That title sounds a bit romantic, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, my one and only night in Moscow was anything but romantic.
It’s not like I even planned it. I was en route back to the UK after a holiday in China and flying with the Russian airline Aeroflot (who should rename themselves Aeroflop). I had to fly from Shanghai to Moscow, then transfer to a London flight for the final leg. With stopovers it meant a total time of around 14 hours, compared to 10 or 11 hours had I flown direct with Virgin or British Airways. The pay off was that return tickets to Shanghai from London via Moscow with Aeroflot were £475, compared to £700+ for direct flights.
Smart, right? I had two hours to make the connection in Moscow. However, my plane was late leaving Shanghai and I missed the transfer. Thinking about it, I shouldn’t be surprised. Despite being one of the busiest airports in the world, the air traffic control at Shanghai Pudong must be wank because I can’t remember ever leaving the place on time. On this occasion, there was a 2-hour delay, due to ‘congestion.’ That meant I arrived in Moscow nine hours later, at around 18:50, just as my London flight was taking off. Motherfucker.
Struggling to subdue waves of panic, I went to the transfer desk at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport and politely waited in line, with every other passenger who had missed their connection, to be told what to do next. When my turn finally came, the rather stroppy and stressed-out ground crew woman looked at me as if I’d just slapped her across the face and barked, “You sit! Sit down!”
So, I sat. I sat down. With about a dozen other passengers who were all meant to get the same flight as me. In the ensuing group chat, several harsh realities came to light:
1: We had indeed missed our plane
2: We were stranded overnight in Moscow
3: None of us had any Russian money
4: Or a visa.
This all meant that despite the extenuating circumstances, we were all in the country illegally. One thing was certain, we were Aeroflot’s responsibility so they were going to have to sort us out. There was a flurry of phone calls and emails telling our loved ones and bosses explaining what had happened, then we all waited a bit longer. About an hour later we were moved to another part of the airport, where we waited some more. Eventually, we were escorted out of a back door by a couple of big, hulking dudes in suits who looked like they were in the KGB and onto a waiting bus. Things were getting interesting.
Even in June, it was cold, miserable and wet outside. Glimpsed through the bus window, Moscow was exactly what I had expected; grey and depressing, with coils of barbed wire and electrified fences everywhere. No wonder half the population was permanently pissed on vodka. The bus took us directly to a nearby hotel. Do not collect £200. Do not pass go. When we arrived, we were given a short lecture by an Aeroflot employee and told to stay in our rooms and not leave under any circumstances. Everywhere else in the hotel, and especially outside the hotel, were strictly off-limits. We were reassured by the promise that each room had a free bottle of water in it. That’s okay, then. And just to make sure we wouldn’t think about slipping away (as if!) a guard was posted in the corridor outside, whose only serviceable English seemed to be “Nobody leaves!”
With fragmented images of the film Hostel going through my mind, I retired for the evening. The room was actually quite nice. I had a bath, watched Police academy in Russian (surreal) and the World Cup game between Spain and Australia. At some point a very disappointing ‘dinner’ of warm salad and bland vegetarian lasagne arrived. It was like airplane food, except I wasn’t on an airplane. They clearly couldn’t be bothered catering to everyone’s individual needs, so they gave us each the most inoffensive (or cheapest) thing they could find.
When I woke up in the morning it took a few minutes to figure out where I was, then the bedside phone rang and a voice told me to get my things and meet my companions at the end of the corridor, when we would be escorted to the breakfast room. This turned out to be a meeting room on the ground floor, and breakfast was a bizarre combination of bread, milk, honey, and Swiss rolls. There wasn’t an egg in sight, let alone a sausage. After breakfast we were taken back to the airport by bus, and normal service was resumed after a very bizarre interlude.
Growing up during the Cold War, my perception of Russian people may be a little skewed. In my mind they were all shadowy criminal-types who were always plotting something and never smiled. This idea is probably a result of too many 80’s action movies. The strange thing is, based on my Russian experience, this perception isn’t a million miles away from the truth. I’m sure not all Russians are stoney-faced and dour. There are probably a lot of happy, content people living there. In fact, I distinctly remember the guy on the front desk of the hotel cracking a smile once. Unfortunately however, happiness seems to be at a premium in Moscow, never mind romance.