Except We Hadn’t Landed in Sochi – Russia Lesson 1

No Olympics signage. Old terminal. No information counter, only the taxi sharks. No sign of the 105 bus or even a bus stop. Some Olympics preparation in Sochi.

The taxis are trying to gouge me. The trip should be about USD 15-20. One is asking USD 400. Another 700. What is going on?

Finally a taxi dispatcher gets my guest house on the line and they find a person with a little English. “Because you are not in Sochi, your flight has problem.”

Uh-oh.

So how did I end up in Mineralnye Vody Airport (MRV), 600 km away?

Mineralnye Vody Airport

Arriving at Mineralnye Vody Airport

I had flown to Moscow overnight from New York, taking Delta which put me in Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO). SVO is impressive, a very cool immigration hall. I took the slick AeroExpress into town, stopping at Red Square to drop in on Lenin, then continued out to Moscow Domodedovo International Airport (DME) for my S7 flight to Sochi. I could have stayed at SVO however I wanted to pass through Red Square and a British Airways Avios award to Sochi was much more attractive than buying an Aeroflot ticket or eating the huge fuel surcharges for Delta SkyMiles awards on Aeroflot.

My flight  was delayed a half hour and then we headed for Sochi. Not much English on offer on S7 though one flight attendant spoke some English and knew I do not speak Russian. Her volunteering a little info later would have helped. On approach I felt the familiar turns of a holding pattern. The captain made a garbled announcement in Russian and English, from what I could make out I thought he said we were landing. Maybe I missed the part about Mineralnye Vody due to heavy rains in Sochi.

I was in a jet lag daze as we sat for over 20 minutes waiting to deplane. People moved around outside and the ladder was at the plane, but no one opened the door. Eventually a bus pulled up and took us to arrivals.

Russian airports I later learned all have the city name lit up above the airport in the back. Because of the U-shape of the terminal that sign was out of view and I passed through arrivals. I was the first out since I had no checked luggage. That started my search for the bus, then a taxi, during which I had not seen that the other passengers had collected their luggage and headed to the departures lounge. The big sign at the front of the airport only said “Airport” in Russian so it was only when my hotel was phoned that I realized what had happened.

St Petersburg Airport

Checked tonight to make sure I arrived St Petersburg as intended

Thinking back there were clues that should have snapped me out of my stupor yet not a single passenger complained or even groaned. Everyone was stoic as if nothing was amiss. I found them quietly sitting in the departures hall and stuck with them for the remainder of the wait and eventual resumed flight to Sochi. I am used to the US where there is endless drama with even the smallest issue, or China where there are violent mobs threatening airline staff over delays.

So the lesson other than pay attention? Russians have seen a lot, experienced a lot. Just because they are taking things in stride doesn’t mean all is well.

I was happy to arrive in Sochi at 12:30 am. Next lesson? Just because the guest house is 5 miles from the airport doesn’t mean it is convenient. The taxi driver took an hour to find it, at one point going in reverse for about a mile on the M27 highway. Every person in the neighborhood had the same response, “I don’t know,” which along with “No,” seem to be the default Russian responses to any questions. Another lesson learned.

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  • Mr. Cool

    lol that blows. Stefan, i shouldve given you my cell phone # in Chicago so you could have an emergency interpreter. being russian…i cant imagine how non-russians visit russia on non-proctored trips & manage to enjoy it. good for you lol

  • Joey

    What an adventure! At first I thought you were going to say that you arrived in Adler, which is actually where the Sochi airport and coastal cluster are located. 😉 Safe travels in Russia and I look forward reading the trip report since I’ll be there in February during the first week of the Games. Hopefully there will be more signage and I think I’ll splurge and ask hotel to pick me up at the airport.

  • That’s annoying. And yet somehow it brings a smile to my face and a yearning to have been there.

  • This has made me laugh out loud. I am from a former Soviet republic and can totally relate. The part about being stoic and not making a fuss, thats from the old days. You better blend in and suck it up, or else you are going to Siberia!
    Incidentally, when I was 17, I was flying to USA with a layover in Moscow. So like you I got out an did some sightseeing for a few hours. Travel fast and smart, linger only in memories!

  • dale m

    While taxi-nasties can play their games anywhere, it seems somehow more predictable and almost expected that it would and does happen in Russia — something akin to an ugly version of the survival of the fittest (most ruthless) preying on the innocent. At least you didn’t have to deal with them in the end. Interesting story and travels!

  • @leana – which former Soviet republic? I previously visited the 5 ‘stans and 3 Caucusus and coming up this trip I will go to the 3 Baltics. Each has been fascinating, so tremendously under-appreciated destinations, and for the most part I have found easier to travel than within Russia.

  • @Joey – I did visit both clusters of main venues, the Coastal Cluster is quite convenient to the airport just a few miles away, or will be when the roads are ready. The Mountain Cluster is some distance and the new train will be a good option, I believe it is in testing and did see one train go by. The train from the airport to Sochi city is ready but not relevant to Olympics visitors unless they have some reason to go to Sochi, which is quite a haul along the coast.

    I will be really curious to see how the Olympics go and are reported. I’ll have more in my posts.

    @Mr. Cool – this is bringing back memories of my trip in 2010 to Russian Far East and Siberia. Quite a challenging country for the tourist.

  • Stefan, I am from Belarus. Not exactly a tourist destination, plus they require visa for Americans. But there are some neat places, like Mir castle. Also I am from the city of Grodno, which has 2 historic castles and was at one time the center of Polish empire. You will enjoy Lithuania and Vilnius specifically, if going there. I am fascinated by the obscure places, you go to. Very unique blog.

  • @leana – next week I go to Belarus and Ukraine, too. I found the best way to handle the visa is to get a Private Visit visa rather than a Tourist Visa where the agencies often insist on expensive tour bookings to get their visa support. I will rent a car and visit Khatyn, Glory Mound, Mir, and Nesvizh. Then I will go back to Minsk to drop off the car because I could not find an agency with reasonable drop-off fee for Brest. I will take train to Brest and visit the fortress and Belovezhskaya Pushcha before continuing to Poland.

  • How about that?! I think you will like Brest and Pushcha, though the european buffalo or “zubr” in russian are kind of sad and scrawny looking. At least they were, when I visited many years ago. If you can, try to include Grodno, if time permits. Its a very picturesque town. Above all, go with the flow. In some ways Belarus is more backwards, than Russia. But probably a step above North Korea, LOL I can’t wait for that trip report!

  • @leana – I am investigating Grodno now, looks like it may be too far to fit into my tight plan, however I am going to see what I can put together. I appreciate the tip. Not much reliable info in English on Belarus.

  • Honestly, its OK, if you skip Grodno. If you go to see Krakow, you probably would not be impressed anyway. Be aware, not many people speak English. Young crowd is more likely to be able to help though. Especially in Minsk, where I attended university. Also, I would advise against a car rental, but its up to you. The drivers are a little crazy and some roads are less, than satisfactory.
    Did you try to just hire someone to take you around for those few days and leave you in Brest instead of going back to Minsk? Not sure where you would look, but if you wish I could call and ask, since I know people, who may know people! I have no financial incentive or anything. Send me a private email, if you wish and I could make some phone calls.

  • @leana – thank you, I just emailed.

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