Saturday, 16 June 2012

Escape from Russia

The visit to St Petersburg was a surprise romantic trip for my wife on our wedding anniversary. It’s a stunning place; we both loved it – until we attempted to return home.

Our plane left at a convenient time: 11.30 a.m. At just after nine we stood in the sunshine near the sign that displayed the timetable for the Airport Express. The vehicle existed, we had observed it at this point as we walked between the hotel and the Dostoevsky Metro station. It was simply a white minibus with Airport Express in black on its sides. The timetable indicated that its number was K9000 and that the first bus was at 9.15 a.m. then every half hour. Many buses and trolley cars came and went – the Express did not. The heat became intense. 9.45 a.m. came and went yet still no bus. At 10 o’clock, I broke and re-entered the hotel to order a taxi. No problem sir – but the fixed price of 1,600 roubles was well beyond my remaining cash. No problem, there was a cash machine in the lobby and I had already used it (you need a lot of cash in St Petersburg). But now, in extremis, it would not dispense cash to me. A kind man tried to help me though I do not really need help with cash machines that have an English option. His motivation was unclear until he announced that he was my taxi-driver. I followed him to another machine, still no joy and time ticking on.

“Come,” he said decisively and we piled into the cab. We negotiated as he sped towards the airport. He called someone for the current exchange rate of sterling and we settled on £30 plus 100 roubles. He got us to the airport by 10.30 a.m. Good man. We struggled through security and tried to find check-in. Nothing on the screens so I asked some one for help and was mortified to find that we were in the wrong terminal! Terminal two was the international terminal but our airline flew from the domestic one – terminal one.

We rushed outside, and looked around the semi-deserted departure set down area. I found a bus but it did not go to terminal one. I found a taxi but he wanted 700 roubles for the trip. I offered him all I had (about 350 roubles) but he would not budge. Rushed back to the bus where a young woman who spoke English took us in hand. She said that the bus went partway and we should take it. She joined us. It dropped the three of us on a dual carriageway where I struggled over a bridge to the other side. Here our helper stopped various buses – no good. Then she waved down a car and after a fervent discussion with the driver stated that he would take us to terminal one for 200 roubles – all I had left. He drove his old banger at satisfying speed whilst bemoaning, in broken English, the current state of democracy in Russia.

We tried to rush through security, which is impossible, then dashed around looking for check-in. It was closed – no one there. I ran to other desks and then to the information point. There the expressionless woman told me that we had missed the plane and we must go to the Russian Airways ticket desk. “But the plane has not left,” I bleated. She busied herself with the next query.

At the ticket desk I was told that we had missed the plane, the next was in two days time, and that we would have to pay a charge for new tickets. Kindly she searched her computer and found that there was a BA flight later that day and gave me a price (wince). Also there was an Aeroflot route via Moscow. We went to the Aeroflot desk and were astounded by the price. We retired to a diner where all we could afford was a glass of milk between us! But it had Wi-Fi and I found a cheapish apartment which looked nice. We decided to stay for the two-day wait. I booked the apartment then returned to the Russian Airways desk to book our flights. This took a lot of computer bashing and another bashing on the credit card but at last we were all set. I found a cash machine that worked and we returned to St Petersburg centre.

Two days later we began our journey to the airport again. This time we knew the correct terminal and, even though the plane left at the same time as the last one, we started out earlier. We also followed the guidebook by taking the metro to Pushkinskaya station where it stated that the Airport Express would take us to the terminal. This was the metro station that the Airport Express had dropped us at when we first arrived in St Petersburg. We were full of confidence this time, but soon became worried: there was no Airport Express at Pushkinskaya though we asked and asked and searched and searched. Of course, a taxi driver offered his services and stated that there was no Airport Express. At first I ignored him, but, in desperation, asked him the price.

“Special price – 1,000 roubles,” he replied. It was a special price and he was not a real taxi driver: his unmarked car looked a bit rough. But we had no choice so I agreed. Then I looked in my wallet I did not have enough roubles – as before we had tried to minimise the Russian cash that we took home. I held out 750 roubles and he agreed to take it. Off we went in the old banger which this thick set, bull necked man wrenched around corners using his own power steering - brute strength.

We were there by 10.15 a.m. Plenty of time. Security again (how many X-rays can one suitcase take) then off to check-in. We smiled confidently. We had made it. A sultry assistant examined our passports before check-in then called a large uniformed man over. I had a sudden thought – the visas had expired on the day of our missed flight, surely they wouldn’t, couldn’t keep us there for a two day overstay which wasn’t our fault? The man showed no expression as he examined the passports then accompanied us to the check in desk. Everything seemed to be going well. We were issued with tickets and our bag chuntered up the slope to join the others on their way to the plane. I began to relax: once your bags are on you have to travel too; otherwise the bags have to be taken off again. Then the man’s hand snaked forward, yanked our bag of the belt and plonked it on the floor. It was going nowhere and nor were we. He beckoned to us. I asked about the bag. The check-in woman said that if we got through passport control it would be placed on the belt – no problem.

