Thursday July 29 – Cheget to Moscow
Last night Ryan, Paul, Todd, Humberto and I went out for drinks. Cheget has a very nice atmosphere and there are several restaurants and bars to choose from. My stomach was a little upset (something we have all dealt with at least a couple times on this trip) so I left early and went back to the room. I decided to watch a movie on the computer and was still up when Paul and Todd returned around midnight.
After a good sleep I woke at 7am to finish packing and have breakfast before our 8:30am departure from Cheget to Minerakyne Vody for our flight back to Moscow. The drive was uneventful, but we were glad we had Oksana with us when we got to the airport. I have traveled all around the world and feel pretty confident that I can navigate most countries airports, but Russia is a whole different animal. Nobody speaks any English and it is a very confusing and chaotic system (at least it seems so to me). With Oksana’s help we got through initial security and checked in our bags and got our boarding passes. The Mineralyne Vody airport has a very strict 20 kilo per person policy and they add all bags in a group together plus your carry on. For normal travel this may not be an issue, but with a big duffel bag full of mountaineering equipment we had no hope of meeting the 20 kilo limit. We were 36 kilos over as a group and had to pay1800 Rubles (about $65). Once we paid we moved on to security to get into the boarding lounge.
We were soon called for our flight and boarded the plane. The plane was of a similar vintage to our last one, but this one was slightly newer and not quite as run down. Take off was smooth and the flight went quickly as I dozed off and on. The landing was also smooth and we were soon taxiing towards the gate.
As I looked out the window I saw that our plane was following a car with flashing lights on top. It seemed odd to have an escort, but I just assumed it was normal for the very busy Moscow airport. Our plane was guided to and stopped at an out of the way space away from the other parked planes. I thought we were just in a holding pattern waiting for a gate to open. Then a fuel truck came up to our plane and it appeared that they were fueling the plane which seemed a little odd to me as we were not at a gate and nobody had yet deplaned (I later figured out they were removing all the fuel from the plane for reasons which will become clear as my story continues). After the fuel truck left we seemed to sit on the tarmac forever. It was very hot in the plane as the air conditioning did not work. The thermometer on my watch registered 95f. We sat and sat and nothing was happening and no announcement was made. People were getting over heated and agitated. The flight staff said that we were stuck in traffic and would move soon.
Then I looked out the window and saw that our plane was being surrounded by police in flack jackets. There was also a media crew filming our plane and a reporter was talking to the camera. None of us had any idea what was going on and the flight staff continued to play dumb. It got hotter and hotter in the plane and water was passed out. The lady in front of us was apparently having difficulty breathing, but I think she was just being melodramatic. The steward brought her an oxygen bottle and a mask, but like much of the plane it did not work. People started to yell at the flight staff and the atmosphere was very electric. I felt that it could have erupted into a very ugly scene at any moment.
After three hours on the ground the doors were finally opened up and a blast of cool air (85f) rushed into the plane. After a further wait of about 30 minutes, we were let off the plane. As we walked towards the door of the plane the flight staff stood by the door thanking everyone and saying they hoped they had a good flight. This is standard procedure, but the passengers were having none of it. Many shouted insults back and stormed off the plane. The big issue is that we were never told why we were being held and there was obviously an issue. Not a single announcement had been made by the captain or anyone else in authority.
As I descended the stairs to the tarmac I saw for the first time the seriousness of the situation. There were dozens of police cars and what appeared to be Special Forces military vehicles around as well as half a dozen ambulances. I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. Since we could not speak Russian and nobody else around us seemed to know what was going on we just kept walking towards the waiting shuttle bus. At least it was over and we could get to our hotel in Moscow and go out for dinner.
We drove away from the plane towards the terminal and were soon disembarking and walking through a door being held open for us. As we walked down the stairs we walked into a cafeteria and found all the exit doors locked and guarded by soldiers. We quickly realized that we were not going anywhere fast, but still did not know why.
Slowly through bits and pieces here and there we learned what had happened. Well at least parts of it. Apparently there was an attempted high jacking of our plane. It happened in the front of the plane and since we were at the back we did not see or hear anything. All I know is that a person the police are calling a “terrorist” attempted to high jack the plane at some point as we were flying towards Moscow. I am not sure what happened next, but one story tells that the terrorist was subdued by passengers and a plain clothes security officer. The other goes that the terrorist was overpowered by Special Forces soldiers dressed as medical staff after the plane landed. Regardless of what actually happened the terrorist was captured and handcuffed and led off the plane to an awaiting squad car.
It is amazing that not a word of what was happening up front had filtered to the back of the plane. We were oblivious to a potentially very dangerous and scary situation.
Once in the cafeteria it was waiting time. English speaking staff was assigned to us, but they knew little and were saying even less. After a couple of hours food was served and the military arrived to start to interview everyone. We were told we would be here all night. We filled out an eye witness report and photo copied our passports, Russian Visas, and boarding passes and then waited to be interviewed by an army officer through an interpreter.
At first all seemed to be going well. The process appeared to be moving even though nobody had spoken to us yet. The non-smoking cafeteria quickly became smoke filled as the nicotine starved passengers lit up (it seems that 80% or more of the Russian population smokes). The bathroom in particular became extremely hazardous to the non-smoker. For some reason it was felt that the bathroom was the best place to smoke and the small confined space soon became dense with smoke. Going to the bathroom was akin to sticking your head in a chimney with a roaring leaf fire belching smoke in your face. A deep breath was required before entering and not for the normal bathroom reasons.
