After 88 days of 90 allowed days in the UAE, it’s time to leave. Jonas and I chose Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan as the next place to go during this pandemic with limited choices. Follow this post for the coming days to see how things are going. Also, the latest date is always on top. Use the table of contents to skip to the date you want to read about. This is a semi-live blog that I’ll update throughout the journey. I’ll add photos once I’m back on my laptop.
Wednesday, 28th of April: Arrived in Bishkek
Too sleepy to write down anything useful. I tried to make it a live blog but heh, I didn’t promise anything. Time to snooze!
Update: I finished it
At the Airport in Bishkek
We disembark the plane and a bus waits for us to bring us the few meters to the terminal. It’s cold outside, but not as cold as expected for a country like this. We make our way into the terminal and everything gets a little blurry with my sleepy head.
We form a queue in some area and we have our papers ready. Jonas guesses that the people at the desk either want to see our negative PCR test or this arrival paper we filled in without error. It turns out it’s the latter and it gets buried in a large stack. Probably no one will ever look at it. And people gave even fewer fucks about our negative test.
Next up was immigration. Another queue. I go first, say здавствуйте, and take off my mask for the photo. I’m fully anticipating to explain why I’m here, but there are no questions, just the stomp of a single stamp in my passport and I’m on my way. Jonas does the same and we move to the next stage.
On the way to the luggage retrieval, there’s a little office for Beeline to buy a SIM card, but they’re closed. We pick up our backpacks at the carousel and stack them on another one of those luggage carts. The MegaCom SIM card booth is open for business, and we’re 90% of the way of buying SIM cards to our liking when Jonas asks if we can pay by card. The answer is no and the ATMs are on the other side. We make it to the other side and get cash from a row of ATMs and repack our luggage. Read how we got and how you can get a SIM card for Kyrgyzstan here:[Link will come soon. Patience, my friend!]
The crowds had dispersed and I didn’t see my favorite passenger again.
Driving to Bishkek and Arriving in Our Airbnb
Once we had our SIM cards, we went to the taxi that the taxi manager had arranged. We were the absolute last people from our flight to leave the airport. We confirmed with him that it’s 600 KGS to our location in the city center. The drive there was fast and felt good with the fresh morning air around sunrise. Everything immediately appealed to me.
We passed a little golden mosque and flat fields. The road signs pointed to Almaty in Kazakhstan as well as Tashkent in Uzbekistan. The pleasant sights culminated in spotting the tall snow-topped mountains directly to the south. The sun rose above the horizon. Everything felt like an option at this moment, even if this wasn’t really true.
In the city, we drive past Lada 1200s and Soviet monuments. Some streets have cables above them for trolleybuses. Everything is green or in bloom because soon it will be May. Bishkek smelled like Tbilisi and Minsk but also had its own scents I had yet to get to know. Our driver hesitates in our street when he sees the potholes, but goes in it anyway after we say that’s apparently where we need to go. There’s a guy in a doorman’s office next to a gate of an apartment complex who looks ready. We take our luggage from the car and pay the driver.
The doorman – a kind fellow – has been expecting us. He tells us our apartment number and the floor, but I’m a little slow with the numbers. He walks us to our apartment and shows us which fob belongs to which heavy door. The elevator plays loud dance music during our ride. At our apartment, I make sure to not set foot in it with my shoes on after a serious-but-funny (seriously funny) incident in Brest, Belarus. This guy didn’t seem to care, though, and after we said it was всё хорошо, he went on his way.
The apartment is absolutely the tits. Even though it was 6:30, I knew enough to decide to extend our stay in this Airbnb. And I have decided I love this city.
Between Tuesday and Wednesday: Flying to Bishkek
After take-off, I spot the shimmering Burj Khalifa one last time. We make a turn the wing temporarily blocks out the bright light of a nearly full moon. It catches my attention that we fly over Umm Al Quwain’s little abandoned airstrip as a waypoint. I catch some last glimpses of Ras Al Khaimah before the food, drinks, and that notorious arrival paper come and there’s a lot of stuff happening. We couldn’t choose our meal, but there’s the choice of a meaty thing or a vegetarian option. We ask for the vegetarian meal, which is mac and cheese. I didn’t know this was so good. Perhaps the USA is onto something.
