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Atyrau; Kazakhstan;. My first visit was exactly that. As you gaze at the harsh, featureless alluvial plains that seem distinctly alien, the city suddenly appears out of nowhere. For a moment this reminded me of my first visit some years earlier to Vegas where, after starting to feel sleepy in my car, I blinked to see the city suddenly in front of me, as if by magic.
Unlike Vegas, Atyrau is no weekend playground. The airport is small and a rural backwater. Although a number of improvements have taken place during the last few years including a new runway and the renovation of the terminal building, the airport is still far from being comfortable to travel through.
The runway is too weak for Western aircraft so instead the airport welcomes Soviet built aircraft which were designed to operate at substandard airports. The terminal is one small building. There is a central public area, with a small door to departures, and another to a couple of arrivals rooms at one end. Desolate as Atyrau is, flights are invariably full. Swatting away clouds of mosquitoes at baggage claim with me are a number Filipinos, sunburned Houston executives, unflappable Indians and scented Russians wearing fine shoes and watches.
After the experience of customs and one hour later, we are driven to our hotel. Because of the influx of oil money, rooms at my uninspired top hotel in town, the Renaissance, with its thin walls and bountiful adult TV programming, rent at London prices.
Instead a fixed price should be agreed beforehand which can be difficult unless you speak Kazakh or Russian. Fortunately my knowledge of Russian numbers comes in handy. I am informed that prices often double or triple at night or when the taxi driver thinks he is onto a winner. The best strategy is to book through the hotel and get them to ask how much the fare should be.