Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Uzbekistan Airways – worst airline in Asia

I’ve flown on most Asian airlines at one time or another (except those in Indonesia on which only people who believe in life after death dare fly) but today, after a flight with Uzbekistan Airlines from Tashkent to Kuala Lumpur, I concluded that they must surely be the worst in Asia.

I’ve flown on Uzbekistan Airways a few times between Tashkent and Almaty, a route on which they operate old Avro RJ86s – and those flights could only be described as awful – but as that’s a fairly short regional route, it probably wouldn’t have been fair to rate them as the worst in Asia based on just those flights. But today’s flight was my first long haul one with Uzbekistan Airways – and it will definitely be the last.

When I got to Tashkent airport, I couldn’t see any planes at the aerobridges – only a dozen or so old Iluyshin Il76s parked some distance away near a hanger:

I prayed we weren’t going on one of those.

I walked around to the other side of the terminal and there I saw an old Airbus A300 parked on the other side of the tarmac. So I assumed that must be our plane – and it was (but I have no idea why they had to bus us out to the plane when the aerobridges weren’t being used – maybe they were just too lazy to tow the plane to the aerobridge).

I was one of the first to board, and whilst we were waiting for other passengers to take their seats, I noticed a pilot in uniform walking out of the cockpit with what looked like a glass of champagne in his hand. I said to one of the flight attendants: “Is that the pilot drinking champagne?” She replied: “No, he’s the pilot who will be flying us back to Tashkent,” and she walked off with an expression on her face that suggested she thought I was impertinent to ask such a question (but she didn’t tell me whether it was champagne that he was drinking).

Even if it wasn’t champagne, I never feel comfortable flying with airlines that take the crew for the return flight on the outbound flight to save the cost of putting them up in hotels at the other end. After a seven and a half hour flight, even if the pilots were able to get some sleep on the way, they must feel very tired after such a long flight, a two hour turnaround, and then another eight hours at the controls to take the plane back. I was glad I wasn’t on the return flight.

We took off at 10.30 am Tashkent time and the flight attendants – who were a surly bunch – served lunch, which was virtually inedible. The locals on board seemed to enjoy the sliced salami and cheese, but as that wouldn’t have been any good for my cholesterol, I waited for the hot dish. That was a mistake because it was so dried up that the peas and corn were black and stuck to the side of the dish, and the chicken was as tough and dry as leather. So I nibbled on a packet of peanuts and dried apricots, and decided to wait until dinner before landing.

After lunch had been served, the flight attendants retired to some empty seats at the back of the cabin, and they stayed there chatting for the rest of the flight. Getting a glass of water was a challenge as they kept ignoring the call button – the only way to get their attention was to take the empty glass to them and ask them to fill it up.

My laptop battery ran out after a couple of hours, and as there was no in-seat power supply, it turned into the most boring daytime flight I had been on, as I hadn’t thought of bringing a book to read.

I tried for a while to watch the movie – it was Episode 3 of Star Wars - in Russian. It did have English sub-titles, but the screen was too small and too far away to read them properly, so I gave up trying to strain my eyes.

The only real entertainment on the flight was a Russian couple sitting across the aisle from me who kissed and hugged the whole flight. She spent most of the flight sitting astride his legs, facing him. It was only when the seat belt sign came on that she would return to her own seat. The guy was constantly groping his girlfriend’s breasts, putting his hands up her t-shirt and down her pants – and none of the other passengers, or the flight attendants, batted an eyelid. Maybe that’s considered acceptable conduct on Uzbekistan Airways. I wasn’t particularly offended by what they were doing – although I’d guess that many passengers would be – I was more amused about what they could get away with on Uzbekistan Airways (they didn’t actually have sex, but they were pretty close to it).

At about 7.30 pm Malaysia time, when we were less than two hours away from landing, and there was no sign of dinner being served (and I was very hungry at this stage) I walked up to the back of the cabin and asked the flight attendants when they were going to serve dinner. One of them looked at me and just said: “No more food.” I told her on any long haul flight over seven hours, there would always be two meals served – or at least a main meal and some light refreshments later, depending on the time of the day. “Not on this plane,” she replied. I said I was hungry, so she agreed to go and see what they had in the galley. With a sulking demeanour, she brought me a dry bun and a packet of jam that she managed to dig up from somewhere.

I am sure there are worst airlines in Africa, but in Asia I doubt there are any worse than Uzbekistan Airways.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Secrets of the Tashkent Metro

After finishing some meetings in Tashkent today, I headed into the city from the hotel on Amir Temur where I was staying to catch up with two Tashkent-based members of TrekEarth that I had been in contact with by email – Natalya Pak and Jon Steane.

We had arranged to meet up at Broadway (Sayilgoh), which was a bit too far to walk, so I decided to try the Tashkent Metro for the first time. There was a station a short distance down the road from the hotel, and I tried to buy a ticket by pointing to the station on the map closest to Amir Temur maydoni from where I could easily walk to Broadway – but the ticket clerk didn’t seem to understand that I was asking the price of a ticket to that station. Fortunately a young woman who could speak English came to my rescue and explained that it didn’t matter where I wanted to go – all I needed to do was buy a token for 300 sums (about 30 US cents) and I could make one journey to wherever I wanted to go on the Metro. All you had to do was put the token in the turnstile to enter the Metro, and after that you could exit anywhere.

I discovered that she would be traveling to the same station as me (where she would be changing trains but I would be getting off) so she rode with me for the 2-3 stops and then showed me the way to the exit that would take me closest to Broadway. I was most grateful for her help because I would have had difficulty reading the Cyrillic script on the signs, and may otherwise have ended up hopelessly lost underground.

On the way, she also warned me not to point my camera at anything because taking photographs on the Metro in Tashkent is strictly prohibited. So I was grateful for her advice on that too, otherwise I would probably have started taking photographs of the stations and getting my camera confiscated.

It was also very pleasant to come across someone so friendly and helpful because on my last couple of trips to Tashkent I had run across some quite unfriendly characters – and that’s not counting the dour airport immigration and customs officers that make you feel like you want to get straight back on the plane you have just arrived on.

I got to Broadway about half an hour before our planned meeting time, so I passed the time taking photographs of the street artists who congregate around that part of town. There was a big variety of paintings on sale – some good, some not so good - and many of the artists were sketching portraits of tourists.

After Natalya and Jon arrived we found a coffee shop in the basement of a nearby shopping centre for a chat. Natalya seemed somewhat concerned that I had taken my camera on the Metro, so it got me wondering what it was about the Tashkent Metro that the authorities don’t want people to photograph. I don’t recall ever coming across another Metro where photography was prohibited – even in Pyongyang you can take photographs on the Metro (in fact the North Koreans are very proud of their Metro) – so what is it about the Tashkent Metro that they are trying to keep secret?

After coffee we went onto dinner at an Italian restaurant called Caffe Perfetto on Chekov kuchasi, not far from the Grand Mir hotel and the Oybek Metro station.

It served good pizzas, and with a glass of very reasonably priced red wine, we sat outside enjoying the cool evening breeze, whilst Natalya and Jon told me about what it was like to live in Uzbekistan.

After dinner, they arranged for a taxi (actually just a private car off the street, which is what most people use in these Central Asian countries) to take me back to the hotel for 2,000 sums. If I had tried to negotiate the price myself, I am sure it would have cost me at least 5-10,000 sums. I remember arriving late one night at Tashkent airport a few years ago and trying to get a ‘taxi’ to take me to the city. I knew the price should only be about US$2 because that was what I had previously paid to go from the city to the airport on a previous trip, but nobody would take me for anything less than US$20. That was until one guy piped up from the back of the crowd: “I’ll take you for two dollars mister,” he said. Before I could reply, the other drivers turned on him, punched him in the face, and then carted him away. I ended up having to pay $20.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Beauty of the Big Almaty Lake

After working most of yesterday in the hotel, catching up with emails, I decided to take a break from work today and head up into the Zailiysky Alatau mountains to the south of Almaty. At the conference dinner on Friday night, the conference manager had offered to arrange for one of his drivers and a translator to take me up to the Big Almaty Lake in a four-wheel drive.

I wanted to leave at dawn to catch the best light, but as Sunday was his staff’s only day off, I felt a bit guilty about asking them to leave too early, so I suggested we leave at 7.15 am.

It was a lovely spring morning as we drove out of town (I took the picture above from my hotel window just before we left), along an almost deserted highway lined with colourful tulips on both sides. After half and hour or so, as the road started heading up into the foothills, it became narrower and quite rough, and soon became so rocky and steep that it would have been passable only by 4WDs.

The distance to the Big Almaty Lake is not great, but the second half of the journey up to the lake – which is at a height of 2,510 m (8,200 ft) – is very winding and wide enough only for one vehicle in many places, so the total journey takes about two hours.

By the time we got to the lake at 9.15 am, the light was still pretty good (I took the photograph below at 9.30 am), but within an hour the best light had gone, so it was good we didn’t leave any later.

The Big Almaty Lake is located in the upper Bolshaya Almatinka river valley, not far from the Kyrgyzstan border, and most of the peaks around the lake are 4,000 – 4,300 metres (13-14,000 feet) high. The scenery is very beautiful – spoilt only by a few piles of rubbish and beer bottles around the shore of the lake (why don’t people take their rubbish with them and leave these places as they find them for others to enjoy?)

I spent about an hour walking around one side of the lake, climbing over rocks and large blocks of ice to get photographs from as many different POVs as I could (I liked the one above the best).

It was cool and crisp at that time of the morning, but not cold, and quite comfortable with a jacket on.

I could have spent hours up there enjoying the peace and quiet of this pristine scenery (there was only one other 4WD up there when we arrived). Almaty had some unseasonal snow last week, so that left a fresh covering on the mountains, and made it even more picturesque. But I was conscious of the fact that my drivers and translator had given up a Sunday morning of their own time to take me up there, so decided to leave at about 10.30 am – just as a few other day trippers started arriving in their 4WDs.

On the way back down to the city, we stopped by a gully across which there was strung a water pipe – but it had a leak in the middle. And underneath there was a massive stalagmite-like mountain of ice – it seemed that the cold air at night was freezing the water as it gushed from the broken pipe, and it was staying frozen during the day despite the sunny weather.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Chinese conspiracy and an urban myth

Tonight I attended a farewell dinner for the conference delegates in a restaurant at Kok Tobe – the hill on which the TV tower is located overlooking the city. On the bus up to Kok Tobe, I was seated next to a Russian journalist who pointed out some of the sights of Almaty as we climbed the hill. He told me that Almaty had been destroyed twice by earthquakes. “That’s the old Hotel Kazakhstan,” he said, pointing to a large grey building in the distance. “That’s a really solid building. It would survive any earthquake. Not like your hotel.” I thanked him for his reassuring words.

Our conversation then turned to a recent trip that he had done to China, and he told me that he had visited 30 cities over 20 days. He said he believed he had uncovered a conspiracy by the Chinese government to inflate their population figures. He said apart from Beijing and Shanghai that he had visited, he didn’t believe that any of the other cities had more than two million people, and there weren’t many people living outside of the cities, because in 20 days of traveling he had seen very few people in the rural areas.

He told me that based on his observations and calculations it was impossible for there to be more than a billion people in China, as the Chinese government claims. I asked him why the Chinese government would inflate their population figures. His theory was that they were doing it to give the impression to the rest of the world that they are bigger and more powerful than they really are.

He said that he had written a story for his newspaper on his return to Moscow about his theory, but the Chinese government apparently wasn’t very happy about it, and they had sent some people from the Chinese embassy to his newspaper’s offices to complain.

He asked me if I believed there were really 1.3 billion people in China. I told him I hadn’t visited as many cities in China as he had, so it was difficult for me to express an opinion. I thought that was the diplomatic way to answer as I didn’t want to offend him by expressing doubt about his conspiracy theory, as he really seemed to believe it.

When we arrived at Kok Tobe, we had to walk a short distance to the restaurant along a path that had a good view of the sun setting over Almaty. Along the way, I noticed a statue – well four statues fixed to a metal seat actually – of the Beatles.

I asked one of the local delegates whether this commemorated a visit to Kok Tobe by the Beatles. She said no, the Beatles had never been to Kazakhstan, but they were enormously popular here like they were throughout the former USSR. She then told me about a secret four-day visit that the Beatles had made to Moscow back in 1968, and that this had resulted in the writing of the song ‘Back in the USSR’.

