This TR covers my recent travels to and within Russia. The main purpose of taking this trip was to fly on some Russian aircraft types which are soon going to be retired. The journey took me from HAM to Moscow (all three major airports – DME, VKO, SVO), MRV (Mineralnye Vody), LED, CEE (Cherepovets), SCW (Syktyvkar) and ARH (Arkhangelsk); the return trip sort of completed a circumnavigation of the Baltic Sea: I flew from ARH via HEL to CPH and then took the train back to Hamburg. The last leg also drastically increased the multimodality of this trip as the ICE train was loaded onto a ferry to cross the Fehmarnbelt between Denmark and Germany. I will not include the bog-standard Air Berlin flights from ZRH, my current home base, to HAM, my city of origin, and back. There was nothing worth reporting. I chose to begin the trip in HAM as I wanted to combine it with some family visits.
All in all, this was a memorable trip. The flights were great and practically all perfectly on time and operated by the expected equipment, the only exception being the Superjet which was replaced by an A320. But the SSJ will be around for a while. I also met two fellow aviation enthusiasts: Local enthusiast V. from St. Petersburg joined me on the LED-CEE-LED trip with Severstal Aircompany's Yak-40, and a.net user S. (MEA-707) came along on the outbound leg of my excursion to SCW with UTair Express' Tu-134.
In order to keep this TR structured, it is divided into five parts:
- 1. This chapter including the Preface, some notes on the booking process and the flight from HAM to DME on a Lufthansa A320
- 2. The daytrip from VKO to MRV on Kuban Airlines' Yak-42D and back on KMV Avia's Tu-154M
- 3. The flight from SVO to LED on Aeroflot's A320 and the daytrip from LED to CEE and back on Severstal Aircompany's Yak-40
- 4. The overnight trip from LED to SCW and back on UTair Express' Tu-134 and the flight from LED to ARH on Rossiya's An-148
- 5. The long return journey from ARH via HEL (on Nordavia's An-24) and CPH (on Blue1's B717) to HAM (by train and ferry)
During the months of May and June, I was busy with completing my Master Thesis. As I found it impossible to just write on and on for hours and days, I began to develop the thought of realising a trip to Russia as a kind of reward for the time after the Thesis – whenever I didn't feel like working on my thesis for a moment, I browsed the web for options and began to develop a concrete plan. High on my wish list were in particular the Tu-134, the Yak-40 and the An-24. By the time I was working on my schedule, the website of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPAC) still offered free access to a huge database with detailed and up-to-date flight schedules of airlines and airports all over the world, including the aircraft types.
So after browsing that database a bit, I came up with some options and combined those options with all the different schedule confinements to a 9-day trip. The HAM-DME flight was actually the frame around it all – I planned to only use the outbound leg, with the return flight serving as a backup in case something, or especially the return voyage via ARH and HEL, would go wrong. The Kuban Airlines, KMV Avia and Rossiya flights were booked through the Russian website agent.ru (it all worked very easily). The Nordavia, Aeroflot, Rossiya, Severstal Aircompany and Blue1 flights were booked on the respective websites because they offered the best fares. Especially Severstal was an interesting case: While the fares bookable through the standard booking channels such as agent.ru were ridiculously high (in the region of 300€ return), I found out that there was an early booking fare for LED-CEE-LED below 100€.
This was only bookable on the Severstal Aircompany website, and while there are western credit card logos on their website, payment was only possible through some Russian money transfer systems. I worked on this issue for some hours of both frustration and fascination, and after some Google translations of Russian texts and browsing lots of websites of those money transfer systems, I found out that it is possible to make transfers below 100€ onto a system called Webmoney through a company based in Dortmund, Germany. So I transferred 95€ to that company in good hope that it would appear on my newly-created account in the Webmoney system, and indeed, it worked out as promised (I think I received 90€ in Webmoney currency after the company's deduction for their efforts). This Webmoney credit could then be transferred to the payment system, and from there, I could pay directly on Severstal Aircompany's website. In the end, it all worked out perfectly!
The Russian Visa process is often described as annoying and complicated, but actually it all turned out to be rather easy. I decided to complete the whole process myself without any agency's help. All I needed to do was to order an invitation (can be done directly online at the responsible ministry for around 15€, I had my invitation as a PDF via e-mail a day later), get a travel insurance (below 10€ at a German insurance firm) and a proof that I intend to return to where I live (an enrolment confirmation of my university was ok) – and together with the application form and a passport photo, I handed everything in at the Russian consulate in Hamburg. Less than two weeks later, the Visa was ready and I could pick it up. Once in Russia, I never cared to register (which you are supposed to do after staying in one city for more than 1, 3 or 7 days depending on the source) and never ran into any trouble.
I booked hostel beds in Moscow (Godzilla Hostel) and St. Petersburg (Gogol Mogol Hostel), both very recommendable places, and hotel rooms in Syktyvkar (Hotel Syktyvkar) and Arkhangelsk (Pur Navolok Hotel), both the only ones to be booked easily online in each town.
