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Choosing Freedom

The sun was still far from risen when we awoke our last morning in Kazakhstan. I wandered into the kitchen and began making coffee, calling to Scott to make sure he was rousing himself as well. It was a little before four in the morning, and I headed into Scott’s room to take down the laundry line that we had put up in there.

I chewed on a small bowl of cereal, and Scott nibbled the last of yesterdays raisin and nut bread, but neither of us were very hungry. Coffee would, of course, be key, so we focused mostly on getting some of that in our system.

We headed out into the chill of the streets. It was downright cold our here, and I took out my sweater to wear on the ride.

As we pedaled on through these familiar streets, past cops setting up traps to extract bribes from early morning drunk drivers, and workers lined up at fluorescently lit bus stops, the sun began to shed the first purple glimmers of light across the sky.

We headed over the large central bridge, past the good old Radisson Hotel (may your ping times grow ever shorter), and on pas the Khan Shatyr and into the Kazakh country side. We nearly scared a fellow to death, when we rolled up to him at a stoplight in the outskirts of Astana and he rolled down his foggy window to find two fellows wheeling. He confirmed that we were indeed on the correct road to get to the airport, breathing out the words in a huge cloud of condensation and cigarette smoke.

It was really downright cold out here. I should have put on my Uzbek shoes, for my toes were absolutely freezing as we wheeled. Soon we were just hammering through the Kazakh step. The area was flat as a pancake and we had a mild tailwind, so we were making magnificent time. As more light spread across the sky, my spirits began to lift. We were doing this. We were choosing freedom. There was to be no haggling with a cab driver, no messing with the bus system, we were just wheeling the 35 kilometers out to the airport, and it felt good.

We passed by the prestigious “Harvard of the Steppes,” Nazarbayev University and marveled at what time of learnings may be happening within.

As light poured over the steppe, we took a right turn onto a giant and savage highway. I called out to a cop who was deep in the process of extracting a bribe from a driver he’d just pulled over, “This way to the airport?”

“Da.” he said, scowling.


We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to pack up the cycles properly and to check in before departing. The airport itself was quite impressive, designed by the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa,and drawing from Uzbek and other central Asian architectural traditions, combined with that certain metal and glass je ne sais quoi that all airports share.

The interior was, quite thankfully, well heated, and we rolled the bikes in without attracting any attention from security. We proceeded straight to the elevators, and rode them up the the second floor, where we packed the bikes up right outside of check-in.

The packing went very well, and we even paid some enterprising young fellows to wrap both of our bikes in that protective film which had so terrified us when we were in Kolkata on the pilot study.

Our hearts fell through when we walked up to the Air Astana counter to check in. Not only was the woman grumpy but…

“You want to charge us WHAT to bring the cycles on the plane?”

We tried all our maneuvers: spitting business cards, explaining that they were not full sized bikes, weighing them and showing that they were not in excess of the luggage limit, encouraging them to be reconsidered as a simple “fragile bag,” but all failed. And in the end I headed over to a little glass kiosk and paid a grumpy woman in a ridiculous looking Astana airlines beret more money than I care to mention, even to you, dear reader. It was like a final blow, a final stab at the soul of AsiaWheeling before we left Kazakhstan.

But the universe is a mysterious and twisted place, full of both fantastic and terrible things. And as we wandered away from the check in desk grumbling, we thought: at least the airport was heated.

And then we opened up our laptops to work a little on correspondence for you, dear reader. And low and behold, free wifi was broadcasting through the airport. Very nice touch, Astana. You’re well on your way to redeeming yourself.

Plus there was a fantastic Beeline branded complementary charging station. More points for the Astana airport!

“This is great!” I said to Scott, uploading things to the intertron and typing away, “We just should have flown Aeroflot.”

“Yep.” Scott replied, “But to be honest, if the food is good on this flight, I might even be willing to forgive them.”

As the flight hurdled through the clouds into Russian airspace, we passed the time by reading Kazakhstan’s twice monthly English newspaper supplement Focus, which carried articles with names like “International Banks Growing Like Weeds in Kazakhstan.”

The paper also carried a number of articles focusing on an upcoming OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operating in Europe) summit which Nazarbayev very much wants Obama to attend.  Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai was scheduled to appear, and we spent some time discussing what the political press would be printing about the AsiaWheeling Holiday party.

The inflight magazine, Tengri, proved an unending source of entertainment as well.  Trumpeting a recent success, the airlines CEO wrote in his letter to passengers “Air Astana is pleased to announce that it has been ranked  third amongst carriers for the “Best Airline: Eastern Europe” award by SkyTrax.  The first two positions were held by European Union flag carriers, making Air Astana the best airline in Central Asia.”

Ouch, we thought.  Talk about damning with faint praise.  We imagined Uzbekistan Airways to be a magical non-stop in-air festival of plov, filled with smiles and free folding bicycle transportion and an in-flight catalog of pointy black shoes priced in sum.  We could only hope, dear reader, that our arrival in Russia would be joyous.


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