IST-SVO-OVB (Istanbul to Moscow to Novosibirsk)

Here's a draft that's been sitting around for almost a year. Might as well just publish it... Two o'clock A.M., 02:00, is not a human time for flights to depart. But this is the scheduled departure of Aeroflot 220 from Istanbul to Moscow. So I go to dinner with Emre and Sam, then spend a couple hours in my room to shower and pack up.

Istanbul airport requires a security check to enter the building. Show passport and ticket, remove coat, belt, and watch, then gather yourself.

Aeroflot has chosen the scrum method of queueing for the flight. One desk is marked business class, two economy, and one "excess baggage." It turns out that this is where passengers are sent to pay $10 per kilo over their allowance. Seems steep for a kilo, but I don't know what the allowance is.

There are is no person or apparatus to organize the queue, and the prevailing attitude is very much "move up where you can." I generally aim for the third line, closest to excess baggage. This is the wrong choice. A group of 8 to 15 men, I can never tell exactly who is with them and who is not, are crowded around the desk and although I see passports and tickets and boarding passes going around the line never moves for the first 30 minutes of waiting. I want to scream "multi-checkout single-queue" at the top of my retail consulting lungs.

I spend my time in the scrum watching people. The group of men hogging the desk appear surly. You could tell me they are mobsters and I'd nod "of course, I can tell." But you could also tell me they're simply a group of construction company employees and I'd take that too. Beyond that gang, there is a wide mix from well-heeled-stylish to casual. But not one who I can say looks American or British by their stuff or appearance. I am the only english-speaking person here. I feel a little out of place.

When I present my passport and ticket, the agent calls over the special passport-examining man, who reviews my visa for her. I am checked in, and I even get an aisle seat. Then I show my passport for the third time tonight to the passport control man in his booth, who stamps me out of Turkey.

There is Starbucks, but closed. There is a bar, but a beer is 11 turkish and I only have 10 left, and I'm not willing to risk my credit card being denied yet again. (That's another story.) I go sit near the gate for a few minutes before joining the queue.

This queue is yet another security check. Show your passport (fourth time tonight) and boarding pass. Remove jacket, watch, belt. Scan everything. Turn laptop on & off to show its battery is not a bomb. (Can't they read my sticker, "this is not a bomb"? No they can't. I haven't heard more than 5 words of English in an hour.)

Next I show my passport (5th time) to a lady at a desk controlling entrance to the waiting area for gate 216. Seems the prior security check was for 214-217. I get in and sit down. Realize that I needed to go to the bathroom before that check. Unwilling to repeat a passport check, I decide I'll pee on the plane.

I clearly made a big mistake by not utilizing the duty-free shop. I must be in a less-than-ten-percent minority without one of those bags.

Boarding is called all at once, another scrum. At the top of the jetway they scan boarding passes, and special-passport-examining-man gives mine the once-over again. Six times between taxi and plane they have to see my passport?

Even though I'm the only one who needs it, all the announcements are conducted in Russian then English. I'm grateful. I fall asleep on the plane for a couple hours, thank goodness. Awake to breakfast service, which is a meat and cheese plate with some bread and a coffee cup. But I'm never offered any liquid. Must have slept through that.

We land. I set my watch forward to Moscow time, 6 AM. Getting off the plane is quite orderly considering. Passport control is quick. My bag is one of the first on the conveyer after a brief wait. Customs believe that I have nothing to declare, and wave me right through.

Arrivals lounge. Sam and Emre told me about this but I am not prepared. "Follow the signs for Terminal 1."

As soon as I pass out of the limo waiting area, every bystander is a taxi driver aggressively peddling a ride. And there are a lot of bystanders. I go sit down just to get away from them. Remember I'm supposed to look for the transit to Terminal 1. Can't find a sign anywhere.

I'm starting to feel a bit freaked out. No sign of transit to Terminal 1, no "i" for friendly information, the only people who talk to me are taxi drivers who want "very reasonable" or in one case $20 for a ride to Terminal 1. I walk outside, a taxi driver pestering me on the way.

Finally I find a sign "Transit Bus, Terminal 1." I stand for a few minutes. The sign is pinkish-yellow. There are no similarly colored buses. Every so often a city bus comes by. Every so often a van comes by. These both seem to require a fare, which I was told transit would not.

I go upstairs to departures to look around. No other signs of transit. Security guards don't know about transit or don't know enough English to tell me. A taxi offers to take me to Terminal 1 for 80 Euros. I go back downstairs.

A large coach bus stops, like a charter tour bus in America. I ask if this is to Terminal 1 but think I hear "no." I later figure out this was it. Next I hop on to one of the small vans at the direction of a taxi driver. After I'm on, I spend a terrified 2 minutes wondering if it is really going to take me to Terminal 1. I begin to realize that it will, and that I've accidentally avoided the 5 dollar fare. 5 minutes later we arrive at Terminal 1 and I'm happy to pay.

Right now I'm pretty much hating Moscow, as the 20 minutes I've spent here have been my most uncomfortable in years.

The airport is a dump.

I go in to the airport through security. I queue for a second security behind which are the gates for check-in. I'm refused, my flight doesn't have a check-in desk yet. I go back out to the cafe, sit down with a double-espresso in a plastic cup. Good coffee, but the cup really kills the experience.

Fire up the laptop. There is wifi, and what looks like a login page in Russian. But I can't guess what the field names are so I give up on communication.

Departures board shows Novosibirsk checking in at desks 23 & 24. Try again, but they still won't let me in.

So this is when I meet Alex, waiting for security to check in. Soon enough I get past security, wait in a short line to check in, and I have an aisle seat and an English-speaking friend in the gate area.

Alex and I share cigarettes and chat over a beer for about an hour. He's a tall 27-year-old sales rep for a Swedish industrial equipment company, headed home from a week of training in Moscow. We chat about lots of stuff. Easy and nice to have a guide.

On the plane there is one more discomfort. I'm in an aisle, 11C. Man next to me in middle seat asks me to change with his wife who's in the middle seat in front of us. I refuse and spend the next 10 minutes feeling ugly toward him for asking me to trade down. Thankfully they move to an empty row and I've got an aisle seat with an empty middle.

So here I am. 1pm Moscow time, I think it is 4pm Novosibirsk time, which means I'll be there in an hour. Wish me luck.