Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Visiting Astana, Kazakhstan's Extraordinary Capital City

Tourists in Kazakhstan are, it may surprise you to know, less than common in November, and Canadian tourists are particularly thin on the ground. The early winter winds show their face in Astana, and the ground, dry and brown, is sheltering for the oncoming deep freeze. Astana’s winters are as cold as the Canadian Prairies, but one doesn’t come here for the weather.

It may seem like a curious place to go voluntarily. A simple cartographer’s dot in the centre of the vast Kazakh plains, in the northern reaches of Central Asia might not seem automatically attractive, but for those with an interest in the peculiar, and believe me, in this category Astana excels, there is no other choice.

It is a new city built on a fairly new, by historical standards, settlement. There has been a small community here for about 150 years, and some 20 years ago, the current Kazakh president, and in fact Kazakhstan’s only president, Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to build a capital city worthy of his country and far from the Soviet trappings of Almaty, the former centre some 1,200 kilometres to the south.

And so he did. With the help of a team of global architects led by the Japanese master Kisho Kurokawa, a futuristic city has risen from the plains. It is part Dubai, part Las Vegas and even part Pyongyang; it is a city of symbols that are purported to link to the Illuminati, Freemasonry and even the New World Order. Its buildings are astonishing, and its scope breathtaking. For more detailed observation, one should find Dr. Frank Albo’s superb book, Astana: Architecture, Myth & Destiny.

As a casual visitor, and I highly recommend taking a guided tour, one can’t help to be mesmerised. 

The Presidential Palace with some flamboyant office buildings.
The city is actually fairly small, and the horizon soon becomes a familiar jumble of landmarks drawing one back to the central core, the Presidential Park. This stretches out on the right hand bank of the river, surrounding the Norman Foster pyramid, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. In the summer it is a place of fountains, springs, flower gardens and coy lovers; in the nip of autumn it is a place for the odd gawking visitor to wonder at the immensity of the Astana Project.

Mr. Foster's Pyramid
Watching a video of the creation of the city is an eye-opening. To see this fairy-tale city emerge from the dusty plain is a miracle; who knew that there were so many cranes in the world, and such an inventory of coloured glass? Who knew that the architecture of 19th century Central-Europe would prove so inspiring to those charged with creating the hundreds of residential apartments? Who knew that there were so many construction companies capable of such massive work in such an isolated location? Who knew that Astana would appear and capture the imaginations of so many.

Leave aside any thoughts of expense and hubris, this city is a statement and visiting is a delight. 

Kazakh people are delightful, welcoming and fascinated that the outside world has taken an interest in them. Unfailingly polite and proud of their country’s achievements (although it must be said that their attitudes toward Borat are complicated and mixed), visitors are made to feel at home. It is an expensive city by Kazakh standards, but not by those of Europe or North America. There are restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets, and hotels abound with optimism. Kazakh food itself is oddly uncommon, although the boiled mutton fat & gristle combination was an experiment too far, and a possible reason for its scarcity in the public domain.

Sightseeing is easy and endless. Simply look up, look out and look around.

Astana is simply full of these views ... monumental and built to last.

Start with The Pyramid, designed by Norman Foster as a global centre for peace, this is an interesting start, and indicative of the effort that has been put into the design of each and every monument and building. From there, the Central Mosque (Central Asia’s largest, and host to a 51 metre dome) and the striking monument to those fallen in war (made out of 63 tons of bronze) and a short step away.

I thought this odd, too
Continuing back past the monument and crossing the bridge we reach the Presidential Palace, a predictably dominating feature at the eastern end of Watergreen Boulevard, a series of parks and monuments leading west and slightly north. It passes the imposing Bayterek Tower, a cornucopia of symbolism and the centerpiece of the city’s monuments. Here, if one reaches the summit, there is an opportunity to place your hand in the Ayaly Alakan, a gilded hand print of the head of state, N Nazarbayev, and make a wish.

Further on lies Lover’s Park and just beyond, the Khan Shatyr shopping mall, another of Norman Foster’s creations. And, it must be said, that while I am not generally an aficionado of shopping malls, this one is terrific. Except, perhaps, on the first day of a school holiday.

Astana is a city of unlimited exploration. The bus system is great (30c per ride), taxis and Uber work well, and the local system of standing by the roadside and hailing passers-by for a modestly priced ride seems terribly functional.

