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Topic: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: BrusselsSouth
Posted 2012-11-10 07:35:02 and read 9078 times.

2011 and 2012 are years that will leave me with mixed feelings. On the darker side, I had to deal with extremely serious health problems related to my son, then to myself. On the nicer side, the birth of my daughter brought immense joy to my family amongst all the turmoil. As a brief escape from some of those difficult moments, and as a mean to take advantage of long periods spent at the hospital, I decided to work on something I had always been interested in, without finding the time to actually do it: I wrote an amateur analysis of transatlantic airline traffic that I published on this site:

Summer 2011 North Atlantic Flights Offer Data (by BrusselsSouth Apr 25 2011 in Aviation Polls)

As I mentioned in another trip report, among all e-mail reactions I received for this work, one in particular would mark the start of a fantastic friendship in which two A.netters, separated by thousands of kilometers, would decide to travel together to a region of the world for which they share a common interest: the former Soviet Union.

As for previous reports, I will identify that second A.netter as Mr B hereunder to protect his A.net identity.

It took us about one full year of research, e-mails and Skype conversations to set up an itinerary which would bring us to Russia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Belarus, with Azerbaijan and Belarus being the main focus of the trip. A distant but strong friendship emerged as a byproduct of this preparation (or was it the other way around?). As with most things in life, compromises had to be made since constraints had been set regarding for example the time we both could spend away from our respective wives and kids and, of course, the budget we could spend on that trip. So, despite our common interest in everything looking like an airplane, and the appeal of exotic/obscure airlines and aircraft, we ended up with a relatively conservative booking on Aeroflot:

- Me: BRU-SVO-GYD / MSQ-SVO-BRU (all on SU)
- Mr B: ATL-JFK-SVO-GYD / MSQ-SVO-JFK-ATL (SU, except ATL-JFK and JFK-ATL: DL).

Since we had decided to visit both Azerbaijan and Belarus, which, despite being part of the same huge country previously, are 1380 miles or 2221 kilometers apart, we had to find a way to fly from Baku to Minsk. At first, our plan was to take advantage of the 4-weekly Belavia (Belarus Airlines) 737 service between both capitals that we had seen in the OAG guide, since this constitutes the only nonstop option and since Belavia sounded exotic to both of us. However, as the start of the winter scheduling season approached, no schedule past 25 October could be found anywhere. We sent the Belarusian airline a couple of e-mails, to which we received the same laconic response each time: "just wait, Baku to Minsk is an important route, it will operate during the winter, we'll soon load it into our winter schedule". Sure enough, the winter schedule eventually got loaded, but for some reason, the only route missing from it was... Baku to Minsk.

Confronted to the low number of practical and/or cheap alternative options, we decided to stop waiting for Belavia and play it safe by booking a decently priced Baku-Kiev-Minsk one-way on Aerosvit. Well, safe we thought it would be, but on two distinct occasions, Aerosvit changed the schedule of our GYD-KBP leg and automatically rebooked us on an equivalent flight arriving in Kiev... long after our connection to Minsk had left! Those weren't minor schedule adjustments, but rather completely different departure times. The second of such incidents happened only a couple of days before our departure which complicated the definition of our intended itinerary, especially since our Belarusian visas were very restrictive in terms of date of arrival and departure. Fortunately, the "live chat" feature on Aerosvit worked like a charm and was very helpful on both occasions. Ironically, by the time this happened, Belavia had actually released its official winter schedule for the Baku to Minsk route... Both the late schedule loading by Belavia and the last minute schedule changes by Aerosvit left us with an impression of lack of professionalism from both airlines.

As far as aircraft types were concerned, most of our segments would be operated on pretty standard stuff (A319/320, B737, ERJ-145, plus A330 for Mr B's transatlantic legs). However, I was quite excited that the MSQ-SVO leg was shown as a Sukhoi SuperJet flight! Unfortunately, not long before the trip, this was "upgraded" to an A320 which was a big disappointment for me.

Ultimately, our full itinerary went as follows:


 
Mr B only:

- ATL-JFK, Delta Air Lines Boeing 737-800.
- JFK-SVO, Aeroflot Airbus A330-300.

BrusselsSouth only:

- BRU-SVO, Aeroflot Airbus A319.

Common:

- SVO-GYD, Aeroflot Airbus A320.
- GYD-KBP, Aerosvit Boeing 737-400.
- KBP-MSQ, Dniproavia Embraer ERJ-145.
- MSQ-SVO, Aeroflot Airbus A320.

Mr B only:

- SVO-JFK, Aeroflot Airbus A330-300.
- JFK-ATL, Delta Air Lines Boeing 737-800.

BrusselsSouth only:

- SVO-BRU, Aeroflot Airbus A319.

For a change, my departure was scheduled at noon (most of the time I seem to have early morning or late evening departures...) which gave me plenty of time to wake up and finish packing my stuff. My wife drove me to Brussels airport with the kids. The hardest part was when I had to kiss them all goodbye knowing that I would not see them for the next 10 days, but on the other hand I was quite excited by the trip. Upon entering the check-in hall, I checked on the large departure board that my flight to Moscow was on time.

In an effort to secure adjacent seats, I had told Mr B that I would first try to check-in online then I would send him my seat numbers. However, the Aeroflot web site would only let me check-in for my BRU-SVO leg, not for SVO-GYD. In any case, I would still have to use a manual check-in counter since I wanted to check my bag. So, I went to the Aeroflot check-in counter where I was the only passenger at the time. The very friendly agent there checked me in all the way to Baku and after I explained that someone would join me on the SVO-GYD leg, she basically let me choose whatever seat I wanted on her computer screen, but recommended that I select one sufficiently to the back as this would, according to her, increase the probability that the adjacent seat remains vacant for Mr B to pick it.

Check-in counters at BRU and the friendly check-in agent.

