I originally planned to start my Central Asia travels by taking the ferry from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan or by flying to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Tajikistan would be my last stop before heading back to the United States.
However, after my Black Sea ferry nightmare, I quickly scrapped the idea of crossing the Caspian Sea by boat. And the more I thought about it, the more it became clear that starting in Tajikistan, where I plan to volunteer for a month, will give me more flexibility through the rest of my time in the ‘Stans. I need to give my volunteer organization a start date at least a month in advance. If I volunteered in the middle or towards the end of my Central Asia travels, I would feel slightly constrained beforehand due to the fact that I would know I had to be somewhere on a certain date. By starting in Tajikistan, I spend my month volunteering first and then have no other limitations over the next few months.
Trying to figure out how to get from the Caucasus to Tajikistan in June is proving to be tougher than solving a Rubik’s Cube. It is a giant puzzle that doesn’t seem to have any perfect answer. After hours of research, I think I have come up with all possible choices – I just don’t particularly like any of them. And I may be going numb from thinking about it. Do I fly out of Yerevan or Tbilisi? Flying through Russia is too much of a hassle, so do I go through Istanbul or Dubai? Do I save a lot of money and go with a new, unproven airline or do I pay double to fly with a seemingly more reliable airline?
My options are either too expensive, too complicated or potentially too risky.
Process of Elimination
Right off the bat, I had to eliminate a few options. The least expensive flights departing either Tbilisi or Yerevan go through Russia – on Rossiya or S7 Airlines, neither of which really appeal to me. On top of that, several require not one, but two, stops in Russia, which most certainly require a pricey transit visa. Another flight would leave me hanging out in the Novosibirsk airport for 19 hours. Um, no thank you.
I also eliminated a flight out of Tbilisi on Air Astana that would have an 18 hour layover in Almaty. I contacted the airline and they advised that I would not need a transit visa if I didn’t leave the transit area, if my two flights were part of the same ticket and if I had a visa for my onward destination. While that could be do-able, the flight that came up was through Orbitz and appears to be two flights pieced together – when I went to the Air Astana website, I couldn’t book the route as a single transaction. This left me wondering whether immigration officials would consider it to be all one flight. Additionally, I am getting my Tajik visa on arrival at the airport in Dushanbe (the capital). While I will have a letter of invitation, I will not have the actual visa. It is possible I could arrive in Almaty and all could be fine. Or they could ship me off on the first plane back to Tbilisi. Not worth the risk.
Choosing the Lesser of All Evils
So I am basically left with three choices, none of which are ideal, but each of which has its pros and cons.
Choice #1: Fly to Istanbul first, then Dushanbe ($650-$900 total one-way).
There aren’t many cities outside of the former Soviet Union that have flights departing to Dushanbe. Istanbul is one of the few.
Pros: I can fly to Istanbul from either Tbilisi or Yerevan for close to the same price – about $250 (Tbilisi is slightly cheaper, but once I factor in the cost of returning to Georgia, it’s a wash). Istanbul also offers cheap accommodation options in case I get stuck needing to spend the night there.
Cons: There are just two flight options from Istanbul to Dushanbe, one on Turkish Airlines running about $650 (yikes!) and the other on Somon Air, a brand new airline based in Tajikistan. That flight is $399 and only runs once a week so if gets cancelled, I am kind of screwed.
Choice #2: Fly to Dubai, then Dushanbe ($484-$730 total one way).
Dubai is the other city that offers flights to Dushanbe, although not all direct.
Pros: I can fly to Dubai from Tbilisi or Yerevan even cheaper than I can fly to Istanbul – just $180. I also have an old friend currently living in Dubai – not only would it be a great chance to catch up with her, but I would have a free place to stay.
Cons: The best flight option from Dubai to Dushanbe is on Somon Air again – just $304. But, they only run once a week so, as would be the case flying Somon Air out of Istanbul, if the flight gets cancelled, I am stuck for a week. Turkish Airlines could be an option, but the flight is $550 (and involves a layover in Istanbul – I would love for someone to explain to me why this is cheaper than flying Istanbul to Dushanbe direct).
Tajikistan Airlines also allegedly runs a weekly flight, but they do not have an online booking engine and I have not been able to find a travel agent who can help me book with them (or even confirm the schedule and flight prices). And then I discovered a flight on Nationwide Zambia for $348 through Kayak.
Yes, that’s right, a Zambian airline runs a nonstop flight between Dubai and Tajikistan.
A final wrinkle in the potential Dubai route is that my friend there is expecting a baby the first week of July. If the little guy decides to make an early appearance, I likely won’t be able to see her and I won’t have a place to stay – and accommodations in Dubai are not cheap, so it could end up costing me a lot more.
Choice #3: Book a single fight from Tbilisi to Dushanbe ($814 one way).
This is the simplest, but most expensive option. For $814 one way I can fly out of Tbilisi on Turkish Airlines with a short layover in Istanbul before continuing on to Dushanbe.
Pros: Simple. No pricey transit visa needed, no worries about unreliable airlines. Everything on one airline so fewer worries about what will happen if there is a delay.
Cons: One of the most expensive options and I will have to take a day to return to Tbilisi from Yerevan for the flight.
In theory, I like the Dubai option – it is cheapest and it gives me the chance to see an old friend. However, I am starting to lean toward option #3 instead as the least risky. Having a flight cancelled out of Dubai would not only be a pain for me in terms of time and expense, but it would also affect the organization I am volunteering with in Tajikistan and the family that is supposed to host me. My arrival could be pushed back as much as a week and I hate to do that to them.