When I moved to Astana last year, I had assumed it would be as easy to get to and from as the country’s ex-capital, Almaty. This was sadly not the case. Only a small number of airlines fly here and there is no direct flight to the UK.
However, the country’s airline (and the only one meeting international standards), Air Astana, does offer a good service throughout the country, which is a very good thing considering the amount of the earth the country covers.
Being the size of Western Europe bus or car journeys between the larger towns can take days or weeks and due to the state of the majority of roads and lack of facilities en route this can also mean an uncomfortable (and often dangerous) ride. People do drive from Astana to Almaty for instance, but it can take between 12 and 15 hours. The fast, Spanish train takes about 11 hours while the slow, stopper takes about 24 hours!! So when a friend invited me to visit her, in her home town of Kostanay, my first question was “how do I get there?”.
Kostanay is in the north of the country near the Russian border about 350 miles from Astana. It is a smallish town with about 450,000 inhabitants and there is a lot of mining activity in the area. I thought about a train but this meant a 15-hour journey and I only had a few days available to go there, though the 2000 KZT (or £8) price of a return ticket did tempt me!
My friend is a flight attendant for Air Astana so she suggested flying up. This takes around 1 hour but cost 41000 kzt (£170). It seemed the only viable option so I caught the plane up the following Monday.
It was a warm, sunny morning in Astana but it was clear as we descended though the clouds that it was chilly and wet in Kostany! I had stupidly worn sandals and a skirt and would live to regret that decision. My friend and her brother picked me up and we drove through the water-logged town to their house.
It was on the outskirts of town and was part of a new development being built by a Korean and British firm, so that the houses had a very familiar look about them! Although my friends house had been lived in for a few years they were doing some renovations and the whole of the front area was mud, which having been made worse by the heavy rain, meant my new shoes were soon covered!
After a short rest we caught the bus into the town. It is a typical small, ex-Soviet town. Low level buildings, large squares and parks. My friend, however, did not have a typical afternoon planned, our first stop was a small business complex near the centre of town. Here she met a friend for an unconventional English class on a sofa in the corridor. My presence as a native speaker put a little too much pressure on the poor girl she was teaching and she became very nervous.
The next stop was the park for some Thai Chi! Although I live in the capital, I have not heard of any lessons of Tai Chi and it was interesting to watch the small group practising in the park, closely observed by the teacher’s baby daughter, and then once more into the office hallway, when the heavens opened and turned the streets into rivers again!
The most eventful part of the trip, however, was the return journey. I had a noon flight back to Astana and arrived at the airport at 11am. Entering the main hall I realised that it was not going to be a simple task to get on the plane. There was no evidence of any check-in desks or departure gates . I asked at the sales desk and was sent to a small door where a man asked my name and for my passport. I went through the door to a small room with a security gate.
On the other side was a small desk where a women took my passport and printed my boarding ticket. As I was waiting, there was a commotion at the security detector, as one man was trying to carry his friend through. Clearly he was so drunk he couldn’t walk. One very amusing attempt to prove to the guards that his friend was not inebriated, his friend propped him against the wall, which he promptly slid down. He then picked him off the floor and rolled him on to a chair, which he slipped back into. His friends had come through security already but the guards decided that none of them would be getting on the plane and they were all brought back and made to carry the guy away to sober him up.
I went through to the small waiting area and looked out onto the empty runway and into the distance where rusty old jet-propelled planes were sitting. To my relief, a new, Air Astana plane landed shortly afterwards and a bus drew up to take us the 100m to the plane. Some 30 minutes later we were still waiting to take off. A bus drew up-it was the intoxicated man and his friends. As the man casually boarded the plane, it was clear that the airport coffe had worked!