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
-GYD / MSQ
(all on SU
- Mr B: ATL
-GYD / MSQ
(SU, except ATL
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
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
, Delta Air Lines Boeing 737-800.
, Aeroflot Airbus A330-300.
, Aeroflot Airbus A319.
-GYD, Aeroflot Airbus A320.
, Aerosvit Boeing 737-400.
, Dniproavia Embraer ERJ-145.
, Aeroflot Airbus A320.
Mr B only
, Aeroflot Airbus A330-300.
, Delta Air Lines Boeing 737-800.
, 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
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:
Russian State Library (Lenin Library).
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:
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.
... 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
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.
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.