Tuesday, January 09, 2007

In Almaty!

WARNING: Super long post today! You can click on the pictures in this post to see larger versions of them! (I'm trying to jot down thoughts to jog memories later on.)

We're here! It was quite an experience to get here. A smooth one, but an interesting one nonetheless.

Mom and Dad dropped us off at the airport on Sunday afternoon around 4:30. The flight wasn't slated to leave until almost 7pm but we were told to be there early to go through security and to spend a few extra minutes at the check-in counter to see if we could get better seats on all of our flights. Check-in was a breeze and we were sitting in the airport waiting area in about a half hour.

Tomorrow is the OSU/Florida national championship game and the airport was all desked out for it. A few days earlier the traffic at the airport was really heavy and there was a LOT of scarlet and gray -- even when we were there the day before the game and most of the games folks had already passed through. The entire airport staff was very cheerful and even the security personnel were chatting and joking with people as we went through the lines. That NEVER happens. You're usually lucky to get them to smile. Another thing we picked up on was that the screens that display the flight listings had been converted to scarlet and gray color screens as well. Wow. Even the LED signs at the gates that display the flights had extra OSU sayings like "Hang on Sloopy... O-H-I-O".

From Columbus we took a flight to Minneapolis. That flight took about 2 hours and we both got some extra rest on the flight. We thought we would have a while in Minneapolis before the connecting flight to Amsterdam but it seemed to go pretty fast. The guy at the gate said that if we walked to the other terminal/gate we might have 10-15 minutes to spare before we had to go through the international procedures. Not much time, but we had time to grab a sandwich at McDonald's to eat while we waited.

There were no extra security checks to go through other than to show our passports when we checked in at the counter. Other than that, we just waited and got in line when it was time. It's amazing how smooth the trans-atlantic flights were. I figured we would have turbulence while going over the ocean but it was incredibly smooth. The airline staff were also incredible. We ended up sitting in the middle of a row of 4 people. It was a long flight and we tried to sleep as much as possible.

There were mini video screens on the back of the seats in front of us... but mine wouldn't work the entire flight. I glanced at Tom's every now and then, but mostly just slept and listened to my iPod for a short while. I sat the whole flight, but kept stretching my legs and exercising my feet/ankles. Even then, I could feel my feet had swollen during the flight. When I went to put my shoes back on, my normally loose shoes were really tight. The air on the flights is also really dry. Not so good for the sinuses.

We arrived in Amsterdam about an hour ahead of schedule because of the great tailwinds. I believe we touched down in Amsterdam around 11:30am and didn't have to meet our flight to Almaty until 5:45pm for check-in and loading. The Schipol/Amsterdam airport was an interesting experience in itself.

The people there were very nice and there were a lot of different nationalities there. We took a short walk after getting off the flight to find where our next gate was so we knew where we needed to get back to and then we explored a bit. The Schipol airport has a LOT of shopping opportunities and no we didn't buy stuff. We spent the bulk of our time resting in the wireless hot spot area. We sent a short posting to our websites to let people know we had made it that far because we didn't know how soon we'd have internet access in Almaty.

We also had our first international McDonald's experience. (Have you noticed the McDonald's theme yet?) In the upstairs of the Schipol airport is a small food court. The prices were listed in euros but we could order in English... sort of - we did a lot of pointing and panta-miming. We ordered a big mac combo (large fry and drink) and a regular fry and a small drink... and it was about $15! At least they tasted good and the stomach pains went away! After eating, we went to the gate ahead of schedule to hang out and get some rest... and we found out the gate had changed... to the complete other side of the airport! That's okay, we had plenty of time and could use the exercise.

We made it to the gate with over an hour to spare. Fortunately, it was a quiet part of the airport and we took turns walking around and sitting back with the carry-ons. (Schipol offers free carts that you can use in the airport for your luggage... what a lifesaver!!!) As we got closer and closer to boarding time the knots in my stomach started growing. I had done really well until this time. Now the anxiety was kicking in but I was prepared with TUMS! I wasn't in great humor for much of the trip, but started feeling better part-way through the flight.

For other adopting families coming after us: The whole boarding process when leaving Amsterdam was totally different. We had to go through security all over again when they called for everyone to start loading. Basically the same security process as the USA but instead of 1 security area, Schipol seems to do security checks at each gate. They had the same rules about 1 bag of small liquids... like travel sized toothpaste, mouthwash, etc. Nobody else had taken their shoes off so I didn't either... and I got frisked! Oops. The lady was very nice (and very thorough!) but it was painless and we weren't held up long.