The arrival paper is extremely outdated; it asks you if, in the last 30 days, you’ve been to China, Japan, Italy, and a few other countries that at one point in the pandemic attracted international headlines in what feels like a decade ago. Bureaucracy moves slow.
No wine, just water. When I look out the window again after filling in my arrival paper, I see the undeniable shape of Qeshm Island’s northeast coast, with Qeshm City as the center of lights across the even brighter Bandar Abbas. That was 2014. Hitchhiking in Iran. It’s time to do something about that.
When we fly over the dimmer parts of Iran, I’m taking a nap with the pleasant shaking of mild turbulence. It’s not for long because my armpit keeps hurting and my fingers are numb. I check to see how we’re flying and see we’re going almost straight north, dodging Afghan airspace. Once we’re on track to Mashhad, things get a little more interesting. We enter Turkmen airspace and there’s sometimes a flame from a petroleum or gas something. I’m feeling that urge to go everywhere, despite knowing that Turkmenistan is truly hard to visit.
Once we’re over Uzbekistan, I really can’t sleep anymore. It becomes clear that we’re not going to fly over Tajikistan at all, which is something I would have expected. I look at the east-to-west orientation of the airport in Bishkek and see that it wouldn’t make sense to fly over Dushanbe or Khujand. We fly over the Aydar Lake, though I didn’t see much there; no shimmery-shine of reflection, no towns. Perhaps it has dried out?
Next, we fly into Kazakh airspace. This is not something I had anticipated, but, again, it makes sense if you look at the orientation of the airport. I’m a little disappointed that we’re not flying over the tall mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan (Pamirs), but alright. We follow our path not over, but west of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. A nearly perfect spiderweb of light appears, with one tower that’s apparently tall enough to actually be three-dimensional from my seat (I later learn it’s the Tashkent Tower, which is a TV tower). By now, Jonas is awake and joins me in staring out the window.
But the vista gets better. When I look out of the window after a brief distraction, there are shiny white mountains to my right. I don’t know the name of this range (edit: Western Tian Shan, Sayram-Ugam NP, Ugam-Chatkal National Park, and Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve) but I can see it’s in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s northern panhandle, and reaches of Kyrgyzstan.
The plane turns eastward over Taraz and prepares for landing. We’re descending and the regular plane commotion begins again with people not understanding why their seats need to be upright. The flaps come out for rapid descent and before we know it, we touch down with a lil’ bounce at Manas International Airport. At 2/3rds the length of the runway, we turn around on the spot and drive back via the runway instead of the beautiful bypass to the terminal building. I’m hoping we can walk to the building without the use of another airport bus.
Tuesday, 27th of April: Packing and Flying
Waiting in Sharjah
Though I wanted to start two whole days earlier, I only began packing for our trip to Bishkek the day of. Not great.
We have a ridiculously long time before our flight. There’s not enough time to get some work done, but there’s too much time to only pack. It doesn’t take that long, after all.
Jonas ordered lunch. “One last falafel sandwich,” he said. I think there will be a place somewhere in Bishkek that does falafel. Ethiopian is one bridge too far, falafel isn’t.
Napping also doesn’t work. Too stressed out. Things will be pretty bad if they don’t let us onto that flight, or if the Kyrgyz authorities don’t let us onto Kyrgyzstan. I wouldn’t know what to do if one of these doom scenarios happens.
Update: I napped shortly and felt worse. Jonas ordered our last Bombay club sandwiches as our dinner at the airport. I took a shower and finished packing when suddenly it was time to go. At sunset, the call to prayer announces we have another 15 minutes to get ready for the airport. Jonas messages our taxi driver. My hiking boots fit poorly because my feet seem to have grown during the pandemic Our taxi driver calls Jonas to tell him he’s here.
