Monthly Archives: November 2012

Aeroflot Russian Airlines

Aeroflot is the major Russian airline flying international routes into and out of Moscow. Generally, that’s all you should ever need to know about them because flying on Aeroflot isn’t the most wonderful trip you’ll ever take.

To begin with, your flight will not leave on time. When I landed in Sheremetyevo for my long, long, incredibly long and boring twelve hour layover, I was trying to find my way to the proper terminal. A nice Russian lady working at the information desk called me over to help. She asked for my boarding pass which I promptly provided and pointed me in the right direction. ‘You just go through security over there, down the stairs and wait. Your flight will be late of course.’ And then off I went. I knew Aeroflot has a pretty bad track record of taking off on time. I read somewhere than less than one out of four flights leaves on time. But to see a representative say it so snidely almost as if she meant ‘Yeah they’re a bunch of bums. You’re flying on them and I work for them. We’re all in this together right?’ made me laugh. One of the highlights of my time in the airport.

Now the plane has finally arrived and it’s time to board. I hope you brought some in flight entertainment with you. You won’t find a whole lot here. The planes aren’t the newest so there are only a few TVs set up near the front of the cabin and the flight attendants will pass out headphones to plug into your armrest. They’re not that large and even if you can see them, you’ll find almost all of the movies shown are dubbed into Russian. There may be subtitles, there may not. No worries you tell yourself. In the seat pocket there is a very thick magazine that looks interesting. And I’m sure it’s very interesting. You’ll find some nice pictures. But you’ll also find that it’s all in Russian as well. Every piece of reading material other than the emergency procedure chart is only in Russian. And this is on a flight from Moscow to Washington DC. They know some Americans are on the plane. They know it’s an eleven hour flight. I guess they just don’t care.

Can’t let the hammer and sickle go to waste.

But it’s not all doom and gloom with Aeroflot. For starters they have one of the coolest logos in the world. It just looks awesome. The food on the flights is pretty good as well. Decent fish dishes are pretty common, but if they offer you the chance to eat pancakes, grab those. They’re rolled blini that can be filled with cheese or meat. Proper Russian food and quite excellent. Unfortunately they only serve free wine and beer with lunch, not dinner on the long flights. So grab it while you can.

Wikipedia says Aeroflot is one of the most profitable airlines in the world and is 51% owned by the Russian government. I think this government ownership allows Aeroflot to fly trans-Atlantic flights that are only half full or so. Or maybe all their real money comes from flying domestically and to former Soviet states, the trans-Atlantic flights are there for prestige more than anything. Either way one great thing about Aeroflot is that you’ll have lots of room. I’ve flow on them round trip America to Russia twice and on every one of the four flights I’ve had the entire row to myself. If you’re traveling with a buddy, it might be a good idea for you to book your tickets separately. The only people I saw sharing a row were obvious couples. The chance to spread out and lie down on such a long flight is definitely a perk. And finally Aeroflot can be cheap. I booked with them and dealt with those long layover was that it saved me close to four hundred dollars compared to the next lowest fare.

I would fly Aeroflot again in a heartbeat. I’m glad I own a Kindle and brought that with me on the plane. If I didn’t I might have a much different opinion of the company. The only real downside I personally faced was the long layover in Moscow. Eight or twelve hours is far too much. Especially in an airport like Sheremetyevo.

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Polish Buses and Trams

Transportation in major Polish cities is extremely efficient and pretty easy to navigate once you understand the rules. The first step might be to check out the websites for the different cities: Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, and Wroclaw. There may be more sites for other cities but unless you’re using Couchsurfing you’ll probably be staying somewhat close to the center of town and Polish cities are quite walkable. If you’re staying with someone, they’ll know the exact website to use to look up the bus and tram routes. If there is a route planner like the one for ZTM Warsaw you can easily put in your starting and ending points to get the information you need. If there isn’t that option, you just have to do it the old fashioned way.

By Panek (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Most bus and tram stops will have a big map of the city with the routes highlighted. If you know where you are and where you are going, you can trace the route and which buses or trams you will need to take in order to make the trip.

