failed to steer the plane using just the rudder and engines. Well, it was very early in the morning and I rather doubt that the tractor and its driver were waiting to swing into action. We had a long sit on board the plane after a long flight. Finally, the tractor came and tugged us off the airfield and close to the terminal. At that point Lufthansa must have swung into crisis management mode. Passengers waiting to board the plane to fly out of Almaty were sent home, an empty plane was flown in with engineers and spare parts but without a cabin crew, and I guess the departing flight flew off a day or two later. The crews stayed at the Hyatt Hotel (Rahat Palace Hotel) in those days and likely enjoyed the extra swimming, exercise room and good food.
Bump: The undercarriage of the long-haul aircraft are huge. If you watch a plane approach an airfield, you can see those long, dangling legs with the big wheels getting ready for touchdown. Those legs have built-in shock absorbers, and those outsize tires also work as buffers on landing. Well, on one very memorable trip from Almaty to London via Frankfurt, we tested out the limits of the ability of the aircraft to absorb shock. We hit the ground with an almighty thump. It was as if the pilot (automatic pilot?) was aiming to land rather lower than the concrete landing strip. The overhead structure had its capabilities tested; many overhead doors opened. I have had rough landings before, such as during a severe side wind at JFK, but nothing this bad. All of us on board thought we had just survived a very,very close call. The lady flight attendant cleverly defused our concern by announcing: “As I guess you all know, we have landed at Frankfurt airport.” No cheers, but no jeers. The pilot, to give him credit, came to his door while passengers disembarked.
The Creationist: Long ago, there was a period of time when Lufthansa’s flights to Almaty also went to Tashkent. Frankfurt-Tashkent-Almaty. On the Tashkent-Almaty segment, I sat next to a palaeontologist who taught at a university in the United States. Back in the 1970s he had been to Kazakhstan to study dinosaur bones. His purpose: to establish that they were only 6,000 years old. He was a creationist. It seemed incongruous to me that he dedicated his professional life to studying the fossilized bones of animals that died out 65,000,000 years ago. A classic case of religion meeting science. I wondered how he taught his subject, and I wondered at what university he worked.
No Visa: The passport people at Almaty airport, like their counerparts all over the world, have a thankless job. They view passports, search for visas, and watch the travellers go past. Until the visa is missing. A couple of men from Arthur Andersen – remember that firm? – got stopped at Almaty’s airport without entry visas and were required to return on the next flight to the West. They never properly entered Kazakhstan. Not long after that, maybe a couple of months, I got stopped. No visa. Yikes! I was in and out of the country often and I always had annual work permits to allow me to work when I arrived. But there I was facing the same people who had thrown the Arthur Andersen people out. OK, I am a lawyer, I can use my head, I can think on my feet. Solution? I invoked the name of Mobil Oil, our client, and the name of the head man. In a few moments, my passport was stamped giving me the right to remain in the country for three days. The next day, Monday, the staff in my office did the necessary and my visa was in order for a long stay.
Gregori Marchenko: I shared flights with Gregori Marchenko on two occasions. At the time he was working for DB Securities – an arm of Deutsche Bank. On the first occasion, I was seated across the aisle from him and spotted him reading a book in English. I think he recognized me from when he was head of the National Bank of Kazakhstan and we needed his approval of the incorporation documents for ABN Amro Kazakhstan Bank. We struck up a conversation, and I learned that the book he was reading was a novel by an official he had gotten to know while working at the World Bank. The second flight-related meeting was quite different. We ran into each other at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, in the departure lounge. Gregori was in bad humor. Hopping mad, in fact. He arrived at Amsterdam the day before and discovered that he had been bumped off the connecting flight to Almaty by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. That was bad enough but it was made worse by the fact that his luggage had been put on the connecting flight. That left him with an unwanted night in Amsterdam without a change of clothes, no shaving kit (the beard came later), and none of his personal gear. It seems his office paid the full fair (no bumping) to the travel agent but had been given a discount ticket.
My Unwanted Night in Frankfurt: There was a snowstorm in Europe and we had to circle Frankfurt’s airport until a backlog of delayed departures were allowed to take off. That meant I had missed the last connecting flight to London. Lufthansa paid for my dinner and put me up in a hotel for the night but I had no change of clothes, no shaving kit and no personal gear. At that time I carried almost no personal belongings with me when I travelled. I had a full wardrobe in Almaty as well as in England, several sets of shoes, socks, underwear, shaving kits and so on in each place. I carried lots of things to Almaty for my office and apartment, but generally returned to England nearly empty handed.
Moscow Diversion: We left Frankfurt knowing that a snowstorm was approaching Almaty. It hit earlier than expected so our flight was diverted to Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow. We were offloaded to a passenger lounge that was already filled with other delayed passengers. I spent several hours sitting on the cold concrete floor next to a young Kazakhstani who was returning from some big event in Hollywood. Turns out my companion was active in the movie business in Kazakhstan and it seems that his father had been very big in Almaty’s film industry. Nice guy, and a skier to boot. We met up at Chimbulak on a few occasions. A case of a bad event having a good outcome.
Landing Thrill: Pilots often need to turn their planes in a tight half circle, such as when they taxi to the end of a runway and then turn around for the takeoff. Well, that same maneuver was routinely used for several years after landing in Almaty when the airplane approached the terminal. As we neared the terminal, the pilot would put one wheel on full brake, goose the engines, and turn the plane around in preparation for a later departure. I guess the airport had insufficient ground handling equipment or crews in those days. We had to deplane using the portable stairs that were rolled up to the front door of the airplane, and we would then walk the short distance to the terminal.
Departure Delays: I suppose it still happens, particularly in the winter. You go to the airport at some exceedingly early time in the morning only to discover that the plane you expect to depart on has not yet arrived. Or there is some other snag standing in the way of boarding and leaving. Anyway, I remember some such occasions in the 1990s: cold in the air and snow on the ground; getting up shortly after going to bed; being taken to the airport by a driver who is caring enough to see if there are any problems and then packing me off back to a hotel (if the airline is providing) or my apartment and later collecting me once again. Almaty continues to be a remote city for foreign airlines, and the problems of snowstorms and fog still interrupt traffic.
Tashkent Airport: We had a long stop-over at Tashkent on one occasion. The terminal was mainly remarkable by reason of there being more plainclothes policeman than passengers.
Book Sales: Find more information about Kazakhstan and its people during the 1990s and later in my book, West Meets East in Kazakhstan. It’s available online in softcover or e-book format from AuthorHouse (the publisher), or Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
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Consultancy: Although I currently am trying to ensure that my book gets maximum exposure, the fact is that writing and publishing are sidelines for me. My main focus is assisting foreign companies to engage in business in Kazakhstan (or elsewhere in Central Asia) and assisting businesses and individuals in Kazakhstan with their projects outside of Kazakhstan.
Based on my long career as a lawyer and my time spent in Kazakhstan, I take on projects in a wide range of industries, certainly in oil & gas, banking & finance, and minerals. But such a statement insufficiently acknowledges the many spheres in which I have had experience – commercial trading, manufacturing in several areas, transport, directorships of companies listed on the London Stock Excange, shipping, and many more.
For further information, contact me at email@example.com and at +44 1753 885955.