Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Getting There is Half the Battle - San Francisco to Vladimir, Russia

So, a bit of backstory – I have wanted to try out the A380 for a while and haven’t had the chance to do so yet. While British Airways and Emirates serve SFO with it, BA didn’t fly it on the day that I wanted to leave (and leaving from SFO on it was way more expensive) – Instead, I decided to go through Los Angeles, connecting to London on the BA A380 before going on to Copenhagen (my technical destination) and connecting on an Aeroflot flight to Moscow (my actual destination). It was an extra stop (and a LONG connection – 7 hours), but I figured it’d be totally worth it for a chance to try the A380.

I got to the airport around 12:20pm for my 2:20pm flight to LAX. I checked in and decided not to go through security until a bit later. As I was waiting, I got a text saying that my flight was delayed. Normal enough, but just to be safe I checked the inbound flight and found that it was delayed by three hours, due to arrive at 3:30pm. The posted delay on my flight so far was only 30 minutes. There was nobody in the AA elite line, so I figured I’d take a moment to plan my strategy. I had a few options; first, I could do nothing and take my delayed flight (with a first-class upgrade); second, I could ask the check-in agent to protect me on the next flight which left at 4:40pm and keep my plans for the delayed flight if things worked out; third, and most amusingly, BA offers a nonstop from SFO-LHR leaving at 4:40pm which I could potentially switch onto.

Undeterred, and using the fact that the SFO-LHR nonstop was operated by a 747 as an excuse, I decided to keep my plans to go through LAX and ask the agent to protect me on the next flight, the 4:40pm one. When I asked him to do so, he looked at me as if I were crazy. “But your flight has only a 30-minute delay!” he said. I ever so politely informed him that the inbound aircraft would barely be taking off at the time my flight was now scheduled to leave. He grimaced and eventually was convinced to protect me on the next flight. Fast-forward about 20 minutes and I got another email, this time a cancellation! I immediately went back to the desk and got a confirmed seat on the 4:40pm flight; though I lost my upgrade, it was still a bulkhead – Not too bad, all things considered. I went through security a few minutes later and spent a bit of time in the lounge where I amusedly watched several angry passengers on my former SFO-LAX flight that had to be accommodated on much later flights. Flying is the best source of schadenfreude on the planet.

AA Lounge at SFO (feat. angry passengers in the background)

Soon I was boarding my flight to LAX, and it turned out that my seatmate was also an aviation geek who had done quite a bit of plane-spotting. I picked up on it when I saw him taking pictures of the Emirates A380 as we taxied past. We spent the whole ride to LA talking, and he left for terminal 4 to make his AA flight to LHR while I headed to the international terminal for my hard-fought-for BA A380 flight. My 7 hour layover had dwindled to 3.5 hours, and after dinner in the OneWorld lounge, I was off to board my flight. 

OneWorld Lounge LAX, feat. my bags

I had a seat on the upper deck, so boarded after going up an escalator in the jetway. The flight itself was a lot of fun, and I wandered around the plane a bit when I could. After a quick 10 hours (read: NCIS marathon), I landed in London.

I headed to the BA lounge where I once again ran into a plane-spotter. He suggested a great place outside of the terminal, and since I had a few hours to kill, I decided to get a passport stamp and join him. Among the highlights were a Saudia A330 and the Kuwait Airways A300 – One of the last of its kind in service.

Connecting in Jeddah doesn't sound like the most fun...

We headed back through security and customs and spent a little longer in the lounge before heading to our respective flights; him to Athens, and me to Copenhagen. I got to the gate to find out my flight was delayed an hour. This turned out to be quite nice, however, since it turned out that sunset in Copenhagen was around 10:45pm, and we landed shortly after sundown. I got an awesome timelapse (despite the bumpy approach) and a few other nice pictures of the spectacular sunset.

