On Friday, July 31, Beijing and Zhangjiakou will end a 21-month effort to become the joint hosts of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Those Games will be held February 4-20, 2022, no matter who hosts them. Beijing has a 50-50 chance of winning, as it is competing only against Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, and still that country's largest city.
Now, at the Beijinger, we like to think we know all about Beijing. But we certanly didn't know anything about Almaty. As such, under the guise of a layover on a trip to Kyrgyzstan in June 2014, we conducted our own, unofficial tour to find out whether our fair city stood a chance against this Kazakh upstart.
Given limited time and a limited budget, and in order to provide an apples-to-apples comparison of the two cities, we decided to narrow our field of inspection to Almaty International Airport. This seemed like a good window into the city, as most cities and countries try to put their best foot forward via these main visitor conduits. And with that, we set out to give it a look.
Almaty is six air hours away from Beijing, and is served non-stop by Kazakh airline Air Astana. Like many airlinesfrom newly wealthy countries, Air Astana features new planes and a sharp-looking air crew, which was mostly Russian (the pilots certainly were).
Our inspection tour, which was due to last about eight hours, hit an early hitch: our Air Astana flight was delayed 2.5 hours on the ground. Uh oh. Although a second, shorter inspection was scheduled on the way back from Kyrgyzstan, we expected this first round would be most decisive.
After our unexpected delay we were airborne. As airlines go, Air Astana was nice enough that we'd fly them elsewhere, if only they served more places we went regularly. Perhaps we've been missing out on more of Central Asia. In any case, except for being a member of Star Alliance and the miles and perks that go with it, if we had to choose between Air Astana and Air China, we'd go with the former. Advantage Almaty.
During final approach, and upon landing, Almaty's Olympic advantage is immediately apparent: snow. Visible from the airport runway. In June. The visuals are pretty good on that one. Advantage Almaty.
Almaty's airport is about the size of Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA)'s Terminal One. So, not very big. This is obviously an area where some expansion for the Olympics would be required (Beijing did the same thing). Still, it's pretty modest for the airport of the largest city of the largest and richest country in Central Asia. Then again, in population terms, "largest city in Kazakhstan" is about the same as "my neighborhood in Beijing." "Over four million passengers trust us every year," the airport's website states. In 2014, BCIA was the world's second busiest airport for the second year in a row, handling over 86 million passengers. Bigger isn't always better, but it would be hard to say Beijing doesn't have a lot of experience dealing with air traffic. And then there's that third airport (Beijing also has Nanyuan) that's being built in Daxing.
Free Internet is available, it's slightly intermittant, but servicable, enough to watch a YouTube video without too much buffering, and the Internet is unblocked. Advantage Almaty.
Offerings at the airport on the departure side are pretty limited. There are three small cafes/restaurants, serving standard international airport restaurant items (noodles, sandwiches, soup), but at very high prices -- about USD 10-15 per person. We stuck with Pringles and chocolate, purchased from the snack stand, which also sells phone cards and Kazakh and Russian magazines. If you were hoping for McDonald's, well, maybe that will come in with the Olympics. Advantage Beijing.
That's about all there is to this part of the airport. The departures lounge is a bunch of plastic chairs with a counter that sells coffee. It has the feel of a third-tier city airport in China, perhaps even smaller. Advantage Beijing.
After this first round assessment, we came away with the impression that while it seems like a nice place, there would be a lot of zero-to-Olympics work to be done for Almaty to be ready to host such a large, international event. We flew out, again gazing upon the nearby snow-capped peaks, looking forward to our return visit a couple of weeks later.
Our second visit was short, but equally eye-opening. The transit lounge of Almaty International Airport appears to be where all of the action is. There's a duty-free area featuring the usual goods, but also some local faves like tins of caviar, and Russian goods like Beluga vodka. The food offerings are quite heavily priced: USD 8 for a slice of chocolate cake, which was pretty good despite the price. Bear in mind that change is given in Kazakhstan Tenge, which makes the renminbi look like the Euro in terms of convertibility and use elsewhere.
However, it's a bit concerning that the most vibrant part of the airport is the transit lounge. That implies that people are coming or going so much as passing through.
Having been at BCIA on Monday, in the longest line at immigration we've ever seen, in "the largest airport in the world" blah blah blah that clearly doesn't operate the world's largest air conditioner, it would be tempting to say "Almaty yeah! Olympic high-five! Woo-hoo!" But it's clear that Almaty is hoping to use a successful Olympic bid as a boost for its infrastructure, a chance to invest in public works that will otherwise take the city years to do (kind of like Beijing after it wasn't awarded the 2000 Olympics in 1993).
As we soared back towards Beijing, it was hard to come to a conclusion other than that Almaty will finish with a solid silver medal. It may be third time lucky for the former capital: Almaty failed to make the shortlist for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and this time has outlasted a group of European challengers, and if it were up almost any other city in the world, it might just end up being the host. But unless the IOC decides it wants fresh blood in terms of Olympic hosts, it appears on Friday we'll be wishing Almaty better luck next time.
More stories by this author here.
Photos: Steven Schwankert/the Beijinger, Almaty International Airport
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