I was intending to update my blog earlier in the week, but I came into work on Tuesday morning to discover I had to fly to Moscow that afternoon, and catch a flight back the next day. We are ramping up the personnel on the project here in Sakhalin, and the first batch of new arrivals was a group of 45 Nepalese who were flying into Russia via Moscow and catching a connecting flight to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Last time we just let them figure out the airport all on their own, and the result was 3 of them failed to clear immigration until after the connecting flight left. Unable to communicate with anyone, they wandered around the airport for three days before the police bundled them onto an aircraft and sent them back to Nepal.
This time, we decided to send somebody to meet them, and at such short notice that person became me. So I climbed aboard a Transaero crate which had formerly belonged to Air France. All the kit had Air France logos on, and the French signs had been crudely covered with stickers giving the information in Russian. Anyone who says that aircraft seats are getting more cramped as time goes on is an idiot, or at least they need to get in an older plane and measure the difference. There was very little leg room, and there’s no way Air France would get away with that allocation now. And this flight was eight and a half hours, which must rank as one of if not the longest domestic flights in the world. Eight and a half hours across a seven hour time difference, and you’re still in the same country. Makes the mind go a bit funny, especially if you do the return journey the next day. With the seating arrangements as they were, I was in for a rough flight.
This was the first time I’d taken off from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and it was a hair-raising experience. The runway is so lumpy that I thought we’d veered off and hit a rumble strip. The whole aircraft was shaking itself to pieces and the wings were flapping like a seagull’s. Fortunately, the rivets held and we were up into the clouds above Sakhalin Island and heading towards the mainland in no time. Even more fortunately, I had spotted an empty couple of seats on an exit row with metres of leg room, so I dashed towards one of them and jumped in before the stewardess could tell me to sit down and behave. After I’d performed this little stunt, a bald Russian passenger with an Asiatic face spent the next twenty minutes staring at me as if I’d just swiped the pilot’s moustache. And that was that, I settled down to read my Micky Spillane omnibus wiggling my feet in front of me and grinning like an idiot towards anyone who cared to take notice.
I arrived in Domodedovo airport slightly less jovial as the last two hours of the flight were rather tedious. Damn Russia for being so huge. I was also disappointed that I would not be able to make vast quantities of cash selling my story about how I survived a plane crash. For a while I thought I had. We had gone into a steep dive and hurtled headlong into some concrete before bouncing our way along the strip, my teeth rattling around in my head. Once the fear had subsided I realised that this must be a conventional landing for Transaero. Even the Russians on board didn’t clap. I didn’t need to mess around clearing immigration, and nor did I have to wait for baggage as my spare pair of pants and socks plus toothbrush and razorblade fitted nicely into the overhead locker. I had not booked a hotel as Moscow was sleeping when the decision was made for me to leave, and it was therefore down to me to stroll into a hotel and ask for a room. Or I could phone my Kazakh friend and her Dutch husband who had recently moved back to Moscow from Kazan and ask if they were up to anything that evening and would they mind if I stayed with them for a night, which of course I did. They lived in the centre of town, so I had to take the express train to Paveletskaya Station which cost me 120 Roubles. I assumed the trains were fairly frequent and didn’t bother to lift my head up an inch to check the enormous display which told me I’d have to hang around for an hour for the six o’clock train. Instead I wandered out onto the platform and tried to open the barrier using the bar-coded ticket. After several failed attempts I realised I was doing something wrong, and further realised that the old woman wrapped up like a donner kebab at the end of the line of barriers was shrieking at me and not simply having a funny turn. What is it with female authority figures in Russia over the age of fifty which prevents them from pointing something out in a calm and reasonable manner? A lifetime of bitterness at being single, perhaps?
Anyway, after loafing around domestic arrivals at Domodedovo for the best part of an hour, I passed through the barrier and waited for the train. Moscow was cold, much colder than Yuzhnii. Some snow lay on the ground, and more was falling in large lazy flakes. The wind was bitter, and I jammed my woolly hat lower over my ears and tried to keep it out of my neck. Once inside the train, I was predictably sweating like a madman. The journey took 40 minutes and we were spat out on an icy platform on which I nearly went head over heels after taking only a few steps. I was reminded to walk more carefully on Moscow streets in winter. I entered the Metro station just as my Kazakh friend called to find out where I was, which unfortunately meant I had to speak in English. I was immediately approached by a spotty retard who asked me to buy some dollars, or something. I ignored him, he persisted, and I ignored him some more, and he went away. In the queue for a metro ticket, one of his mates came and made some feeble joke or other and I stared at him as though I was about to drop my bag and punch his teeth in. He left me alone. This part of the metro was fairly empty, but I had the misfortune of sitting opposite a tramp. This didn’t matter at first, but later on he took his shoes off and I nearly died at the smell. Everyone was shifting towards the other end of the carriage and holding their noses. It really was a stench. When I changed lines at Kievskaya Station, the metro became packed to the rafters. We were cheek by jowl for fifty metres through the corridor towards the escalator. I was roasting alive in my North Face down jacket and lambswool jumper. Fortunately, the escalators cleared the backlog pretty quickly and I was able to get to my next train just as it pulled alongside the platform.
