We made it! I am now in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, having had a journey which surpassed all expectations.
The trip from Dubai to Moscow was easy enough, flying Emirates Business Class and all that, but the selection of films on show was shockingly poor, which is unusual for Emirates. So I took advantage of the “On Demand” service where business class passengers can borrow little video cassettes to watch Downfall. It was very good, but sadly the plane landed as Hitler was dishing out suicide tablets and the Russians were swarming all over Berlin with little to stand in their way except a handful of old men press ganged into joining the Volksturm. Then again, Hitler was raving about Wenke’s 9th Army linking up with some 12th Army and crushing the Russians in a giant pincer movement just as the screen went off, so I’d be interested to see how this panned out. No spoilers please!
I negotiated immigration and customs in Domodedovo airport without too much trouble, meaning I didn’t have to speak too much Russian. We then opted for a taxi to take us to Sheremetevo, which admittedly did go against the advice gratefully received from some commenters who thought I should take the express bus. But luggage here was the overriding factor, we had four bags stowed in the hold weighing 50kgs in total plus a heavy laptop, a large camera, and a fur coat in a suit-carrier as hand luggage. We’d got away with it in business class on Emirates, but had we been in economy we’d have been in trouble. And my last recollection of Russian buses was that they don’t have much luggage space, and the seats are pretty cramped. So we went for a private taxi, which we found to our delight had reduced in price in recent years from about $150 to a mere $80. On the subject of airport taxis, even $150 is not particularly extortionate to go from Domodedovo to Sheremetevo. The equivalent in London would be from Heathrow to Stansted, and I would be amazed if you got any change out of $200 for that trip. Our taxi driver was a spiky haired, moustached Tatar driving a small Lada who entertained us the whole way with enthusiastic stories about his time in the army in Mongolia where he ate dog, his time in Siberia when he ate bear, and various anecdotes from his hunting and fishing trips. Such entertainment was needed as the trip took over 2 hours, the traffic on the ring road being predictably awful. Unless the airport express buses sprout wings, I’m not sure how they’d have got us there in that traffic in less than 3 hours. So friendly was the driver, and also because I didn’t have any change, I paid him $100 for his efforts, which he thanked me for by crushing my hand in a grip which would have been useful for producing industrial diamonds from coal.
Sheremetevo 1 is used mainly only for domestic flights, and as such is a complete and utter dump. The facilities consisted of a few kiosks flogging books and newspapers, and a café which listed on its board several dozen tasty looking dishes only five of which were actually available. Anyone wishing to buy beer however, had no problem choosing from four or five on offer. We had about six hours to kill in this dump, so we decided to buy a meal each consisting of a small shashlik, some sautéed vegetables, a Russian salad and a soft drink, all of which came to about $50. Bargain. Bear in mind, lest you think we’d gone to somewhere fancy, that the food was served on paper plates and eaten with plastic cutlery which you pluck from a pot yourself as you slide your food along the rails to the cash register. One advantage was that eating at the café allowed us to sit down with our luggage beside us, and the waitresses were so uninterested in their work that they made no effort to shift us from this spot for the whole six hours we were sat at their table without ordering anything else save for a cup of coffee each somewhere around half time.
Check-in at Sheremetevo 1 was on the face of it a little chaotic. You cannot just wander up to the check-in counter as soon as it opens; you have first to go through a security check. However, you can only go through the security check once the check-in counter opens, so once the desk opens there is a huge rush and a lengthy queue to go through security. However, I was impressed by the security operation. They insisted everyone took off their shoes, jackets, belt, etc. and put them through the machine with their baggage, and the chap operating the machine waited until an individual had collected his stuff from the end of the conveyor before he’d allow anyone else to come through. Anyone who has come through security at Dubai or Kuwait airport would know the frustration of plonking their stuff on the conveyor and having it roll off the end and crushed under a load of following luggage well before he has got through the metal detector. There are few greater examples of human fuckwittery than an Emirati or Kuwaiti woman going through a metal detector, and fewer people you want more to batter over the head with a large metal pole when having to wait for them to hand over their Louis Vouitton bag having been asked three times previously. So, on that score at least, the Russians have got their act together. Good on them.