Since the flight to Baku would only leave on the next day, she suggested that she only checks my bag till Moscow so that I would have my belongings for the night, but I declined since I had put essential items in my cabin bag, so "GYD" it was on the baggage tag, along with an Aeroflot branded "Transfer" sticker. As a funny hint to the 'exoticness' of my final destination for an average Belgian, that agent first thought that Baku was in Russia, and asked me multiple times the name of that strange sounding country where it's actually located...

With this first formality completed, I sent a message to Mr B to inform him of my seat number and proceeded through passport control then security. No lines at either today, and no real hassle other than a tube of hair gel being confiscated for having a volume larger than 100ml.

Entering concourse B after security.

After a brief stop at a store to purchase some perfume and... another tube of gel, I spent the following hour enjoying the view of the traffic from concourse B, which is the concourse dedicated to non-Schengen flights at BRU, with the exception of some African/American flights departing from concourse A. Both concourses are not connected airside. The initially dense fog, which progressively cleared during my waiting, caused a bit of a queue for departures at the runway 25R threshold but I didn't notice any major delays. Here are some photos taken through concourse B's windows:

AC833 to Montreal.
UA951 to Washington-Dulles.
ME216 to Beirut.
UA973 to Chicago-O'Hare.

 
UA973 to Chicago-O'Hare.
SN371 to Douala.

 
3O2118 to Nador.

 
SK4744 to Oslo.
I watched with interest as my plane to Moscow arrived from Sheremetyevo (almost) on time and parked next to a British Airways A319 in a special Olympics "Dove" livery (G-EUPA):


 

 

 


I went back to my gate as boarding was in progress and was soon on board VQ-BBA, a 3-year old A319 named after the 18th century Russian polar explorer Semion Ivanovich Chelyuskin. Aeroflot's A320 series aircraft feature blue seats with what seemed to me like generous legroom. This particular flight was probably almost full in Y since I couldn't spot one single vacant seat. I'm not sure about the load in C, but one nice thing I noticed is that Aeroflot A32x's feature "real" business class seats, as opposed to regular Y seats with the middle seat blocked.


 
Thai Airways B777 arriving at concourse B.

We took off from runway 25R with just a minor delay and immediately disappeared into the clouds. The skies remained overcast for basically the entire flight, except for a very brief period during which I spotted a tip of the Gotland Island:



Service wise, here's the standard Aeroflot short/medium haul service that I received on all my A32x flights with them, except for the early morning flight from Minsk to Moscow. First, the flight attendants come for a round of drinks which include a large range of soft drinks. I only noticed wine (red and white) being offered on my flights to and from Brussels, but not to Baku or from Minsk. Here's the stuff, not necessarily the best around: http://www.cieloeterravini.com/en-uk/terre-di-ghiaia.php. A bright orange napkin and a refreshing towel are offered with the drink.

After this comes the meal for which a choice between meat and fish is offered. The tray is completed with a salad with packaged dressing, bread, butter, a Russian chocolate and a Russian caramel.

After the meal comes a tea and coffee service.

I found the meals decent if not exceptional, and the crew pleasant. They would normally first address to me in Russian and translate into variable levels of English (but always high enough to be understood) on request. Most of the passengers on my flights to and from BRU spoke in Russian by the way. Still on the topic of languages, automated announcements on the BRU flights were in Russian, English and French, and manual announcements were in Russian and English, with French randomly added (I should not criticize the effort, but will simply mention that the French version was not easily understandable). For some reason, Dutch and, to a lesser extent, German, which are also official languages of Belgium, were not used.

At some point during the flight, the person sitting in front of me reclined his seat which made me uncomfortable. For some reason (broken seat?), it seemed that the recline angle was much more than normal.

We landed at Sheremetyevo on time and under a dull weather with light rain.


 

 

 


While unfair to Moscow's generous summers, this is somehow how I had always wanted my first time in the Russian capital to be: cold and rainy. It may be part of an irrational cliché, yet it's so fitting... Especially as the plane parked at the very last gate of the old Terminal F, the original international terminal built for the 1980 Olympics and known then as 'Sheremetyevo-2'. And indeed, even if cosmetics repairs have been made, and even if it has kind of turned into a shopping mall, the 2012 Terminal F has a definite 'Soviet 80's' feel to it, in its appearance, atmosphere, cigarette smell and outdated fixtures.



Immigration was fast and hassle-free, contrary to my expectations. Aside from getting a two-entry Russian visa in advance in Belgium (which involved a not so pleasant experience at the Russian embassy in Brussels), the only formality here was to fill a relatively simple 'arrival and departure card' which was distributed during the flight (since I declined it, thinking I did not need it, I had to fill it directly at the airport). Interestingly, that form is common to Russia and Belarus.

In line with my past Ukrainian experiences, I had to make my way through a small crowd of 'taxi drivers' trying to rip unsuspecting foreigners off before I could breathe the cold evening air of Moscow. I checked in at the Novotel Sheremetyevo Airport where I had booked a room in advance. While not the cheapest around, I can recommend it for its decent rooms and amenities and, above all, for its ideal location just across the street from the airport terminal complex (and even closer to the station of the very convenient AeroExpress train to central Moscow).



A large A320-shaped sticker on the hotel facade celebrated its 20th anniversary, which must mean that it opened immediately after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. One thing A.netters might like about the hotel is the name of its meeting rooms: Aeroflot, Antonov, Tupolev, Ilyushin, Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo and Bykovo!

I then took the AeroExpress train to central Moscow, to the Belorussky station (very appropriately considering the afterpart of this trip!). With a journey time of 35 minutes, nice trains and free on board Wifi, AeroExpress is certainly the easiest way into town from Sheremetyevo.


 


I spent the evening walking among the main sights of the Russian capital, starting at the famous Red Square, and in the neighboring streets. A very enjoyable walk, although I had underestimated the cold (and the chilly wind in particular). Here are some nightly impressions from the Russian capital:

Bolshoi Theatre

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Russian State Library (Lenin Library).