I emerged into the cold somewhere near Smolenskaya Ploschad’. There are two Arbatskaya metro stations, and I had picked the wrong one for the Old Arbat, and had to walk up to Smolenskaya Ploschad’ and cross the road using the underpass. I knew this area pretty well. I stayed in the nearby Belgrad Hotel on my first ever trip to Russia and nearly killed myself crossing the Garden Ring before I discovered the underpass. I wandered down the Old Arbat and turned off it as instructed by my hosts and after walking several hundred metres further than necessary and having to double back, I located their apartment block and waited to be let in. My Kazakh friend opened the door, led me to the elevator and from there into her apartment where her husband was waiting with an axe. I’m joking. He was waiting with as warm a greeting as you’ll find anywhere in Moscow. Several hours of eating, drinking, and talking followed and I went to bed at what the clock on the wall said was 11pm but my body was telling me was 6am. I slept like a baby for four hours and spend the rest of the night pacing around like an owl unable to sleep and wanting my lunch.
At 6:45 I got up and had a shower, followed by a quick breakfast with my hosts. A taxi came for me at 7:30am and took me back to Domodedovo airport where the Nepalese were due to land at 9am. The taxi was a smart Audi A4 whose wiper blades needed replacing along with the windscreen, but it got us there for 8:45 and cost my employer only 1,000 Roubles ($40). I confidently strode up to the arrivals board and was somewhat surprised to see the flight I was waiting for not listed. I rubbed my eyes, scratched my head, tried not to appear an imbecile and looked again. Nothing. Genius that I am, a sudden thought struck me. Perhaps I was at the wrong airport. I called our Sakhalin office, and they confirmed the Nepalese would be landing in Domodedovo. But they would check. I was already on my way to the taxi rank to get a cab to Sheremetevo. I pulled out my ticket for the return flight to Yuzhnii, something I should have done much earlier. Like a day earlier. Sure enough, I was departing Sheremetevo at 21:15 on Aeroflot. I was in the wrong airport, and just as I was about to call the Sakhalin office, they rang me and told me I’d got the wrong airport. Bugger.
I went outside to the official gang of taxi drivers who mistook me for a complete fuckwit. God knows, I look like one. Firstly they quoted me a rate per kilometre, and I asked why he didn’t know the distance between the two airports. He then told me the whole trip costs $240, and I gave him a large belly laugh and walked off. I wandered around the arrivals section inside the airport, trying to find a non-official taxi. After some time I found a short bald man who first of all offered to take me for 4,000 Roubles which I bartered down to 3,000. We walked to his car parked a few hundred metres away, and I arrived wondering how such a short man with such short legs was able to walk so damned fast. We climbed into his Chrysler people carrier, and away we went. By the way, for all those suggesting I take the express bus between the airports, I’d be grateful if you accompany me on my next trip to Moscow. According to everybody I asked, including the information desk, it doesn’t exist.
The traffic was bad. To save time at the expense of distance we drove anti-clockwise around the ring road, passing gridlocked traffic going the other way for most of the trip. It was bad enough in our direction. I had a chuckle at the road signs on the way. Moscow being the former centre of the universe, they signpost far flung cities of the empire from the ring road. Leaving Domodedovo you see signs for Simferopol and Astrakhan, which are over a thousand miles away. After two and a half hours I was dropped at Sheremetevo 2 where my driver complained one last time about the unfairness of my only paying him 3,000 Roubles. I was moved to tears, but I wasn’t paying him any more. Sheremetevo 2 is the international terminal, with Sheremetevo 1 being the domestic (although major cities of the former USSR now lying in other countries such as Almaty and Riga are still served by the domestic terminal). Going inside, I saw not a trace of 45 Nepalese and there wasn’t much room for them to hide in. It’s not like they’d blend in with the locals, no matter how many Grandad jumpers and pointy shoes they’d bought along the way. I began to panic. I was sure they’d arrived here, but the connection was from Sheremetevo 1 and this was a ten minute bus ride away. There is no connecting travelator or anything like that, just a clapped out old bus or two driven by a grumpy Russian who needs a shave. Satisfied they were not all crammed into a cubicle in the mens’ room, I jumped on this bus and tried to find them in the domestic terminal. To my relief, I walked in to find a huge gang of Nepalese all sat in a heap on the floor with their baggage. I quickly located the foreman, a jolly looking chap called Danny who is very friendly and as hard as an industrial drillbit. He told me everyone was accounted for and nobody was stuck behind the immigration counter and they’d somehow got a bus from the international terminal to this one without any local currency or any Russian language abilities. I was impressed. They seemed to be doing much better than I was, at least they’d made it to the right airport.
