When the Soviet Union broke up, its national airline Aeroflot suffered the same fate. From Baku to Bishkek, the governments of cash-strapped new republics seized the aircraft sitting on the tarmac, repainted them in the new national colors and hoped they could round up enough spare parts to keep them flying. National airlines have since modernized their fleets, adding Boeings and Airbuses for long-haul flights, but Soviet-era planes are still the standard on most domestic and regional flights and travelers still struggle with bureaucracy at ticket offices and airports.
Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube
In the early years after independence, foreigners had to pay the “foreigner’s price” for tickets. It was usually at least 50 per cent higher than the regular fare and often had to be paid in Western hard currency. The only advantage, as far as I could tell, was that you entered the terminal through a separate “foreigners’ entrance,” waited (usually alone) in an area with an overpriced souvenir shop, had your passport inspected multiple times, and then were escorted to the plane by a uniformed official. At least you could choose your seat and stow your hand luggage before the other passengers boarded. Special treatment had nothing to do with being nice to foreigners. It was a holdover from Soviet times, when foreigners were segregated for undisclosed security reasons.
In July 1998, I needed to fly from Osh to Bishkek. The Kyrgyzstan Airlines ticket office was inconveniently located in a suburb, a 20-minute cab ride from downtown. The agent told me she could not sell me a ticket. “Only Gulmira is authorized to sell tickets to foreigners,” she announced, “and she is at the airport today. You will have to come back tomorrow.” I asked if I could buy a ticket at the airport. “That is impossible,” said the agent. “Tickets are only sold here.” I went to the airport anyway and found Gulmira who sold me a ticket at the foreigner’s price with, um, a small commission. It was cheaper than another trip to the ticket office.
Foreigners’ prices and entrances have largely disappeared, but buying tickets can still be a travel adventure. Although all international carriers and some national airlines offer online booking, most tickets are still bought from travel agents or airline offices. In 2010, I needed a ticket from Astana to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The only direct flight was on “Air Company SCAT,” a Kazakhstan regional airline with a few international flights and a booking service to match its ill-chosen name.
Although several travel agents displayed the SCAT sign in their windows, none could sell me a ticket. It was unclear why: either SCAT did not issue electronic tickets or its computer system wasn’t working. I ended up at the large central ticket agency on Prospekt Respublika to buy a paper ticket. Several agents were serving customers and I joined the shortest line. When my turn came, the agent said she could not help me. “Only agents 1, 3 and 5 can sell SCAT tickets,” she informed me. “But you’re number 5!” I protested. “There’s a chair missing—I’m number 6,” she replied. It was back to the line, until agent number 1 was available.
Customs and security officials at Central Asian airports have gained a reputation for trying to shake down weary travelers by inventing airport taxes, selling transit visas you don't need, and charging for excess baggage both on departure and arrival. Some travelers have had luggage impounded for weeks by customs officials demanding thousands of dollars in import duties or fines. Other scams involve currency controls. Because of capital flight, Central Asian countries imposed strict limits on the export of currency. However, the official inquiry “How much money are you carrying?” can be the prelude to a search and an on-the-spot and undocumented fine.
Fortunately, most attempted shakedowns are minor, and often played like a game. Arriving at Almaty for a flight to Europe, I was stopped by two policemen who inspected my passport. One noticed that my OVIR registration stamp had expired two days earlier. “That’s a $100 fine,” he declared with triumph. I figured that fines in the Kazakhstan Civil Code were denominated in tenge, not dollars, so I asked him to show me the regulation. As he skimmed through papers, failing to find the one that described my offense, I became impatient. “Even if you’re right, I don’t have $100,” I said, not entirely truthfully. The policemen looked crestfallen. “How much money do you have?” the other asked. “One thousand tenge [at that time, about $8],” I replied. “That will do,” the first policeman said. “Have a nice flight, and if anyone else in the airport asks, please don’t say this happened.” I handed over the money, shook hands, accepted a shot of vodka and went on my way. In a country where police do not earn a living wage and routinely stop drivers to extract small fines, it was an additional, and not unexpected, travel expense.
The secret to shakedowns is to apply (or invent) obscure regulations. On another departure from Almaty, customs officials emptied the contents of my two suitcases, pulling out the three large Soviet-era school maps I had bought at a bookstore in Bishkek. “It is forbidden to export rare cultural artifacts, including historical maps,” declared the customs official. I pointed out that maps like this hung on the walls of schoolrooms all over the Soviet Union. They were neither rare, nor valuable. “Show me the regulation on historic maps” I insisted. I unfolded the map pinpointing the sites of labor unrest in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. “What am I going to do with it? Invade the United States?” I asked rhetorically. That seemed to settle the issue.
THE FOREIGNERS’ LINE
Soviet-era airports were not built to handle large numbers of arriving passengers, and certainly not passengers with passports. There’s usually a long line at the one or two foreign citizens’ passport booths. And the line can sometimes turn ugly.
Until the late 1990s, Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, was not on the business (and certainly not the tourist) itinerary. A five year-long civil war meant that the airport was periodically "closed for fighting" (about as routine in Tajikistan as "closed for construction" anywhere else.) With the return of peace, if not prosperity, the airport is open, if not exactly ready, for business.
The arrivals hall, a ramshackle building separated by a few city blocks from the main airport terminal, has limited staff and a single baggage carousel. When three flights (including mine) arrived within a half-hour period, the fragile infrastructure was quickly overwhelmed. Only one passport booth for foreigners was open, and it took the officer at least five minutes to review and stamp each passport. And there were many foreigners—most of the passengers on my flight from Almaty were Kazakhstan citizens. Occasionally, a policeman climbed over the barrier, waded into the crowd and pushed some people around but it seemed to make no difference. Apparently the only way to get ahead was to slip a few bills to a policeman who would go into the booth and have the officer process the passport (while the person at the booth waited).
The foreigners’ “line” became more unruly when a group of Tajiks, tired of waiting in their equally slow-moving nationals’ line, decided to join us (but at the front, not the back of the line). People clambered over barriers and passed papers back and forth. Meanwhile, baggage from all three flights was arriving on the single carousel. All bags had to pass through a scanner; however, it was not connected to a computer, so no one actually inspected what was inside. Two airport staff collected baggage tags, but did not match them to the bags you were carrying. The trip had taken four hours—a two-hour flight and a two-hour ordeal in the arrivals hall.