The Trip to Russia
Well……., I’m not going to bore you with every little detail about my trip to live in Russia, but I will say that when you travel here, especially beyond the well known cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, it’s necessary to travel with a sense of adventure, because often this is what you will find.
I’ve traveled through many different airports in Russia, but the domestic terminal at Sheremyeteva airport (Moscow) is the only one where the announcements are only given in Russian; at least this was the case six years ago; I now try to avoid this airport like the plague.
My future wife was waiting for me at the airport in Ekaterinburg with her father. This city is about four hours from Chelyabinsk. At the last minute, after waiting about 12 hours, my flight was cancelled due to fog in Ekaterinburg. The only way I knew this was because the passengers in the gate area started to grumble and then leave the area. I was able to leach on to a couple of German guys that knew some basic Russian. Perhaps here I should tell you that I only knew about 50 words in Russian when I came here. Anyhow, first we were told (in Russian) that we could sleep on the floor there at the airport until the morning when they would make a special flight. But finally sanity prevailed and they (Aeroflot) put all of the passengers up at a decent hotel not far from the airport. There I was able to catch about 4 hours sleep before my wakeup call for breakfast and the trip back to the airport.
I need to say that despite its reputation during Soviet times that Aeroflot is actually a fairly decent airline. The only two airlines offering nonstop service from Moscow to New York are Aeroflot and Delta. They both fly the same types of Boeings, but I’d have to say that I prefer Aeroflot for the service, food and the entertainment often provided by some of the fellow passengers. It’s not typically boring.
So, during this time that I was comfortably asleep in the hotel, albeit for a short time, my poor wife and father in-law were sitting in hard plastic airport seats waiting for a plane that would now arrive about eleven hours behind schedule.
If you’ve never before flown on a Russian airline, you’ll be in for some surprises. I try to fly some of the older Boeing 737’s that are used, but the real workhorses are the TU-134 and TU-154’s. These planes are pretty old and can be scary. Think in terms of if you had to build the interior cabin of an airplane using only wood and cloth, and not good quality at that. Also imagine the worst outhouse you have ever seen and you get an idea of the bathrooms. The overhead compartments are about tall enough to fit a thin book, so you’ll be traveling with your carry-on at your feet. When the person in front of you decides to recline their seat, the only thing that will finally stop its descent is your chest. I’m not joking about this. This person who is now lying on your chest may also be pretty drunk and therefore oblivious to your cries of indignation.
At most Russian airports you travel to the plane via a bus across the tarmac and then climb stairs to get into the plane. This is rather scary because this means that you actually see the exterior of the plane close up. You soon realize that the only thing holding the exterior body panels in place is the heavy coat of cheap house paint that the plane is painted with. You will not forget your flights on these planes.
On the plus side; the planes are old, but still flying, so you figure that looks aren’t everything. Generally speaking the food isn’t bad at all and the pilots can land in snow conditions that would shut down an American airport.
So, imagine now that you are about to land at your destination, and right after the plane safely lands the entire cabin erupts in cheers and clapping. No B.S. or exaggeration here; this is a fact. I mean, as an American I figure that the pilot is qualified and it’s his/her job to get us safely on the ground. This sudden jubilation makes you wonder if a safe landing is the exception, rather than the rule here. It’s actually just some Russian tradition that can’t be explained, but I do think understood considering the age of the aircraft.
My advice is to fly either Sibair (now called “S7”) or Transaero airlines. With these two you will usually fly in a Boeing or an Airbus.
I finally made it to Ekaterinburg and to my future wife and father in-law. They both looked no worse for the wear of sleeping in the airport chairs all night. I’ve got to say that typically, Russians are a very resilient lot of people.
Driving from Ekaterinburg to Chelyabinsk gave me a lot of time to think (my father in-law is an exceptionally slow driver) and arriving somewhere strange to you for a visit is a lot different than coming for some unknown period of time. Of course I was happy to finally be with my future wife, but the enormity of my decision to come here was weighing heavily on me. Believe me; Chelyabinsk is not like visiting some nice resort area.
airport. It is smaller than JFK, but in my opinion, much nicer and the people working there are actually much more pleasant to deal with than at JFK. There is now easily accessible free transportation between terminals and also a train which will whisk you to the end of the metro line in order to get into the city. There is free Wi-Fi in the terminals, something American airports should also try to imitate.