Checking into Aeroflot was the start of my skepticism of the airline turning into something resembling admiration. As I said, our baggage was hopelessly overweight, by 12kgs to be exact. Had we been boarding Emirates in Heathrow, we’d have been lectured by some jobsworth and told to start shifting stuff between bags before being charged a small fortune to take on the extra weight. In Dubai, you’d have just had to pay the small fortune straight away. On Aeroflot, we were told to pay 1500 Roubles ($60) as an overweight charge, and we could do it on the spot without having to go to another special counter and losing our place in the queue. As this was technically business travel, I asked for a receipt. I received the rather baffling reply that if I wanted a receipt it would be 2000 Roubles and we’d have to dick around at another counter, but if I didn’t mind not having a receipt it would be 1000 Roubles on the spot. What happened to the initial 1500 Roubles was not explained, but I handed over the 1000 Roubles which would have gone straight in the pockets of the two manning the desk, and we were on our way. Provided he didn’t do this to the point that the plane crashed into the Tatar Strait due to fuel shortage I was rather pleased with the arrangements in place for dealing with excess baggage.
The plane was full, much to my surprise. Our fellow passengers were possibly the oddest and most weirdly dressed collection of people I had ever seen gathered to date, and that is saying something. I suppose I have spent too much time hanging round the canals of St. Petersburg, but the provinces of Russia produce people who have not progressed beyond the 80s fashions of bleached hair, stonewashed denim suits, long fringes, and skin tight white jeans. I even saw one fellow sporting a bona fide mullett. It was like watching an episode of Fame: Where Are They Now? Not in a million years could this crowd have been mistaken for anything other than Russian.
The aircraft itself was a Boeing, and filled up with people faster than I can recall any flight doing so before. Russians seem to have the unique ability to get on a plane, stick their stuff in the overhead locker, and sit down in their seat without fannying around for ten minutes in the aisle like they do in the Middle East and Europe. And although the plane was quite old, the leg room was tremendous! Even when the person in front leant back, I still had plenty of room, which is a damned sight more than I can say for a lot of Emirates aircraft and pretty much all KLM’s. Also, the stewards and stewardesses appeared to have a lot more experience and general competence than the teenagers which Emirates stick on their planes, and I was pretty impressed by their prompt actions with the medical kit when my wife ate something she was allergic to and almost stopped breathing mid-flight. After that minor episode somewhere over the Urals, I was able to sleep until we were over the Russian Far East and an hour or so from landing.
The airport at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk consists of a lumpy concrete strip with a building beside it no bigger than a Travelodge. It is the only airport I have been to where the plane needs off-road capabilities to get from the runway to the terminal. We landed with a loud thump, a few bounces, and plenty of cheering from grateful passengers who were glad to arrive in one piece. The weather in Sakhalin was bright, warm, and sunny in contrast to what we were expecting. Despite the plane being a mere 40 metres from the terminal building and baggage hall, our bags took the best part of an hour to appear on the conveyor belt, which was the smallest I had ever seen and packed with fellow passengers also waiting for their bags, and seven family members for each passenger who, having greeted them in a howling pack from the aircraft, were now helpfully milling around the tiny baggage hall doing little but smoking and getting in the way. Even more helpfully, yet more gaudily dressed family members were blocking the doorway and steps of the baggage hall preventing anyone from getting their bags out without lots of shouting and pushing. Yes, we had arrived in Russia all right. We were met by a sultry chap called Vitalik who greeted us with a grunt and asked if we had any luggage. Perhaps some people emigrate carrying nothing but a laptop and a camera, but alas not us. As with all Russian men, Vitalik stopped being grumpy and became almost cheery and helpful once I made an effort to talk to him in Russian (he spoke no English). Within twenty minutes of collecting our bags we’d been driven to our hotel and shown to our room, which was a large hotel apartment, very clean and very modern. As we prepared to go to sleep for our first night on Sakhalin Island, I noticed once again the bizarre phenomenon which has rendered Russian hotel operators incapable of installing curtains which actually fit the windows. Shaking my head in disbelief, I tried in vain to find the combination of the three curtain sets mounted on two rails which would block the light to the greatest extent. Despite my best efforts, streetlights streamed in. But such small things aside, our journey from Dubai to Sakhalin had been mercifully problem free.