Phil's Travels - Dushanbe, Tajikistan (12.19)
Phil's Travels - Dushanbe, Tajikistan (12.19)
This was another first for me in 2019. My second new country to add to my collection of nations visited in a year. My carrier of choice for this particular adventure was Turkish Airlines, the airline that flies to more countries than any other, including, of course, Tajikistan.
As a global major, I figured the online check-in would be a piece of Turkish Delight. A delight it was not. As part of the check-in process, the website requested visas for both Turkey and Tajikistan. I had obtained my Tajik visa a few days before, as per the excellent FCO advice (apply online via the Tajik Embassy website and a few days later one is good to go with an e-visa). However, as I was due to transit through Istanbul, I had assumed no Turkish visa required. Wrong. The system would not let me check-in without details for a Turkish visa. So, I checked the FCO again and they provided a link to the Turkish e-visa site. There, I quickly filled in my details and within minutes I had a shiny new multi-dollar Turkish e-visa. I managed to insert the visa details with seconds to spare on the Turkish site (it would have timed out 22 seconds later, after which who knows what would have happened).
The Turkish Airlines online check-in service could not have cared less. Even with both visa details fully loaded, the system still would not let me check-in. Filled with dread that I would bumped-off the flight, the following Sunday morning I headed out early to the most boring terminal in the world. I got to the check-in terminal at Heathrow's Terminal 2 hours before lift-off, scanned my passport and received my boarding passes for both legs to Dushanbe within seconds. No visa checks required. Could it be that the Turkish visa data I had input online the night before was working behind the scenes, in the ether somewhere?
Having sped through the formalities (even security was quick), I sat down for a bit and read the papers, only to find the soporific effect of the world's most boring terminal had made me late for boarding. I boarded with no trouble, unlike the lady in front - 33K had been double booked and it took 20 minutes to find the doppelganger an alternative seat. Perhaps Turkish's IT has not kept up with its explosive growth across the planet. That said, at least the service was friendly, food tasty and TV top notch.
At the new Istanbul airport (not exactly a thing of architectural beauty from the outside, but very shiny on the inside), you could have knocked me over with an antique fez. At no point did anyone or any system ask me for a Turkish visa! Not even on the return leg. No Turkish visa checks at all. My stress and multi-dollar e-visa were a complete waste of adrenaline and resources. Clearly the Turkish nation is in need of a few bogus bucks, perhaps to fund their airline's much needed IT upgraded.
Outbound, I entered the gargantuan terminal building at Gate B21 and did not pass through any security or Transfer desk area. A little confused by my unorthodox surroundings, I went to check the boards for my flight to Dushanbe. The gate was not listed yet and because of the strange arrival sequence (no visa check, no security, no transfer area, surrounded by gates and crowds of people boarding through the surrounding gates) I thought I would ask for advice. A lady behind a desk checked her iPhone and it told her that my gate would be B7B, just down the hall. Thus, after a quick speed-walk around the new terminal (taking some 30 minutes; it is big!), I went to B7B, sat down and worked until a stewardess asked me if I was on the flight to Jeddah. It transpired that the Dushanbe flight was never going to leave from B7B. It was going to leave from F7A in about 30 minutes and F7A was about as far from B7B as was possible (the boards suggested the distance was a 20-minute walk, I made it in 10).
At F7A, passengers were sitting and standing in the gate area, so I found a seat and waited with my co-passengers. Within minutes airport staff told over 100 patiently waiting folk to get up and leave the gate area, queue up and re-enter the gate area. What a logistical song and dance. In fact, thinking about it, for its gargantuan proportions, the new Istanbul airport was severely lacking in general seating space for those without specified gates. Perhaps this was on purpose, to encourage passengers to go to the mega mall that forms the heart of this beast, in which the many temptations will no doubt elicit vast expenditure on food and treasures, thus providing additional funds for that IT upgrade.
We landed in Dushanbe at 05.00 local time and the passport queue was long and slow (even slower for those without visas, as they also had to queue elsewhere first in order to buy that missing visa). As I had hand-luggage only, I was out way ahead of Tom (my unbeknownst to me travelling companion, who had had to queue for visa purchase and for passport check). In the crowded arrivals area, I could not see my pick-up, so I peeled off to one side and tried to contact Bob (our client). Without a response, I headed back into the melee in search of a hotel transfer bus. I spotted my hotel and hitched a ride.
The next few days with Tom and Bob and the gang were full of meetings, hotel visits and wondrous food breaks. Each lunch time was a different restaurant serving wholesome local fare. The first evening we went Turkish, delicious, including a very passable lakmajoun (Armenian pizza). The second evening we went German, and that night was peppered with visits to the bathroom. For our final evening, we went local trendy, and had a fabulous salad with aubergine and fish from the local mountain lakes - yum. My other lasting food memory was the veritable all-you-can-eat, constantly refilled buffet of local nuts and dried fruits on the board table. Superb quality, very moreish and delish.
Exploring Dushanbe, it was clear that this capital city had big plans. There were too many building sites to count, each surrounded with the same green hoarding (surely this is the best business to be in in Tajikistan, the green hoarding maker and erector). And the frenzy of destruction and construction was set to spread further and wider, including the demolition of multiple historic buildings on the main avenue (which seemed a pity, for most of these old buildings had a lot of heritage and architectural merit).
At the time of my visit though, Dushanbe was an open, green, low rise city, with a gorgeous main street laced by historic buildings. It is surrounded by distant snow-capped mountains. In fact, 93% of Tajikistan is mountains, and Dushanbe is one of the rare level parts of the county. The local economy was growing and diversifying, but some 30% of GDP was still reliant upon remittances from Tajiks working in Russia (one of the highest proportions in the world). The Tajik people were exceptionally welcoming, especially Bob and the gang. And huge thanks for the souvenirs, which meant my already stuffed luggage was even more fit to bust and had to be checked-in (fortunately we were reunited at Heathrow, warranting a thumbs-up for Turkish - had my visa money been put to good use on new IT already?). Tajiks are very proud of their heritage, and quite rightly so, speaking Farsi rather than a Turkic language and having a literary heritage that predates anything Russian.
Before closing this blog, let me take you back to the beginning. When planning a trip, I always check the weather at my destination to make sure I have the appropriate clothing. So, like a well-travelled explorer I checked the weather app on my iPhone and it advised that the weather in Dushanbe was -17C during the day and -20C at night, with high probability of snow. So, I raided my wardrobes for rarely used winter ware (global warming and all that means most pullovers are now redundant and lost at the back of a wardrobe somewhere). My carry-on case was thus stuffed to the gills with warm clothing (pullover, fleece jacket, vests, scarf, beany hat, gloves, et al). But, what was the actual temperature in Dushanbe? +17C. My winter collection was utterly redundant and a waste of luggage space. Bob and the gang could not believe it when I told them, so I even showed them the app whilst in Dushanbe, and again is advised the local temperature was -17C, cloudy and high probability of snow. The actual weather outside the office window was sunny, blue sky and a very warm +18C. Given the Istanbul airport lady's iPhone sent me to the wrong gate and my iPhone couldn't provide reliable weather info (the BBC had the weather right; note to self: do not use Apple app, use BBC in future), my thoughts re Apple remain firmly valid. Apple? Crapple!
In closing therefore, notes to take note include: do not have absolute faith in Crapple; beware Turkish online check-in visa requests; and Bob will build it.