Sunday, July 24, 2005

Aborted flight

I boarded an Abudujuru flight this evening with my colleague Judith, trying to return from Bishkek to Osh.

“I have a feeling this is going to be a bad flight,” Judith said, as we began to crawl up the rickety steps into the small plane’s belly. The sky was cloudy and drizzling rain.

I always have the feeling that the flight will be bad on Abudujuru and I usually try to avoid it in favor of the slightly better Altyn Air. At least it’s a little lighter and airier on the inside and has steps on the side of the plane.

We squeezed into our seats on the packed plane, tightened our seatbelts, and took off. We had a couple of quick drops and some shaking, but not too much more than usual. We did seem to take some turns though.

Just as I was pointing out to Judith that we were traveling quite low, just above the wheat fields, I heard the thunk of dropping wheels. We were landing, but where?

“Maybe this is Jalalabat,” I said.

“No, we haven’t crossed the mountains yet. Maybe it’s Uzbekistan.”

“That can’t be. Maybe Talas?” I laughed at the idea that we were landing somewhere and had no idea where. I asked the Kyrgyz woman next to me.

“I suppose it’s Osh,” she said. We looked at our watches. No, we hadn’t been in the air long enough.

As we came close to landing, I saw the grey US Air Force planes, solid dark grey cylinders.

“This is Bishkek,” I said. We had returned, but the crew hadn’t bothered to tell us anything.

They got us off the plane, telling us that the weather was bad and we’d have to wait for it to improve.

“Couldn’t you tell what the weather would be like before we took off?” Judith asked the flight attendant. Her Kyrgyz boyfriend was waiting for her at the Osh airport and had traveled a few hours to get there.

Once we got into the airport another passenger announced to Judith, “God saved us.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“The windshield in the cockpit was broken. That was why we turned around. They are out there trying to fix it now.”

We turned to the empty waiting lounge. There, a sign banned smoking and threatened a 100 som ($2.50) fine. Just across from it, an airport employee, dressed in black dress pants and a white shirt, casually enjoyed his cigarette.

For the past several days, I was at a seminar on Issyk-Kul, the famous lake and tourist attraction in Kyrgyzstan. It was a surprising modern tourist complex – a gated area with identical cottages and paved sidewalks that reminded me of a trailer park or the apartment complex I lived in during graduate school. The $70 doubles included hot showers and 3 meals a day.

Piers extended out from the beach to the brilliantly blue water. It was cold upon first jumping in, but soon became comfortable. The water is so clear that even far from the shore, the bottom is still visible. Looking at land from the water, or from the piers, large mountains loomed over the resort, misty clouds dancing among them, light disbursing in particle streams, tying the land to the sky. The lake itself extended to the horizon, a giant sapphire, until it reached the hazy snow-capped mountains dancing with white clouds in the distance.

Most of the time was spent working, but we were able to spend a few hours on a boat, enjoying a picnic lunch and sunbathing as we traversed the shore. We docked at the Aurora, the most exclusive resort in Soviet times, and still one of the best sand beaches. There are very few boats on the lake, but the nascent tourist industry has introduced the first few jet-skis, banana boats and even a parasailer.

On the way out of town, we passed countless tiny roadside stalls, selling sweet and sour cherries, buckets of apricots and smoked fish. Muslim cemeteries looked like conglomerations of little fiefdoms – with each grave resembling a castle or mosque. For much of the way, the lake glimmered as a blue line alongside us. When we entered the mountain pass, where mountain rose straight up on either side of us, we began to follow rushing white-turquoise river waters. Despite rain in the mountain area, we passed two whitewater rafting boats preparing to take a trip. I’m going to look into the possibility of doing something similar next month.

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