[Names have been changed for the sake of privacy]
Oct. 1, 1:41 a.m. CDT – In final approach to Frankfurt. Breakfast was served promptly at 12:20, giving me roughly 3.5 hrs of pretty decent airplane sleep. Having a place to put both legs definitely helps. Have I mentioned that I’ve been given no particular assignment for this trip? It’s pretty cool actually. My work trust me enough to just put me on a plane and say “Go. Do.” Now to deliver. I don’t arrive in Astana until 11 p.m. local time and the conference starts bright and early the following morning.
3:20 a.m. CDT – Outside gate for Astana flight. Not open yet. Met an Iranian from New Jersey. A museum preservation scientist. Says no problems going back and forth…. “so far.” It’s a crazy, wonderful world.
3:01 p.m. CDT – Very tired. Must sleep. In hotel. Landed on time at 11 p.m. local Monday night. Visa was no big deal, as it turned out. Made it through customs and found a kiosk with people from the conference. They didn’t know who I was or where I was staying, but were very eager to help sort it out. Which was good. Because I didn’t either! One of them got me in a van. I sat and waited. Not for too long. Then there’s a knock on the door. It’s a man in a suit. It is Nestor, my Russian contact on the ground. He has another man with him. His driver. The two take me out of the van and put me in a Toyota Avalon. We start driving.
Astana from the air at night was like landing on a small island in the middle of the ocean. A clearly defined patch of light in the surrounding darkness. From a car it’s not much different from what one might expect of a capital city that was purpose-built as such less than 20 years ago. Lots of big new roads. Not many cars on them.
Nestor apologizes for not having been there right when I came through the gates. I assure him it’s no big deal. We make a minute or two more of small talk before he says “Chris, there’s something we’d like you to do while you’re here. We’d like you to interview the head of KazEnergy, Timur Kulibayev.” That sounds fine. He then tells me about how he’s a very important man, in line to be the next president, and hasn’t done a one-on-one interview in at least 2 years. It still sounds fine. It’s getting a little kookier to my sleep-deprived mind, but all good.
We chit chat again, then: “OK, Chris. There’ll be two people at the hotel to meet with us when we get there. They’re from Kulibayev’s office and they just want to know what kinds of questions you might want to ask him, what your plans for the conversation are, whether…...” He’s momentarily lost for words. “Whether I’m the right guy for the job?” I offer. “Yes, yes. That. But it’s no big deal. They just want to meet you. So, they’ll be in the lobby when we get there. We don’t have to meet right away. You can go to your room first and put your things down. Relax. Then maybe we meet 10 minutes later.”
Again, it’s OK. I go. Drop. Use the bathroom. Head to the lobby. I get introduced to Nikolay and another man. They offer me tea. I decline. Nikolay is dressed sharply but casually, from a dark palate, like a bad guy in a spy movie. The other guy is in a generic print tee, Euro-fitting jeans, and a hoodie. He looks somewhat ill at ease and is drinking a Red Bull from the can. Nikolay is Kulibayev’s right-hand man. The other guy’s job function is less clear.
Nikolay starts quizzing me. His English is serviceable, and certainly better than my Russian, but every once in a while Nestor intervenes so nothing gets misunderstood. Not just lost in the translation mind, but misinterpreted. I get the sense it’s important this goes well. And not just for me. Questions end for a moment but no-one moves. I survey the table, lean forward and, addressing Nikolay, say something along the lines of the following: “I am conservative by nature. So is my publication. I’m not here to make a name for myself or to embarrass or undermine anyone. I want to do this well and believe I understand what that will require.” Everybody nods and smiles, laughing lightly, as if to say “OK, that’s what we were still wondering.”
Nestor moves the conversation on to plans for the next day, slipping into Russian. I start to make my departure. Before I can get fully out of my seat though, Nestor indicates I have to hold on a sec. “We need an outline of interview topics before the meeting.” OK. Nikolay looks at him like, “aannnd?” Nestor continues. "We actually need them tonight." I look at my watch. It’s almost 1:30 a.m. local time. “Look,” I say. “I came here to work. We’re all here to work. That’s no problem. Will 3 o’clock be OK?” A palpable weight is suddenly lifted from the gathering. Handshakes exchanged with big smiles in place.
The outline’s been turned in. Now it’s really time for sleep.