DXB Airport Drive
Downstairs, our taxi driver is waiting on the asphalt as many worshippers walk to the mosque. Ten minutes later and he wouldn’t have been able to drive to the front of the hotel because the street and the porch of the hotel are part of the mosque’s capacity.
I drop my backpack in the trunk while Jonas deals with handing back the room keys. When Jonas said “Checkout” to the receptionist she replied “Checkout?!” Followed by an “Ah, you’re 1309.” Glad that one receptionist carried the message to the other. She thought about doing the standard send-someone-to-the-room-to-see-if-it’s-trashed but eventually waived it. Around 19:00, Jonas showed up at the car and we drove off. That was smooth.
But not as smooth as the drive itself. When we drove from Sharjah to Dubai to meet with new friends who’d been to Kyrgyzstan, driving from our hotel to the airport took 20 minutes with minor traffic congestion. But now, the streets were nearly empty. I looked down on my phone to type an update and when I looked up we were there at terminal 3. Ramadan prayer times work wonders for traffic.
Dropping our Luggage
I’d forgotten how fancy everything in Dubai is, including but not limited to the terminals. And departures is way less shiny than the arrivals hall. I guess I’m easily impressed.
I’ve been having pain in my left arm since yesterday and it got worse today. My entire left arm from fingers to armpit feels tingly and numb. It’s distracting as heck and I hope it doesn’t get worse.
In the departures hall, our flight isn’t on the sign. Wrong terminal? That doesn’t make sense. We ask at the help desk. They say we’re in the right terminal and need to go to area 1 to drop our luggage for the Bishkek flight. Then at security before areas 1-999, the guy asks where we’re going and says “Only one person, right?” I look down on our luggage cart and think that doesn’t look like the work of one person. This guy says we need to drop our shit at area 2 because area 1 is for European flights. Hmm…
At area 2, none of the signs say FlyDubai. That’s not per se the issue, but Jonas asks a lady in an Emirates outfit if this is the right place just to make sure. She says this is the right place. We spend five minutes packing our check-in luggage in the damage bag, when another lady in Emirates garb shows up and tells us we need to drop our shit at area 1. Something about there not being a queue at area 1. A social distancing thing? We go to area 1 and queue for a heckin’ long time before it’s our turn.
Jonas shows our negative covid-19 tests to the guy along with our passports and check-in confirmation. No need to show additional health insurance, no need for proof of an onward flight out of Bishkek. My backpack gets designated as odd luggage and Jonas’ backpack goes down the mystery hole. We find a place to sit, eat, and wait for the next step. We’re way too early for pre-covid standards, but not as early as that flight from Malaysia to here when we arrived at the airport a solid 11 hours too early or something like that.
I go to town on my Bombay club sandwich. It’s vegetarian and delicious and you should Google it if you haven’t heard of it yet.
Immigration, Security, Waiting for the Flight at Gate B4
After downing half the sandwich, we wanted to go through security. Only using half my brain, I followed Jonas to some fancy machines that scan your passport chip and match it to your face. The gates opened after a minute of positioning my face in the oval and staring at the light.
I thought this was just an automated check to let you approach security, but apparently, it was immigration. Alas! We didn’t receive an exit stamp for the UAE. Jonas told me he knew such a thing existed and that for certain countries, you’re asked to use the old-school human immigration instead of the automated one. Kyrgyzstan doesn’t give a damn about your UAE exit stamp. That’s good.
Next, we had to do the dance of going through security. Laptops out of the bags, look not suspicious and be ready to take your shoes off. Of course, we chose the wrong line with some fumbling family in front of us who almost broke the machine by putting a fucking stroller through it. My boots beep about 60% of the time depending on how sensitive they made the metal detector. They didn’t beep this time. Jonas apparently beeped and the people at security simply didn’t give a shit. Man, I do like this country.
We walk past the capitalist section to our gate B4 at the very end of the wing. Not even all the lights are on for us. “Bishkek,” it says on the screen in Latin script and Arabic. So surreal. We’re waiting there for a while and I run out of mobile data for the UAE in the middle of uploading something. Not ideal.
An older man with the gait of an insecure duck approaches our area and I can’t help but stare. He’s wearing shorts, a captain’s hat you’d get on a cruise party, and the crown jewel: a tank top with two ladies in red bikinis and not much else. He’s holding an iPhone charger in his hand with European plugs and since we made eye contact, he asks me in Russian if I know where he can charge. After nearly a month of practicing Russian again, I am speechless. So I shrug and off he goes to another person who looks like they could speak Russian. Five minutes later, he returns and points to some corner and says that’s where you can charge.
Our flight is at 22:45, but at 21:40, the party gets started. Someone calls for our flight on the intercom and I make a quick trip to the bathroom, put on my sweater, and turn my single mask into a double mask. They check our boarding passes after a short queue, only to be in another area with seats. Then we need to move to the ground floor level where there’s a door that opens to the buses. Ah, it’s one of these flights without a bridge. I smell fuckery.
While queuing for the next bus to arrive, not all the people find space after coming down from the escalator, pushing each other out of the way. Corona or not, this is quite a hazard in and of itself. But it’s fun to see who will be on the plane with us. I heard lots of Russian, some language I couldn’t identify, and Chinese. I wonder if there are flights – and if they have resumed – from Bishkek to China? They are neighbors, after all. One guy is in a full hazmat suit. Just like the last flight from Malaysia to the UAE, it’s just one guy.
It takes forever for the bus to arrive and once it arrives, it takes forever before we’re driving. People are becoming impatient on the bus. People are falling asleep. Eventually, we get on the road and drive to the northwest end of the runway. That’s right next to the highway between Dubai and Sharjah that we’ve driven a handful of times. Off the bus, we board the plane slowly. I’m filming and a guy approaches me to stop it.
Aboard, my window seat 27F is taken by a guy, who has no problem moving. Suddenly, the all-British crew is much in a hurry to get going. Even though we’d started the boarding process so long in advance, it seemed like we were pushing against the timeslot to depart. The crew communicated in English and Arabic, but not Russian, which would have been more effective in my opinion.
The Russian guy in the captain’s hat looked distraught when boarding a little late. He found his seat somewhere behind us. I know he’s Russian, but I wonder if he might have been happier with some sleeves and long pants.
Monday, 26th of April: We’re Negative, Packing for Bishkek
As the title says, we tested negative. The text arrived very early in the morning. There was a link to the online PDF, which we downloaded. Today, we’ll need to visit a copy shop to print all of that along with our flight things. Jonas also wants to visit the clinic again to pick up a version of the negative test with a “wet stamp”. I’ve heard the word “wet stamp” so often in the last 24 hours that it gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Around 16:00, we took another taxi to Abu Shagara to pick up our hard copies. We asked our taxi driver to wait and let the meter run, which is actually cheaper than taking two taxis because the distance is ridiculously short. But it’s also too hot to walk it in the afternoon sun. Ah, I can’t wait for some sweet relief from the hot weather. Although the forecast for Bishkek also says it will be sunny and hot, just barely under 30°C.
In the evening, we went one last time to Al Jalsah Al Malakiah, which is our favorite Indian vegetarian restaurant in our neighborhood. I told the nice lady that runs the place that this would be our last time here and that we loved the food.
Sunday, 25th of April: Taking a COVID-19 PCR Test
Today we had an appointment at 16:00 at a clinic to do a PCR test. Jonas had read in the reviews that everything is a little more chaotic. Despite booking a specific timeslot, lots of people said that they had to wait for a while. This is very much in stark contrast to the PCR test we did in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to travel to Dubai.