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The Moscow metro is famous for its (very) deep and ornate stations. Since those are well documented on the Web, I will just share two of my own photos, which are admittedly not exceptionally good:


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I finally took the AeroExpress back to the hotel at Sheremetyevo, ready for the start of the adventure on the next day!

The hotel lobby seen from the lift

So, on the next day, as I left the hotel after a nice breakfast I noticed that the street was covered by snow. Fortunately, it was just a short walk to the terminal complex (terminals D, E and F). A basic security check (bag X-ray and metal detector, but no liquid check, shoes/belt removal and the like) takes place at the complex entrance which seemed to cause a bit of a line.

Terminal E check-in hall.

Since I had already checked in in Brussels, I immediately proceeded through passport control and security, both without waiting or hassle, before I took a seat in terminal E from where I could watch the apron located between D and F as well as the runways. At first, it was hazy and snowy:


 

 
First time that I saw a Sukhoi SuperJet in person!

Not long after the skies started to clear:


 

 


Not long after I spotted someone with a brown carry-on walking toward the large windows overlooking the apron and watching traffic with interest. Surely, that must be an A.netter I thought. All of a sudden, I realized that I had seen that man on Skype before and as I approached him I said "Hello, Mr B?".

We went to a nearby bar to have a coffee and chat about our respective flights to Moscow and our upcoming trip together. It was an impressive feeling to finally meet in person someone I had been corresponding with for so long!

Time flies fast when you're having an enjoyable discussion and soon enough boarding for our flight to Baku started. In front of us in the line was a sports team whose members were wearing an 'Azerbaijan' sweatshirt.


 


We boarded VP-BZR, a 2008 (it flew for the first time on... September 11th, 2008) Airbus A320 named after Fabian von Bellingshausen, an Imperial Russian Navy officer noted for being a participant of the first Russian circumnavigation in 1803-1806.

From the inside, this aircraft looked exactly the same as the A319 I had flown the day before.



Departure was slightly delayed as snow was cleared off the plane and as there was a bit of a queue for take-off.


 

 

 
Il-96 parked at the domestic terminals on the other side of the runways.

We took off from runway 25L with a delay of approximately 50 minutes, over the snowy western suburbs of Moscow, and soon disappeared into the clouds.


 
Terminal F...
...Terminal E...
... and Terminal D.

 


The clouds cleared for a few moments as we were flying over Volgograd (where intense fighting took place during WWII when the city was known as Stalingrad), offering great views of the city and the Volga River:



It then got cloudy again until we reached the Caspian Sea near Azerbaijan. Service wise, the offering was identical to yesterday's flight from Brussels to Moscow, with a round of cold drinks, a hot meal then coffee or tea.



Announcements from both the cabin and flight deck crew were made in Russian and English, but not in Azerbaijani as far as I can remember. It was sunny in Baku as we started our approach over the Caspian Sea, coming from the North for a direct landing on runway 16 after a beautiful final over the Absheron peninsula (where Baku airport is located).


 

 

 


Baku airport is named, like an impressive variety of things in Azerbaijan, after the former president Heydar Aliyev (1923-2003). The current terminal, with a bit of a 'Soviet/UFO' look from the outside, is divided into two separate zones inside, one for domestic and CIS flights, the other one for international flights. The interior of the terminal was renovated at the end of the nineties and while it has a definite 'outdated' feel to its concept, it certainly does not look like maintenance is lacking. Judging from pictures found on the web, I would say that its external appearance has been upgraded recently.

A new, much more impressive terminal is in construction. I understand that it should open in 2013, at which date the current terminal will be used for domestic flights only.

Current terminal on the right, new terminal being built to the left.

 

 
NordStar 737-800. Note the FlyDubai tail near the crane.

We did not have to wait long at immigration (although it seems that multiple international flights arriving together could be a different matter). I was looked at suspiciously and questioned since I had a Belgian passport but "looked French" (no kidding!), but I was eventually let in. After we reclaimed our luggage, we proceeded to the public area where we were virtually harassed by greedy taxi drivers. Since we had read that there was actually a public bus going to the city for a very cheap fare, we decided to look for it.

But finding the (unmarked) stop was no simple affair, especially as everyone working at the airport, from car park guards to bar waiters, seemed to be in collusion with the aforementioned taxi drivers. Basically, everyone pretended that no bus was operating from the airport and that the only way to the city was by taxi, while taxi drivers were constantly offering to drive us. We decided to make it a personal affair and swore that we would not leave the airport by taxi. After a bit of walking and lots of questioning, bargaining and refusals, we finally managed to get on a bus, a very private one at that, since it basically started just for the two of us, for a grand total of 5 euros. We still thought that we were being ripped off as the official bus fare was documented as much lower, but we agreed that it was probably as low as we could get and we did not want to spend yet another hour looking for a cheaper way out.

The bus dropped us at a metro station from where we reached the old city, where our hotel was located, after having tried hard to figure out how the metro fare cards worked.

Our hotel in the old city.

Here's how I'd summarize my impressions of Baku. The city center has been beautifully renovated and is really impressive and vibrant. At night, virtually every building is illuminated. The walled old city and its historic buildings and narrow streets are equally beautifully renovated. The sea front forms a nice, miles long promenade lined with parks, recreation areas and cafes. There is a very decent choice of restaurants and shopping options in that part of the city where the works of oil money are well visible. Since Baku, and more generally Azerbaijan, have little coverage on this site, I will include a large number of photos. Feel free to skip to the end of the series if you think it's too much:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
View from the roof of our hotel.
The iconic Flame Towers were completed in 2012.

 

 
An A.netter (Mr B) taking a photo of the skyline of the 'Dubai of the Caspian'...
The Azerbaijani flag on 'National Flag Square' used to be the tallest flagpole in the world.

