Wednesday 19 June 2013 04:01 UTC
Where have you been? What have you seen?
In the first of what I hope will be a series of travelogues, I'll tell, as best as I remember, the story of flying around most of the states of the nascent Commonwealth of Independent States in early 1992.
A quick history lesson for the youngsters. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the Russian Civil War, The Soviet Union was formed, initially of willing participants and later by the forceful annexation of former Russian colonial holdings. Most of the less willing, coerced, members of the Union were the predominantly Islamic southern republics, but they were repressed by Stalin and the Red Army and their populations diluted, both by large numbers of their ethnic populations being forcibly resettled elsewhere in the Soviet Union, mainly Siberia, and by the forced movement of ethnic Russians into their lands.
This meant that the Soviet Union harboured very large populations of very discontent ethnic minorities, largely ruled over by European Russians. (The situation in Chechnya over the last twenty years is fairly indicative of the mood in other territories with similar ethnic mixes, but more independent of Moscow control.)
So, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 – 91, these southern states very quickly wanted to express their independence from both Moscow and locally born ethnic Russians. The locals wanted very rapidly to grow both trade and political relationships with other countries outside the Warsaw Pact, and they were looking in all directions – east to China, Japan and the Pacific Rim, south to India and Pakistan and west to Europe and America.
If Europe was to capitalise on these potentially massive markets (Kazakhstan alone is the size of Europe, albeit with the population of The Netherlands) people needed to get out there to secure deals and alliances and there was a bumper period for Executive Jet charter companies.
I had already done a couple of trips to Uzbekistan – Tashkent and Samarkand – and was already captivated, when we were chartered to do a stunning thing: to take two European Commissioners and their staff to all the capitals of the CIS and to come back when we were done.
The aircraft was the HS125-600, a 23 Tonne medium-sized executive jet, and we went with three crew - two pilots and a hostie. The hostie had one of the more difficult jobs – planning to provide 1st Class catering for 8 passengers on an unknown (but large) number of flights over an unknown (but long) period where local supplies were unlikely to be available, with a limited amount of storage space. But our French girl was very good at her job and was able to do all that, apparently effortlessly.
We had no real idea how long the trip was going to be, or what facilities we would find en route, so we had a very large amount of cash stuffed in our pockets. I can’t remember now if it was $200k each or between us, but in 1992 it was a decent wodge of wedge. We also took large quantities of Marlboro cigarettes (fasends of ‘em), toiletries and big CDM chocolate bars.
We knew that we may well be stuck in government compounds for days on end, so I went to a bookshop and bought every paperback they could recommend – I remember there was Silence of the Lambs, Pillars of the Earth, both new books then, and many others. The other pilot bought a Gameboy, a real innovation in those days, with just one game – Super Mario – and a lot of batteries for it!
We were based in London Gatwick, but the charter started in Brussels. The passengers turned up with a mass of baggage and equipment. For example, they all had given their own blood in advance so that we were carrying emergency blood transfusions for each of them. All this baggage took up every nook and cranny of the 125. It is a capable aircraft, with a reasonable baggage compartment, but we had to stuff bags into the toilet and everywhere we could.
The first leg was to Moscow. I have no real memory of that flight. According to my logbook it was 3h20 and the other guy flew it, but in my mind it just melds into many other European flights. I am fairly sure that the passengers disappeared into Moscow for meetings in the Kremlin for a few hours, but I think we just refuelled and hung around the airport.
We did not have enough fuel for the next leg to our first proper destination, Alma Ata, the then name for the then capital of Kazakhstan (since then the name has changed to Almaty and the capital moved to Astana (which itself is better known as Akmolinsk)) so we had to tech stop in Aktyubinsk.
It is worth glancing at a map to see where Aktyubinsk is. It is in the middle of nowhere on the borders of Kazakhstan and Siberia, and, in those days anyway, it was a God-forsaken place.