Arrival into CPH

Now, as I mentioned above, in order to get the incredible deal I got on my flights, I had to book my OneWorld ticket to Copenhagen and add on a Moscow flight from there. I was flying Aeroflot from Copenhagen to Moscow, and had given myself 3 hours in Copenhagen just in case anything went wrong. Well, 3 hours turned to 2, which eventually turned to 1.5 hours. I no longer had time to go through customs to the Aeroflot check-in desk to check-in, and so I headed to the gate instead. At the gate, I found nothing. Not “oh, there’s nobody here” nothing, actual nothing. It was shuttered closed, and there were a couple people sitting on the floor nearby. I asked and was told that the gate wouldn’t open for awhile. I resigned myself to sitting on the floor and waiting, and eventually about 30 minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off, an official-looking woman came over and unlocked/unshuttered the gate. Immediately she was swarmed by about 150 Chinese people who seemed to materialize out of thin-air. Obviously they all wanted to board, but I had a more pressing matter – I had no boarding pass. I had managed to check-in online successfully, but with no boarding pass, I was kinda stuck. She tried to print it, but found that there was no ticket stock at the gate. As she was heading off to find some, I finally managed to connect to the internet and navigate Aeroflot’s minefield to get a boarding pass on my phone.

I entered the gate area after she checked my visa, and began waiting. Of course the entire Chinese mob hovered so close to the entrance to the jetway that one of them got hit in the head by the door when a flight attendant came out. Again, schadenfreude at its finest. After a little longer, we boarded and were off – a short 2 hour and 20 minute hop to Moscow… It was unfortunate, however, that the hop included a time zone and was effectively a redeye: We left Copenhagen at 12:20am and arrived in Moscow at 3:40am.

I am terrible at sleeping on planes. I was, however, so tired by this point that I managed to get an hour of sleep despite being woken up by flight attendants twice to ask if I wanted water. It turns out that no, I did not want water. In fact, while it may seem hard to believe, when I am asleep I don’t want to be violently shook by a Russian woman in a bright red uniform and asked if I want water! Water and sleep are not a great mix, and thus I didn’t sleep much more on the flight.

Pokey-water-woman and the Aeroflot A320 business class (I had the bulkhead in economy)

So, you see, it turns out that I am a cheap fuck. No, not like that, get your mind out of the gutter. What I mean is that originally I was supposed to take a 4:40pm train from Moscow to Vladimir, and I had booked an airport hotel so that I could sleep when I arrived. A few days before I left, however, seats opened up on the earlier, 9:30am train. I rationalized the switch to myself by suggesting that it’d be nice just to get to Vladimir, and that 6 hours isn’t that terrible, that I would be jetlagged and miserable if I slept until 2pm the day I arrived, and that maybe I’ll have slept on the planes beforehand (hint: no). I cancelled my hotel reservation and instead decided to rough it for 6 hours while waiting for my morning train. Maybe that would have been okay, but I did another stupid thing: I decided that while taking the Aeroexpress into the city would be nice, the first one didn’t leave until 5am, and since Moscow traffic wouldn’t be bad at 4am, I decided to take a taxi to the train station. Why I didn’t wait at the airport with power-plugs and comfy seats, I will never know.

Pro tip: Don’t spent 5 hours at a Moscow train station. The waiting rooms were closed, so I spent an hour languishing on the ground next to a power outlet before deciding that there had to be some better way. I headed upstairs at that point and found an empty seat where I watched NCIS for the next several hours. I was too tired to move, my head hurt, and I couldn’t fall asleep because I had all my stuff with me and was surrounded by, well, less-than-scrupulous characters. You know, the kind you might find in a train-station at 6am.

Anyhow, eventually after several doses of ibuprofen, by some miracle it was 9am. I checked the train-board and found my train was supposed to leave from track 1. I went out to the tracks and there was no train. It was 10 minutes before departure and Moscow was the origin, so I found that a bit odd. I glanced down to platform 11, however, and sure enough my train was there. I don’t know whether I just missed a “1” or whether the listing was actually wrong – By now I was mostly a walking zombie.

Leaving Moscow

After a 2-hour train ride I finally arrived in Vladimir where I got off the train, took a local bus to the Golden Gate, and walked down a giant hill (hint: what goes down must come up) to my hostel for the next 2 days. I left Stanford at 11am Pacific time on June 9th, and arrived in Vladimir at 12:10pm Moscow time on June 11th; roughly 39 hours of travel. Despite my extreme lack of sleep, I had a second zombie-resurgence – With my stomach growling (and no longer feeling as miserable), I decided to get lunch and explore the city a bit...

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