 

 

 
Memorial to Turkish soldiers who died during the Armenian-Azerbaijani War.

 

 
This gentleman who got deported to Siberia by the Soviets spent some time explaining us the events of January 1992 in Baku.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Nizami is a poet who is very famous in Azerbaijan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
There are two A.netters visible in the above picture...

 

 
Baku railway station.

 
Baku circus (in the 'Soviet' definition of the term).
Was weird to see a sign depicting a pork in a supposedly muslim country...

 

 

 

 
The Baku metro has an impressive annual ridership (about 190 million) given the relatively modest size of the network. We were impressed by the long distance between stations.

 


The picture becomes different as soon as you leave the center for the suburbs though: while not overtly poor it is clear that those could do with the same drastic renovation effort as the shiny central neighborhoods.


 

 

 

 
We saw a number of those jam packed Ladas at various places in Azerbaijan.

As you drive out of the capital, the condition of roads (even on the main Baku-Tbilisi 'highway') progressively passes from 'not fantastic' to 'really bad', old Ladas, which are rare in Baku, become the norm and cities and villages look very basic (but, again, not blatantly poor). Crossing the country from side to side by car takes much longer than suggested by the map, and road signage is about the poorest I've encountered during my travels so far.



To be fair, I will mention that we encountered lots of road improvement works. Here are some pictures from our stop for lunch in the city of Shamakhi, about 125km (78 miles) west of Baku:


 

 

 

 

 

 
We then continued west to the city of Aghsu:

 

 

 

 


Finding decent Russian speakers is not easy and we wished we had had the time to learn more of the Azerbaijani language, although sign language mixed with some Russian and lots of good will still allowed us to meet and communicate with locals. On this topic, I want to mention how friendly the people we met were, genuinely interested in us as foreigners (never to try to get money) and trying hard to make us feel welcome. At some point along our way we stopped at a random gas station in the middle of nowhere to fill the tank, and were invited by the workers to spend a long moment with them. They offered us pomegranate, a fruit that is apparently very common in that area and served us some juice that they produce out of them:


 


Then, we continued to the city of Sheki, on the slopes of the Caucasus mountain range:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
In Sheki, we stayed at an amazing place which was actually an old caravanserai beautifully converted into a hotel:


 

 

 

 

 

 
On the next morning, we went to the nearby mountain village of Kish to visit an old (but amazingly restored and maintained) Caucasian Albanian church:


 

 

 

 

 

 
Back to Sheki, we visited the fortress complex, which included a nice palace:


 

 
We took a different itinerary to get back to Baku:



On our way, we made a detour to visit the fantastic village of Lahıc, at the end of a no less fantastic road:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Approaching Baku after the visit of Lahıc:



We arrived back in Baku in the evening:


 

 
After an early wake-up, we were picked up at our hotel in central Baku by a driver (seemingly under the influence of something...) who took us to the airport. Checking in for our Aerosvit flight to Kiev was easy as there was no line at all and the agent was fluent in English. We requested to be seated together and to have our bag checked until Kiev only, since our connection to Minsk was scheduled for the next day. Unsurprisingly, the agent told us that she would not issue our boarding pass to Minsk now, but that we'd have to go to a check-in counter in Kiev, which was fine.



Passing passport control was hassle free once again. Airside is decent, neatly renovated, but without anything fancy. We had a coffee watching the FIDS screens, looking for destinations that sounded 'exotic' to us.



Baku airport has no centralized security checkpoint, but rather a security check at the entrance of each gate waiting lounge. We were bussed to our plane, a 19 year old 737-400 with an already long history behind her with Turkish Airlines, Pegasus, Air Algerie, Malev and CSA. The cabin sure showed its old age...


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
We flew above clouds most of the time, without any view of the ground.



After landing in Kiev, we parked at a remote stand and were bussed to terminal B under a pouring rain.


 
Antonov 148.

 

 
I flew that very aircraft (UR-IVK) in 2010 between Simferopol and Kiev..

 
Quite a colorful line-up!

 

 
My last (and only...) experience of Kiev Boryspil airport were limited to the then domestic terminal A, which was definitely a disgrace. While nothing to write home about, terminal B was at least decent. For some reason, the immigration officer was dubious about the authenticity of my passport and the motives for my one-night stay "for tourism". He called his supervisor and I was asked a couple of questions about my itinerary. See, apparently a Belgian arriving in Kiev, Ukraine from Baku, Azerbaijan, before departing on the next day to Minsk, Belarus then Moscow, Russia, with previous Ukrainian stamps in his passport is something that triggers some kind of suspicion. After a thorough inspection of my passport and some conversation in Russian with the officer, the supervisor let me enter the country on a relieving "passport normal" conclusion.

We were greeted landside by a couple of taxi drivers but nothing to the extent of Baku though. We declined since we had arranged a driver to take us to our apartment in central Kiev.



I won't describe Kiev in too many details here since I had visited the Ukrainian capital two years before. The city felt more or less the same this time, with the addition of a couple of improvements here and there, probably related to the recent Euro 2012 football tournament. It was interesting to rediscover the city under inclement weather though, as my previous visit had been very sunny.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
The fantastic Kiev aviation museum had left me with such a good memory that I wanted to visit it again with Mr B. The museum is located on a remote apron on the northern side of Kiev's Zhuliany (Жуляни) airport, which used to be the city's main airport before the opening of Boryspil airport in 1959.

Unfortunately, as we reached its gate, we realized that the museum was closed (I should have checked their web site which clearly stated opening times...). We had a quick look through the fence and went back to the city center.


 

 

 
Mr B seemed to appreciate the journey to and from the museum though, which was another occasion to meet and have a nice conversation with a local in the bus.


 
We spent the evening exploring Kiev and had lunch at a Crimean restaurant.