When I returned to the hotel, I looked the story up on Wikipedia, which said that the Beatles had never made a secret visit to Moscow, and that the song ‘Back in the USSR’ was written as a parody of the Beach Boys hit, ‘Back in the USA’. It described the purported visit to Moscow as “an urban myth that is still perpetuated today throughout Russia and many of the former Soviet republics”. The woman that had spoken to me was only in her 30s – so wouldn’t have even been born when the Beatles were supposed to have made their secret visit to Moscow. Her comments seemed to confirm the Wikipedia report about the story still being perpetuated in the former Soviet republics.

Cake and Kazakh champagne

Today is my birthday. Attending a conference is not a great way to spend a birthday, but I had a nice surprise when I popped up to my room after lunch to grab some papers for the afternoon session.

When I walked into the room, there was a trolley with a birthday cake and a bottle of champagne – compliments of the hotel manager!

Whilst it was nice of the hotel to remember my birthday (they must have recorded the date from my passport details), I wondered whether they really expected me to eat a whole cake on my own. Maybe a meal voucher would have been a more practical birthday gift. Anyhow, I ate the fresh strawberries on top of the cake, and kept the champagne to enjoy over the weekend.

I was surprised to see that the champagne was made in Kazakhstan. How could a country that has such cold winters (40 degrees below) and hot summers (40 degrees above) grow grapes? I thought maybe they imported the grapes and made the champagne from those. However, when I googled ‘Kazakhstan champagne’ on my laptop later, I discovered that vines were in fact being grown in Kazakhstan – and there are currently about 15,000 hectares of vineyards, mainly on the Tien Shan spurs in the Dzhambul, Almaty and Chimkent regions. Amazing.

(Postscript added 27 April: The champagne wasn’t bad either).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Kazakhstan’s traditional music

I am attending a conference in Almaty today and tomorrow, and tonight we were taken to a reception centre called “Dom Priyomov” a few blocks away from where the conference was being held.

The reception was being hosted by the Mayor of Almaty and was a catered dinner for about 300 people - but the quality of the food was nothing short of magnificent. It was the sort of dinner you’d expect in a top five-star restaurant – not something put on for conference delegates. The wines were superb too, but what was also impressive was the entertainment that accompanied the dinner – opera singers, traditional Kazakh music and pop singers – and all top names in Kazakhstan.

I liked the traditional music performances the best, performed by very talented musicians in traditional costumes. I read on a National Geographic website that “The preservation and promotion of traditional music is a highly visible part of Kazakhstan's effort to build a modern nation rooted in a sense of history and national identity.” I hope they succeed because the music is fabulous.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Astana – world’s second coldest capital

When I landed in Astana last night, the first thing I noticed was all the piles of ice along the runway. I immediately thought: “Uh, oh, I didn’t realise it was going to be cold here.” I hadn’t packed anything warmer than a jacket. I had just assumed that by the end of April it would be warm.

When I got to the hotel I looked up the weather forecast on the Internet, and discovered that Astana is the world’s second coldest capital city (after Ulaanbataar). I should have looked that up before I left!

Fortunately the forecast was for fine weather and the next day when I went out it wasn’t too cold. It was nice spring weather – crisp and clear. There were still some piles of ice on some of the roads – apparently from some unseasonal snow that Kazakhstan had experienced the previous week – but most of it had melted and it was a pleasant temperature for walking.

I took an early morning walk along the Ishim River from the hotel where I was staying. There was a lot of building activity going on along both sides of the river. Astana was made the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997 after it was decided that a more central location was desirable than that of the previous capital, Almaty, which is situated in the south-eastern corner of the country close to the Kyrgyzstan border. Almaty is also in an earthquake zone. I expect there were political reasons too for the move, but Astana is certainly shaping up into quite a nice city as can be seen from the pictures below.

There is still a lot of construction going on around the city – in fact many parts of the city are just construction sites. The picture below was taken looking in the other direction along the Ishim River from those above.