Where to stop? There are museums for everything, vast and richly decorated theatres and opera houses, gardens and public spaces. The only thing that does seem missing is the public.

The population is said to be about 1 million, yet the construction and infrastructure could easily hold twice that number; empty shops and apartments abound, and while it is refreshing to have some personal space in a major city, one wonders how another million or so people will be drawn to live their lives in this mystical monument of the Kazakh Steppes.

I can’t wait to return.

The Bayterek Tower

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Dakar, Senegal; A West African Introduction

Conakry to Dakar
Travelling in West Africa is complex because West Africa is complex. The last leg of my journey wasGuinea to Dakar. This 450-mile leg is as Dallas to Kansas or San Francisco to San Diego, yet we flew over four international boundaries. Had we been on the ground our language would have passed from French to Portuguese to French to English and finally back to French. It is a mosaic of Victorian Europeans’ ideals overlaying centuries of cultural evolution.
a short one-hour hop from Conakry in

So Dakar really came as no surprise.

Dakar, the capital of Senegal
It is not a city built for tourism. With the exception of Gorée Island, there is really not much to recommend the place. It is hectic, dusty, grasping, chaotic and entirely engrossing; it is a city whose purpose seems to be to part people from their money, and visitors are not exempt from this perpetual game. And, in small and blindingly irritatingly small increments, it is very adept.

It starts at the airport. I always get frustrated at airports’ indifference to their arriving passengers. Surely it would not hurt them to advertise the approximate fares to the town instead of leaving the arriving newbies to fend for themselves? But they
don’t, and the first impression of a country is negotiating a cab fare with no idea of the parameters.

Once in town and wandering around, one never feels alone; a light “Bonjour, how are you?” starts a conversation that inevitably leads to a two hundred metre monologue ending with a plea/demand for money. All day long.

Dakar street scenes - the bus stop and an souvenir shop

However, Dakar is active; each square metre is covered by some activity or other. Folks selling furniture, beads, beating panels and recycling indeterminate objects. Some shops are infernos; some stalls sell charcoal while their neighbours offer an astounding selection of small pieces of mixed hardware. Young boys run between shops, women wander gracefully along the street bearing tall piles of goods on their heads and the cars, yes, the cars …. Everywhere and loud.

Taxis honk at every walker in the hope of stimulating a fare; gridlocked drivers lean on their horns in the hope of their sound creating a magical pathway through the traffic. Elderly, bright buses belch fumes and the Serious International Charity Managers pass by imperiously in their brand new SUVs. Movement is everywhere; piles of mangoes jostle for attention with barrows of spark plugs. Piles and piles of second hand clothes shipped from north America bearing the logos of Mid-Western high schools or offering soppy aphorisms like “Every Tear is a Waterfall”.

And the dust. And the sand. Although we are hundreds of miles from the Sahara, the sand gets in when it can and where it can. Small drifts lie apparently randomly, but the tell tale signs of encroaching desert are all around. The wind brings the sand and with it a sense that one day this city too could be overwhelmed by the relentless desert.

The Dakar Fish Market
The shoreline is punctuated by fishing boats and goats. Litter decorates the trees and fences and the odour of inadequately managed life floats in the breeze. And people move; alert and with purpose, other than those who have given up completely or are taking a short rest who move not a muscle. Dakar runs at either 100mph or at a stop.

It is engrossing. Worthwhile. A city like no other I have visited. It feels like a challenge, and one that I think that I have lost, and would continue to do so. To me it is chaos, but to the millions of Dakarois, in its chaos lies uniformity, comprehension and home.

I am glad I have spent some time here, but I am happy to be moving on.

Friday, June 9, 2017

South African Railways; Premier Classe

Private railway travel evokes some rather splendid images; The Orient Express and The Golden Eagle are but two of the companies offering the most luxurious of travel on board their private railway carriages. And wonderful they are too, to which I can attest.

However, the Premier Classe product offered by South African Railways is in a different league altogether, and it is welcome and a most interesting experience.

