Editor's note: Contributing Editor RaeJean Stokes is traveling around the former U.S.S.R. this holiday season and reporting back to us with occasional missives about life on the other side of what was once the Iron Curtain.
As I made my way up the rickety metal stairs to the plane, it felt as if I was walking right back into the Soviet era. My husband assured me the hammer and sickle is just the fleet's logo, but as we boarded it felt like Stalin himself could have been a passenger. Never mind the crud in the crevices of my seat, or the fact that my seat folded forward (as well as reclined), this plane felt distinctly Soviet for another reason—it had no toilet paper in the bathroom.
If you've never traveled around the former U.S.S.R., you'd be forgiven for not knowing it's generally considered wise to pack your own toilet paper. For some reason, I expected a plane to be the exception to that rule. My mistake.
Generally speaking, the actual flying part of the journey was good. The takeoffs and landings were smooth, the food was tasty (and free!), and contrary to the rumors I'd heard while planning our trip, there was no smoking allowed on the flight.
The real fun came after we landed in Moscow, where we were scheduled to change planes before heading to St. Petersburg. Our schedule gave us a little over 90 minutes to complete the task, more than enough time—we thought. However, Moscow's airport lacks one critical element: any signs to explain where you need to go. I'm pretty well-traveled, and this is the first time I've been so completely confused in a major international airport.
After finally realizing we had to collect our baggage before changing planes (something I only discovered as we walked past the baggage carousel and I happened to notice my bright blue bag going round and round) we began the task of finding our connection ... which was 5.7 kilometers away in the second domestic terminal of the Moscow airport.
With only 45 minutes to spare, we were running through the terminal when I stopped to look at the departures screen—and our flight was nowhere to be found. Utterly confused (again), we headed to the information booth. When my husband asked in Russian we were told our connecting flight didn't exist and the Aeroflot crew in Kyiv should have told us so. Ah, Russia.
Needless to say, we weren't stranded forever. About five hours later, after being gouged for $8 a beer in the airport waiting lounge, we finally took off for St. Petersburg, where the landing was smooth and our transfer was without incident. It's a good thing we had someone from our language school meeting us, because St. Petersburg is one of the only places in the world where you have to show your baggage claim tickets before being allowed to exit the airport. Had we not known that, my blue suitcase would probably still be going round and round.
Next time: First impressions of St. Petersburg!