ATC in the Soviet Union/CIS was in those days a very hit and miss affair. They could parrot instructions in English, but could not engage in any dialogue. We managed somehow to find our way roughly down the airways (this was pre GPS and very few navaids worked) and descended towards where we hoped Aktyubinsk would be. Having been to that part of the world a couple of times before, I knew the big trick that they played on you, which is to clear you to descend on the ILS to only 2500’ and then change you to TWR, so I knew to report at 2500’ at 3500’, so that we could have onward clearance by the time we reached 2500’.
We were cleared to land, but we could see objects on the runway. We went around but stayed low, to see that we were scattering (presumably wild) horses from the runway. That would have been interesting at night or in poor visibility!
We were more than a little nervous about how we were going to communicate with the ramp personnel. I opened the stairs and was greeted by a very imposing looking officer in one of those high Soviet peaked caps they loved to wear. I was all ready with my phonetic phrase book, but he said, in nearly accent free English, “Good afternoon, gentlemen, my name is Sergei and I will be helping you while you are here.” We just gawped in surprise, but he explained that he had studied ATC at Bournemouth for several years. Sergei provided tea and jam in his office while the aircraft was refuelled and we were soon on our way to Alma Ata.
By this point, communication with ATC was non-existent. They cleared us to a three letter code, but that point, or navaid, was not on our charts and we had no idea what was expected of us. Time and time again we sought clarification, but all they could do was repeat the expression “route direct to XYZ” We just gave up and set a direct track for Alma Ata. But, again, there were no working navaids, so we simply pointed the weather radar at the ground (we were above cloud) and picked out water features and matched them to the chart to get an idea of where we were. It must have worked, as we eventually picked up the VOR at Alma Ata.
Having despatched our passengers, we stood waiting at the aircraft for fuel and got chatting to an Aeroflot crew. We gave them chocolate for their children and they went scurrying back to their aircraft to give us gifts in return, presumably from their catering. Two whole, stinking, ungutted fish in newspaper and two pears more brown than green. We thanked them effusively wondering how quickly we could bin them.
Alma Ata was one of only two places on our trip where we were accommodated in a hotel (as opposed to a government complex). It was unbelievably disgusting, but quite an education. When we got there we walked towards the lifts to guffaws of laughter from people in the lobby – the thought that we might think that the lifts might work was just too much for them!
In my bedroom, my blanket had several patches of apparently reasonably fresh human faeces, and my feet stuck to the carpet as I walked, but the thing that most grabbed my attention was that not only was the toilet flushing continuously, it was doing so with hot water. It did make me wonder how much must have gone wrong with the plumbing for hot water to get anywhere near the toilet.
But in those days, Soviet profligacy with energy was quite remarkable. It was not unusual to see large pipes, maybe 50cm bore, supplying buildings with hot water for heating and washing, and these pipes would run above ground, unlagged for tens or even hundreds of metres, in air temperatures that regularly dropped to -50°C.
We were two nights in Alma Ata, and in no way constrained in our movement, so we just wandered the streets, went into the shops and restaurants. I was struck by the beauty and opulence of the place – the opera house, university buildings and parks were stunning – and the contrast with the contents of the shops and restaurants which made our pound stores and greasy spoons seem luxurious.
The other notable memory of Alma Ata was that I was the only person who had remembered to bring a SW radio, and I was made responsible for monitoring BBC World Service for signs of conflict between the states we were visiting. The Nagorno-Karabakh war was raging, Georgia and Armenia were at daggers drawn, and there were several states no in communication, meaning that we could not fly directly from one to another. The situation changed by the hour, but the BBC were fantastic in their reporting and we were able to plan accordingly.
Breakfast in the hotel was quite a revelation as well. The system was that you ate whatever you liked and paid a fixed amount on exit. The three of us proffered a dollar bill between us and they were insistent that it was far too much, when we insisted, they gave us loads of rubber-stamped bus tickets which, it later turned out, were money.