At each stop you will find a small timetable. I’m bad at this blogging thing and thought of writing this after I left Poland so I didn’t think to get a picture and can’t find one online. But it’s easy to describe. At the top in bold numbers will be the bus route. Under that will be a listing of times looking similar to this 14 :02 :12 :22: 32: 42: 52. This tells you what times the bus will arrive. There may be different schedules for the weekends, so look for the words sobota and niedziela, Saturday and Sunday respectively. If the schedules are different it’ll be marked with a new timetable.

Next to the timetables on the paper will be the bus routes. First you need to locate the name of the stop where you are on the route. Each stop is labeled on the waiting area so match that up with the stop on the route which looks like a line with circles on it and words next to the circles. Then find the small numbers 1, 2, 3 next to station stops. Those are the next three stops on the route telling you which direction the bus will be going.

Now here’s where you need to pay attention. If the stop you need to get off at is a white circle instead of black, the bus will only stop there if you push the Stop button near the doors as you approach it. If you skip this vital step, the bus will continue on it’s merry way until the next black circle stop arrives or someone needs to get on or off.

Sometimes you’ll arrive at a bus stop but not find any bus going to where you need to go even though the internet said the routes run that way. This often happens when you need to transfer buses or trams. In this case, look around for another waiting area in the vicinity. It’ll have the same stop name, but a different number next to it. Visit that station and repeat the previous steps to ensure you are going to where you want.

By Mateusz Włodarczyk via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve finally found the right bus route, the right stop, you know how far to go, it’s time to buy a ticket. There are three main options for buying a ticket. You can use the automated ticket machines at the stops. This is the best method because you can have the machine work in English. You may also go to a small shop near the station and ask for a normaly bilet. The odds of the person working there speaking English are pretty low unfortunately. And lastly you can take a risk and hope the bus or tram you get on has a ticket machine on board. If it does just buy a ticket there.

Wil at pl.wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons

The system is run with the honor method. You’re supposed to purchase a ticket for one of the options (one trip, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 60 minutes, etc) then validate the ticket on a little stamping machine on the bus or tram. No one actually sees you validate the ticket so there is a bit of temptation to simply not buy a ticket and save a few zloties. I did this the first few times I visited Poland. But now I’ve learned from a Polish friend of mine that they are beginning to crack down on fare jumpers. In between stops a plainclothesed officer will announce something in Polish and people will start rummaging around in their pockets and purses. This is the cue to pull out your already validated ticket. Don’t try to validated now, they don’t like that. Also don’t think you’ll be able to play the ignorant tourist card. I was coming back from Wieliczka mine to Krakow and one of the officers was able to nab five Korean tourists who didn’t have a ticket because they didn’t know where to buy one. You’ll get a bit of a fine and then allowed to go.

It’s a pretty easy system right? I learned how it all works through trial and error. My first experiences with the buses in Warsaw came on my first trip there. I was returning with my friend from dinner on the metro and saw a poster with a guy doing BMX tricks. It got me interested so I asked my friend to write down the details since it was all in Polish. We got back to her apartment and looked it up and where it was being held, I wanted to go while she was at work. She plugged the information into ZTM Warsaw’s route planner and wrote down what buses I needed to take and where to transfer.

The next morning I take my piece of paper with the details and head out to the bus stop. I get on the first bus no problem and place myself near the route maps located in every bus. I counted each time we stopped at and was getting ready for my stop… and then we drove right past it. This is where I learned that the buses don’t stop at every single stop. I hit the Stop button and figured I could just walk back to the stop I missed, no problem. Well of course the stop I was supposed to get off at was the last stop in the district so the bus crossed the bridge into the Praga area of Warsaw. A mile and a half later I hopped off the bus and started walking back.

I come from really rural areas in America. I’ve never ridden public transportation before because it doesn’t exist where I live. This was brand new to me. My yokel side will come out in a moment.

