Moscow to Khabarovsk
07 June 2019
It was all going so well. The flight to Moscow was incredibly comfortable, only three hours long, and with so little cloud that we saw quite a lot of the countries we flew over. Off the plane, then, and down into the airport, following everyone else, into passport control. We queued for a while, then presented ourselves, only to be pulled out of the queue, deprived of our passports, and sent to sit down at the back of the hall, while some glitch or other was sorted out. It was the beginning of a truly kafkaesque experience, in which our lack of the ability to understand or speak Russian, combined with the gruff monosyllabic delivery of staccato English words like 'big' and 'problem' and 'wait' and 'no', left us confused and powerless to do anything but let whatever was going on run its course.
We were worried that we would miss our connecting flight. We had landed at 6.30pm local time, and our onward flight was due to leave at 8.30pm. At first this worry was a remote one, but it increased as a parade of passport control officers came and went from the small office into which they had taken our passports. Meantime hundreds of people poured off flights, were processed through the booths, and went on their way. Time passed. Ju phoned the travel company that organised our holiday, and got immediately a really supportive and helpful response.
The problem was explained to us as follows : the invitation letter from the Russin company running the Imperial Train journey defined the dates of our visa to run from 4 June, when we would arrive in Vladivostok. The problem was, and none of us had noticed this, that we arrived in Moscow for our ongoing flight on the 3rd, not the 4th, and intrnational law requires that people go through immigration in the port of entry, not the final destination.
So we were without the legal right to enter Russia, until midnight. We were sent to some hard seats at the back of the hall to wait until then, at which point they said we would get our documents back and would be legal.
Meantime I began to worry about our checked-through baggage. It would surely not be carried on the plane if we were not travelling on it, because we realised now we would not be on our scheduled flight, and had no means of telling Aeroflot why. I tried to find out if the passport people had contacted Aeroflot, and they said they had.
We settled down to wait it out, and I cursed the fact that we had no water to drink, and no means of buying any in this barren hall. Then one of the passport officers emerged from the office and beckoned us to go look if the bags were on a carousel. Ju went, I guarded our flight bags. They all came back with the news from a baggage handler that they had gone on to Vladivostok. We had no way of verifying this, no guarantees of anything, except that we were stuck to the spot with neither our passports or boarding cards, which had also been confiscated, so that was it. Ju brought back three bottles of water however, which someone had given her, we were so grateful!
Meantime the travel company phoned us and came up trumps, booked us into the Radisson Blu at the airport, and got us tickets on tomorrow's flight. All we had to do was wait it out to midnight.
I have not lost my personal freedom many times in my life, but this was not pleasant at all.
Finally it was over, by 12.05 we were admitted into Russia, and by 12.30 we were in bed in the hotel.
After breakfast we headed for information, which sent us to an Aeroflot desk. We found out that our bags were in fact still in this airport. We were then sent to check in for the rearranged flight so we did that, and tried to make the official understand that because we had been forced to miss our flight yesterday we needed to know that our luggage would get to Vladivostok with us. He went to great lengths to find out the facts, and then to reassure us that all would be well.
Then we found a bank and paid the fine for our visa error, 4120 roubles, or about £22. We suspected that if we didn't do that and keep the receipt they might not let us leave Russia at the end of the holiday.
We whiled away the rest of the time until our flight, then set off on the eight and a half hour flight to Vladivostok. We were greeted at checkin by Elena, one of the guides on the train, who promised to help us on arrival, if necessary, as a very welcome interpreter.
The flight was on a great circle route which took us almost to the Arctic circle before curving down south again. There was ice below us, and the midnight sun meant it didn't get dark at all. We arrived at half past seven, and our bags were not there. Much talk, more form-filling, waiting, with Elena doing a great job talking to the very grumpy woman in the lost baggage office.
Eventually Elena led us out to meet Andrei, our driver for the thirty miles into the city.
He was driving a right hand drive Japanese hybrid, like most of the other taxis we saw.
We arrived at the hotel we should have been staying in last night at nine fifteen, got our room keys and shot up to have a quick shower before ten, when today's tour of the city was to start.
At first sight our group of twenty-four consists of 7 English speakers, 14 French speakers, and 4 Spanish speakers. Each group has a dedicated guide, and ours was Natalya, a young woman who was capable of talking non stop while the minibus took us to each point of interest.
More importantly, we discovered that one of the French people had no luggage either. The chief guide told us that there had been some kind of dispute at Sheremetyevo the day we were there and 150 baggage handlers had walked off the job, leaving trucks of luggage on the tarmac. So maybe that had something to do with our predicament. Small comfort!
Our city tour was great. It included a trip to see a tiny lighthouse, to the town square where an imposing church with golden onion domes is completing its astonishingly fast two-year build! A real Great Patriotic War (Ww2) submarine, was now on the hard beside the harbour. It was open to the public and half of it was laid out as a museum while the forrard part had been left it was. Circular hatches in the bulkheads, the periscope in raised position, the mess, the crew bunks, everything as it was in the 1940s.
Then down to the water's edge to go for our boat trip round the harbour. Our lack of sleep was beginning to take effect. I dozed off for a while. We sailed round the Golden Horn and under its lovely new bridge. Then off to a restaurant beside a marina for dinner, which was really nice. Ju and I went for a wee walk afterwards to look at the boats. Vera, the course director, suddenly appeared beside us. She was aware of our lack of luggage, she said, and the company is making all possible efforts to recover our luggage for us. But then she mentioned the possibility of an upgrade from our basic compartment to one with its own toilet and shower. I could have hugged her, and said so! It wouod mke all the difference to us, washing out my one pair of socks and knicks every night in the privacy of our own en suite, rather than the communal one at the end of the carriage. This opportunity arose because a French couple who had booked it apparently got halfway but decided in Moscow just to go home!
The minibus took us to the station, and we boarded our train for 9288 km or 5805 miles of Russian landscapes and adventures. We have two carriage attendants who keep us in tea and coffee, clean linen and looroll. After a quick welcome meeting in the restaurant car we clambered into bed, only pausing to ask the attendant to wash four items for us, Ju's one pair of trousers and my one shirt among them. Next time I will pack differently.
The next morning we woke up early and disembarked in heavy rain in Khabarovsk, our first city after Vladivostok. This one was elegant where V had been functional. Tour included another brand new church building, full of people following a wonderfully musical service. You can't beat Russian bass voices!