The next day we went back to the airport and I walked to aircraft to undress it while the other guy filed plans. Standing next to the aircraft was a boy – he looked about 12 – with a rifle. He started talking to me, but I understood nothing and kept walking towards the aircraft, pointing to it, myself and the gold bars on my sleeve. He started shouting, but my experience in Africa had been that under these circumstances the best thing to do was to be assertive and confident.
Apparently Kazakhstan is different from Africa.
So, there I was, rifle pointed in my face and a twelve year old screaming “Arrestanoya, Arrestanoya” (or something like that.) It came to me in a flash that this might be a good moment to stand still. This standoff lasted for what seemed hours, but was probably five minutes. Eventually the other two arrived with the handling agent, who explained that it was normal to put an armed guard on foreign aircraft. I was glad that he brought that to my attention.
One of the perks we permitted ourselves, as we were away for a long time, was an occasional call home using the Portishead service. We used HF from the aircraft to call Portishead, and asked them to patch us through to home using the PSTN. The costs were enormous, as the whole call was monitored by an operator, and we had to run the APU, but I had two young babies at the time, and, given the costs of the trip, the odd call seemed worth it.
The protocol was to use one of a number of contact frequencies, continuously giving your position until they had rotated the aerial to you. I gave my position as on the ground at the Russia/China border, which excited them no end as they had never had a call from the ground there before and were very surprised that they could, but in the event the call was extraordinarily clear.
I remember nothing of the flight to Tashkent. It says in my logbook that it was 1h40, at night and I was in command, but more than that I know nothing.
In Tashkent we were accommodated in a government building, in huge, wood-lined apartments, which were clean but very Spartan. There are two abiding memories of that stay. The first of them that it was incredibly hot and the heating was not adjustable, so the windows had to be wide open, and the second that there was a violinist somewhere nearby who practiced Bach the whole night. Normally this would have annoyed me, but he or she played so beautifully that I just lay there and enjoyed it. The playing was of such a high standard that I wonder whether I was hearing one of the greats while still at conservatoire – it wasn’t Vengorov, as he was in London by that time, but it could have been.
We spent the day wandering the markets and streets of Tashkent. Tashkent is one of the oldest cities in the world, but it had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1966 and been almost completely rebuilt in brutalist, concrete Soviet blocks, making it one of the ugliest towns I know, making São Paulo and Heraklion seem really quite pretty.
But Tashkent teemed with life, and the markets were wonderful, full of fabulous fruits and vegetables, cheeses and bread. I fell in love with the sultanas, and bought kilos of them to bring home.
That evening we were piled into minibuses and driven out into the country. I probably should have mentioned that each evening so far in the trip we had been invited to an official banquet, with some food and masses of vodka, brandy and local fizzy wine, with a lot of competitive drinking from our hosts and our struggling to sip and pretend water was vodka. Had we drunk what they were drinking we should have died for sure.
This evening the banquet was to be in a village somewhere in nether Uzbekistan. The journey was over roads so potholed that the minibuses literally had to pick a route through them – I doubt we ever hit 20 mph, so I have no idea how far outside Tashkent we went, but it seemed very remote.
The banquet was held in what I guess was a village hall and the spread was like something out of the Temple of Doom. There were whole birds, baked in their feathers, objects which we were convinced were whole Yak penіs and much more besides. I mentioned that I was vegetarian and a huge, boiled but cold, root vegetable was put down in front of me. I had a bit, but luckily there was loads of goats cheese, bread and sultanas.
One of our issues was that the toilets were quite unusable. The ammonia in the air made it literally unbreathable, and the floor was literally ankle deep in what we could only assume was sewage. Legs remained well crossed that evening.
The long journey back to Tashkent may be a good time to remind readers of the Gameboy. We became world experts on this trip, all three of us. I seem to remember that there were 32 levels of Super Mario, and all three of us, during the course of the trip, managed to get to the end. The downside of that excitement was the dreadful music it made. Just remind yourself here. Is it not sad that I made one of the most exciting, romantic, exotic journeys available in the world at that time and my strongest, most abiding memory is the music of Super Marioland?
