Travel to Astana, the frigid northern capital of Kazakhstan, and one of the newest and most sophisticated cities on the planet.
I’m sitting in the airport in Boston, getting ready to begin bout five of my research travels for my upcoming book on the revival of the Silk Road. I thought that I was basically finished with my Central Asian travels for this book, but then I started to realize that some of the projects that I’ve been covering have undergone some major changes since I last visited them and I also hadn’t fully nailed down the link between the ancient Silk Road and the new one. So I’m going back to Kazakhstan, then to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
I know that I still have a bout six to do for these research travels — Afghanistan and Pakistan — but I’m saving that for last.
I sometimes sit at the gate for the aircraft that I’m about to board watching everyone lining up, wondering if I’m really going to get on. Why do I keep leaving my family? My comfortable little homes? My kids? Why do I need to keep going off into Central Asia? I sometimes fool myself into believing that I’m not going to really get on the flight. But I always do. I go out. I do my work. I write my stories. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
However, by the time I land I know that I will be switched into work mode, deeply grateful that I have a situation that allows for both a family life and an away from family life, and I will churn through the next six weeks like some kind of machine before rejoining my family in Puerto Rico, of all places.
I don’t understand why people stand in those long lines at the gate waiting to get on a plane. They sometimes stand there for a half an hour, sometimes longer. They stand there, burdened by their baggage, looking bored and miserable, for no reason at all. Maybe I’m mistaken, but it is my understanding that we all have tickets that designate each and every one of us a particular seat on the plane, and that we don’t get a better or worse seat based on the order that we board the aircraft. I believe that nobody gets left behind here, right?
On top of this, many airlines now board passengers by row or section, making these line-ups even more mysterious. When each section is called, the neat, orderly line just breaks into pieces anyway, and any previous order that was established rapidly breaks down into disarray as passengers from in front and behind surge forward when their number is called.
I suppose it’s some kind of herd mentality at work: we see other people doing something so we do it too for fear that they are going to get something that we won’t or that they know something that we don’t. Or perhaps it’s just an ingrained cultural pattern: humans like lines, because a line carries the promise that there is a prize to be had once you make it to the front.
I can’t complain — it just frees up more seats for me to sit in and wait comfortably until boarding begins, when I will then step forward and cut in front of everybody anyway.
The flight from Boston to London ended up in Gander. Gander, Canada. Someone on board required emergency medical assistance. We’ve been grounded here for around a half hour so far.
Not much to see. The action seems to be happening in first class, behind the curtain, but there’s about thirty heads askance-ly stuck out into the aisle in front of me trying to see what they can see.
Imagine having a medical emergency on an airplane and being kicked off in fucking Gander, Canada. I probably would have hedged my bet on at least getting to Reykjavik. I’m not sure if being fucked up in Gander, Canada is necessarily an improvement in state.
The plane sat on the tarmac in Gander for three hours. The individual with the emergency was carted off, the plane refueled, then we just sat there.
I would like to think that the person with the medical emergency was stricken by some surprise ailment that they couldn’t have planned for, but it was probably some elderly or obese person with preexisting health conditions who had no business flying in the first place. The pilot’s call to see if there was a doctor onboard first went out twenty minutes after takeoff.
But what was interesting is that although an entire plane full of people were severely inconvenienced because of this — dozens would miss their connecting flights and literally hundreds would need to re-work their schedules — nobody complained. I heard some people talking about how they had people waiting for them or would have to make other plans or would miss their next flights, but nobody was really complaining. It was remarkable.
We arrived at Gatwick just late enough for me to miss my connecting flight.
The plan was to go from Boston to London to Istanbul to Almaty, but this wasn’t going to happen. I intended to connect onto a different carrier in London, so neither airline had any responsibility for me. However, Kiwi.com, the ticket booking service that I used, specializes in hacking together creative flight paths, and guarantees their inter-airline connections.
I talked with one of their reps named Margaryet while standing in the no-mans-land corridor between debarking the plane and immigration. Their policy is to either find me a new flight or reimburse me up to double the cost of the leg that I missed. Not bad. She suggested flying out the following morning, and offered a 50 Euro accommodation voucher on top of that.
I declined. I’m on my way to Central Asia, and London seemed like nothing but an expensive delay. What am I going to do in Gatwick? Eat falafel and drink coffee at fucking Pret a Manger? I wasn’t in any real rush, but I just wanted to get there.
“Get me to Kazakhstan today. I don’t care where in Kazakhstan, just get me to Kazakhstan.”
Air Astana, she said. Hurry to Heathrow.
I hung up and did the hour and forty-five minute train / tube ride across the city.
I pulled up to the Air Astana desk, passed over my passport, requested an aisle seat, and sheepishly asked what my final destination was. I knew it was either going to be Astana or Almaty, and I really didn’t care which — but I kind of had to know.
When I think of cold, I think of Astana. It’s the coldest capital city on the planet. It’s this dreamy, frigid sub-arctic tundra-y kind of place. It looks more like a stage-set from a movie than something real — the fact that it’s one of the newest and most sophisticated cities on the planet just adds to the surrealness. This is the second time that I’ve showed up here in the middle of winter.
I grew up in Buffalo. It’s cold there. But not cold like Astana.
I do next to no pre-trip planning. I just buy a ticket, throw some clothes into a bag, and go. My core travel gear never gets unpacked. My work rig is in my EDC bag and is always ready to go. My travel planning almost entirely consists of doing little more than a load of laundry. Everything else can be figured out along the way.
But then I step into an airport somewhere, say I’m here, and start looking around — thinking about what I’m actually going to do. I find a window and look out of it. I smile and get excited. I start seeing paths extending out across maps. I say I love this shit and head out into the cold.