When I booked the Blue1 ticket online, I was asked whether I want to buy the Optiontown upgrade option for 49€, which I did out of curiosity – I found that system very intriguing and innovative. So I had a chance that, given availability, I would fly in their Premium Class from HEL to CPH, including lounge access in HEL. A confirmation / refusal message was supposed to reach me some days prior to departure.
The German railway operator DB had some online deals available for my date of travel from Copenhagen to Hamburg: 39€ in second or 49€ in first class. I opted for the latter because some extra comfort and peace seemed worth the extra 10€. See part 5 of my report for the outcome of these two quests for extra luxury.
After these introducing words, the first leg – a rather standard continental Lufthansa flight on a standard A320 – opens this small TR series.
Monday, 22 August 2011
D-AIQU (delivered 12/2000)
Scheduled 10.40-15.20 (+2)
Actual 12.05-16.30 (+2)
After some weeks of anticipation, the departure day had come and I took the bus from my family's home in Hamburg to the airport. I wanted to travel light in order to have only hand baggage – that way I was independent in case of irregularities – and thus only took a small backpack along. So no need to check-in any luggage. I had already printed a boarding pass at home the evening before.
A first glance at the departures board revealed that my flight would be delayed by almost 1.5 hours, the reason was given later: technical problems and the resulting need to find a replacement aircraft – D-AIQU came from LHR before my flight and was somehow rescheduled to do the DME hop. No big deal, I was in vacation mood anyway and so I made my way to the visitors' terrace of the Marché restaurant in the Lufthansa terminal. The purchase of a cappuccino bought my way onto the terrace, from where I enjoyed some nice views.
Once I had enough of that, I went to the gate, where most passengers were already congregating and D-AIQU was already waiting at the aerobridge.
Boarding commenced soon, and I settled in my seat, 24A, with an older Russian couple next to me. The captain apologised elaborately about the delay, giving the above-mentioned explanation and wishing us a nice flight. Pushback, taxi, holding short before Runway 33. Takeoff seemed powerful, and the weather was nice, allowing for some great views onto Northern Germany.
Soon, the island of Fehmarn came into sight – I thought to myself that my trip would be concluded by the train journey across that island only eight days later.
My view then turned back into the cabin for the obligatory legroom shot. Legroom was just perfectly enough for the duration of this flight – the cabin was fitted with the new LH seats:
The flight attendants soon commenced their service. I wasn't sure what to expect, and I was positively surprised when I noticed the smell of some warm Asian meal. It turned out to be a Thai chicken curry with rice and vegetables – even though I don't really like poultry normally, this stuff was real good for a medium-haul economy meal! Even the vegetables were crisp, and the rice was nicely cooked as well. The biscuit was a nice dessert, and only the bread was kind of disappointing.
After some newspaper reading and a cabin shot...
...the flight was already nearing its end, with an interesting descent through Moscow's surroundings and a firm landing with full spoiler action in DME. Once the aircraft turned towards the taxiway, I could spot some Russian planes out there – many of them stored and one even being scrapped on the spot.
Once off the plane at the terminal parking position, I headed for the exit and passed by an exchange bureau. I looked at the exchange rates from Roubles to Euro and thought to myself that this must be some kind of tourist trap – who in the world would exchange money a few meters after getting off his plane? The rate was 30 RUB for 1 EUR. I walked on, went through passport control (a breeze) and discovered another exchange bureau, this time offering a rate of 34 RUB. Still not convinced, I skipped the baggage claim and when I exited the airside area, I found the next exchange bureau: 38 RUB. Through the surprisingly nice and airy check-in hall of DME...
...I made my way towards the Aeroexpress train to Moscow. In the middle of the check-in hall, I found an exchange bureau with the posted rate of 39.50 RUB and decided to change some money there for the train and some water and metro tickets etc. Later in the Russian cities, I found that the best rates were around 42 RUB for 1 EUR. How audacious is that – that first exchange bureau tries to rip off the passengers right after getting off the plane by offering a rate more than 25 % below the standard rate!
Well, I found the Aeroexpress station and it even had ticket machines, contrary to what I heard from some sources who stated that you have to line up at a counter.
With the ticket in my hand, I boarded the train which departed shortly thereafter.
The word "Aeroexpress" is a euphemism for a renovated local train that connects Moscow's airports to the city at an average speed of 40 km/h (unqualified judgement by looking out the window), but the train got me safely to Paveletsky station.
There, I boarded the amazing Moscow metro and went to my hostel which I found in a rather quiet neighbourhood, very conveniently located within a 20-minute walk from the Red Square.
I concluded the day with a dinner at some Russian restaurant nearby and a nice nightly walk in the area of the Red Square.
Stay tuned for the upcoming four chapters!
[Edited 2011-09-08 14:04:31]