Traveling from Elkins, WV to participate in a guided tour of Russia is an exercise in endurance, even for experienced travelers. Let me describe my first day.
Monday, July 10, 2000: I awoke at 6 am to take care of last-minute details. My transportation for the three-hour trip to the Pittsburgh airport arrived at 9. The driver got lost when we were rerouted due to a traffic accident on I-79 in Pennsylvania. By the time we got back on course, we had lost 30 minutes. When I arrived at the airport, I hurried to the proper terminal, only to discover that my TWA flight to JFK Airport in New York had been farmed out to another airline. So I rushed through concourses to the Delta departures counter. There, I was told that my flight had been 'sub-farmed out' by Delta to a regional carrier. (I think it was 'Billy Joe Jim Bob Airlines,' or some such name.) But not to worry, that flight would be at least an hour late leaving. It seems they couldn't find a pilot!
Eventually, they found a pilot, (probably at a local bar) and with help from the passengers, he shoved the plane out onto the runway and started the engine with a hand-crank. (OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but if you've flown some of these regional puddle-jumpers, you know what I mean.) 90 minutes later, we landed at the hell-hole known as JFK.
Now, JFK isn't the easiest airport to navigate even under the best of circumstances, and I was an hour late arriving, which meant I could not get to the Finnair departure terminal as early as I should for an international flight. At this point, I was lost anyway. Nothing in that place is well marked. After asking several surly New Yorkers for directions, I finally found the exit to the shuttle bus area. Minutes later, I was fighting my way onto the crowded bus for the long trip to Terminal 7. Upon arrival, I fought my way off the bus, and raced at breakneck speed into the terminal, desperately looking for Finnair. Of course, there was the usual holdup going through security, but I managed to find the proper ticket area. The Finnair clerk was nice enough, but then I had to find the proper departure gate. Needless to say, I went the wrong way, and had to retrace the whole length of the terminal to get where I was going. Believe it or not, I made the plane with 20 minutes to spare before take-off!
After an uneventful 71/2 hour, 4100 mile trip across the Atlantic and Scandinavia, the MD-11 wide-body jet touched down at Helsinki, Finland.
Helsinki has a nice, modern airport. I had no problem finding the departure area for the Finnair flight to Moscow. Two hours after takeoff, I landed at another hell-hole, Sheremetyevo-2, which is the main commercial airport serving Russia's Capital. It was now 12 noon, Tuesday, Moscow time, and I had been without any useful sleep for 22 hours. But the day, and the adventure, was just beginning!
Our tour started in Moscow, and then proceeded to St. Petersburg, with an overnight stop in Novgorod.
(Continued to First Day page)