So let’s see….Sharjah Airport. After the manic taxi ride from Dubai we somehow made it there right around 70 minutes before departure…and Air Arabia’s website dictated a 60 minute cutoff for check-in. Oh, and it was 90 minutes with checked luggage…time to pray that the rollerboards wouldn’t be looked upon harshly.
So, if Dubai (and thus DXB) are Las Vegas in the desert, then Sharjah (and SHJ) is, hmm…well I could pretend to compare it to small airports in the southern U.S., but honestly even Memphis Airport looks like a cultural mecca. See, it’s important to know that Sharjah is one of (or maybe the only?) dry Emirate in the UAE…and also by far the most conservative. It’s also where many expats working in Dubai live since the cost of living is much much cheaper.
Anyways…the airport. Get inside, and run frantically over to the Air Arabia counters. Agents are surprised to see us, but when they hear “Kabul” they get surprised…and very friendly. “Are you SURE you are on flight to Kabul?” Yes yes, baggage carry-on no problem, go go, you are fine.
So, with that we’re off through UAE emmigration, no problems at all. Have to give a HUGE ^^^ to the Air Arabia staff. Friendly, efficient, and smiling. U.S. airlines could learn from these guys…and this is a low cost carrier!
On the way to the gate, after passport control, there was a second security check which seemed much more sensitive, wanding everyone, etc. We later figured out this was for “extra sensitive” flights to Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. No worries – better safe than sorry. At this point we were wondering…just why is everyone smiling so much, and why does everyone seem so surprised to see us. Not to mention, the security and check-in extra time theatre seems to be a bit…waived for us to some degree. SOMETHING has to be up.
Through the secondary security, to the gate, boarding pass torn, and then down a staircase into the gate area. Bit strange that the podium was at the top of the staircase, and the holding area/bus gate was downstairs…but whatever. We got downstairs, and that’s when IT hit:
At the bottom of the stairs was the gate area. Probably 40-50 airport-style joined seats, all of which were empty, because everyone was on the floor of the gate area, on prayer mats, praying towards Mecca. We were clearly going to be the only westerners on this entire flight. I guess this is what happens when you leave from Sharjah instead of taking the contractor-express from Dubai! Nothing that felt “off,” however, and even a couple of inquisitive smiles greeted us.
A few minutes later it was onto the bus to the plane, where we saw some of the bag-claim stubs our fellow passengers were holding. Connecting from: Cairo, Tehran, Khartoum, Riyadh….you get the drift. This was definitely starting to live up to the expected “excitement.”
To the plane…and we had booked seats 1A and 1C in the bulkhead for an extra $15 each or so…figuring few people would want to pay extra. Turns out it was a light load of about 70 today, and we were the only ones in the first 8 rows! Score! 1A and 1F it is in that case.
Flight G9 261 (Air Arabia)
Sharjah, UAE (SHJ) to Kabul, Afghanistan (KBL)
Depart 06:00, Arrive 09:00
A320 registration A6-ABH
The flight itself was extremely uneventful. With nobody else in the first eight rows, it was almost like flying first with the extra room of the bulkhead. All food was by payment, and a Diet Coke and Haloumi Cheese sandwich for around $6 was more than worth it.
One other interesting thing worth noting about the flight was the safety briefing at the start. In addition to the no smoking on board, there was a very stern warning about consuming alcoholic beverages on board, warning it would be punished severely under the laws of the UAE. No worries there…I wasn’t about to risk it!
The crew was also interesting, consisting of three eastern european women. I would have expected a conservative airline, on what can be described to be a conservative route, to be at least slightly more modest, but that was not the case. Hair was not covered, full eastern-european-style make-up was in full effect!
After a couple hours in the air, we were crossing the mountain ranges between Iran and Afghanistan, and on a crystal clear day treated to some amazing views of snow-capped mountains. It was an absolutely amazing sight to see!
Soon, we were landing. Nothing at all unusual about the approach (unlike the spiral dive we did into Erbil Iraq (EBL) last year on Austrian) and soon we were on the ground. First view of the Kabul Airport from the plane stairs:
Down the stairs, into a rattly bus, and we were off to the terminal for passport check. There was a surprising lack of security out on the tarmac we thought.
Soon we were at the terminal:
Inside, it felt like the inside of a make-shift building, albeit covered in ads for all of Afghanistan’s finest cellphone companies, begging you to roam on them. At the window, they quickly found the visa which I had paperclipped in my passport, and only one question: “first time Afghanistan” answered with “yes” and a “welcome to Afghanistan.” Funny, I would think they were a bit surprised to see tourists….although at 6’3 with a shaved head, it’s not hard to see how I could be mistaken for a contractor/etc. You’d think the “tourist” visa would have been odd…
Through baggage claim, and to meet our…wait, where’s our driver? 30 minutes later…where’s our driver? Heeding the siren song of the ads, we tried to text him, and to call him, all to no avail. Having read all sorts of online rumours of “Taliban Taxis” which would promise to take you to your destination, only to be held ransom on videotape, we elected to keep trying….
Finally after nearly an hour, his office answered our e-mail. Seems drivers can’t come to the terminal, and you must walk outside about 200-300m to the carpark outside security where we met our driver, and the adventure began!
Next up: Part IV. Touring around Kabul and the Panjshir Valley