I’m now in Baku, sitting on the tenth floor of a rather nice hotel overlooking the Caspian Sea. I’ll write about my journey from Sakhalin to Atyrau in this post, and about Baku in the next.
My flight from Sakhalin to Moscow was not half as bad as I expected, for the sole reason that the seat spacing was inexplicably good. The plane was clearly second hand, and down the sides of the seats were the remains of the meal which was served on the plane’s maiden flight, but there was ample legroom, even for a giraffe like me. In fact, it probably had as much leg room as any other plane I’ve been on, and even though my contact at the airport arranged for me to have a spare seat beside me, I let a Russian chap sit there once he asked me nicely having found a screaming infant beside his own seat further back along the cabin. It appears as though Transaero is making steps to becoming a fairly decent airline, and the standard of aircraft has improved massively since I first flew with them 18 months ago. They had a nice glossy in-flight magazine with decent articles and boasting details of their fleet made up almost exclusively of Boeings, and their list of destinations was impressive for a Russian airline. Okay, they put Atyrau a few hundred kilometres too far down the Caspian Sea and Sharjah was now in Iran, but the effort was there. As usual, the entertainment system (consisting of a TV monitor every twenty feet along the ceiling) didn’t work, but they did come up with the novel idea of renting portable DVD players and a selection of films for $20 a go. Once again, I have to say that the food was more than edible, and the service attitude of the staff did not conform to the stereotype of Russian airlines. Which means that Transaero are clearly much better than Lufthansa, whose staff are the rudest, most unprofessional, useless bunch of clowns ever to have worked in a service industry.
Domodedovo airport has undergone some pretty good improvements since I first visited, and now there are ample good cafes, bars, and shops to wander around. Unfortunately, none of the business lounges can be accessed through the Priority Pass system, and it is said that to get in by paying will set you back a few hundred dollars. Somehow I don’t think I’d get that past the nose of my boss on an expense form. Anyway, I checked into my flight some 6 hours before takeoff and wandered aimlessly around and around for an hour before settling into a chair in a pretty nice cafe on the top floor, called Vienna. The cafe had silhouettes of Mozart all over it and score sheets of his music, which was a bit odd considering Mozart was from Salzburg and not Vienna, but it was a decent enough joint all the same and a pasta dish with a couple of beers was only 700 Roubles. This sum of money in Sheremetovo airport would get you a sandwich from last week and small cup of tea. Or 14 beers. I was seriously tired by about eleven o’clock, as it was 6am Sakhalin time.
Clearing immigration was the usual chaos, with two only counters being open (from an available eight), then three, then back to two, then for all practical purposes one as the other had hit a logjam of some sort. One of the logjams was me. Firstly, the chap behind the counter had no idea where Atyrau was and had to go off somewhere to find out. Then he encountered a more serious problem. I was officially leaving the Russian Federation on 31st March, but my flight was on 1st April, at forty minutes past midnight. This confused him completely, and he had to ask his mate, who was as dimwitted as he was and looked it to boot. Then he made a phone call, got the number wrong twice, gave up, and wandered off somewhere. Eventually he came back, stamped my passport, and let me through. Something occurred to me during the time I was standing like a lampost at the counter. No matter how complicated or serious the problem appears to be at immigration counters, no matter how many people in uniforms draped in gold braiding and medals with massive hats get involved, the person always ends up with his passport stamped and waved through. Always. I’ve never yet seen a problem at an immigration counter which resulted in the person concerned being told to sod off back where he came from. Maybe the Russians should stop pretending they are checking anything and just install machines which stamp your passport on your way through.
