Category Archives: Russia

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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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.

A Czar-y Story

I was supposed to be flying today but because of Hurricane Sandy my flight was canceled. To be productive and make the most out of this new time I have I wanted to write something. While trying to wrack my brain for something interesting I recalled one of my favorite stories I’ve ever been told while traveling. And to make it even better I can make a really bad pun in honor of Halloween (czar-y almost looks like scary!) and I am a fan of horrible puns.

One interesting thing about Armenia and other countries that have a strong Russian influence is the non-verbal way to ask for some alcohol. Often when with a couple of Armenian men one will eventually look towards you since you’re the foreigner and tap his neck right under the jaw with the back of his pointer and middle finger while looking a bit quizzically. This means ‘You want some vodka?’ After seeing this habit for months I finally asked an older Armenian gentleman I was drinking with why they did it and he told me this awesome story. I doubt it’s true but I love it.

Back in the Russian Czarist era, one of the Czars was visiting his people in Siberia. While him and the royal family were skating on a frozen lake the ice broke and his son fell into the icy water. As the frigid arms of hypothermia and drowning were about to embrace the boy, a local peasant dove into the water and fished him out. The Czar was so amazed by this man’s courage that he was speechless the entire way back to the man’s hut where everyone warmed near the fire.

‘You my loyal subject have proved to me that I am the leader of the greatest people in the world. A man of your bravery is a credit to your family and village.’ The Czar gripped the peasant’s hand, ‘You have saved one of the most precious things in my life. What can I ever do to repay you? Your word is my command. Would you like money? Land? Women? How can I make you happy?’

Now this peasant was a man like everyone else and tempted by this grand offer. But he was not hasty. A thoughtful man, he asked the Czar for a moment to think. Two minutes of quiet contemplation later the peasant had his response.

‘My liege. I dove into the water not for personal gain. A father should never outlive his son and I would have done the same for the highest of kings and the lowest of lepers. As to your offer I must respectfully decline. Every man could use more money, but if you were to provide me with a large treasure my children would grow up to be lazy, relatives would always be asking for help, and my neighbors would resent me. I already have a nice plot of land taken care of by my family, if it was much bigger it would be necessary for me to hire laborers which cause more problems then they solve. And my wife may not be the fair maiden she was when I met, her lithe form is long gone; but she has always been faithful to me and provided me four wonderful children. I would be a stupid man to ruin thirty years of marriage to the woman I love for the pleasures of the flesh. And what sort of young lady would like to be with an old man like myself? My stamina is not what it’s used to be.’

‘However,’ the man continued, ‘there is something I would like if it please you. I’m a simple man and after a hard day working in my fields I often enjoy visiting an inn with my friends for a beer or a bit of vodka. My business often takes me to other towns and I enjoy meeting new people over a few drinks. If you could make it so I do not have to pay for drinks any more I would be very happy.’

The czar was very impressed with the man’s lack of greed. ‘If everyone in my lands half as good as you my friend we would be the greatest nation in history. I will honor our agreement and will tell my mayors and governors to inform all public houses must provide you with free drinks for the rest of your life. A discrete sign will do. As you order your drink simply tap your neck with the back of your first two fingers. This will show the taverns that you are the man that has saved my son and has my blessing to drink without paying.’

So that’s the story. I really enjoy telling it at parties because everyone likes a little cultural folklore. Now go and spread it and impress your friends.