Great Food, Surly Service with a Sneer
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Well Russia is a completely overwhelming experience and the most intimidating and difficult country I have traveled in since my ill-fated trip to Cambodia ten years ago, and that time I was shot at. However it was also the greatest week I have ever spent straight and if you’re thinking of going here’s a few things to watch for; I call it the Aeroflot Shuffle.
Remember the old American propaganda movies with the people fleeing the Iron Curtain and the guards machine-gunning them and sending out the dogs. Well the New Russia is nothing if not traditional. It can still be a little difficult getting out of the old USSR. There are several traps they lay in wait for the unsuspecting Aeroflot flyer.
The first game is a waiting game. If you show up for the flight three hours before with all your papers in order there should be no problem, right? What you will see is four lines turn to two before your eyes, one becoming a business and first class only line that never gets used. Three hours before departure easily becomes, “Oh shit, I’m going to miss my flight.” Check-in moves like an iceberg; like dread. Hunger sets in, legs cramp, reason flees, panic ensues; now you’re ready for the Aeroflot Shuffle. It’s time to see if there’s any juice left in the lemon. Time for one last squeeze.
Overweight baggage is next. The ticket tells you that you are allowed 20 Kg of luggage; what it doesn’t tell you is that you are flying with the only carrier in the world that includes any carry-on things you might have. Like my 9Kg backpack that I had filled just that morning at a supermarket in St. Petersburg with pickles, olives, honey, caviar and vodka.
The fine was going to be 4000 (NT$ and rubles are about the same) for maybe a thousand rubles worth of groceries, which I happily gave to our amazing Moscow guide, Katya, before I told them to weigh it again. From what I saw about 1 in 5 people were sent out to pay baggage fines. No matter what the infraction, the fine was 4000.
The killing blow of the New KBG (which is how I now refer to Aeroflot) are those five magic words, ‘This ticket is no good.’ The check-in people are pathological in their determination to ferret out any reason why a ticket is no good. A smudge or tear that makes part of it unreadable. Your middle initial is an ‘E’ in your passport but looks like an ‘F’ on the ticket. Taiwanese passports are a field day because names are always transliterated differently into English.
One of the folks I was traveling with, a Taiwanese lady named May was told that the ticket that got her into the country wasn’t going to get her out. Earlier that day I met a Californian named John who had to buy a business class seat from St. Petersburg to Moscow because his return ticket was ‘no good’. The ‘Business Class’ fare was 5200 and the economy fare was 2600. From what I saw the two classes were much the same on that tiny plane. The nuts must have been ace.
Then inside I met an Irish aircraft engineer named Eddie, from County Kerry. He and his partner had been working in Moscow for four days and had both been told that their tickets were ‘no good’ on their way home. We stood under a huge no-smoking sign chain smoking cigarettes and he told me this was costing about 8000 quid. “It’s a lovely country, but at this point I’d rather be in fucking Cairo” he said quietly near the end.
I didn’t meet anyone who told me they were refused entry on the same basis, but I have my suspicions that this is when the mistakes are first seen and duly noted. I have also speculated that there must be some sort of quota system in place; quotas or commissions, but no accidents.
So pack light, show up early for your flight and double check that the information on your ticket is 100% accurate. If it isn’t you’ll be staying in Moscow a little longer that you had planned. Dasvidanya.
Tai Chung, Taiwan
May 4, 2005