USSR 1991

USSR 1991

USSR 1991


What a long, long, long day this has been.  In fact, last night and today have largely merged as one.  Our whole group had to share a single room at the hotel in Samarkand after check-out time, and after having found it impossible to get any sleep in one single shared room, we headed off to the airport at 10:00pm for our 11:45pm flight to Moscow.  Wonderful though the experience was in Samarkand, it was good to be leaving the exhaust-filled streets and smoke-filled, noisy dining rooms.

We reached Samarkand Airport in only 20 minutes, so our wait was quite long.  Finally, at about 11:20pm, we walked across the tarmac to our plane, an early model three-engined Tupolev Tu-154 (registration CCCP-85245, flight SU688).  We were ‘released” from the terminal a minute or two before the Soviet passengers, and we soon learned why – as we were approaching our aircraft, we were almost knocked to the ground by a rushing crowd that was running across the tarmac from behind us.  They were our fellow passengers, and they were elbowing us out of their way roughly and forcefully as they sprinted to the plane; in a quite literal sense, we only managed to board the plane by fighting our way up the mobile boarding stairs.  It seems that Uzbek people are just as energetic when they are boarding an airliner as they are when they are when they go dancing or driving.

Once on board, there were several fights underway to get seats as people tried to displace other passengers; we saw one woman with an ample peasant build lift a small man out of his seat bodily, swing around and drop him in the aisle of the plane before sitting in the seat she had vacated for herself.  We witnessed some truly amazing sights as the boarding continued.  Almost every passenger brought a huge watermelon with them as hand luggage and the open overhead shelves were lined with them.  Several people brought their animals on board with them, including a small boy who cuddled his dog all the way to Moscow.  Fortunately, the cabin staff (almost all female) refrained from shouting at the passengers, waving their fingers while arguing, and slamming overhead locker doors in anger like the personnel we had on our flight from Moscow to Tashkent a few days ago.

A meal, if one could call it that, was served; one finger of thick, very dry brown bread, a hard-boiled egg, and a lump (there is no other word for it) of fatty, greasy liverwurst, washed down with a small cup of unsweetened black tea.

The flight lasted four hours, so we touched down at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport at 1:00am (with the time difference of three hours, it would have been 4:00am in Samarkand by that time).  We landed at Vnukovo rather than Domodedovo as scheduled because Moscow was shrouded in a pea-soup fog, thus completing our collection of all four of Moscow’s working civil airports.

Vnukovo is south-west of Moscow, Domodedovo of Moscow, and the drive between them usually takes about an hour.  So we had to wait for us (which had gone to Domodedovo to meet us) to make the trip to Vnukovo.  I late found out that the only flights entering Moscow last night were from Central Asia (like ours) – because flights from everywhere else had the sense to check the weather conditions in Moscow before taking off.

Vnukovo was filled with sleeping passengers whose departing flights had been delayed, so we changed our waiting room a few times while waiting for our bus, which finally arrived at about 2:40am, the drive across from Domodedovo having been really slow because of the thick fog.

Our drive to the Cosmos Hotel was also slow because of the fog, seemingly made even longer by a group of Argentinians who shared the bus with us and sang ALL the way; their bus seemed to have got lost on its journey from Domodedovo to collect them.  I finally made it into bed for some sleep at 4:15am, which would have been 7:15am in Samarkand.

I woke up to  my alarm at 8:15am with a headache because the room was so hot and stuffy, as breakfast was scheduled for 9:00am.  Our rooms this time were on the 20th floor and the view revealed just how thick the fog was – I couldn’t even see the street below us from the window.  With our flight to Bangkok scheduled for 11:05pm tonight, I sure hope that there isn’t a repeat of this fog!

We had a day’s program organised in Moscow before our evening departure, so we set off at 9:45am for our first visit of the day, the interior of the Kremlin.  This proved to be a real highlight of the trip, a trip that had more than its fair share of highlights.  Tourists are not allowed into the working government buildings, of course, but we saw lots of black limousines passing through, including a high-speed convoy of six huge long-wheelbase ZiL cars, two with police at the front, one with curtained windows through which we could see a VVIP reading a newspaper in the back seat, followed by three more, the last of which contained fur-hatted central Asian looking fellows with machine guns at the ready.

The Moscow Kremlin is an architectural treasure house. , with beautiful gold-domed churches, cathedrals and bell towers, lovely classical buildings, the world’s largest cannon and bell (two different objects), and so on.  We went inside the Assumption cathedral and the interior can only be described as extremely lavish, with gold and icons everywhere, along with colourful frescoes and murals.  Our guide, Galina, is extraordinarily well-informed about Russian Orthodox imagery – I suspect she is a practising Orthodox, but of course she won’t confirm or deny this.

We then walked to the Kremlin’s Armoury Museum – what an experience!  It must be the world’s greatest collection of historical works of art – carriages, Fabergé eggs, clothes, goblets, crowns, thrones, you name it.  Even the photos I have seen can’t do justice to the splendour of it all.  We were there for an hour and three-quarters, but we could easily have stayed for a day, especially with the prospect of hearing the fascinating stories behind many of the exhibits.

This afternoon we went on a tour of the Moscow Metro (underground railway), but before I began at 4:00pm, I wanted to go quickly and get a photo of Moscow’s latest phenomenon – the queues to get into the Soviet Union’s first McDonalds outlet which opened just last year (to the extent that anyone can get a photo of a queue that encircles an entire, large city block).  I managed to achieve that, but unfortunately I became disoriented coming back on the Metro because of all the name changes of the stations.  All the stations named after Communists and revolutionaries are being re-named, so the signs in the stations are a random mix of the old and new names, some of which matched my map and many of which did not.  I didn’t get back until 4:30pm and so I missed the tour of the Metro.  That was a pity, as the Moscow Metro is architecturally magnificent, but I had seen many of the stations when I was in Moscow in 1987, and provided they don’t dismantle the very socialist décor of the stations, it will provide me with an incentive to return to Moscow again one day (as though I would need an incentive like that!).

Day 15

Samarkand to Moscow, Russia, USSR


12 October 1991