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Flying out of Uzbekistan, what could go wrong? Plenty

The plane from Urgench to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Warren Poole

Sometimes things don't go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

Flying Uzbek Airways from Urgench to Tashkent (not a flight you want to check the safety record for) was punctual, fast and entertaining, the amusement supplied by local heavies who happily boarded with passes from another flight altogether.

Since I landed at midnight with a 6 a.m. connection to Moscow, I'd phoned ahead for a room and a cab, which duly dropped me at my backstreet hotel. I went in.

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Only to learn you can't check in here without hard evidence of where you've been staying before. If you've been camping in the Uzbek desert, as I had, you won't have this and won't be allowed to check in.

I called the only person I knew, the taxi driver, who took pity and put me up before returning me to the airport at 4 a.m. I thought that would allow enough time for Uzbekistan's favourite border pastime of multiple, painstakingly itemized customs checks.

Unfortunately, the place was swarming. But I had plenty of time, right?

Wrong. With polite British queuing getting me nowhere, I made like the locals and fought for it, and within 20 minutes had somehow checked in, cleared two customs posts and made the gate. In 10 minutes I'd be on the plane and asleep, right?

Wrong. Two hours later a clearly broken Aeroflot plane was still on the tarmac. Bad sign. A harassed official was vaguely offering a hotel. He sounded hopeful, not for us, but for him – he just wanted to get out of this alive. Very bad sign. Seasoned local travellers were drinking hard in the bar despite it being 8 a.m. Even worse sign. One fell off his chair.

I decided to deal with this myself, which meant passing through customs, the wrong way, without the correct paperwork. A tall Dutchman trying to get home for his own stag night followed suit. We were glad we went early. With time, the angry mob of fellow passengers massing behind was turning ugly. The young (and armed) military guards looked petrified. Really, really bad sign.

We made it through, wished each other luck and I went to rescue my previously checked bags. I was resigned to never seeing them again, but another hour of miming, waiting and smiling, and they were handed over. You try that at Heathrow – no chance.

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Phone calls to my wife found a new flight, while a tour of the airport found a ticket desk. Yes they had space on the flight, yes I could book it, but no they didn't take credit cards, and no there wasn't an ATM anywhere. They did take cards at the airline office eight kilometres away though, if I wanted to go there. For a flight leaving in three hours.

I phoned the taxi driver. He said he'd be 20 minutes. I could have kissed him. Two hours, one trip to town and one ticket later, I was back, elbows out for check in. Now a seasoned Uzbek customs vet, I breezed both posts making the gate with minutes to spare.

The flight may have been an aging 757 and packed to the rafters, my seat may have been broken and the in-flight entertainment may have been an ancient, fuzzy TV swaying precariously above a family of four 10 rows ahead, but I couldn't have cared less. We took off and I promptly passed out. Bliss.

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