Moscow Woes

I must make a point here and warn all Americans as well as Armenians living in Western or Middle Eastern countries—or all countries for that matter—to avoid traveling to or from Armenia through Moscow, unless you like to dwell in airports for up to 12 hours or so. Here’s why.

In late March I traveled to the US to visit my parents and friends as well as to pay my taxes with my girlfriend-turned-fiancée Ariga. In my airline ticket search the cheapest I found were through Moscow with Aeroflot, then on to New York with Delta Airlines and finally to Boston. We had a wonderful time there, but we were planning to spend a fun-filled day in Moscow on our way back to Yerevan. As I found out during a visit to the Russian embassy in Yerevan, a transit visa to Moscow would cost from $100-150, depending on how soon I wished to have it processed. Transit visas are good for up to 72 hours.

I failed to send my application in for my transit visa to the Russian consulate in New York until about 8 days before my departure from Boston. So in order to process the visa as quickly as possible I paid $150--$50 more than the regular price. The embassy had indicated on their Web site that the processing time would be three days. When I received my passport in the mail the day after I was scheduled to fly, I checked the date of issue to find that the embassy was right—it was processed on April 7. But they decided to hold onto it for the weekend before sending it in the mail late Monday afternoon, April 11, as was postmarked on the envelope. Ariga left on Tuesday without me.

Tuesday afternoon I spent calling the Russian Consulate to tell them off, then Aeroflot to arrange some kind of resolution to fly the next, which did not come to fruition easily. They requested that I photocopy then fax them a facsimile of my tickets. When I called back they told me the resolution was low and they could not read them. I resent them on super fine resolution then called back only to find that the office had closed at exactly 5:00 pm. The next morning, frantic to make a 12:30 pm flight to New York, then a 5:00 pm to Moscow, I called Aeroflot once again only to understand that they could not secure a seat for me on their 11:30 pm flight to Yerevan, which flies daily, as all seats were booked. Suspicious that flights to Yerevan were always booked each day, I requested that they put me on standby, which they told me they would do.

Delta Airlines was most accommodating and when hearing that my passport had been lost in the mail, albeit one day, they simply rescheduled my flight to Moscow for Wednesday as well, as the flight also departs New York daily.

In Moscow at the airport I was greeted by Ariga’s uncle Sarkis, who had arrived the previous day to pick both of us up but found only her. He took additional time off from work to show me around Moscow. When we arrived in the vicinity near Red Square, we learned that the square was closed for some reason, and access had only ceased just a few hours before. In any case, I also visited Ariga’s aunt for a few hours in her home, then left with them for Sheremetsevo airport. Upon entering I soon learned that Aeroflot’s Soviet-like procedures had changed little in 15 years since the Union’s collapse. The reservation counter was not a counter at all, but a string of small cubbies where someone sat of course with a rude demeanor and totally unaccommodating. A representative, who seemed more like a janitor judging by the way he handled my case, quickly fingered through my ticket before throwing it back to me, roughly explaining that all tickets were sold and demanding that I approach the check-in counter to verify. For some reason to approach the counter you must run your carry-on baggage through X-ray machines and have two custom officers sitting quietly at a small desk study your visa—I went through this rigmarole three times.

Sarkis and I approached the check-in assistant only to hear the same response: there were no tickets to be had. When I explained to the woman that I was on standby and I had, in fact, presented her with my ticket for the previous day’s flight, she told me after supposedly checking in the computer system that my name did not appear on the standby list. She chatted with Sarkis for a few minutes, then finally stated there were no tickets in English, followed by “i vso” or “that’s it” in English. I replied “how” but for some reason in Armenian (vonc) having been accustomed to hearing the Russian declaration of finality so many times in my travels throughout Yerevan.

After sending us to reservations where we were promptly sent back, she told us to wait by the counter should an opening come about. I had arranged in New York to have my bags sent directly to Yerevan, and when Sarkis explained this to her she became baffled. She left her place then went to a desk where she called a supervisor. Sarkis overheard the conversation, and it turned out my bags were already in the cargo department. When the supervisor asked the assistant whether there were available seats, she replied “Yes.” Immediately it became apparent that they were all playing games with me, and that she expected a bribe of some kind to get me on the plane. She approached us like an innocent lamb then made arrangements for my seat. We were sent back again to reservations to pay a $30 penalty, but when I presented dollars they demanded payment in rubles. The reservation clerk sent us to a window only 10 feet away, where she appeared to exchange the currency, then we went back to her window once again to pay her. I received a ruble and some change back, and I anticipate the day when I can spend it in Mother Russia on my return. Really.

Well after payment it was smooth sailing from there. Of course there were plenty of seats available on the plane. It was interesting to see troubadour extraordinaire Aram Asatryan on board, sitting all the way in the back near me to avoid the public eye. Shortly after take off the French cognac and Martini vermouth bottles were opened and cups passed around amongst some of the passengers. Armenians behave the same everywhere, even at 8000 feet above land.


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