The bar car - sadly closed when needed after dinner

The operator is Shosholoza Meyl, a division of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa. The product is straightforward; passage between Johannesburg and Cape Town or Durban, with each route operating once or twice per week. The train is elderly; built about eighty 
years ago and the carriages have been refurbished many, many times. With a little imagination, I think, it is possible to catch a hint of the scent of steam trains, unforgettable for those of us who were around in the Days Of Steam. Today they are comfortable, in the way of an older seaside boarding house, and more than serviceable.

The Dining Car - dimly lit for atmosphere
The train is long; seven sleeping carriages each offering accommodation in eight two or four-berth cabins, two dining cars, one bar car and a smoking wagon (at the very back). This seemed a touch over the top for the twenty-one of us that boarded in Johannesburg, but there you are. The train is a set, and all eleven carriages travel together, plus a required and variable number of car-carriers, for a number of passengers use this service instead of driving to the coast.

This operation should not be compared to the Blue Train.

Firstly, the price; passage in/on Premier Classe costs R3,150 (US$250). In comparison, passage on the Blue Train starts at R15,000 ($1,250) in the low season, and R19,000 ($1,500) in the peak. Mind you, the Blue Train starts in Pretoria, thus avoiding the rather dystopian centre of Johannesburg where the Premier Classe originates, and they stop for a glass of sherry at Matjiesfontein on the northbound journey and a quick whizz around the diamond centre at Kimberley on the southbound leg.

The Premier Classe lumbers along.

The Groovy Stools
I rather liked it. My cabin was small but perfectly proportioned, the bed comfortable and the linen fresh. The housecoat, which we were admonished to leave behind, let the side down a bit, but was functional. The room was warm, the lighting good and the electrical supply sufficient to keep my phone in action.

The lounge car was pleasant in a dated way. It felt comfortable and familiar, the familiarity that comes with venues of decades of ribaldry and boozing; slightly awkwardly furnished, and too small if the train were full, it would have been a fine place to while away the evening had it been open.

Curiously, it was open as we boarded and were led into the bar car to be offered champagne and a briefing about the trip. It remained open until just prior to dinner, which was served early for some reason, but when we emerged, sated but in need of a night-cap or two at eight o’ clock, it was oddly shuttered.

The food was plentiful, and again, most certainly not The Blue Train, but more than adequate. Three courses at lunch and five in the evening were generous and ample given the lack of recreational space available. The service, it must be said, was generally cheery, although sometimes slightly off key. The wine list was good, with bottles ranging from R80 ($6), but oddly, non served by the glass. Mind you, at those process one could simply order another bottle.

The journey was lovely. Once past the endless, dreary and emphatically-littered suburbs of Johannesburg, and before the same grim outskirts that heralded our approach to Cape Town, thee scenery was lovely, and the light delightful. The evening rolled along as we passed through endless Savannah, with wispy bushes, the dry ochres of winter and a clear blue sky that gradually melted into sunset. By the next morning we were in hillier country that rose to become snow covered mountains on each flank of the valley through which we rattled along.

Evening and morning views from the train

When we woke, vineyards were everywhere; the wealth of this precious commodity there for all to see. Village life, the unfolding countryside and the evidence of the fierce storm that had hit two days previously punctuated the landscapes, and pretty soon we were running late. It mattered little, as for most travellers who choose the train, we are there for the sense of timelessness that rail travel can still offer in this hectic age.

Paradise, our main man on board, kept things going pretty well inside the train, but alas had no control over signals and the speed of other locomotives. Thus, our affection for timelessness was well placed, for we had three bonus hours and an unexpected lunch, and finally rolled into the CapeTown station at about 3.30pm.

It was a lovely trip. It is a perfect way to travel between the great South African cities; not quite a simple overnight train, and yet not quite the ambiance of a private-train. It was a fine hybrid, and all the more enjoyable for the foibles that can only come with eighty-year-old rolling stock, many times refurbished, a multinational passenger group and the warmth that comes from being in the company of staff who are happy to be there, and more importantly, happy that you are there too.

It is most certainly a trip to be recommended and repeated.

The vineyards of the Western Cape

Aeroplan, Air Canada and Aimia: Part II

The Aimia/Aeroplan saga trundles along as it will for some time to come, with a regular diet of smiles and positivity coming to us all from Aimia. This, of course, is to be expected, but there are certain elements of the future that are far from defined, and far from comforting for those of us with a substantial investment in this particular scrip.

