Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Road to Atyrau

Last Thursday at this time I was just about to land in Istanbul, en route to Atyrau.  I was trying a different route, San Francisco, Chicago, Istanbul for Thursday night then into Atyrau on Friday, arriving at 5pm.

It worked out quite well.  I had booked an hotel close to the airport.  It was not what I expected at all!  Firstly, I tried three taxis before anyone agreen to take me there and like the other three he had no idea where it was.  But he got on his cell phone, driving and shifting gear and swerving in and out the traffic (Istanbul driving is very impressive, I don't often shut my eyes when I am a tourist), and eventually managed to get me there, taking 20 minutes for a 10 minute or less drive. But there was no meter, and his rate was just what the hotel said it should be.  So an honest cabby, gave me my first and good impression of Turkey.

The hotel was in a small wealthy district which I think is called Yeşilköy.  It was an old building, possibly once a large private house, on a narrow sidestreet with only about 20 rooms. 

It looked a bit like a terrace version of Faulty Towers.  The common parts looked like they hadn't been touched in 100 years (including what was left of the once carpet).  However the rooms had been recently refurbished and were clean and comfortable if a bit small.  My only cupboard, a wardrobe, had a footprint of about two feet square, but it was fine for a night and B&B for $60! 

Besides it was very close to the sea shore and there were lots of restaurants along the harbour front.  I went out almost immediately to explore, but it was rapidly getting dark.  I hiked around looking at restaurants and ended up going to one recommended by the hotelier.  It was a small cafe type place with a fish shop attached.  The shop really more an hole in the wall, a few feet wide with lots of different types of fish on display.  Inside the restaurant there were 3 cooks, working like mad, one on a grill, one on the fry pan, and one making up the salads and filling in where he had to.  I really liked the look of the crispy fried sardines which were being cooked in large fry pans, carefully crammed in one layer in a wagon wheel design.  The cook had a centimeter or so of oil in the pan, he fried them crisp on one side, then poured off the fat, held a large pan lid over them and turned his fry pan over so they sat on the lid for a second, until he slide them back into the pan, put the fat back in and fried the other side.  It was all done in a few seconds and I watched him do it many many times over in the half hour or so I was eating.  When finally finished the fish were stuck together like a big doughless pizza.  He then tore it into portions to serve.  So why did I have the sea bass!?

I had to choose my fish by pointing it out to the waiter on the ice in the adjoining shop.  I pointed at a few randomly and making a confused gesture said "good?", and that is how I got to be recommended the sea bass.  I'm not the biggest fish fan, but that fish, plainly grilled on charcoal was fantastic.  The best fish I've had for a long time (even better than the one John Green caught in Bodega last summer...sorry John!).  

However, what made the most impression on me was this little restaurant serving up hundreds of fish a day, with an open air fish shop right next to it, did not smell at all of fish.  That was really impressive, it was all so fresh.

It was rather awkward taking pictures but I had a shot at the restaurant.

I was sitting next to the fellow you can see through the window, left of the tree, with a clear view of the cooks that you can see in the center.  The fish shop is on the left.
In short, Bizim Balik Evi is a restaurant to go back to!

The next morning I had a noonday flight to Atyrau.  However I was awake at about 2am, so went out as soon as it was light to see the seaside in the light of day.  There was a narrow park along the shore with a walkway which seemed a popular spot for morning walks and runs.  There was a light mist which didn't help taking photos but served to add atmosphere to the scene.  I was also able to see the planes coming in to Istanbul airport over the town, showing just how close we were.

I had a good walk, but having been awake for so long was already very hungry so bought an annulus shaped bread thing from a street vendor to keep me going till breakfast. Covered in sesame seeds it was pretty good if a bit on the chewy side!

The taxi to the airport was uneventful as was the last three hour stint on the plane.  Air Astana flies its big wide bodied planes (767s) into Amsterdam, and they are rarely very full.  The Istanbul flight is a smaller Airbus (320) and it was full.  A large group of Kazak musicians were on the flight, and many of them had decided to carry their instruments as hand baggage so the overheads were full of odd shaped music cases as well as the spoils of young Kazak women (that should be girls to be PC here!) returning from shopping sprees in the pseudo-West, and the maximum duty free quotas of the men.  

Trapped in the window seat, I was surprised that the two rather burly Kazak men next to me ordered cokes to drink, but they redeemed themselves by quickly breaking out the duty free vodka and having a few very stiff ones!   I don't think they realised the airline drinks were free.

Atyrau airport was surprisingly busy.  A plane took off just after we arrived and there was also a third plane on the tarmac, but it wasn't doing anything.  We deplaned onto the buses which took us to the terminal building via the peripheral roadway.  The picture on the right is a Google satellite view of Atyrau Airport, the red cross is the terminal.  As you can see the largest plane looks like Russian Tupolev with rear probably.

Immigration and baggage claim called for the usual degree of patience.  After queuing to go through immigration and get photographed and have ones papers stamped, there is the wait for the baggage in the baggage hall, which one steps straight into as one passes through one of the six (three in action) immigration booths.  The baggage hall quickly gets filled up as it is a small room with one fairly short conveyor belt.  Very soon the bags have to be offloaded into piles, as the line into the hall moves slowly.  When people and baggage starts to match up a line forms out of the hall as everyone has to go through a personal search, and their baggage has to go through an x-ray machine.  There is only one for the whole flight so the baggage hall quickly becomes full with people tying to get into the scrum for the exit.  And then there were those musical instruments, now joined by their large companion pieces from the hold!  A few feet beyond the x-ray machine behind a barrier are the waiting greeters.  I could see Sandra waving above the crowd.

Sandra had an Agip "Taxi" waiting and we were soon home (about 15 minutes straight down Satpaeva Road) at here new flat in the Marriott Executive Apartments.

We had about 30 minutes before we walked 20 minutes up the Satpaeva to Champions Bar in the Marriott Renaissance Hotel for a birthday party and a chance for me to meet up with some old familiar faces. 


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