 

 

 

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: BrusselsSouth
Posted 2012-11-10 07:41:25 and read 9080 times.

Continued in part II:

An A.net Friendship (II): Belarus (Aerosvit+SU) (by BrusselsSouth Nov 10 2012 in Trip Reports)

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: MaverickM11
Posted 2012-11-10 11:02:18 and read 9079 times.

Great trip report! I did a similar trip from Baku-Lahic-Seki but then continued across the border into Georgia. Your pictures are *much* better than mine so I might just show everyone your pictures instead .

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: MSS658
Posted 2012-11-10 14:52:31 and read 9079 times.

Hi

Great report, I'm glad you where able to escape, hope it did you well!
Moscow, Azerbidijan and Kiev are most certain not everyday destinations and I really did enjoy the pics!

Greetings
Marc

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: lychemsa
Posted 2012-11-10 17:20:58 and read 9079 times.

Fascinating. Thanks. Baku looks nice.

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: BNAOWB
Posted 2012-11-10 19:52:25 and read 9078 times.

The trip report is fantastic. Thank you so much.

This is "Mr. B", the traveling companion of "Brussels South" on this trip. It was truly one of the greatest adventures of my life. Here are some additional comments regarding our trip together.

The process of obtaining the three visas in advance for Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia took over 2 months! My passport transited MEM on FX on 6 occasions to/from the respective embassies in Washington, D.C. My total visa cost (as a U.S. citizen) was expensive (about $500) including the cost of visa support and letters of invitation (where necessary).

As mentioned in the second report, flights between Minsk and Russia are treated as domestic flights by Russia which results in most non-CIS citizens being required to obtain a Russian transit visa in advance (the same price as a Russia tourist visa) for connections at Russian airports between Belarus and non-CIS nations. The cost (and hassle) of obtaining a Russia transit visa should absolutely be considered by Westerners traveling to Belarus when comparing the pricing of Russian carriers with non-Russian carriers.

The 14:20 departure time from JFK to SVO was considerably earlier than all of my previous eastbound trans-Atlantic flights. I enjoyed daylight views much longer into the flight than I have experienced previously. Upon arrival at SVO at 7:45 (23:45 in New York), I did not feel the fatigue that I have often felt on much later arrivals in Europe from North America.

We had purposefully selected the 11:25 departure from SVO to Baku on SU since it arrives in Baku at approximately 15:30. Many of the flights from Europe to Baku arrive quite late in the evening or very early in the morning.

While exploring Baku, it is not hard to imagine that it was one of the most affluent cities in the world in the early 1900's.

The hospitality that we encountered from locals in Azerbaijan (including extreme kindness from a police officer that stopped our car by pulling us over) was amazing. The only other place in the world that I have encountered this level of hospitality was in Azerbaijan's "neighbor to the west" in 2009. Despite the absolutely toxic current relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia (my Armenia visa received a very detailed examination at passport control), the people of those countries seem surprisingly similar.

We both felt that a rental car allowed us to explore much more of the interior of Azerbaijan and Belarus than would have been possible otherwise considering the relatively short duration of this trip.

Certainly, this trip exposed us to a small portion of the vastness and diversity of regions that were included in the former Soviet Union.

[Edited 2012-11-10 19:55:53]

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: cschleic
Posted 2012-11-11 07:39:43 and read 9076 times.

Fantastic trip reports, and photos of cities you visited! Very interesting. Thanks for posting.

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: BrusselsSouth
Posted 2012-11-12 00:12:41 and read 9075 times.

Thank you all for your nice comments.

Quoting MaverickM11 (Reply 2):
Great trip report! I did a similar trip from Baku-Lahic-Seki but then continued across the border into Georgia.

Very interesting! Georgia was considered as a potential destination for our trip.

Quoting MaverickM11 (Reply 2):
Your pictures are *much* better than mine so I might just show everyone your pictures instead

You're welcome to do so!

Quoting BNAOWB (Reply 5):
This is "Mr. B", the traveling companion of "Brussels South" on this trip. It was truly one of the greatest adventures of my life

Hi Mr B, that feeling is shared on the other side of the 'Pond'  
Quoting BNAOWB (Reply 5):
The process of obtaining the three visas in advance for Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia took over 2 months! My passport transited MEM on FX on 6 occasions to/from the respective embassies in Washington, D.C. My total visa cost (as a U.S. citizen) was expensive (about $500) including the cost of visa support and letters of invitation (where necessary).

While slightly less expensive on my side, getting the visas certainly implied a lot of hassle, days off work to visit the respective embassies, and dealing with a couple of unfriendly consular workers...

Quoting BNAOWB (Reply 5):
Upon arrival at SVO at 7:45 (23:45 in New York), I did not feel the fatigue that I have often felt on much later arrivals in Europe from North America.

As I told you, you were amazingly alert during the whole day!

Quoting BNAOWB (Reply 5):
Certainly, this trip exposed us to a small portion of the vastness and diversity of regions that were included in the former Soviet Union.

A call to a future trip?  

Regards
BrusselsSouth

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: raffik
Posted 2012-11-12 03:16:42 and read 9074 times.

Fascinating pictures, thanks for sharing! Loved seeing the MEA A320!
Looks like you had an amazing trip. I visited Moscow earlier this year and it brought it all back! Was it cold?
It was -31c when I went with heavy snow!

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: FlyingFinn76
Posted 2012-11-12 10:27:29 and read 9073 times.

Bonjour F, my friend.

I'm very happy that you are not only well and recovered from your hardships but even well enough to get on the road to visit some exotic places again! That's the best therapy out there for getting through the sometimes not very nice things in your everyday life.

And what a lovely trip it appears to be, visiting some off the beaten path destinations and with good comradeship as well. Well done!

As you know I've been visiting some of these same digs (and flying with some of the same airlines) this year, so many sights certainly look quite familiar. Azerbaijan has been on my TOVISIT list for quite some time, especially after visiting the two other Caucasian countries, Armenia and Georgia this year. Shame about the visa hassle though, that is putting me off from going there. The day the establish a Visa on Arrival procedures I'll be booking my flights! Your pictures from Azeri are simply quite amazing, it looks like a very, very interesting mix of new and old, oil money and poor countryside.

Moscow I will gladly skip, thank you very much.

Great stuff!

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: KHI747
Posted 2012-11-12 21:32:33 and read 9073 times.

The non aviation,specially those of Azerbaijan are epic - thanks for sharing.

Hope your son is feeling better and congratulations on your baby daughter. Infact both my kids were also born in Belgium.

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: flightsimboy
Posted 2012-11-12 23:54:15 and read 9073 times.

Hello,

There are some reports on here, which are dead giveaways of what to expect before one even opens it. And yet there are some which when not clear what to expect can disappoint or delight, and delight is exactly what happened with this one. Such a plethora of images from Moscow, Baku and Kiev, that I did not even feel that I was reading a trip report. Gems such as these are truly like finding gems in real life!! They are hidden, waiting to be discovered. Thank you so much for putting this together!! Each trip reporter has their own style and I happy to say I look forward to seeing more reports from you in this manner!!!

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
2011 and 2012 are years that will leave me with mixed feelings. On the darker side, I had to deal with extremely serious health problems related to my son, then to myself. On the nicer side, the birth of my daughter brought immense joy to my family amongst all the turmoil

Very sorry to hear about your family situation. However I am glad it has got better for you!

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
As I mentioned in another trip report, among all e-mail reactions I received for this work, one in particular would mark the start of a fantastic friendship in which two A.netters, separated by thousands of kilometers, would decide to travel together to a region of the world for which they share a common interest: the former Soviet Union.
Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
It was an impressive feeling to finally meet in person someone I had been corresponding with for so long!

How nice to get to know a fellow a.netter, but above all to emabark on a trip together and not just some a.netters meet up. You two must have got to know each other quite well, as you spent almost more than a week together.

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
For a change, my departure was scheduled at noon (most of the time I seem to have early morning or late evening departures...) which gave me plenty of time to wake up and finish packing my stuff. My wife drove me to Brussels airport with the kids. The hardest part was when I had to kiss them all goodbye knowing that I would not see them for the next 10 days,

Departures are the hardest, but even harder when you don't know when you will see your loved ones again.

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
Service wise, here's the standard Aeroflot short/medium haul service that I received on all my A32x flights with them, except for the early morning flight from Minsk to Moscow. First, the flight attendants come for a round of drinks which include a large range of soft drinks. I only noticed wine (red and white) being offered on my flights to and from Brussels, but not to Baku or from Minsk. Here's the stuff, not necessarily the best around: http://www.cieloeterravini.com/en-uk/terre-di-ghiaia.php. A bright orange napkin and a refreshing towel are offered with the drink.

After this comes the meal for which a choice between meat and fish is offered. The tray is completed with a salad with packaged dressing, bread, butter, a Russian chocolate and a Russian caramel.

After the meal comes a tea and coffee service.

I found the meals decent if not exceptional, and the crew pleasant. They would normally first address to me in Russian and translate into variable levels of English (but always high enough to be understood) on request. Most of the passengers on my flights to and from BRU spoke in Russian by the way. Still on the topic of languages, automated announcements on the BRU flights were in Russian, English and French, and manual announcements were in Russian and English, with French randomly added (I should not criticize the effort, but will simply mention that the French version was not easily understandable). For some reason, Dutch and, to a lesser extent, German, which are also official languages of Belgium, were not used.

Wow you so nicely summed up your experience on Aeroflot, or maybe I was not really missing seeing more as there are two Aeroflot reports on here currently.

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
I checked in at the Novotel Sheremetyevo Airport where I had booked a room in advance. While not the cheapest around, I can recommend it for its decent rooms and amenities and, above all, for its ideal location just across the street from the airport terminal complex (and even closer to the station of the very convenient AeroExpress train to central Moscow).

Good to know, not that I plan to be in Moscow anytime soon.

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
I spent the evening walking among the main sights of the Russian capital, starting at the famous Red Square, and in the neighboring streets. A very enjoyable walk, although I had underestimated the cold (and the chilly wind in particular). Here are some nightly impressions from the Russian capital:

Very impressive. I am assuming the Red Square is within walking distance too from all the other sites you spent walking around.

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
The Moscow metro is famous for its (very) deep and ornate stations. Since those are well documented on the Web, I will just share two of my own photos, which are admittedly not exceptionally good:

Very unique

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
Here's how I'd summarize my impressions of Baku. The city center has been beautifully renovated and is really impressive and vibrant. At night, virtually every building is illuminated. The walled old city and its historic buildings and narrow streets are equally beautifully renovated. The sea front forms a nice, miles long promenade lined with parks, recreation areas and cafes. There is a very decent choice of restaurants and shopping options in that part of the city where the works of oil money are well visible. Since Baku, and more generally Azerbaijan, have little coverage on this site, I will include a large number of photos. Feel free to skip to the end of the series if you think it's too much:
Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
'Dubai of the Caspian'...

It was not too much believe me!! All I can say is wow I had no idea Baku was this way!! It does indeed seem to be the Dubai of the Caspian!! I wonder if we will see more airlines operating here? For that matter I did not even know they had their own Azerbaijan Airlines (though it would be quite obvious it would exist in the first place, correct). You learn something new everyday.