Interpreters soon found their way to us and the process began with the two Brazilians (Gilberto and Humberto) as they had the earliest flight home and needed to get going soon if they were to make their plane. It was a difficult process as the questions needed to be translated from Russian, into English and then into Portuguese and then back again. I set the timer on my watch to see how long this interview was going to take as we would need to repeat it for each of the seven of us.
Two more interpreters were produced and the process started with another one of us. I figured that this could not take long as none of us had seen or heard anything. How wrong I would be proven to be.
Not too long after the interview began the military soldiers who were conducting the interviews began to chain smoke to match the 150 other chain smokers around us. It became extremely uncomfortable to breathe.
Every now and then the interpreters would get up and walk away and the soldiers would do the same. We watched on in amused and slightly frustrated silence. Then I noticed that the interpreters had disappeared and had not returned. Nobody could speak English and our repeated questions went unanswered. Eventually an airport media photographer approached us and in halting English said that he would try to help us out. He did not know where our original interpreters had gone.
Although his intentions were great his English was poor and the interview process ground to an unbelievably slow speed. The Russian officer would ask a question and the photographer would try to put it into English at which point a long conversation would ensue in Russian. Eventually he would say “date of birth” or “nationality”. This would then be translated into Portuguese for the Brazilians and then the process would rebound back again. The funny thing was that most of the initial questions could be answered by the passport in the soldier’s hand. The most ridiculous question I heard was “can you tell me what flight you were on and where you were flying from and to”. As far as I could tell we had all been on the same plane from and to the same location and this is why we were being held. Very quickly the process turned into a comedy of epic proportions, but it lacked any real humour.
Members of our team started to get extremely frustrated with the slow process. Nobody seemed to know what was going on and the soldiers stood around discussing the situation and the questions, personnel and process seemed to be in an ever changing state, the only thing that did not change was the rotund soldier interviewing the Brazilians. We nicknamed him “John Candy” due to his striking resemblance to the late Canadian actor and his comedic ability. When asked what they saw the Brazilians responded “nothing”. Mr. Candy would then write for 10-15 minutes, tearing up several sheets of paper and start again. This continued for almost three hours when things seemed to be wrapping up. We thought that at least two of our team had been finished. The soldier stacked his 30 page report and started all over again with the second Brazilian. In all this time he had only questioned one person.
Tempers started to flare and upon questioning we were told that each person would need to be interviewed individually. Our initial interpreters returned and told us that their boss was not happy with their level of interpretation ability and they were no longer allowed to assist us. This once again was quite comical as the photographer who was acting as the official interpreter had a far poorer command of the English language that the two people that were no longer allowed to work with us. This was quickly turning into a gong show of epic proportions.
Ryan had been speaking with the American Embassy to try to get us some help, but when the Embassy called the airport they were told that there was no incident and that no passengers were being held. Instead of sending someone down to investigate the Embassy just said good luck and keep in touch if we required any further assistance. A few hours later when Ryan called again they were closed for the day and the emergency line went unanswered.
With the philosophy that “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” we started to demand from anyone we thought was in some position of authority that something happen to get us moving. The soldiers became frustrated with our demands as they could not understand us and we could not understand them. It appeared to work as the two interpreters who were told they were not good enough were now told to get to work and clear us through the interview process.
To make a very long story slightly shorter, I will say that eventually we were all interviewed and cleared of any suspicion in the terrorist plot. It was an extremely frustratingly slow process and seemed to be flawed at every point. We were each made to write out a statement that we wanted no further involvement in the case, that we had been treated well and that we had freely and happily answered questions all night.
Ultimately I have no idea of what really happened. I was told that it was all a mistake and that it was just a drunk passenger, but that seemed unlikely with the massive police and military presence. I was also told that a man somehow got a gun onto the plane (I think this is unlikely) and had attempted to get into the cockpit. I do think much of this is true, with the exception of the gun, and that a security officer and several passengers quickly and bloodily dealt with the terrorist. But your guess is as good as mine.
After almost 14 hours in detention the frustration level was extremely high and we were still not done. Tempers were starting to flare and the officials started to realize they needed to get this over with before they had an international incident on their hands. We were offered free transportation and accommodation to placate us. It sufficed to quench some of the anger, but the best move was just to let us go. We were almost the last passengers to be released. The one group left after us was the only other non-Russian speaking group.
A group of Chinese climbers who had summited Elbrus the day before us had spent their time sleeping, watching movies on their computer, taking pictures, and playing video games. I felt sorry for them as only one member of their group spoke English and he would need to translate for each and every one of his team; Russian to English, to Chinese and back again for hours on end. I could only hope for them that the soldiers had learned something through their experience with us and that the interview process would now go faster, but I am doubtful.
Eventually our team, minus Gilberto and Umberto who had left to catch their plane to Brazil, met in the airport with Nikolai our Russian logistics provider and flanked by a security guard who had been charged with looking after us. It was good to be out of the chaos, but unfortunately this incident had ended our trip and we no longer had time for souvenir shopping or one last team dinner. We split into the night and started our long journeys home.