Rather unusually, they’d been left alone. Had there been three or half a dozen of them, they’d have been hassled and jolted from pillar to post by the police and low-lifes and low-life police who hang around the place. There being 45 of them, they got left well alone and were the subject of much curiosity. But before I could start selling tickets to gawp at the Himalayans I needed to feed them. They’d taken a 48 bus journey from Nepal to Delhi then a lengthy flight from there to Moscow. They now had a 12 hour wait before the eight and a half hour flight which would take them to Sakhalin. Suffice to say, they were pretty beat. The food on offer in Sheremetevo 1 is of poor quality and very expensive. One sandwich plus one bottle of water times forty five came to over 11,000 Roubles (over $400). Nice little business they had there. Once everyone had eaten, we sat down to wait for another eight hours until we could board. Unfortunately, it is not possible to check in at Sheremetevo 1 until about an hour before take-off, so we had to sit around like plums with our baggage for all that time. It was boring to say the least, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit so I patrolled up and down the waiting area keeping an eye on my charges. In fairness, they were great. They did exactly what they were told with no gobbing off or questioning, and managing them was easy. A lot of them asked me stuff about Russia and the project, which I answered with honesty or lies depending on whether I thought they’d get upset by the truth and flee back to Nepal. One rather touching moment saw a young Russian chap surrounded by Nepalese teaching them how the word “Russia” is written in Russian. He was grinning like a clown when I approached him.
Finally after everyones’ arse was under general anaesthetic from the seats the sign flashed up that the departure gate was open. I herded my Nepalese lads to the security lines and went to the head of the queue. A slapheaded policeman or immigration officer or some damned thing took my passport and ticket, saw I was going to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and said we were too early. I got all my lads to shuffle slightly back, but otherwise stay where they were. Two minutes later after everyone had finished leaving the queue, we were told to come forward. I handed my passport and ticket over to Slaphead once again and he asked me if we were in a group together, which I said we were. He told me to brief everyone up on the security procedure and walked off into a side office, taking my passport and ticket with him. I set about driving the lads through the security check like sheep, getting them to take their shoes and belts off and to hurry it all up a bit. Then one of the machines went beep and the woman manning it asked me to open up one of the bags. There was a bottle inside. Wondering what possible contents of a bottle a Russian could object to, I oversaw the Nepali opening up his bag. He pulled out a well-wrapped jar with a tin lid which was covered in grease and contained some green and brown paste. By this time a load of other uniformed busybodies had shown up and were interested in the contents. The Nepali didn’t seem able to explain what they were, but I guessed it was some sort of curry paste to add some flavour to his cabbage and potato which would be his diet once on camp. My best translation came up with describing it as cooking oil. One of the uniforms took the daft decision to open the lid, stick in his snout, and breath in. He wished he hadn’t. Handing it back in disgust, the contents were approved and the chap waved through. There were several more of these jars lying in ambush in the bags of the Nepali scaffolders.
Once they were all through and busy checking in, Slaphead called me into his office. He asked me again if we were in a group, and I said we were. He asked where we were working and what kind of work the Nepalese were going to do. Slaphead must have been a professor or something, because he’d heard of the Sakhalin LNG Project. Then he started lecturing me about how I should have an official document to accompany these boys. I produced a list of their names, but he said it should be on an official letter. I just sat there and looked dumb, and agreed, before picking up my passport and leaving Slaphead to his bureacracy/bribe extraction. What I wanted to do was smack his silly bald head repeatedly against the sharp corner of his desk and ask why the hell I need an official letter to meet people at an airport, pointing out that each man has a valid passport and visa and has already cleared immigration, and if it makes him feel better I’ll pretend I’ve never seen them before and I’m just a journlist investigating how ludicrously stupid Russian officialdom is. But as I said, I just agreed and said goodbye.
Despite my error in airport selection this morning, I was pleased to be flying from Sheremetevo because that meant Aeroflot and that meant new Boeing not some secondhand French ringer and it also meant decent leg room. As it turned out, the entire passenger load consisted of the 45 Nepalese, me, and about a dozen other people. So I not only had a double seat by the window to myself, I was able to lie down along an entire row and get four hours sleep once the dinner had come round and I’d filled my belly. The poor Nepalese were all crushed together at the back, but they didn’t seem interested in shuffling around the plane to find more room. Perhaps they were preparing themselves for conditions at the camp?
So, all in all and interesting but tiring trip to Moscow. Hopefully the next set of workers can manage on their own, but I can see this trip becoming a regular thing. At least I’ll get the right airport next time.