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
The picture becomes different as soon as you leave the center for the suburbs though: while not overtly poor it is clear that those could do with the same drastic renovation effort as the shiny central neighborhoods.
Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
Finding decent Russian speakers is not easy and we wished we had had the time to learn more of the Azerbaijani language, although sign language mixed with some Russian and lots of good will still allowed us to meet and communicate with locals. On this topic, I want to mention how friendly the people we met were, genuinely interested in us as foreigners (never to try to get money) and trying hard to make us feel welcome. At some point along our way we stopped at a random gas station in the middle of nowhere to fill the tank, and were invited by the workers to spend a long moment with them. They offered us pomegranate, a fruit that is apparently very common in that area and served us some juice that they produce out of them:

While we tend to go all ooh and aah over the modern, it is easy to leave out the less developed and I am glad you took time to document this too. And what better way to get to know a city other than with it's locals.

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Thread starter):
I won't describe Kiev in too many details here since I had visited the Ukrainian capital two years before. The city felt more or less the same this time, with the addition of a couple of improvements here and there, probably related to the recent Euro 2012 football tournament. It was interesting to rediscover the city under inclement weather though, as my previous visit had been very sunny.

I really wish you had documented more on Kiev as you did with Baku, but I know it can get a bit repetitive when photographing things that have already been photographed before. At least if you did you would have had inclement weather photos to compare with the sunnier ones lol

Quoting BNAOWB (Reply 5):
This is "Mr. B", the traveling companion of "Brussels South" on this trip. It was truly one of the greatest adventures of my life. Here are some additional comments regarding our trip together.

It is nice of you Mr. B to acknowledge yourself in this report, despite the attempt not to give away your identity  

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: bnaowb
Posted 2012-11-13 06:11:31 and read 9073 times.

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Reply 7):
Quoting BNAOWB (Reply 5):
Certainly, this trip exposed us to a small portion of the vastness and diversity of regions that were included in the former Soviet Union.

A call to a future trip?

Why not visit all of the other CIS countries on future trips?  
Quoting FlyingFinn76 (Reply 9):
Shame about the visa hassle though, that is putting me off from going there. The day they establish a Visa on Arrival procedures I'll be booking my flights!

It would be fascinating to know the overall negative impact that complicated "arrange in advance" visa policies have on reducing the number of visitors to certain countries. If revenue collection is the primary goal, it seems that many countries could increase both the demand and the price per visa (who wouldn't pay slightly more for a visa in order to avoid visa support costs, shipping costs, time away from work, etc.?) by adopting a "Visa on Arrival" policy.

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: sultanils
Posted 2012-11-13 23:43:50 and read 9073 times.

Hi BrusselsSouth,

I must congratulate you on this most enjoyable road trip through this - for me at least - unfamiliar territory. After all your familiy’s health issues, you can maybe see this as a new start, I do hope for you things will only improve from now on.
It’s great as well that you did this journey together with a ‘virtual’ friend. I’m sure you first meeting ‘in real’ would’ve been quite a happy moment!

The BRU pics I’m always fond of when taken by someone else as you can see the airport through other’s people’s eyes and perception. Sure, the views are the same but sometimes things come out that I have not seen before. As for SU, they sure look like a pretty decent carrier. Long gone are the times when they used smoking TU154’s or mighty IL’s (although some are still around), nowadays it’s practically all Airbus. The interior however makes me think of an FR’s inside with the all plastic blue seats. A positive thing would certainly be the hot meal that is served. Aerosvit seemed good as well and at least you had the opportunity to fly on a classic -400 series once more.

Sultanils

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: BrusselsSouth
Posted 2012-11-14 05:07:57 and read 9073 times.

Thank you all (or thank y'all as Mr B would say in its typical 'southern' U.S. fashion   ) for the very kind comments. I appreciate them and they're a motivation to write more reports.

Quoting raffik (Reply 8):
Loved seeing the MEA A320!

Nice livery I admit!

Quoting raffik (Reply 8):
I visited Moscow earlier this year and it brought it all back! Was it cold?
It was -31c when I went with heavy snow!

Wow, -31°C is cold. It was more like 0°C (32°F) when I visited, but the chilly wind made it feel much colder than it actually was.

Quoting FlyingFinn76 (Reply 9):
Azerbaijan has been on my TOVISIT list for quite some time, especially after visiting the two other Caucasian countries, Armenia and Georgia this year. Shame about the visa hassle though, that is putting me off from going there. The day the establish a Visa on Arrival procedures I'll be booking my flights!

I understand why you don't want to go through the hassle (yet, you did it for Belarus   ). I hope you'll be able to visit someday as it's definitely worth the trip.

Quoting FlyingFinn76 (Reply 9):
Moscow I will gladly skip, thank you very much.

Out of curiosity, why is that? I enjoyed my brief Moscow visit, but then again, I had been wanting to go for a long time.

Quoting KHI747 (Reply 10):
Hope your son is feeling better and congratulations on your baby daughter. Infact both my kids were also born in Belgium.

Interesting! Moved to the U.S. after having lived in Belgium?

Quoting flightsimboy (Reply 11):
and delight is exactly what happened with this one. Such a plethora of images from Moscow, Baku and Kiev, that I did not even feel that I was reading a trip report. Gems such as these are truly like finding gems in real life!! They are hidden, waiting to be discovered. Thank you so much for putting this together!! Each trip reporter has their own style and I happy to say I look forward to seeing more reports from you in this manner!!!

Wow, what a nice comment, thank you very much, glad you enjoyed!

Quoting flightsimboy (Reply 11):
How nice to get to know a fellow a.netter, but above all to emabark on a trip together and not just some a.netters meet up. You two must have got to know each other quite well, as you spent almost more than a week together.

It was a bit of a personal 'challenge' to embark on a 10 days trip with someone I had never met, and who does not speak my native language. As it turns out, the experience was so successful that I can safely say Mr B was my best travel companion ever! Aside from his nice personality, it was cool to travel with someone sharing my passions for travel and aviation!

Quoting flightsimboy (Reply 11):
Very impressive. I am assuming the Red Square is within walking distance too from all the other sites you spent walking around.

