Apparently even the simplest things can become complex in Russia. Today Keli and I were to fly from Moscow’s Domodedovo (say that three times fast!) Airport to Mineralye Vody in southern Russia for our climb of Mt. Elbrus. The flight was at 12:50pm ñ yes these details are important as you will discover. After sizing up tiny Keli in her towering backpack with her many litres of water and realizing it would take too long to get to the Airport by public transport, we decided on going by relatively expensive taxi. We speculated that we would have time to change money, get some food, relax…You know all the things you get to do if you arrive ninety minutes mins before a flight.
Well, the taxi was a good idea. First we had to line up to convert our electronic tickets into paper ones (electronic tickets haven’t really caught on here apparently). Then we lined up to check our bags in and there struck the curse of air travel with Dups: our combined luggage was 3kg over the weight limit. Plus, they wouldn’t handle our backpacks, we had to personally drop them off at ìoversize luggageî. This led to the unique situation of being in an elevator which we initially thought was a room, and finally surprising the security guard who thought we were trying to go on the plane as luggage. Having survived and not been shot or arrested we went back to the check-in only to be told to go back and pay for the overweight baggage. Please note that all this was being explained exasperatingly with hand gestures, signs and crudely drawn hieroglyphs. Naturally by the time we paid, our plane was already boarding (which seemed strange at 12:10pm) so we were rushed through security and ran down the halls to find our plane fully boarded and waiting for us.
This is when my heart sank. I had picked Siberia S7 Airlines as they have modern jets in their fleet. However, we were about to fly on a Tupolev 154. I made a silent prayer hoping the plane would actually remain in the air long enough to get us to our destination.
Look, it’s not that Tupolev’s are bad plans. These Russian-made planes were engineering marvels of the Soviet Era. About thirty or more years ago. Sitting on the plane I wondered how it had survived. The air-conditioning was not working while on the ground; Keli and I were kept busy fanning ourselves with the emergency instruction cards. The seats were flimsy and I swear the entire cabin had the feeling of being taped together with duct tape (never mind the crookedly taped signs). Keli meanwhile had managed to sit in front of an infant who was intent on practicing football by kicking Keli’s paper thin seat repeatedly. Once airborne, Keli tactfully moved a seat over.
To their credit S7 left on time and touched down in sunny Mineralye Vody about twenty minutes early. We thought this was cool until we waited over forty-five minutes mins or more for the luggage to be unloaded. I suspect there was one guy and several invalid monkeys being used. During the interminable wait in our holding cell, we found our guide to be, Sergei Baranov from Pilgrim Tours. So let’s quickly fastforward. Within minutes of the luggage magically appearing we were all in a van heading for Elbrus. In the van were our climbing companions:
Sergei ñ Guide for Pilgrim, quite young but seems very experienced (only time will tell) with an excellent command of the English language. If he opens up, he’ll be a lot of fun.
Ahsan ñ Young student from Denmark whose parents are from Peshawa in Pakistan. He is going vegetarian on this trip as he cannot trust that the meat is prepared properly (halal).
Anders ñ Economist from Denmark. He has climbed Mont Blanc and now wants to bag the tallest mountain in Europe.
Mike ñ A retired engineer from Scotland. At 63 he is the oldest in the group. He has recently done four of the five volcanoes in Ecuador.
Finally of course there was the rowdy bunch from Newfoundland in Keli and myself.
The road trip lasted about three hours over hill and dale, through farmlands and dreary mining towns where capitalism had proven to be more a shocker than a saviour. We drove around suicidal cows whose contempt for four-wheeled vehicles created four-legged islands on the road. Then arose the Caucasus mountains, majestic and awe-inspiring with several 4000m mountains arose to greet us. By 7pm we had arrived in the Azau valley at our hotel right next to the cable car that would eventually deposit us on the slopes of Elbrus. The valley is set up for ski season with construction on full swing during the summer months. Our hotel was a dreary grey block but the rooms were gaily coloured with all new fittings. Keli and I were to be sharing a room.
At supper (during which the carnivores were separated from the three veggies to prevent a cataclysmic fight) we also meet Ilya a friend of Sergei’s from Moscow. He was here to climb with us but mostly to train for an up-coming heli-snowboarding trip to the Himalayas. A heavy smoker, currency trader and an amateur Moscow DJ, he reminded me of Colin Murty who came with me to Kilimanjaro. Our evening was spent exploring the area and getting to know everyone over a few drinks. Sergei (the wuss) ran away screaming at midnight when a final beer was offered to him. The plan for tomorrow is for a short acclimatization hike up nearby 4000m Mt. Cheget.