I finally get back to stop I missed and check my paper so I know what bus to hop on next. It arrives and I get on, feeling pretty good about myself that I solved this problem all alone. We’re cruising along and after twenty or so minutes I get this sinking feeling that I should have reached my stop by now. But we didn’t pass it yet, I knew that for a fact. I looked at the route on the wall of the bus and realized we were going away from where I needed to be. My lack of public transportation use never allowed me to think that ‘Hey, buses with the same numbers go in opposite directions along the same line. That means each bus stop should have another bus stop with the same name to service both directions.’

I hopped off the bus and looked around, finally finding the other waiting area. I dashed across the street and saw a bus coming up. I glanced at the number at the top of the bus and then quickly at the route list. It was going to the stop where I made the mistake. Smiling at my good luck I hopped on the bus, feeling pretty good about myself that I solved this new problem all alone. I’m riding the bus and I hop off at the stop. I’m not at the BMX show yet, I’m just finally at the last stop I before I get there. Since there were no buses coming I decided to spend a few minutes making the acquaintance of the waiting area, maybe there was some information here I could use. I started looking at the schedules and route maps and was pleased to discover that the bus my friend wrote for me was expected to come in about five minutes bringing me to the show. I was a little less pleased to discover that the bus I just hopped off of also went to the show.

Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport

When I travel I’m always worried about flying. Not the whole ‘being in a metal tube thousands of feet in the air ensuring almost certain death if we auger into the ground’ worry, but concerned with security and customs all that entails in an airport. There’s a constant nagging feeling in the back of my brain that I’m going to be picked out of a crowd for no reason and need to explain myself to the security people, generally just be hassled. This has never happened to me, but the fear that it might has lead me to get into the habit of the long layover. For me three hours is the bare minimum for a layover, four is better. If they say arrive at the airport two hours before your flight to clear security, I’ll arrive even earlier than that. I don’t mind. I’ll find a corner and pull out my Kindle or laptop and just wait.

So when I’m buying plane tickets I don’t mind the ‘Warning, long wait’ messages that often pop up. Unfortunately this mentality of mind recently caused me some issues flying into Poland. I found some cheap tickets that had to fly through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. During my flights to Warsaw from Washington DC and from Warsaw I spend eight and a half and twelve hours respectively waiting for my plane. It wasn’t the most awful experience ever, but it wasn’t pleasant either.

Constructed in the early 60s with continuing expansion and renovation, Sheremetyevo is pretty similar in that aspect to other major airports around the world. Terminal D where most of the international traffic is handled opened in 2009 and is by far the most modern part of the complex. Terminal D is bright and clean with a couple of cafes that are open around the clock. Food-wise there are a pair of small TGI Fridays restaurants and an Irish pub that does food as well. At least for the Fridays the kitchens are small and emasculated, only allowing for a handful of dishes to be prepared. I played around with their touch screen menu to see what they served and more importantly how much it would cost before sitting down and they didn’t even sell burgers. There were a choice of four sandwiches and a handful of sides and some drinks. I couldn’t find the prices but I’m sure they were expensive. The small cafes in the terminal were asking five or six dollars for a croissant; sitting down for a meal would be much higher. Before leaving I figured this would be an issue so I brought a couple of things to munch on during my long layovers. Coupled with the fact that the food on Aeroflot flights is pretty decent, I didn’t go hungry.

For a long wait, Terminal D is kind of tough. There are no big reclining chairs anywhere, just rows of normal seats. I’ve heard rumors of a nice sitting area but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist any more. Making matters worse the armrests on the chairs are fixed so you can’t move a couple out of the way and fashion a cot. Outside of the cafes and TGI Fridays there are a couple of duty free shops but nothing else to do. You can stare out the large large windows but they don’t face the runways so you’ll get to watch all the excitement of ground crews loading up an airplane but none of the boring stuff like take off and landings. Pulling out your laptop or smart phone you’ll be able to find a good wifi connection throughout the entire terminal. Note that if you need to charge something up it can be a bit difficult to find a free power outlet. One trick I’ve learned is that throughout the terminal, normally near boarding desks for a handful of the gates, are large electronic signs. Probably about ten feet tall and rectangular, they stick out like white monoliths. Behind every one I’ve seen so far there are two outlets, but the sign only uses one leaving a free space for your computer.

