"YOU CAN'T GET TO AKTAU FROM HERE." Travel Journal - 1996 Azerbaijan (Part 2)

Saturday June 15, 1996: Baku, Azerbaijan: I have always felt that Lufthansa airline is a very reliable company. They have a ticket office in the Hyatt hotel, so this morning I decided to see if they would help with the needed flights for the next couple of weeks. Rose Ann, my travel agent, had finally given up on trying to get any flights scheduled from Denver and told me that my only hope would be to go to the airports in the cities where we would be staying and see if I could find the right line in which to stand. But perhaps I could let Lufthansa take care of all our flights now that we had gotten to Baku.

I went into the ticket office, put my travel agent’s card on the desk, and said, “I would like for you to help me secure flights from Baku to Aktau, from Aktau to Almaty, Kazakhstan, from Almaty to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and even perhaps from Tashkent to Andijon.”

The two girls behind the desk just looked at each other. “We don’t fly there,” they said.

“Where?” I asked.

“There,” they replied.

I knew that I had overloaded the system. So I resorted to another approach. I wrote on a piece of paper. “Baku to Aktau as soon as possible.”

“We know where Baku is, but we have never heard of Aktau. Are you sure it is spelled correctly?”

I said, “You are on the west side of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan. Aktau is just across the Caspian Sea on the east shore in Kazakhstan. Do you have a map?”

They brought out a map, and I pointed out to them the neighboring city of Aktau.

“Oh yes, there it is … but Lufthansa does not fly there,” they replied.

“Who does fly there?” I inquired.

“No one. In fact, we don’t think you can get there. We’ve never known of anyone who has.”

“Okay … could you check on your computer and tell me what other airlines might fly into Aktau?”

“We can’t. We only have Lufthansa’s schedule.”

“Okay, how would I find out which airlines might fly into Aktau?”

“Well, you really have to go to the airport and queue up in the line. Maybe one airline would fly to Aktau, but most flights aren’t on Saturday or Sunday, so you could not find out until Monday.”

“Okay, if you, as travel agents, wanted to go across the Caspian Sea from Baku to Aktau, where would you start? What would you do?” I asked.

“Oh, we would never want to go to Aktau!”

“Could I take a boat? Is there a ferry from Baku to Aktau?”

“We wouldn’t have any way of knowing that, but you might check with Azerbaijan Airlines. They schedule things like that sometimes.”

“But Azerbaijan Airlines is closed today, you said. So how would I ask?”

“Well, there is a ticket office in an office building, but you would have to go several kilometers there to find out.”

“Could I take a taxi and get there?”


“Would you please write down on a piece of paper the name of the hotel so I could give it to a taxi driver, and he could take us there?”

“Oh yes. We would be glad to go outside the hotel and tell the taxi driver where he should take you.”

It was a slim lead, but I had to figure out some way to get two tickets for us, or we would spend the rest of our lives in Baku.

The taxi driver took us to the office where the tickets were supposed to be purchased … Wrong place. In all, we went to four different locations before we located the right spot in a downtown hotel where they sold Azerbaijan Airline tickets. At a little cage in the hotel, where the ticket office was located, I asked if Azerbaijan Airlines flew to Aktau.

“Yes, but only on Mondays and Thursday.”

“Okay, I need two tickets.”

“Let me see your passport,” the woman replied. “And if you want two tickets, you will need to present two passports. Oh, I don’t see a visa for Kazakhstan in your passport. I can’t sell you a ticket into Kazakhstan unless you have a visa to get in.”

“No,” I countered, “it is not required that I have a visa to Kazakhstan. I was instructed that if I have a Russian visa into Moscow, I can travel into Kazakhstan for three days without a Kazakhstan visa—and, as you see in my passport, I have my stamps for entering and exiting Moscow.”

“But I don’t see a visa pasted in your passport for Russia.”

I then tried to explain to her not only about the instructions from the Kazakhstan and Russian embassies in the USA but also about how the woman at the Moscow passport control had kept our Russian visas when we exited—over my sincere protests.

To no avail … to no avail. I finally conceded and asked where, on a Saturday morning, I could get a Kazakhstan visa. The woman in the cage wrote down the name of another building in downtown Baku, and I took it hoping she knew what she was talking about. Fortunately I had asked the taxi driver to wait for me while I was in the hotel.

On the way back out to the taxi, I realized that we would also need Anna Marie’s passport. So I had the driver take us all the way back to our hotel to fetch her passport. Then it was back downtown to find the Kazakhstan visa building.

After finding the right floor and the right cubbyhole office, I stated my case to two short men who could hardly speak any English. They both agreed that I needed a new Kazakhstan visa, because even though Russia told us it was not necessary, Kazakhstan was not a part of the Russian Federation, even though they had been a part of the old Soviet Union. The Russians just don’t like the Kazakhs, and they weren’t going to be helpful in any way.

“So,” the men said, “we don’t like the Russians, and we won’t honor what they told you. Besides, it will cost you sixty US dollars in cash for each visa.”

By that time I figured I had already spent too much time and energy on the procedures and their petty country arguments, so I pulled out my wallet and started to take out $120 to pay them.

Then they announced, “But we cannot issue a visa to you without the original copy of a letter of personal invitation from someone in Kazakhstan for you to come to visit on these requested dates.”

“But I sent that letter to your embassy in Washington, D.C., and they informed me that I did not need a visa, so they kept the letter.”

“Too bad—we must have a letter, or no visa.”

Now when the laundry has your clothes, and they say, “No tickie, no laundry.” Then you better find the “tickie.” So back to the taxi and back across town to our hotel for something we could use as a letter of invitation. We were running out of time, as all the government offices would close at 2:00 p.m. I was beginning to think that perhaps we would spend the rest of our lives in Azerbaijan as “missionaries by entrapment.”

Back at the hotel, I dumped all my paperwork for the trip out on the bed and began frantically scrambling through it. Fortunately I had brought the Request for Assistance forms from the three hospitals I would be visiting in Aktau. Somehow I had to get the Kazakh people to allow me to use those forms as letters of personal invitation.

It worked. “No tickie, no laundry … no visa, no medical supplies.” I plainly told the men at the visa office that if I didn’t get my visas, I would see to it that their country would not get my medical supplies. I got the visas and, after another episode, also secured our tickets to Aktau. We will have to work on getting tickets from Aktau to Almaty, Kazakhstan; from Almaty to Tashkent, Uzbekistan; and from Tashkent to Andijon, Uzbekistan, and back to Tashkent another day.

We had tied up the little taxi driver for what seemed to be forever, but he just kept rubbing his fingertips together, smiling a lot about our misfortune and his new fortune. On the way back to our hotel, I had him swing by one last place. I figured that by now we had pretty much purchased his taxi, so it wouldn’t be a whole lot more for one more stop. I wanted to visit the ship that was docked in the harbor downtown where our eye surgeries were being performed.

Project C.U.R.E. had sent two containers of medical supplies to Baku in January. They had already arrived, and much of the supply inventory was already being used. The supplies were to be divided up between a hospital in Baku, an orphanage outside Baku, and the Caspian Sea Vision International project.

The vision clinic had been set up in a rented portion of a big white ship that was docked in Baku.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 2a.jpg

Word spread throughout the two and a half million citizens of Baku that Christian eye doctors would be performing free eye surgeries on about one hundred people from Baku and the surrounding area. The patients would be examined first to see if their conditions qualified them for surgery. Project C.U.R.E.’s donated medical supplies and equipment were utilized in the operating room in the hold of the ship.

When the taxi dropped us off at the ship, I was amazed at the number of people who had shown up for the preexamination.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 2b.jpg

Long lines of people were waiting outside the doorway into the ship. The doctors were averaging about twenty intraocular lens transplants per day. Monday will be the last day that the surgeries will be performed for the present time.

The operations only take place when teams of eye surgeons come from the USA or some other country to donate their services to the area people. The doctors bring along nurses and really set up an assembly-line surgery procedure.

It really is hard to describe the emotions and excitement of the people who are operated on to have their cataracts removed or some other lens correction done and come out of the operation able to see for the first time in years—or in some cases, for the first time ever.

I was really pleased to see that there in the hold of the ship, which had been converted into an operating room, were stacks of disposable supplies that were once in our warehouse in Denver. All our efforts and all our goofy episodes with bureaucratic ninnies finally made sense. Those people in a Muslim world receiving their sight by the healing hands of Christian doctors is what Project C.U.R.E. is all about.

At the ship I talked to Jay Randall, who apologized and said that they were expecting us to arrive tonight at the airport, not last night, and that he had made arrangements for us to be moved from the Hyatt hotel to an oil-company-consortium guesthouse for the rest of our stay.

Anna Marie and I left the ship and made the transfer. Then we ate dinner at the guesthouse and wearily hit the bed.

Sunday, June 16

An oil-company car was waiting for us after breakfast at the guesthouse to take us to church this morning. It was a newly formed church, of course, and they were allowed to meet in a performing-arts theater in the Aeroflot airlines building in downtown Baku. I was quite surprised at the size of the crowd in attendance. The theater was nearly full of mostly young people in their twenties or thirties, and they clapped a lot as they sang with the local praise and worship group.

Following the morning service, Anna Marie and I were invited to go with a group of the church people for an outing at the beach north of Baku. They had rented an old city bus to take us. The driver proceeded to try to get as close to the water as possible upon our arrival. You guessed it … He stuck the bus up to its frame in the soft sand.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 2c.jpg

So while we ate our picnic, and the majority of the group went swimming in the skuzzy Caspian Sea, the hired bus driver and several others had to dig the big bus out of the sand and get it back on the road. It was terribly hot at the beach—probably about 110 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Even though the beach was very dirty and the water was slimy, the beach was crowded with families in junky old cars they would drive up to the water’s edge.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 2d.jpg

We returned to the city about 5:00 p.m., and then Anna Marie and I went with the eye surgeons, Dr. Carlos from Toronto, Canada, and Dr. Howard Harper of Vision International, to the flat of an American couple in Baku from Houston, Texas—Mr. and Mrs. Lelan Callaway. He is the manager of the Azerbaijan International Operating Company, an oil-conglomerate service company. They are very fine Christian people, and we had first met them at the morning church service.

The oil company had taken some of the old Soviet flats and totally remodeled them for housing of the expatriates. The Callaway’s flat was very lovely and had a grand view of the Caspian Sea, the parks, and the buildings of the old city. Their flat was on the top floor and was directly across from where the large white eye-clinic ship was harbored. Lelan Callaway had an oil-company car come to take us back to the guesthouse in time to eat dinner.

We met a good group of oil people who are staying at the guesthouse. Most of them are on a twenty-nine-day rotation system with their companies. They come to Baku for twenty-nine days, return to the US or England for another twenty-nine days, and then return again to Baku. Apparently the money is very good, and the program attracts some top-quality people.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the European and Central Asian countries come in and put money up to develop their resources. This land is particularly rich in oil, and countries like Azerbaijan are already feeling the effects of the influx of money that is being poured in from the West for development.

Jay Randall stopped by our room later this evening to strategize activities for tomorrow and Tuesday.

Next Week: Blind People See Again