Currently, Aimia are promoting a piece written by the respected and well-informed Jeffrey Kwok from his blog This is an interesting and well-informed blog, and he is well versed in the vagaries of the world of points, but I would like to take him up on a couple of elements in his piece.

Nothing is changing this very moment”, is the fist claim, and while he is correct in fact, in practice this claim is a touch disingenuous. With no clear and beneficial future, those of us sitting with millions of points, and there are many folks who have such numbers, are deciding to stop collecting and start using.

Many of these collectors have operated small businesses via a credit card for years, amassing huge numbers of points. These points, allowing for the inevitable inflation, have been earmarked for people’s retirement travel. I know at least four whose collection is over 10 million, and many others with several million Aeroplan points to their name. Now, they feel that they have two years to burn them, and the allocated award space is going faster than usual. One can expect an acceleration as we near the end of the Star Alliance alliance, and this feeling of urgency is a new phenomenon.

“You can still redeem like you did before” is true, but with diminishing returns. Certainly there are “exciting merchandise opportunities”, but unless you have been collecting points in order to get a new barbeque, this is not a really comforting option.

I would not be surprised if Aeroplan finds some other international alliance partner for which to redeem miles”. This is the crux of the whole problem; while I am sure that Aimia will find some outlets, the question is simply at what rate of exchange.

Remember always, that loyalty points are a massive currency with no central bank to back their value.

They, Aimia, are not an airline. As such they have no ability to trade seats with other carriers or groups of carriers as the airlines do. They will become a completely revenue-based loyalty program, and thus will have to buy seats, as the Avion, Air Miles and other non-airline programs do. This will in turn limit the price that they can pay, and any chance of Business or First Class rewards will disappear. And for this collecting Aeroplan in bulk, this opportunity, the aspirational seats, is the sweet spot.

Few collectors care about a low season ticket to Europe that still carries a $700 “service fee”; no, the aim is value, and in this regard the airline plans excel; they are able to trade Big Seats with each other, and not have to assign a cash price.

There will be other options, but until the exchange rate is confirmed, I do not believe that they will be of any significant interest.

“Will I still be collecting Aeroplan Miles? Yes”, says Jeffrey, and I wish him well. However, for those of us with a million miles or more, many are deciding to switch to a carrier where the attractive Big Seat options are available.

And here lies the rub.

As with every business, the 80/20 rule applies. 80% of Aimia’s revenue is generated by 20% of their clients. As revenue is generated by the sale of points to credit card (and other) companies, if the big-hitters stop collecting and change tack, this will hit Aimia’s cash flow very hard indeed. And at that point, collectors will have to start worrying about the longevity of a business who has already lost 65% of its market value.

I feel sorry for Aimia, although they knew that this was coming, or should have done, but there is no apparent Plan B, and serious collectors are now starting to burn their points in earnest whole there is still the opportunity to do so.

Sorry, Jeffrey, but this time I disagree!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Aeroplan and Air Canada

Aeroplan’s slow demise started months ago, and Air Canada’s announcement yesterday that they were going to intervene in their headline program was simply an inevitable conclusion to a slow motion drama. That Air Canada did not own their primary trade-brand has come of a bit of a shock to a lot of people.

First, some background. American Airlines, back in 1981, had a brilliant idea; reward your best customers with free flights. Their program, American AAdvantage continues to this day, but the simplicity of the original concept has been lost in an ever-growing, and completely unregulated, jungle of scrip. Air Canada’s program started in 1984, and has been a powerful marketing tool ever since.

The real benefit of airline points
However, “points” are simply a currency; their value lies in people’s belief that by accumulating them, a benefit will arise. There is no central bank, the closest is an organisation called that for a massive fee will exchange one kind of point for another, and there are no exchange rates. Issuers simply print more and more, and the inevitable inflationary pressure this creates causes the redemption rates to rise rapidly. As more people have accumulated these points by the millions, the liability that airlines carry for their redemption has got completely out of hand, and something needs to be done.

That the system is out of control is indisputable; how a managed deflation will occur without annoying millions of customers is a tricky path to determine. Air Canada have struck the first blow, and are, if fact, to be commended.

The devil, however and as always, is in the detail.