I managed to sleep for a couple of 15 minute sessions by leaning awkwardly onto the next seat and placing my swede on my rucksack, but it wasn’t much use. By the time I boarded the plane to Atyrau, I looked like a zombie. Fortunately I managed to sleep on this plane, but it was one of those slumbers which involves your head coming bolt upright every few minutes accompanied by a loud slurping as you retrieve the drool which is making its way down your jumper. Half an hour outside Atyrau they dished out immigration cards for all foreigners to fill in, which were all rather complicated. Some parts were in Russian, Kazakh, and English, some parts in Russian and Kazakh, and other parts only in Kazakh. I was struggling like hell, until I asked the Kazakh lady beside me for help, and she pointed out that even she didn’t understand some bits and suggested I should leave them blank. For all the notice the immigration officer paid to it upon arrival, I might as well have left the whole lot blank. I still have no idea why they make everyone fill these things out. I can’t believe they get used for anything, and there is no information on them which is not already contained in your passport and visa, both of which they scan into a machine. Except possibly an address at which you are staying, which I make up anyway by putting “Marriott Hotel” no matter where I am going to.
Immigration was as chaotic as it is in Russia, with the bloke manning my counter having seemingly never seen a passport before. How he got all those medals and rank insignia is anyone’s guess. Once I got through to the Republic of Kazakhstan, I discovered my bag had not made it through. I was not altogether surprised, as I’d checked in very early and as I watched my bag disappear (upside down) along the conveyor belt, I wondered if some baggage handler wasn’t going to put it to one side, finish his shift, and clear off home without a proper handover. I went into the office in Atyrau airport over which some wag had put a sign saying “Passenger Services” which was occupied by a load of Kazakh women. I told one of them my bag hadn’t arrived, and I think she’d have shown more interest if I gave her a transcript of one of my dreams. By looking and sounding extremely grumpy, I got her to put her full effort into resolving the problem – which she did by handing me a completely blank piece of A4 paper and telling me to write down my problem. I started to take the piss. I asked what I was supposed to write. She said write down that my bag has gone missing. I asked her is that all I should write. She said I should write down the bag’s colour. I asked if I should write only that my black bag has gone missing. Finally one of the other women stepped in who was a lot more helpful, and I got less grumpy. In fact, the other women were all rather nice, and I suspect they all thought the first woman was being uneccesarily bitchy to this rather dashing British chap who had come into their office speaking Russian. Or something. Anyway, they told me to sit down, offered me a cup of tea, and started handing out sweets and chocolates. I thought this was all rather touching, not that it got me any closer to reunification with my bag. Eventually some bloke turned up who knew what to do, and he dug about in some drawer and came up with a proper form for those with lost luggage. The woman who handed me the blank piece of paper just stood there looking dense. I then found myself having to translate from English into Russian for a Frenchman who had arrived in Atyrau to find the wheel on his suitcase had been ripped off. If he ever gets any compensation for that, I’ll swim the Caspian.
I got dropped off by the company driver at what I was told was one of the best hotels in Atyrau, which is a bit like discussing the best strip bar in Riyadh. As soon as I checked in, at 5:00am local time, I asked the receptionist if she could send me up a toothbrush seeing as my bag had got lost. She said they didn’t have any, and nor did they have a razor, but I was free to buy these items from the shop in the foyer of the hotel, which was miraculously open. But first I needed some money, and there was an ATM in the hotel, but I had no idea what the exchange rate was between the Kazakh Tenge and any currency I might have heard of. The small currency exchange beside the shop was closed and its digital display in darkness, so I asked the receptionist what the rough exchange rate was between the Tenge and the US dollar. She helpfully told me the currency exchange was closed and I should check in the morning. I grew exasperated and asked her if I should take out 10, 100, 1000, or a million Tenge in order to buy a toothbrush. She said she didn’t know. I asked her the same question again, and she must have thought I was going to wring her neck (I was) unless she answered, because she quickly gave me a sensible answer.
Having spent 2,760 Tenge ($23) on a disposable razor, deodorant, two pairs of grandad socks, and some shaving foam, I took the lift up to my room, which might have had the carpet hoovered once before, featured a sink to which the taps were barely attached, and a toilet seat which had split in half. The place was a dump, but the bed was horizontal and there was no jet-engine roaring beside me, so I really didn’t care.