Looking at out planet from above is a profound experience. Michael Collins, Apollo 11’s resident philosopher, famously said that looking at Earth from a great distance was the strongest memory of his epic voyage, going on to add that Earth was “blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied. Small, shiny, serene, blue and white, fragile“. My perspective, at some thousands of kilometres lower, is certainly humbler and a lot less complete – you can hardly see the planet’s curvature at 33,000 feet up – but were I to be asked, I’d certainly agree with this stalwart of human exploration.
The commoditization of my flying, and the fact that most of it happens overnight, has been the major factor for my shift from window to aisle seats. There are, however, a few occasions when nothing could drag me out my chair by the transparent Perspex: a morning flight over Central Asia is precisely one such event.
Watching the world from above is a way, for me, to get closer to parts of our planet that have always exerted an irresistible pull over my imagination but that, whatever reason – money, visas, time, money and visas and time – I haven’t been able to visit. The Putorana plateau in Siberia. Greenland. The Sahara desert. The Amazon rainforest. The Congo basin. Baffin Island. The Caspian sea. Even the remote chance of seeing one such place would be enough to make me choose one flight over another and to ponder for ages on which side of the plane to sit.
Take off from Almaty is at silly o’clock. Outside, a few flurries fluctuate to the ground, rear guard of the snowstorm that has engulfed the city for the whole time I’ve been there. We take off and it’s still pitch black, with only the faintest ribbon of red light peeking from the East, announcing the new day.
My plan for an early morning flight backfires. Despite a record snowfall in November, we left on time and, flying westwards, we are losing the race against the Earth’s rotation with, seemingly, the slightest time difference. The bottom line, I realise after noticing that the ribbon of red light hasn’t grown at all, is that we’ll be treated to the longest dawn possible; beautiful, but would it allow me to see the Caspian sea?
Barely. We are cruising in the sweetest of dawns – the sky bathed in red, the vapour of the clouds a kaleidoscope of gold, orange and crimson – and the dance of colours is so intense that I almost miss it. First a small lake, frozen solid, dark against the livid steppe. Then, it’s the Caspian.
The dark inland sea, ice-free thanks to its salinity, laps shores so barren that they could be from another world. Wavelets lap the foreshore and, as far as the eye goes, no one seems to be there to witness it. There are no roads, towns, villages, beach resorts shut down for the season, marinas or fishing ports. It seems that the only ones looking at this stretch of Turkmen shore are myself and the handful of passengers who haven’t succumbed to sleep yet.
The sun eventually rises through the sky, but clouds thicken and the waters of this great sea return, once again, to mystery. But it isn’t over yet; this flight has still another present to give.
Foreign politics, despite Collins’ convincing argument, have reached us even here, in the upper troposphere. Our Ukrainian airliner is skirting around the Russian bear’s airspace, overflying Azerbaijan and Georgia in lieu of the northern side of the Caucasus watershed. As if on cue, jagged peaks pop out of the pea sup that seems to have taken the place of the world. Cliffs of pure rock and ice gleam in the morning light while, further down below, valleys remain in the dark.
We bank to the south. An impalpable haze, blown upwards from the clouds, blurs the white peaks disappearing in the distance. I cast a last glance and spot an unexpected prize: a giant massif, rising head and shoulders above the other mountains, so large and wide to seem the stump of an incredibly tall tree, long gone. It’s Elbrus, Europe’s real highest mountain. We bank further south and, with a final wink, Elbrus disappears. Clouds span in every direction.