There are two types of points in circulation. The first are those offered by airlines and hotels, and are backed by the promise of access to their (and their partners’) products. One gets sufficient airline/hotel points and one can claim a seat/room. To expand their attractiveness, they join alliances, and thus Aeroplan points were usable on the seats of all of their Star Alliance partners.

The second type of points are the loyalty points that are offered by Air Miles, the TD Bank "Infinity" and RBC “Avion”  programs. These represent money, and are simply individual accounts that a portion of the money gained through merchant fees is assigned for future use by the cardholder. Thus when one has reached a certain spend threshold, say 60,000 points with RBC, one can get a ticket to Europe, but with the caveat that there is a maximum value of $1,300 that is applied to the fare only, and not the taxes/surcharges. In this case, one can see that the value per point is 2.1% - spend $60,000 and get a (maximum) $1,300 value. Other programs are less valuable, some only offering a value of 0.5%.

If you wonder why the value is applied only to the ticket bear in mind that the actual “fare” can now comprise less than 50% of the total cost, and the “fare” often carries a substantial commission from the airline that again lowers the actual cost to the bank.

The difference is significant. Aeroplan is not owned by an airline, it was sold to a private company Aimia to raise money in 2002-5, and now, while the carrier has a management relationship with Aimia, they are not the operator. This is a very significant difference, and one of the factors behind the change, I believe.

While partner airlines can trade seats between each other, Aimia can not do so; and recently, Air China, COPA, Avianca and now Swiss have been blocking their seats from Aeroplan redemption. Will more carriers follow suit, thus further devaluing Aeroplan’s attractiveness? The points’ utility is decreasing, Aeroplan staff have been told to say that “it is an IT problem”, which it is not, and the service is faltering. The currency is devaluing and Air Canada are faced with the problem of how to rescue their loyalty program. Their decision was powerful, and a strong enough signal to cause Aimia’s stick price to drop by over 60% on the day.

The future:

We know little. We have been told that after June 2020, Aeroplan will no longer be the Air Canada (and thus local Star Alliance) program and any accrued points will be the responsibility of Aimia. There will be a new program, but one cannot accrue points in it now, and Aeroplan points will not be transferred into it; difficult if one is saving for a Star Alliance redemption beyond June 2020.

For those many, many people who already have sufficient Aeroplan points to last them for a couple of years, given today’s information, I would suggest the following. Enroll in another Star Alliance program, Aegean Airlines if one wants to travel to the Mediterranean, United Airlines' program for those looking to visit the US, Lufthansa/Swiss for a more global reach and accrue the Air Canada miles on those programs. Switch credit cards to one that offers miles in a known program (MBNA has an Alaska Airlines card that I use, the miles being good for a wide variety of carriers), there is British Airways card available, and the American Express cards offer a few redemption options. There is also, of course, a WestJet card, but this is really only good for travel on their network, and is again, revenue-based.

And wait and see. Having successfully knocked $1 billion off the market price for Aimia by a slight flex of muscle, perhaps Air Canada will simply buy Aeroplan back, recalibrate the program and continue as usual – this would be a fine outcome for everyone. And perhaps they will decide that they can comfortably rid themselves of the massive liability of accrued points by letting Aimia die and move on to a brave new world.

One thing is for certain; one can be pro-active or reactive, and given all of the signals that are currently in the air, I will wait for a week or so and then make my move.

And, at the same time, use up the points that have been stored away for a rainy day.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Passports, Visas and the Paperwork of Travel

Here, in a different spin on the blog, is a conversation that I had with CBC Radio's Nadia Kidwai about the ever-changing rules and regulations about travel.

Not only passport validity needs to be checked, and the requirements vary from country to country, but visas, childrens' documentation and other entry requirements.

Canada's introduction of an Electronic Travel Authorisation a short while caught a lot of travellers by surprise, as did the South African government's introduction of birth certificate requirements for all minors visiting the country.

I nearly got caught as well; I am travelling to Uzbekistan in June and had read in an English newspaper about the relaxation of visa restrictions that were announced in December. I had not read that in January they were reintroduced, and so I need now to get a permit from their embassy in Washington.

Things change, and it is always the traveller who is ultimately responsible for their own paperwork!

You are warned.

I would love to hear from you - do you like the radio links? I do a weekly broadcast on CBC Radio, and am happy to put the links up on the blog ... let me know!