These pictures were taken close to the city centre which has grown out from the old part of Astana. Towards the airport there is even more construction going on with Dubai-type skyscrapers and Putrajaya-type government buildings going up. I wanted to go and photograph some of those too, but by the time I was able to organise some free time, a wind had sprung up and it became very dusty. With so much of Astana still under construction, the air gets dusty when the wind blows. A lot of trees and grass are being planted around Astana, so that will help to keep the dust down in the future. Another five years and Astana should be quite an impressive city. It will be worth visiting again then.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A long but lucky day

It was a long day today. I had to go from Kuala Lumpur to Astana, but the only way I could get there was four flights – two with Qatar Airways from KL to Doha and then down to Dubai to connect with an Air Astana flight up to Almaty from where I would get another flight to Astana. I’d originally booked to go from Istanbul to Astana on a direct Turkish Airlines flight, but I had to cancel my meeting in Istanbul last week, and going via Dubai was a much shorter option. However, all the direct flights from KL to Dubai were full, as they usually are if you don’t book months in advance.

The Qatar Airways flight left KL at the ungodly hour of 3.30 am, and each of the next three flights had a connection time of less than two hours – so if any one of those flights was running late, I would be in trouble. I was worried about my bag making the connections too, because Dubai has an awful reputation for losing bags that have to be transferred between flights.

I had window seats all the way, but there wasn’t much to see except a nice sunrise over the Arabian Sea (which I never get bored of seeing from the air) and a glimpse of the high rises in a dusty Doha a minute or so after we took off from there for Dubai (which was also very dusty this morning).

Fortunately all my flights were on time, but when I transited in Dubai the check-in clerk told me that my bag had been incorrectly tagged to Astana (the check-in clerk in KL had done that) as I would have to take it off in Almaty and clear customs there, and recheck it to Astana. I had actually told the check-in clerk in KL that I thought I would have to do that because Almaty would be my point of entry into Kazakhstan and I would be traveling on a domestic flight up to Astana. But she seemed to think I could check it all the way through and clear customs in Astana.

When I got to Almaty, it took quite a long time for the bags to come off, and mine wasn’t amongst them. After all the bags had come off, and I was the only person left in the baggage hall, I looked at my watch and realised that I had only 40 minutes before my flight to Astana was due to leave. I had a choice of going to the baggage office and lodging a missing bag report (which from previous experience I knew would take ages and would certainly cause me to miss my next flight) or abandoning the bag and trying to make the flight to Astana.

I would be returning to Almaty on Tuesday, so I could lodge a missing bag report then, and I had enough clothes in my hand baggage to last for two days (I’d packed more than usual in my hand baggage knowing that there was a risk of my bag going astray) so I decided on the latter option and raced to the domestic departures area. I managed to get there just in time for my flight to Astana – in fact I was the last to board.

When I got to Astana, I saw that the check-in clerk in Dubai was right – there was no customs as it was a domestic flight, so my bag shouldn’t have been tagged through to Astana.

As I was buying a taxi ticket from a kiosk in the baggage hall, I happened to glance over to the baggage carousel where the bags from my flight had just started coming off – and lo and behold, there was my bag!

I thought, wow - this is definitely my lucky day. With all the millions of bags that get lost every year on simple point-to-point flights, mine had defied all the odds and not only made three tight connections between different airlines, it had circumvented Kazakhstan’s customs procedures and made it onto a domestic flight that it shouldn’t have been on, and ended up in the same place as me nearly 24 hours after I saw it disappear down a chute in KL.

Kudos to the Qatar Airways and Air Astana baggage handlers!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Malaysia’s press muzzled again

Since Malaysia’s election last month when the opposition parties nearly knocked the government out of office (and took over government of five states in the process) there has been a surprising amount of coverage in the press about what the opposition parties have been doing.

Previously the opposition was completely ignored by the government-controlled press – unless they were being attacked by a government spokesman.

Many Malaysians have been asking whether the fact that the daily newspapers have been giving more balanced coverage to the opposition parties meant that the government had listened to the people and were now loosening the reins on the previously muzzled press.

Yesterday they had their answer when the government closed down one of the Tamil dailies. The newspaper Makkai Osai was advised that its annual publishing licence was not being renewed. No reason was given.

Today, after an outcry by the Indian community, the Home Minister, Syed Hamid Albar, said it was not true that the permit was not renewed because the daily had published too many opposition stories. (Yes, we all believe that).

