Who are you flying with? You’re not flying Aeroflot? Two questions fired off to me immediately I said I was going to India. Let’s dispel the myth that you wear goggles and have to clean the plane before take-off. You don’t. Air travellers, land-lovers, friends…painted a picture for me of Aeroflot being a downmarket, decrepit cattle train with hedge-hopping, late take-off planes. In reality the Airbus 310 from Heathrow to Moscow was clean, efficiently serviced by cabin crew and just like any aeroplane.The flight was pleasant, it wasn’t hijacked, the plane was clean, tea was served from silver tea pots and there was a choice of chicken or beef something after a smoked salmon starter. Smoking was confined to the front row in First Class (we’re talking about 2001!) and the four back rows in Economy class.
From my journal Monday 26 April 2001 – Flight SU 242 to Moscow
Arrive Moscow, 20.05. In a dimly lit airport people are standing around, mobiles ringing, there’s a foreign announcement followed by a mechanical English voice. Not a clue what is said. There’s a whirring sound of a Camel cigarette machine’smotorised advertising hoarding. A soldier-like girl at the transit lounge points me to the transit desk. “Boarding card” the girl at the transit desk says again. I’ve already shown it to her. She disbelieves me.
The green-tinged lighting is depressing. It tells the whole poor story. The quietness is unnatural. The smart-looking duty free girls are a stark reminder to the drab surroundings. A cleaner runs her mop between one tourist’s feet that are firmly planted on the cold marble floor. He’s oblivious to her actions. It’s 3 degrees below zero centigrade. My travelling companion, in pigeon English tells me it’s the Russian spring. All I had seen from the plane were miles of ice-covered, desolate land mass.
“I’m from Finland” said the girl on the next bench to a crisp-eating Indian lady. “It’s not hot in India” says the Indian lady, “just 30 degrees”. 30 degrees seems hot to me.
The Finnish lady continues her speech as the Indian lady looks at the Camel cigarette machine that’s still whirring. “I’m going to Bangladesh”.
We eventually go back into freezing temperatures to board the plane for 23.00 flight SU549 to Moscow. I’m thinking the comfort on board will be the same as on the flight from London. I’m wrong. I’m surrounded by young men who’ve had too much to drink and trying to involve me in their banter. A stewardess sees I’m looking bewildered and directs me to a seat further back in the plane that’s in the middle of three vacant seats. I can occupy all of them.
I’m beginnning to understand why people raise their eyebrows at the word Aeroflot. The seats are worn out. The plastic pull-down tables don’t pull down. The air cooling system is blowing right in your face. The cabin crew are relaxed, to the extreme, with their take-off procedure. You know how you never really take in the safety instructions before take-off when the stewardess points this way and that, demonstrating emergency procedure. This Aeroflot flight is very different. Crew and passengers wander around during take-off. There’s no illuminated sign to say Fasten Your Seat Belts. A stewardess announces a six-hour flight. There’s a steward lurking in the shadows between the drunken section and the half-empty part of the plane giving out some sort of safety instructions. We’re at last told not to smoke and to sit up straight. It’s more like a run down British Rail train than an inter-continental aircraft. It’s still take-off and a steward disappears down a trap-door then reappears.
We’re cruising. There’s a useful air vent in front of me which I can just about click to On. Stinky cool air hits me in the face. We’re running a quarter of an hour behind schedule and this flight is turning into a macabre adventure.
It was dim during take-off. Suddenly we’re plunged into total blackness, then immediately back into light, only now it’s like blackpool illuminations. There’s a mass exodus of passengers making for the rear of the plane as smokers go for a fix behind row 45. A steward wanders round aimlessly with blankets in one hand, a hat in the other.
Strange little hot cloths are dished out with tongs but I’m so far back in the plane they’re luke warm and rather nasty by the time they reach me. I’m thinking they’re probably the advance party for a tray of luke warm dinner. But dinner is halted, well it wasn’t really started, by turbulence. The buffeting around is making writing difficult but 7-Ups are coming down the aisle. Stewards are making a run at serving the passengers. I’m given a 7-Up and have a quick drink before it’s propelled on to the floor. The cup of tea was the high spot of the gelatinous, inedible meal.
Arrive Delhi 07.05 27 April 2001
The code number on my book has been changed.
This is the new version of Every Great Journey Starts Somewhere ~ Seven Days in India: