Note: This is a true story, happening to me at the moment. I know that the last few posts here have been non-fiction, slightly out of place on what is ostensibly a fiction blog. We’ll just chalk it up to truth being stranger than fiction and leave it at that.
I am currently on a Pegasus Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul, Turkey. I got out of Kyrgyzstan at last, although it was a complicated few days and is a great microcosm of the difficulties of traveling in the time of COVID-19. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kyrgyzstan, but I probably shouldn’t stay there forever.
To be fair, the problem wasn’t necessarily leaving Bishkek. The problem was more getting to somewhere else, but they are two sides of the same 5-som coin and I could not leave until I had somewhere to go.
It started when I went to the airport two days ago, bound for Almaty, Kazakhstan. After the 40-hour trip to get to Kyrgyzstan, the flight to Almaty was almost an afterthought, only about an hour long and in the same time zone. I was running a bit late, but nothing too serious, as long as everything went well.
“Do you have a visa for Kazakhstan?” the man at the check-in counter asked.
“Americans don’t need a visa for Kazakhstan,” I said.
“Yes, they do.” He finally pulled up the airline website where it said that Kazakhstan had suspended visa-free travel for a list of countries, including the US, until the end of the year as a way to cut down on COVID transmission. I was thinking maybe it was an e-visa I could get quickly, just like I had gotten an e-visa in the Baku airport in about an hour one time. But not only did I need a visa, but also another authorization to travel there as well. In short: I wasn’t going to Kazakhstan that day.
I had known that Kazakhstan sometimes changed their regulations quickly, so I had only planned on two days there. However, I had looked specifically for these types of restrictions for all the countries I was going to visit and had not seen any hint of them. No one I had talked to in Kazakhstan knew anything about this either.
The main problem now was that my flight to Mongolia (through Korea) was leaving from Almaty in two days. It was an Asiana flight and since Asiana didn’t fly to Bishkek, I would have to check out in Almaty and check back in, something I couldn’t do without a visa.
So, the challenge became to find a way to Korea in the next few days. I had to get there before the morning of October 29 since there were only about 1 flight a week to Mongolia. If I missed that flight, I wouldn’t be going there this trip.
I went to a coffee shop in the airport and got a coffee and a pack of cookies. It was the evening, but I didn’t want to go back to the city before I knew when and where I could go. My first problem was getting to Korea. I found a route that would take me there on the 27th but it went from Bishkek to Turkey to Qatar and then to Korea. Not ideal, but possible. The main problem was that Korea required a quarantine period to enter the country and since I would be changing airlines, I would have to check out and check in again. So, I wasn’t sure how they would handle that: if I could just stay in the airport or if they would require me to quarantine. None of the explanations on the Korean travel website handled my situation.
I also found out that Korea now requires an electronic authorization form to enter the country. It wasn’t something I would have needed if I just had a layover there, but something I might need since I was changing airlines on different tickets. I did the online application and had to book a hotel in Korea to provide an address there where I’d be staying. The application fee was nine dollars, but definitely worth it if it was necessary.
At that point, I decided to go back and get a hotel for the night in Bishkek since it was clear I wouldn’t be going anywhere that night. I booked a room in the Grand Hotel in the northwest part of the city, as close to the airport as possible.
The Grand Hotel was not particularly grand. It was rated as a 4-star hotel, which was overly generous, but it was also $55/night, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. It had a Korean-love-hotel vibe to it (and not the nice ones) and although I had booked it for two nights, I soon decided only to stay one night (especially after I found that the small shampoo/shower gel bottles in the bathroom were not only old and refilled but also slightly dirty.)
The next day, the first thing I did was go to the closest Aqua Lab to get a new COVID test. It was October 26 and the one I had gotten to go to Kazakhstan was expiring that morning. In the time of COVID, a lot depends on getting a COVID test 72 hours before you will arrive at your new destination. This requires some delicate scheduling, as well as a very fast lab, especially when it’s a long trip.
Unfortunately, I realized as I was going there that I would be leaving the next morning. If it was not possible to get same-day results, I wouldn’t be able to fly, meaning I couldn’t get to Korea in time and couldn’t get to Mongolia. The rest of my trip would have to be cancelled for the sake of a few hours.
But thank God for Aqua Labs. The tests were only about $20 and they could do it the same day. In fact, it was ready about 6 hours later. After I got that done, I took a taxi down to the Korean embassy. I wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be any problems having to quarantine in Korea and I wanted to talk to a person who might know something. After ringing the bell and getting a guard that didn’t really speak English or Korean, I was brought in to talk to a staff member. I was prepared to explain the situation in Korean but the woman there spoke some English. She said it would probably be fine as long as I stayed at the airport and explained that to the people there.
I went back and checked out of the Grand Hotel (only paying for one night, luckily) and immediately went over to the Ramada, where I’d booked a room for the night. It was still cheap by American standards but much nicer and had a desk in the room where I could work. I booked the ticket for the next day and worked on emails for the rest of the day, stopping to walk over to get my COVID test results.
This morning I woke up at 4am and went to the airport. I was the first one in line when they started checking people in for Istanbul, which was probably good. The first question the man asked was, “Where is your Korean visa?”
“I don’t need a Korean visa,” I said, seeing flashbacks to two days before, “but I have this.” I pulled up the electronic authorization on my phone, which had been approved 12 hours after I had submitted it. He took a picture of it and also my ticket to Mongolia and texted it all to the headquarters in Istanbul. And then I waited there at the counter for half an hour. Finally, they said all was well and finally, I was able to leave Bishkek.
Right now, I’m on a plane to Istanbul. I’ll have a 7-hour layover there, then flying on Qatar Airways to Doha, Qatar for a 4-hour layover. Then I’ll head back east to Korea, where I’ll have about a 15-hour layover in the airport. And then, with luck, I will fly to Mongolia. Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia are only one country apart ,but the trip between them will last somewhere over 50 hours.
And that is the reality of traveling during COVID: long layovers, reduced flights and shifting government regulations. But it’s been very productive so far, so I think it will all be worth it in the end.