No matter how long your layover is, there’s no chance of getting out of the airport to see the city for a few hours. At least for Americans, Russian visas are a byzantine nightmare. If I was in charge of Russian tourism I would definitely relax those rules a bit. Just about every cross Atlantic flight has a long layover in Sheremetyevo. What would be so difficult about issuing a twenty four hour visa right there at the airport? Pay fifty or so dollars and then be able to visit Moscow for a few hours. They can keep the rules for longer visits. And while tourists who have twelve hour layovers isn’t a huge market share, by allowing them to take in the sights in Moscow they’ll be spending a bit of money outside the airport in taxis and restaurants creating a small revenue stream.

If you do feel the need to explore outside Terminal D, you can walk to Terminals E and F. They are used for more domestic and low cost flights and it shows. Compared to D, these terminals are a bit dark and dingy. They smell of smoke because instead of smoking rooms like many airports there are smoking areas that are near air filters but still exposed. You’ll find a couple of cafes and some duty free shops but the real reason to visit (other than just getting up and about) is that everything is cheaper here. If you’re looking for some simple snacks like a bag of chips or some juice, you can make your way to terminal F where you’ll get that bottle of juice for two instead of four dollars. There a handful of little stands, almost like convenience stores, that say they take credit cards. I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t want to whip out my plastic for a four dollar charge in Moscow. There were a few ATMs in the area, but foreigners can’t use them. It kept sayings that I had to go through customs (which I couldn’t do because of the visa rules) before I could use an ATM. I just wanted twenty dollars or so in rubles so I could buy a couple of things and have some cash leftover as a souvenir. But instead because of all the issues, I ended up just sitting in a corner wasting time on Facebook instead of spending money in Moscow.

Russia’s Adoption of Christianity

One day I was drinking with my landlord in Armenia. He is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. A geologist by trade, he was educated in Moscow during the Soviet times and owned one of the first computers in all of Armenia. It was a real pain in the ass he told me. If anything went wrong he’d have to learn how to fix it, this was decades before the Geek Squad. Today he’s an unemployed handyman. Some countries like Poland have done well after the collapse of the USSR. Some countries like Armenia haven’t done as well. But that’s not the point of this story. I just wanted to say how awesome my landlord was.

So we’re drinking together after replacing my shower and he starts telling me a story. He knows I like history, especially really weird stories. He asked me if I knew why Russia was a Christian nation. I told him the truth, I had absolutely no idea. Armenians are proud of their country being the first to adapt Christianity, but a story about Russia’s Christianity didn’t come along every day.

Just so be clear, when he related the story to me he was a little hazy on the details. It’s one of those stories where the names and exactness aren’t really called for. I looked it up later to see if it was actually true. There are chroniclers of the period claiming this is true, and others presenting the conversion much different ways. It’s still interesting.

Back in the tenth century Prince Vladimir was the ruler of Kievan Rus, the land that would eventually become Mother Russia. At this time paganism was still very popular throughout Kievan Rus, even Vladimir was a practice pagan. A legend goes that Vladimir used to practice human sacrifice before his battles and one time a young man was drawn to be killed. The young man’s father stood up to the prince and basically said that all the pagan gods were a crock and the only true god is the Christian god. This stuck with Vladimir and a couple years later he invited envoys representing Islam, Christianity, and Judaism to present their case as to why he (and by extension his people) should follow a particular faith.

He heard all the arguments then retired to his chambers to contemplate his decision. After a few hours of meditation he emerged to the audience hall to read his verdict. Judaism was no good he said. The fact that the Jewish people lost Jerusalem was proof enough to Vladimir that God had abandoned them. That wouldn’t cut it for his people. So the choice came down to Christianity and Islam. Both made very persuasive arguments and each faith had some very powerful tenets. However he could only choose one. And he chose Christianity. Prince Vladimir claimed that alcohol was very important to his people and he would not deny them that simple pleasure. The Islam’s prohibition on alcohol was the only reason that Christianity eventually became the religion of the largest country on Earth.

If you believe the stories.