One of the English dailies, the Star, quoted the Minister as saying that “each newspaper was reviewed on an annual basis in terms of its contribution to society with regards to nation building and a more united Malaysia”.

Nothing about reporting the news objectively and accurately.

I guess that serves as a warning to other dailies whose licences will be due for renewal later in the year not to step out of line.

An opposition politician was quoted as saying: “The decision is shocking as it comes at a time when the people had clearly indicated through the March 8 polls that they want a new Malaysia where press freedom is a central pillar”.

Yes, that’s no doubt what the people want, but wishful thinking as far as the government is concerned.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ugly hedge fund managers

I’m not an accountant so I don’t know much hedge funds and sub-prime mortgages (except that one has made a lot of people very rich and one has made a lot of people very poor – or at least poorer than they were before) but I was astounded to read on the front page of the International Herald Tribune today that one hedge fund manager in the US, John Paulson, made US$3.7 billion (yes, billion, not million) by betting against mortgages and some of the complex financial products that held them.

Meanwhile, thousands of homeowners in the US (and probably in other parts of the world too) are being evicted from their homes as the banks foreclose on them.

How can someone make US$3.7 billion by betting on mortgages? And the article said that two other fund mangers made almost US$3 billion each by doing the same.

The story went on: “Hedge fund managers have redefined notions of wealth in recent years. And the richest among them are redefining those notions once again. Their unprecedented and growing affluence underscores the gaping inequality between the millions of Americans facing stagnating wages and rising home foreclosures and an agile financial elite that seems to thrive in good times and bad.”

If hedge fund managers can make over US$10 billion by ‘betting’ on other people’s mortgages (whatever that means – I really don’t understand how you can ‘bet’ on a mortgage), then doesn’t that suggest something is wrong with the system?

I do know enough about accounting to know that debits must equal credits, so if their funds have been credited to the tune of US$10 billion, then someone else’s (or many someones) must have been debited the same amount.

But they have earned that for doing what? Nothing it seems except placing a bet.

The Chief Investment Officer of the bond fund Pimco, William Gross, was quoted in the story as saying: “There is nothing wrong with it – it’s not illegal.”

He added: “But it’s ugly.”

It’s more than ugly – it’s obscene.

With so many millions of people starving in the world, trying to survive from one day to another on a dollar a day or less, these hedge fund managers are making more money in an hour than most people make in a lifetime.

Friday, April 11, 2008

“No pathetic excuses – kill the bastards”

South Africa's deputy Security Minister Susan Shabangu made headlines around the world today with her instructions to Pretoria police to "kill the bastards" – referring to the criminals in her country.

"You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or your community," Ms Shabangu is reported to have said to a crime rally – to which she received a standing ovation.

"You must not worry about the regulations. I want no warning shots. You have one shot, and it must be a kill shot," she told the police.

"I won't tolerate any pathetic excuses for you not being able to deal with crime. You have been given guns, now use them," she added.

I knew crime had gotten out of hand in South Africa, but I wondered how bad it had become to drive a government minister to make those sorts of comments – which in most parts of the world would outrage human rights activists.

Some quick research on the Internet revealed that, averaged over the past five years, there have been about 40 murders per 100,000 population in South Africa, compared to 1.7 per 100,000 in Australia and 2.7 per 100,000 in Malaysia – the two countries with which I am most familiar.

That’s a shocking statistic, and makes South Africa the murder capital of the world.

Of course, if you are a resident of Baghdad, you’ve got more chance of being killed there than in South Africa, but to include countries where there is a war or insurgency waging would be misleading (although interestingly the homicide rates that I saw quoted for Iraq on the Internet were less than double that of South Africa’s ‘peacetime’ rates).

(A few data sources also put Colombia’s murder rate slightly above South Africa’s but most have it at around 38 per 100,000, giving Colombia the number two spot).

South Africa has a population of about 44 million, so that means 17,600 people can expect to be murdered there each year.

According to various other statistics that I saw on other violent crimes, South Africa is not only the murder capital of the world, it tops the list for most other violent crimes as well.

I guess many South African citizens would therefore not have been outraged by Susan Shabangu’s comments, but sympathetic.

What is South Africa going to do when the 2010 World Cup is staged down there? Are they going to ask the murderers to observe a moratorium for a couple of weeks whilst all the football fans are in town?