Monday, September 8, 2008

Chelyabinsk, Russia, Part 1: Tank City

I once took a writing seminar where one of the lecturers said mockingly, "Why do Russian novels make it seem like everyone is always drinking?" Clearly the woman had never been to Russia.

The story below is an account of a business trip I took in September 2006, immediately after the No-Liquids-on-airlines policy first went into effect. I'll post in two parts as it takes some time to explain everything that went awry.


Quiz: What is Chelyabinsk?
A. A mining town in the Urals
B. A place to find “beautiful and pretty Russia mail order brides”
C. The most contaminated spot on the planet
D. All of the above

Answer: D
My journey to Chelyabinsk, Russia was scheduled to begin on Saturday afternoon out of Reagan National Airport, an ill-fated Comair flight to JFK which was delayed several hours and ultimately cancelled due to a broken windshield wiper. Having successfully navigated the new “no liquids, no gels” rule, I now found myself without: lip gloss, toothpaste, perfume, beverages, flight.

After collecting my luggage and car once more, I made a second attempt out of Dulles Airport at 10:00 that night. Smooth sailing on the redeye until I arrived in Paris, where a 4-1/2 layover stretched to 5…did I mention I had no toothpaste or perfume?? By the time I arrived in Moscow I’d been delayed 12 hours. Exhausted but wired, I tried to unwind by watching some TV in my hotel room, but was unable to make sense of Brad Pitt’s dubbed voice in Seven Years in Tibet.

Next morning I ate breakfast in the restaurant of my ridiculously opulent hotel, the Metropol (part of Dr. Zhivago was filmed here). There was a woman playing harp for us during breakfast, for chrissake.

I met my colleague Anatoli outside a bank where we did some shady financial transactions. The Russian banking system is notoriously corrupt, and I sometimes wonder if Anatoli’s attempts to thwart the system have the effect of helping or merely exacerbating the situation. In any case, $8k of US government money was now safely out of my hands and into his pocket. Later on at a money changer’s, I converted $1k into rubles but Anatoli and I split it into $500 each so they wouldn’t ask too many questions.

Next he drove me to Moscow’s domestic airport where I met up with my team: Vladimir, Sasha, and the two Andres. Needless to say Aeroflot was no more efficient than Comair or Air France and we killed time drinking spirits in the airport bar until our flight was called.

Monday evening we finally arrived in Chelyabinsk, a region bordering Kazakhstan that was totally closed off to foreigners until 1992. Residents here enjoy 20 times as much radiation as people living in Chernobyl, and were it not for the whole no-liquids rule on planes these days I would have gladly hauled my own drinking water across the Atlantic. The region also produced 50 percent of the Soviet Union's tanks, earning it the nickname "Tank City".

One of the perks of training Customs officials was that we were personally met on the tarmac by a unit from Chelyabinsk Customs. One of them scurried off to get our luggage while the others escorted us directly to the terminal. The “commoners” from our flight were left to cram onto the shuttle like cattle.

It was about this time that I noticed Chelyabinsk was 30 degrees colder than Moscow and I had no coat. Another Customs officer was called, and minutes later he presented me with a horribly oversized Customs uniform trenchcoat. There were gold stars on the epaulets and everyone was calling me “Lt. Colonel.”

Although we checked in to the hotel en masse, as the only foreigner I was treated with great suspicion (despite my Customs uniform). I had to fill out twice the amount of paperwork and pay in rubles in full.

We reconvened for dinner where the ever-present vodka bottles were quickly emptied amid a flurry of toasts. I stumbled upstairs to bed around 11 pm, awaking a few hours later to find my room flooded from a broken toilet. I dashed into the hallway but no one was there, so I jerry-rigged the toilet with some difficulty, Russian toilets being designed differently from the ones back home.

After sloshing around trying to salvage my belongings, I found a female warden in the hall. I made ocean-wave motions with my hands and pointed inside my room, and she came over to see what the hell was the matter with me (in retrospect I probably looked like I was inviting her to a hula show). When she saw all the water on the floor she gasped and went to get the janitor, and after they tinkered for a while she mimed that I should move to a different room. I have a vague memory of wearing flannel pajamas and sneakers and piling into the world’s tiniest elevator with my luggage, the floor warden and possibly the janitor too (can’t really remember). The woman carried my wet socks and overcoat.

I got to my new room and spread out my things to dry, then dove into bed. Unfortunately the mattress was nothing but coil springs that poked into me, and I shivered under a threadbare blanket. Finally I fell into a troubled and unsatisfying sleep. At one point I dreamt that the hotel manager heard my complaint about the mattress and replied, “That mattress is only 28 years old. I don’t understand what the problem is.” In another dream, Brad Pitt tried to steal me away from another man but I just couldn’t get over his thick Russian accent.

1 comment:

  1. L PolKovnik Magree,

    Wonderful story. I'm learning that you're one tough lady. Traveling and staying in Russia alone in a broken down hotel requires courage that I may not have.

    I've never seen Russia except through a periscope. I'll tell you about it in September. We've got to have a meeting then - I want to hear more about your adventures.

    Best wishes, Ron