Once we made it through security, our passports were checked along with our boarding passes and then we were moved into another waiting room. When the plane was ready for boarding a lady walked through the room and called for families and elderly - who immediately stood up and followed her through the door and they were IMMEDIATELY followed by everyone else in the waiting area. There was no 2nd call for the rest of us to join and people didn't seem to know (or care) what lines were... Even though everyone had assigned seats, it seemed that everyone hurries to get on the planes and don't mind cutting in line to do it.

Fortunately for us, on this leg of the flight, our seats had been changed (when we checked in at Columbus) so that we could sit together on a side aisle. Tom had the window and I had the aisle seat... and both of our video screens worked! The only bummer on this 6 hour flight was that directly in front of us was a mom and her 2 1/2 year old daughter... who whined, sobbed, and cried almost the entire flight. She cried when they buckled her in, she cried before she fell asleep, she cried when she woke up, she cried when she didn't like a toy that the friendly family ahead of them had offered, she cried if you smiled at her, she cried when she didn't like the food... did I mention she cried a lot? Thank goodness for headphones and the video/music distractions!

The neat part of this flight and the previous one was that you could track the flight as we traveled. They had a map on the screen and you could see how far we'd come, what cities we were over and it even stated an approximate arrival time and temperature outside. This was nice on the flight to Kazakhstan because we actually flew directly over Uralsk and even though it was dark out we could see lights, fires, etc. There weren't many lights, but there was a section that we could see a lot of orange flames in big areas and some of them were flickering. I don't know if those were businesses, villages, or what but will ask when we get to Uralsk.

Landing in Almaty was pretty uneventful as well. The airport had a little over an inch of snow and lots of pretty lights. We were the last to deplane and followed the crowd through a long walkway, down some flights of stairs and into another part of the building that basically dumped us into the passport control room where a couple hundred people were standing in a mob (but were supposedly in line to pass through immigration). We grabbed our immigration paperwork and filled it out as soon as we joined the shortest line. A bit later, a nice lady from Holland hopped in line behind us. She was a great distraction, very friendly, and spoke English! She had traveled to Almaty and Tashkent several times to projects for the European universities. She helped me feel better that we were in the right place and following the correct procedures to get through immigration. She also filled us in on a bit of the Kazakh culture and told us what we would need to do once we got up to the immigration window.

Remember, we got in the shortest line??? We were the last ones from the room to get through customs... including a couple dozen that came in from another plane! Oh well, go with the flow. The good part in that was that we quickly found our luggage because there were only a couple of bags left and then as we exited the airport we immediately found our driver, Kirill (or Killio?) Not too many words were exchanged with our driver but he told us the girl from the office was in the car and he grabbed two of our bags and walked QUICKLY to the car while we tried to keep up.

Dilnoza was in the car and very quietly gave me the instructions for our apartment and told us our appointment at the office was tomorrow at noon. (We flew into Almaty at about 5:30am and were through immigration by about 6:30am) So, we had an entire day and a half to kill before our big meeting which is WONDERFUL so we get some time to rest up. Killio took us to our apartment and again, quickly grabbed a couple of bags and hiked up three flights of stairs to help us in. I think he was at the top of the steps and in our apartment by the time I figured out how to pick up my rolling duffle!

We didn't stay up long but went to sleep. We told Dilnoza that we would call the office to arrange for a driver to come pick us up at some point so we could get some food and water for the apartment. We slept until about 4pm when I heard the phone ring... it was Dilnoza worried because she hadn't heard from us yet. We had her arrange for Sasha to come pick us up at 5 to take us to the Ramstore. Sasha is a very likeable guy. He doesn't talk much unless you talk to him first. As Tom says... he's got a good look going, winter pants and coat and long hair with a leather hat/sunglasses attached. I had to run down to get him so he could show us how to lock up the apartment from the outside. Not too hard, but totally different by American standards.

Sasha drove us to the Ramstore and took us in to show us where the money exchange was and how to get into the supermarket. He also pointed out the food court downstairs. Shopping was an experience and Tom found the sheep heads in the meat section right away! We did a lot of looking at pictures on the cans and so far, I think we did okay with buying the right stuff. We bought water, a little pop, bread, swiss cheese, fruit juice, butter, milk (in a box on the shelf), a frozen pizza, ramen noodles, and some ice cream type snacks. We got back to the apartment and ate and as I unloaded groceries I checked out the fridge and oven... fridge/freezer doesn't seal all the way so I'm not sure how cold everything will be and the oven is going to be a puzzle to figure out.

Our meeting with the sister's at the office is tomorrow at noon. There's a good shot we could be on a plane to Uralsk at about 6am tomorrow morning. Other than that, not much going on right now!

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