We followed our minder through to passport control then tried to select the queue leading to the most amenable checker. We began to inch forward, perhaps all would be OK. Then our minder was joined by a younger, smarter looking man. They talked whilst looking suspiciously at us. They then nodded in conclusion and yanked us out of the queue! I asked the younger man if he spoke English: he ignored me. The two of them took our passports and tickets and talked between themselves. We were becoming frantic.

Then an angel appeared, later I learned that her name was Anna. She was in her twenties and spoke perfect English and Russian. She asked what was going on, listened to the men, heard our plaintive story and started translating.

“They say that your visa has expired. You must go to terminal two where there is a special ATM. There you must pay 1,400 roubles to extend the visa and return here,” she said.

At this point Margaret burst into tears saying that was impossible and that she just wanted to leave Russia. The men were unmoved. Anna got quite cross with them, but they insisted. We must go to terminal two to get the visa extensions. She took out a notebook and wrote down the name of the bank that I had to find. The men wandered off after giving me the passport and useless tickets. Margaret said that it was useless; we had been through this terminal one, terminal two thing already. Anna became a little cross with her.

“You must not be so defeatist,” she chided. “It is five minutes to the other terminal. It can be done. You can stay here. He can go. I have to go now - I have to work.”

I patted her shoulder and thanked her for her kindness. I shot off relieved to be alone since it was so much faster. I managed to get out of departures and swiftly found taxi, just 400 roubles – the official rate I think. But it was not five minutes to terminal two, more like fifteen. I did not dare look at the time, there was no point. At the other end I had to pass through the security queues yet again, but did not panic. I had resolved that if we did not make the plane then we would pay for any other alternative to get into Europe and out of the clutches of the Russians who seemed to be milking us like the proverbial cash cow.

I showed Anna’s scribbled note around and at last found the bank – just a small glass-fronted box-like office with one lady within it. She was dealing with a customer so I had to wait whilst dithering between panic and calmness. At last the other person left and I discovered that the bank lady had no English at all! But she did understand what I wanted when I pointed to the visa page of my passport. I guessed that this happened a lot. She took out a large file and began to read her instructions. She then held up a form which was entirely in Russian, she speckled it with crosses where I had to make entries. The form had to be completed in duplicate and there was one for each of us. She cajoled me into putting the right things into the right boxes by shouting at me in Russian and pointing at the fields of my passport. At one time the man behind me joined in. He did not speak English either but, surprisingly, he did help.

Then came payment, after many tries with my well-worn debit card and even with the help of the man behind me it seemed that she couldn’t extract the 1400 roubles from it. Finally I had to go off to a cash machine and get roubles – they were gradually draining my bank account. The forms were copied cut and stamped – now we were getting somewhere. She returned everything to me and I used my one Russian word on her - ‘spasibo’ – thank you.

I knew it was hopeless but I continued with the charade. I was sure that my plane was in the air by now, but I rushed out to find a taxi and had the fortune to pick up one that had just dropped someone off. The driver sped me to terminal one in just five minutes – magic and he only charged 400 roubles.

The security queue to enter terminal one was horrendous and I could not by-pass it – you can’t by-pass security. However, I did not panic; I was beyond panic. Then I was through and running for passport control. The charade continued. I called to Margaret who looked quite downcast and forced myself, with apologies, to the front of the passport queue. The woman at the desk made a call which was good sign I thought - perhaps the plane could be delayed for us. She then examined the passport and forms.

“But you have no visas,” she said chillingly.

My heart dropped. Was my drastic journey to and from terminal two in vain? Could we not get out of this bloody country even if it meant taking another flight? Another call and a young man appeared and led us away to another booth, then left us waiting. After five minutes he reappeared – with the young man we had encountered before. He looked at me, smiled and said. “Good”.

I had obviously done well, but did this mean that the plane was still there? More computer bashing and the satisfying thump of stamps landing on our passports then our man was rushing us through the gate, through another checkpoint (hurdle) and then security again. This was a high jump, the pass mark had risen. Margaret had to remove her boots and I had to take everything out of my pockets and remove my belt. We passed, then charged onwards dressing as we ran, for now we had lost our leader. Then we found him just as I realised that I had left my shoulder bag at security! I left him making furious phone calls on our behalf and then had to open my bag for examination by the punctilious security man. I ran back, we had to follow our man downstairs to a different gate and then board a big bus (just for us) out to the plane.

We walked down the aisle with downcast eyes and found our seats. Presumably everyone hated us for delaying the plane. However, some passengers did smile at us as we sank gratefully into ours seats: I do not know why they did. There were still delays before takeoff – missed slots for the runway I suppose, but finally we did get going. We were free. Russia had extracted a lot of money, and even more nervous energy, from us, but we had escaped. We smiled and agreed that we would never go back.