After securing my temporary visa for Russia in Seoul, I was given orders for a weeklong trip, part of which was to Moscow in order to get an in-brief and for familiarization. Then I would spend the rest of the time in Washington D.C. at a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) training course. I dutifully report to the Yongsan travel office to get a ticket around the world. In short order, they provided me with my tickets. The response was quick and professional from the Army and civilian team. I was quite impressed.
Not so hasty, young fella.
The travel day arrives and all is in order. My Gunnery Sergeant takes me to Seoul Kimpo Airport early. I check in and all is still going well. My tickets show travel to Beijing with a one-hour layover before continuing to Moscow. After boarding, a nice flight attendant tells me there is an issue and I need to get off the plane. A little embarrassing as I collect my things and everyone is looking at me. I get off the plane and am taken to a security room in the back corridors of the airport. An agent speaks with me about my visa for China. I don’t have one. I didn’t know I needed one as I was just catching another flight and not remaining in China. They apologize profusely, but Americans need visas for China, no matter how long they remain in country. So much for the efficiency of the travel office.
With a phone call, the travel office jumps on it and gets me new tickets. I call the Gunny, who offers to come get me, but my next flight leaves in a mere nine more hours – no need. My new flight goes through Almaty, Kazakhstan with a layover of about nine hours before the short connector flight to Sheremet’evo 1, the small domestic airport that shares runways with Sheremet’evo 2, the huge international (and supposedly modern) airport. I double-checked to make sure that my bag was checked through and the nice counter clerk assured me that I would not have to touch it again until I picked it up in Moscow.
The flight to Almaty was uneventful. My Russian visa was sufficient for me to enter Kazakhstan. As it turned out, ours was the last flight into Kazakhstan for the evening, arriving sometime around midnight. I was quite tired, but it was exciting being in a new place and the ground crews and terminal personnel had quite a bit of energy. That bit was short lived as they were only trying to wrap things up before going home for the evening. Most passengers headed out to their destinations or disappeared somewhere else. I was left with just a few stragglers in the two-story terminal (which burned to the ground some six months later and was not rebuilt!).
As I was exploring the terminal, I suddenly started to worry about my luggage. By the exit door of the airport, there was the area where the international passengers had arrived. The door was open and the area within was dark. Something was not right. I walked into the open area and in the middle was a huge pile of luggage – unsecured and unappreciated. It looked like the bags had been dumped off the back of a truck. My bag was easily found, although it had been slightly modified by the baggage handlers – it was now missing one handle. The other handle would disappear somewhere inside Russia the next day. I recovered my bag, shook my head, and dragged it into the terminal.
I had decided earlier it would be easier to manage a single larger bag than to take two pieces of luggage. I think this was still the right decision, but at the time, my large bag did not roll well and the only place to sit was in a second floor waiting area. The bathrooms were in the basement. Did I mention that there weren’t any elevators?
Hauling my bag up the steps to the second level was not too bad. All the seats were empty in the passenger area, so I took one and put my stuff around me, staking ownership, just in case there was a rush for a plane that wouldn’t depart for eight more hours…
There was a cantina that remained open and two young couples were imbibing with a bored bartender waiting for them to leave. The young men were dressed in standard European garb, but the ladies were dressed to kill and they were beauties. Tight dresses wrapped around hard and shapely bodies. High heels accentuated trim legs. And they were both blasted, which probably appealed to the young men. I think it was sometime around 1am when the best looking of the two young ladies began to stagger toward the steps for a two-story decline to the bathrooms. While walking, she started to puke and splattered her technicolor yawn about fifteen feet from me. The smell permeated the area. She continued on her way after a few moments as if nothing happened. The other three of her group laughed.
The bartender headed off to find the cleaning lady. The cleaning lady was more like the folks I envisioned would be around at this time of night. A portly babushka with gray hair and hammer-like hands came up to the second floor with her mop and bucket. She grumbled to herself and threw the mop at the bucket. She headed toward the bathroom with a steely determination. I heard a scuffle coming from the bottom of the steps. Then the babushka reappeared, dragging the young lady by her hair. Her Russian spewed forth from a near-toothless mouth and I didn’t understand much, but her intent was clear.
The former “hotty” was going to clean up her own mess.
The young lady was a bit belligerent, but that evaporated quickly as the babushka had her by a good 70 or 80 pounds. With arms crossed and not a kind word for the youth of today, the babushka watched as the young lady in a short cocktail dress and high heels mopped the floor. Once completed, although not to the babushka’s satisfaction, the young lady pleaded to just let her go.
The bartender had also asked for the assistance of the night watchman to oversee the entire affair. I think the group of young adults would have given the babushka more grief had she not had the support of the silent security guard standing nearby. As it was, once released from cleaning up her own mess, the young lady and her friends gave quite a bit of lip to the older lady, who held up her mop menacingly as if she would take it to their hides. The security guard ushered the group away. The bartender closed up shop and followed quickly behind. The babushka recovered her bucket and headed off toward the bathrooms, two floors below.
All of that took fifteen minutes. I only had another six hours to wait before the airport would open up and after that, two more hours before my flight. This was going to be a long night.
I held out as long as I could, but nature called and I had to answer. Knowing that I could not leave anything unsecured here, I picked up my bag by its remaining handle, slung my backpack and looked for the bathroom. The first flight of stairs was no problem as they led to the second floor, which was more like a deck that overlooked the first and out through long windows onto the runway. The stairs from the first floor to the bathrooms were something else in entirety.
It looked as though the bathrooms had been added on after the airport had been built. The steps were stone or marble, but well-worn and fairly treacherous. Once at the bottom, it was obvious that I was close because the smell increased with each step. Once I made it to the men’s room, I had to look around to figure things out. There were no urinals. I know my Russian was a bit rusty at the time, but this was the men’s room. On closer inspection, I saw a small channel at the bottom of one wall with a drain at the end. The splatters about the floor on that side of the bathroom told the rest of the story.
I did not bring my suitcase too far into the room as I stood at the end and angled from one end of the offensive wall toward the drain. I hoped that nothing would splash on my shoes. I did not check the stalls. That would have been one adventure too far for me. I returned to the second floor and successfully stayed awake for the next few hours. The coffee cart by the front door opened early and I jumped in line with the taxi drivers for a small Dixie cup of hot java. No cup of coffee ever tasted better. Then I jumped back in line for a second cup to drink a little more slowly. The gift shop opened and I picked up an interesting pitcher (yes, pitcher – to pour drinks from). We still have it as the reminder of my mis-adventures on my first trip to Russia.