One morning I woke up with a twinkle in my eye. We are going to Kazakhstan, I have found a way, I told my wife. “Sleep! you need some more sleep!” was her exasperated reply !
For the last two years I have had Kazakhstan on top of my list. Every time I started exploring a trip to Almaty and Astana, there were dampeners. The visa process demands an application to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan for visa support / invitation letter. The ministry approves your request and sends a copy to you and another to the Embassy of Kazakhstan in New Delhi. This is sometimes referred as Visa Clearance Number. Needless to say they require everything which is required by either EU or USA or UK starting with tickets, accommodation, proof of ability to pay for the travel, passport copy, leave application approval from your place of work and the charges for the visa. When you show patience for all this, get your visa stamped and reach Kazakhstan – you have to show up at the Tourist Police registration office after specified days to register, with your immigration card which you get at entry.
As we took our morning dose of coffee and I tried again, which dates can we go to Kazakhstan? Amply clear by now that I wasn’t joking and not sleepy, TW (The wife) asked how are we going to do this now and do we have the money? We will do this in $2 and air ticket cost I said. I was happy she did not take me to some doctor that morning. I got along coordinating with the travel agent, get more information on the stay and find out possible leave dates based on work.
Recently, Air Astana which has been flying from Almaty to Delhi for quite a while, started non-stop flights from Astana and in May this year the country started offering 72 hour transit for Indians. What did that mean? We could transit at Almaty for 72 hours with the visa charges, if any, paid for by Air Astana and do the same at Astana. This however meant that we cannot visit just Kazakhstan. We have to go somewhere via Almaty and come back via Astana to stay upto 72 hours at each of the places. Air Astana has started “Stopover Holidays” to promote its hub at Almaty and Astana where the airline pays for transfers and the first night stay is priced at $1 with subsequent nights heavily discounted than market rates. Of the five “stans”, I have been attracted the most towards Kazakhstan. After a lot of research and reading, my plan was to visit Kazakhstan during the tenure of Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan post the Karimov era and this looked the perfect time with Nazarbayev still in power and Karimov dead in 2016. While Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are still difficult countries to travel, there isn’t much in Kyrgyzstan. We also had to look for flights which the two cities in Kazakhstan are connected with and voila! The plan was final.
Delhi – Almaty –Tashkent and Tashkent – Astana – Delhi. TW being a lawyer has taught me some important lessons. One of that is to read all terms and conditions and while the local office in Delhi confirmed that we can use the Stopover holidays in Almaty and Astana but after a thorough reading of the terms and conditions, I realized that one can use it only once per PNR. A solution was handy, we split the PNR, one for onward journey and another for return. Thankfully unlike European or American carriers, the incremental cost for two one way tickets with Air Astana was negligible.
Booking Stopover holidays was a breeze. The efficient website took our PNR and Name and gave us a list of 14 hotels, half of which had the $1 offer for first night and most had the second night for less than $50. This included breakfast and airport transfers. Booking was done for both the cities in less than $100. That’s two nights each in Almaty and Astana. The stopover holidays page also lets you book city tours (We found it expensive and did not opt).
A couple of emails to stopover holidays, hotel, Air Astana and we were all set. Extensive google search resulted in nothing! There was no information on what, how, when, where of 72 hour transit for Indians. Every information did point towards painfully slow immigration in Almaty and it was right!
Cut to Delhi Airport on the day of departure: We informed the staff about Stopover Holidays and the staff sprung in action, taking photos of our ticket and passport to pass it on to their counterparts in Almaty. Indian immigration did not ask questions about the stay in Kazakhstan.
Off we went on Air Astana (48th airline for me).
The view of mighty Pir Panjal range and the brand new aircraft kept us in good spirits until we landed and were bussed to the arrival immigration. A polite and friendly Air Astana staff member gave us copies of a list which contained our travel details. Personal data privacy is yet to reach Almaty. The list contained name, passport and flight details of all Indians who are availing the 72 hour transit visa program for that day.
The painfully slow immigration for 150+ passengers took over 2 hours with 4 counters working simultaneously. It was an average 8-10 mins per passenger and would have been highly appreciated if they had any questions. They had none so I kept wondering what they are doing exactly. Bags already on belt, we came out from Green channel to not see our driver and headed to Air Astana office where the helpful agent organized it. Apparently the driver waited for an hour and left. A case of Air Astana not knowing how long it takes for immigration may be? Hotel check-in was smooth.
When it was time to go back the day after, we waited at the hotel at designated time and when the driver did not turn up for 15 mins, we called for an Uber! Exit immigration asked for another copy of the list of passengers and we were through in the small, dingy security hold area of Almaty.
The return journey started at Tashkent and we wondered how it would be but it was the same. The staff clicked pictures of the booking and passport to pass it on to their counterparts in Astana and the immigration did not ask anything at Tashkent. However as we landed in Astana post mid night and headed to the immigration, nobody had a clue about us. As we asked the policewomen manning immigration queue for information, an employee of Astana airport came to us for helping us out and screamed that we dont have visa! triggering panic on the face of policewomen and then us. No matter how much we travel, we are not immune from such shocks. We were shooed away to the transfer desks where we stood in a long line at the end of which the staff member told us that the list with our names was at counter 23. With 30 counters out there, how would one know where the list is, in a country where nobody speaks English – atleast at immigration points.
Soon we were at counter 23 and the list was there. Astana is better with average time of 5 – 6 minutes and not 8 for immigration. This also meant that we were off the airport quickly. The driver was available this time but the paper which had our name was in his pocket it seems. We headed to the Air Astana office again and they called him, only to see him very close to us. We were on the way to the city in no time with the local radio playing some hindi songs! Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy aa ja aaja aaja and our groggy eyes sparkled.
Astana was a quick gateway to see how a capitalist economy can build grand buildings to continue soviet eta propoganda and while the palaces can be modelled on white house, the residential buildings are still blocks as seen in Moscow.
You will definitely hear more about these places and the airline experience in separate blog posts. Since many have asked about this trip and were astonished to hear the $1 experience, this had to come up fast !
You can read more about Stopover holidays on the Air Astana website or reach out to us from the contact us section ☺️
Img Source: Air Astana website