The next stop was Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. Here the atmosphere was completely different. We were driven in Zlins with curtains over the windows by men with square jaws and square fingers. I have never seen such fingers. You just had to look at them and you felt them around your neck, squeezing. We were taken to a government compound, shown some bedrooms and were told that they would collect us when they were ready. I suppose we were fed, I don’t remember, I just remember hour after hour lying on a bed reading and playing Super Mario. Luckily that was just one night and we were off on our way to Dushanbe.
Not having really distinguished Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan, we expected a similar story when we got to Dushanbe, but quite the opposite was true.
Again, we were driven to a government compound, but the next morning we were asked what we would like to do. I don’t know what the hostie did, but we two pilots said that we wanted to go for a walk in the hills. No problem, we were given a Zlin, a driver, a minder and off we set. At one point the two of us caught each other's eye and giggled. Every gauge on the Zlin read zero, and every single warning lamp was illuminated...full house!
We drove to a little café at the side of a road, and the minder and driver indicated that they would sit there, drink tea and read their papers while they pointed us to a path across a bridge and up into the mountains.
Once we got a few miles from the road, it was as if we had been transported back to the 14C. We came across a village which could have been a set for Edward II or Henry IV. A sewage gutter ran down the middle of the roads, which were themselves only about 4m across. The single story buildings had no glass in the windows, though some had some rough cloth. Those we could see inside had animals and people sharing the same rooms.
The villagers looked at us like we were aliens from outer space. It was as if they hadn’t seen Europeans before. That would be surprising, as we weren’t that far from Dushanbe, and not that far from the road, and, as I said above, there were quite a few ethnic Russians in all the southern republics, but nonetheless they just stood and gawped and pointed.
Most of them were wearing traditional clothes, brightly coloured with thousands of beads sewn on. I guess it’s possible that we happened to arrive on a festival day, or a wedding day (it was a Saturday) but the impression we formed was that this was how they dressed normally.
Up to now, almost all the people we had dealt with were ethnic locals. It was in Ashkabad, Turkmenistan, where we saw the first signs of tension between the locals and the Russians, but I’ll talk about that in the second instalment…
Not sent from my iPad.
Sally and I were somewhere in the wilds of western China on a bus heading into Tibet in 1985. Local man gets on board, digs down into his voluminous coat and pulls out a cassette machine.
Presses 'play' and out comes Boney bloody M, Ma Baker or some such tripe. AAAAaaaarrrrrgggghhhhh!!!!!!
Suiting the action to the words
Not aviation related, but about the same time as Timothy's adventure I found myself on a tour bus going through one of the 'Stans. At one point several heavily armed soldiers jumped on the bus and stayed with us for a day and a half. Apparently the last "chiristians" to drive that route had been ambushed and shot !
And when we got to the gig, there was no security barrier. Just a line on the floor with an machine gun equipped soldier at each end of it. It worked.
What does that button do ?
great tale, Timothy. Please keep further episodes coming
[one significant difference between the " 'stans" is that Tajik is a Persic language (cognate to Farsi) while the main language of each of the others is Turkic (cognate to Turkish); and this also reflects the ethnicity and some cultural differences. At one extreme Azeri is very similar to the Turkish of modern Turkey; at the other, Kyrgyz (with Uygur in the neighbouring area of China) is in the original cradle of the Turkic peoples and is a somewhat fossilised 'pure Turkish' (with many fewer borrowings either from Farsi and Arabic through Islam, or from Russian since Soviet days).
Meanwhile Georgian and Armenian are in an entirely different language family, not cognate to any of these.
Of course, each of these nations have significant linguistic minorities belonging to one of the others, as well as a significant accretion of ethnic Russians since Soviet times, especially in Kazakhstan.
A 19thc book with surprisingly contemporary resonance, set in the Caucasus soon after the Tsarist conquests, is Lermontov's 'Hero of our time'; some of the places mentioned were in the news during the Russian-backed 'UDI'/annexation of South Ossetia from Georgia not many years ago. The Penguin Classics translation is pretty good for Forumites who don't know Russian]
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