After another delay, tired writer gets view of Central Asia

ALMATY, Kazakhstan – Greetings from U-iz-stuck-istan.

We arrived in this central Asian city, part of the former Soviet Union, in the middle of a night. We came for a fuel stop, with hopes we could get out, stretch our legs and search the duty-free shop for souvenir T-shirts. Kazakhstan, we gleefully told each other. Did you ever think you’d visit here?

But alas, our plane was greeted by a pair of unsmiling uniformed men wearing large green hats with shiny black brims. The flight crew informed us that it would be “a real disaster” if we even tried to leave the plane. The co-pilot said there were guards with drawn guns at the base of the stairs.

The green-hatted officers brought a translator who summoned the pilot outside. Questions were asked. Papers were exchanged. A fuel truck lumbered up. Someone brought us ice and offered to sell us liquor, but no, you can’t buy food here. And, slowly, the ground crew began pumping fuel.

An hour passed, 90 minutes. One of the guys in the party started joking about our visit to “U-iz-stuck-istan.” We watched one Soviet-era jetliner arrive and another depart, and noticed there was a Boeing Business Jet parked down the flight line.

Finally, the refueling was finished and we departed, close to two hours late and an hour behind schedule. So much for an early arrival in Japan. So much for my shower and a quick nap. It’s been that kind of day.

Naturally enough, it had started out so upbeat. The weather was beautiful in southern Italy, where we’d spent the previous day visiting Boeing co. partner Alenia Aeronautica. Leaving Italy turned out to be a case of hurry-up and wait, with different officious Italians directing us first to check our bags, then not to check our bags, and then to check them again after all.

We waited in line, we cut in line, finally we got through the line, got our passports stamped and walked out onto the tarmac, a little more than an hour late for our planned takeoff from the aeroporto di Brindisi.

We took off across the Adriatic, flying over Albania, Greece, the Black Sea and then southern Russia. The snow-capped Caucasus Mountains were spectacular; civil-war-torn Chechnya, paradoxically, looks peaceful from the air.

As tedious as it was waiting on the ground there, flight across Central Asia to Almaty was interesting, in a bleak sort of way. From what we could see from the air, southern Siberia is flat and barren. The Caspian and Aral seas are drying up. We could see a long rail line – the Trans-Siberian Railroad perhaps – stretching through the arid plain. Now and then there’s a town, sitting at the center of a web of roads that seem to lead through nothing to nowhere.

For a planeload of aviation geeks, the highlight was flying past Baikonor, the place where the Soviet Union sent its cosmonauts into space. We flew almost directly over Star City, the place where the cosmonauts and launch crews still live, and could see the launch complex through the haze to the north.

“That’s the place,” said Flight International correspondent Guy Norris, “where Yuri Gargarin left the Earth.”

After the Kazakhs in hats finally let us leave, we flew into China. My first impression: It’s dark. There may be more than a billion people living there, but large sections of the country are sparsely populated, and there are few electric lights to see from the air.

But just after sunrise we saw our second historic site of the day. We flew over the Great Wall of China. Even from 30,000 feet it’s impressive, studded with guard towers that cast shadows in the morning light.

After crowding the windows to gawk, we settled in for the rest of the flight across China and South Korea, finally landing at Central Japan Airport, outside of Nagoya.

This is my first trip to Japan, and I’m fascinated. The countryside is beautiful, all rice paddies and lush green and quaint tile-roofed houses. The city is a marvel, huge buildings divided into tiny apartments, with massive air conditioners to cool the air inside while laundry hangs on balconies to dry – in the rain. (It was raining and they’ve got Starbucks. I felt very much at home.)

With all the delays on the way, we had barely an hour to shower and change before starting our work day – a visit to Fuji Heavy Industries, part of an industrial group that includes car maker Subaru.

We drove out to their new suburban factories where we saw our third piece of history. But that’s a story for another day – Saturday in fact – when we look at the three Japanese Heavies.

Herald aerospace writer Bryan Corliss is visiting companies around the world that will place a significant role in creating the Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner.

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