It is. But I also ventured into some more distant neighborhoods thanks to the excellent metro system.

Quoting flightsimboy (Reply 11):
I did not even know they had their own Azerbaijan Airlines

They have a decent fleet, and even 2 787s on order: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azerbaijan_Airlines. On the domestic side, they currently operate from Baku (GYD), Ganja (KVD) and Nakhchivan (NAJ), serving the two other destinations from each of those airports. Here's PlymSpotter's excellent report featuring domestic Azerbaijani flights: http://ww.airliners.net/aviation-forums/trip_reports/read.main/190551/ .

Quoting flightsimboy (Reply 11):
it is easy to leave out the less developed and I am glad you took time to document this too

Thanks. The contrast between the capital and the rest of the country is particularly striking in a country like Azerbaijan. We are glad that we got to explore both as we wouldn't have a complete picture of the country had we limited our visit to Baku.

Quoting flightsimboy (Reply 11):
I really wish you had documented more on Kiev as you did with Baku

You're welcome to see my previous report featuring Kiev here:

Ukraine Part 2 : KBP-LWO, LWO-WAW-BRU (Pics) (by BrusselsSouth May 30 2010 in Trip Reports)

Quoting bnaowb (Reply 12):
Why not visit all of the other CIS countries on future trips?

Where do I sign?

Quoting sultanils (Reply 13):
The BRU pics I’m always fond of when taken by someone else as you can see the airport through other’s people’s eyes and perception. Sure, the views are the same but sometimes things come out that I have not seen before

Agreed. Have the same feeling when I see pics of BRU on this forum, or CRL (but those are rarer).

Quoting sultanils (Reply 13):
The interior however makes me think of an FR’s inside with the all plastic blue seats

I understand why you say this, however, this would be an unfair comment to SU. Sure the seat backs are made of blue plastic, but the general aspect of the cabin is much less aggressive to the eye (no ugly yellow panels and no advertisement on overhead bins). Seats are more comfortable on SU too (oh, and they do recline!). Guess what, they do even feature a seat pocket!

Quoting sultanils (Reply 13):
Aerosvit seemed good as well

Nothing to write against the flights on VV (a bit of a worn out cabin on the -400 though) but shame on the cancellation/wrong rebooking issues (happened twice, the last time only a couple of days before the flight).

Quoting sultanils (Reply 13):
at least you had the opportunity to fly on a classic -400 series once more

Sure. My log shows 21 segments on classic 737's, among them 7 on the -400.

Thanks again for all the nice comments!

Regards
BrusselsSouth

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: FlyingFinn76
Posted 2012-11-14 07:51:54 and read 9073 times.

Bonjour again,

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Reply 14):
I understand why you don't want to go through the hassle (yet, you did it for Belarus   ).

Well the difference is that Belarus has an embassy in Finland (and even if it wouldn't you could get the visa at the airport). Azerbaijan doesn't. And I'm not exactly a fan of sending my passport overseas to acquire a visa. If they want to make their country this hard to reach, then by all means they can do without me.

Quoting BrusselsSouth (Reply 14):
Out of curiosity, why is that? I enjoyed my brief Moscow visit, but then again, I had been wanting to go for a long time.

Russia and me have unsettled disputes from 70 years ago.

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: Braniff747SP
Posted 2012-11-14 16:11:55 and read 9073 times.

Fascinating report--forwarded on.

I've always wanted to go to Azerbaijan; I've been to the neighboring Armenia a few times including the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh and have always been curious about the 'other side'. One of these days...

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: BrusselsSouth
Posted 2012-11-14 20:42:06 and read 9073 times.

Quoting FlyingFinn76 (Reply 15):
If they want to make their country this hard to reach, then by all means they can do without me.

This I understand, but...

Quoting FlyingFinn76 (Reply 15):
Russia and me have unsettled disputes from 70 years ago.

... not trying to turn this into a political argument (or even less anything personal against you - I think you know the respect I have for you) but... come on! Haven't you given some of your hard earned money to Aeroflot (51% Russian government owned...) recently?

Feel free to ignore this comment, or to continue the discussion by e-mail if you prefer.

Quoting Braniff747SP (Reply 16):
I've always wanted to go to Azerbaijan; I've been to the neighboring Armenia a few times including the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh and have always been curious about the 'other side'. One of these days...

As you may know, you should be very careful when entering Azerbaijan after having been to Nagorno-Karabakh. The issue is taken very seriously by Azerbaijani authorities. Entering with an Armenian stamp (like Mr B did) is OK, but make sure no documentation of your stay in N-K exists and (obviously) answer 'no' to related questions (you won't be let in otherwise).

Regards
BrusselsSouth

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: The777Man
Posted 2012-11-15 01:24:15 and read 9073 times.

Hi !

Amazing report with amazing pictures !

It seems you had a great time in some countries not covered very much here in trip reports.

Makes me really want to go and explore there some time. It may take a few years, but I will try to make a trip over there.

Very much look forward to reading part II !

The777Man

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: justbala
Posted 2012-11-15 21:28:01 and read 9072 times.

Wow!! An amazing Trip Report. Thanks for sharing!!

Loved the city tour of Baku. It reminds me so much of Istanbul!!

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: gabrielchew
Posted 2014-09-01 07:22:41 and read 1627 times.

I was just looking for reports in Azerbaijan...your report was just right. Nice photos of Baku, and Sheki too, somewhere i'm hoping to go in December. Thanks!

Topic: RE: An A.net Friendship (I): Moscow/Azerbaijan/Kiev
Username: EL-AL
Posted 2014-09-01 09:47:49 and read 1552 times.

Hello BrusselsSouth,

Thank you very much for this report! Interesting destinations and fantastic verity of airlines, very interesting.

First time I see here photos of Azerbaijan outside Baku, looks like a beautiful country. Photos are beautiful.

It was a great read. Jonathan


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