I was very nervous that the test would be heckin’ painful, like last time. But my greater fear is that I do the test, pay good money for it (€35 or AED 150 per person), and it comes back inconclusive. That would be worse. At the time of writing, the entry requirement for Bishkek is that the test isn’t older than 72 hours. Since our flight is so late on the 27th of April, this technically gives us time to do another test on the 26th and receive the result on the 27th. If that would be necessary, which I obviously hope it’s not.
At the Aster clinic in Abu Shagara in Sharjah, there was quite a queue. We received some paperwork that didn’t make any sense because it told us to promise we’d stay at home until the test comes back negative. That makes sense for people who get tested because they have symptoms, not for people who get tested because of bureaucracy. Let the record state that we don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19. Also, we haven’t been in the personal space of people for eight whole days. And the people we met eight days ago were fully vaccinated.
The test itself was… surprisingly unpainful. The doctor only harassed my right nostril and it didn’t go so deep that I had flashbacks of my entire life. Done in a jiffy. Now let’s hope they didn’t misspell Jonas’ passport number like last time, or my name or date of birth or any of that. We would receive the results by text and then we’d need to still get a hard copy of them before showing up at the airport.
In the evening, we went to Ramadan Nights, which is a shopping festival. Upon arrival, there was a mass of people crowding near the door. Was this our first superspreader event? It turned out that the expo center is also a vaccination center – but only for the second shot – in addition to hosting Sharjah’s main Ramadan event. A guy came to the door and yelled “There are no vaccines, only shopping! Go home, yalla!” and then some people left for like five minutes. That’s when we entered and said a phrase we haven’t uttered before: “We’re here for the shopping.”
We’d seen some pictures online of some iftar food event that looked great. But the pictures were presumably from two years ago and there were only five food stands. Besides eating date-flavored camel ice cream (Iris: yuck it didn’t taste like dates at all. Jonas: yum, it’s like salted caramel and tastes camell-y) for the first time, Jonas also hopped on a trend some eight years too late; he bought a fidget-spinner.
Just like how that one pork restaurant in Lisbon that even had brains and testicles on the menu was the direct cause to ban pork from my diet and slowly slide into vegetarianism, this camel milk ice cream made me consider going vegan for good. I was still hungry after this event. So we headed to restaurant Addis Abeba for one last yetsom beyayenetu (which happens to be vegan) one last time. We already know there are no Ethiopian restaurants in Bishkek, which isn’t surprising.
Saturday, 24th of April: Travel Reveal Party
Today, I shared on Instagram and Facebook where we’re going after the UAE. It was a little annoying that I let people guess, but I had fun with it. Some people close to me who I talk to regularly already knew we were going to Bishkek. For others, Bishkek was complete news.
It always makes me a little nervous about how people will react to this. Because for over a year, people have been conditioned to believe that “all travel is wrong” during a pandemic. And people who do go to foreign countries deserve to be dragged, somehow.
But we’re don’t have a home to go back to, nor do we want that; we’re as homefree as we are childfree, and – dare I say it? – petfree. And three days ago, the last tourists were ‘kicked out’ of Malaysia after more than a year of amnesty. Nothing ever lasts. Not the generosity of some countries during extraordinary times. Not even this pandemic.
Some people guessed that it was Bishkek, which was a relief. There are too many country capitals starting with a ‘B’. Seriously. I love how many of the people I’m in contact with via IG and FB are complete geography lovers as well. It’s good to connect.
I am very stressed about finishing blog posts about the UAE before I go. Or in the first week in Bishkek. That’s going to be a little stressful. We will also only have 60 days in all of Kyrgyzstan, which is again 30 days less than the UAE.
Wednesday, 14th of April: We Booked Bishkek
We didn’t intend to book Bishkek a full 13 days before the actual flight. I think it’s only reasonable to book 7 days tops in advance. But we were afraid that the flights would get more expensive, so we caved. We also booked our Airbnb in Bishkek, which is something I’m really looking forward to after 88 days of (apart-)hotel life.