If someone would tell me a story like this, I probably would not believe it. But what follows really happened to me today.
I landed early this morning in Moscow on an overnight flight from Shanghai. I had a lay-over of a couple of hours for a flight to Larnaca, so I sat in the lounge and wrote some emails and worked on a blog post about online games for the Business Insider. My flight would be boarding at 11:15, so at 10:50 I decided to pack my stuff and walk to the gate.
When I left the lounge I looked on the board to verify the gate number and to my astonishment it said that the gate had closed already. I thought I was looking at the wrong flight, but I double checked and then realized that the time on the board was one hour later than the time on my watch, my iPhone and my MacBook Pro. I didn’t understand this, both my iPhone and my laptop automatically switch to the right time when I land in a different time zone, so I never have to think about manually changing the time. I changed my watch on the plane with the official time on the flight tracking system, so that should be correct as well. I was flabbergasted, but decided to run to the gate anyway to see what was going on and if I could still board.
Well, bad luck. The plane had just left the gate and I was left stranded in Moscow Sheremetyevo airport. I asked the lady at the gate if there would be another plane to Larnaca, but she first tried to ignore me and then told me rudely that looking that up was not her job. Welcome to Russia…
So I went to look for the Aeroflot transfer desk. For the whole international terminal F there was only one transfer desk and at that desk there was only 1 computer with a seat, but there was nobody sitting there. Some other people were waiting in line, so I decided to wait as well. I guess waiting is part of life in Russia, because nobody complained when a girl appeared 10 minutes later from the back room.
After waiting another 15 minutes it was my turn, I explained my situation, but the girl did not believe me. She told me it was an hour later than I thought. Yes, I had figured that out as well, but my phone and laptop told me differently. She had no idea of course how that could be (neither did I yet at that point), but she went to talk to her manager. I was lucky, probably because I flew business class her manager (sitting in the back drinking a coffee) was willing to help and rebook me on a different flight. I just had to wait 20 minutes for the rebooking.
Okay, seemed reasonable, so I started to change my scheduled meetings and then did a quick online search about what may have happened. Well, it only took me 2 minutes until I found this article in Pravda: http://english.pravda.ru/russia/economics/31-10-2011/119477-winter_time_russia-0/. Putin had decided to abolish winter time earlier this year, but Apple and many other computer makers did not get that message. Everybody who owns an iPhone or Apple computer suddenly had the wrong time on the screen. And apparently Apple did nothing to solve the issue over the past 2 weeks! I am sure I am not the only one with this problem, and I am almost 100% sure that the inflight tracking system of Aeroflot also still showed the wrong time.
Of course this did not help me in any way, but at least I now understood what the problem was. After 30 minutes the girl came back and told me there were no other flights to Cyprus anymore today, but she could book me on the flight for tomorrow. I didn’t have much choice of course so I agreed. At least I would be able to leave tomorrow. But then there was another problem, I could not leave the airport because I didn’t have a Russian visa. And there is no airport hotel on Moscow Sheremetyevo…
I asked if I could get a transit visa, but the girl told me that’s not possible. However, she then asked me how much money I had on me, and I told her no cash but that I have a credit card. She told me she may have another solution, she had to make a phone call and I had to wait another 20 minutes. Sure, I had nothing else to do anyway. After 20 minutes she told me she had a hotel room for me if I was willing to pay USD 170. Great, I thought, a bit expensive but better than a chair in the terminal for the night. Then a big lady who spoke no English told me to follow her. I did so and we went to a side door to the empty transit area. We waited for a while and then a custom person came out of another door to inspect my passport. After that the big lady took me down the stairs to passport control, but instead of going through there we took a side door and we were suddenly outside on the tarmac of Moscow aiport!
A large bus pulled up and I was asked to board it. I had no clue what was happening, but I found it interesting so boarded of course. The big bus was completely empty except for the driver, the big lady and me. We drove all around the airport to a side entrance where security opened the gate for us without asking.
We then drove for a couple of minutes until we came to a Novotel. The hotel looked nice and I was quite happy. But we did not drive to the main entrance, but to the side. The big lady went in first and came over with a security guy that escorted me to check in. I found this a bit strange, but hey, this is Russia. So I checked in and then was told that I would be escorted to a special room and that I was to remain in the room until 9 AM tomorrow, when someone would come to get me!
At first I thought, fine. But when I was escorted through the personnel lift to my room and I saw that a big guard was sitting in front of it with a TV I felt less happy about the whole situation. But not much you can do I guess. I am now in my room, which is quite spartan. The window can’t be opened and there is a second glass window on the inside. I can see people walking outside, but I can’t go outside myself. This feels very very strange. I am basically a prisoner here and have to wait until 9 AM tomorrow to leave this hotel room.
Luckiy I have Internet (although that disconnects every 30 minutes or so), so I can work and make calls over Skype. But it feels very awkward. I guess I am lucky, but I now understand a little bit how it must feel to be in a real prison. This is a luxury prison for sure, but the fact that you can’t leave makes me feel uncomfortable. I can’t even go down to the lobby to eat something or work out in the gym (I don’t have my suitcase with my running gear here anyway). I just have to stay in the room and call if I want to eat something.
I am not sure if this is standard procedure, or whether the USD 170 went into several pockets to get this arranged. Why would they let me out through a side door and then have a big bus transport me to the side entrance of the hotel? I don’t really want to know. It’s at least better than spending the night on a chair in the departure lounge of Moscow airport and it makes for a nice story. But I will be happy when it’s 9 AM tomorrow morning. And Apple, if someone reads this please solve this bug!
Update next morning 10:30 AM: I made it out without any real problems. No knock on the door in the middle of the night to check my visa in order to obtain some bribes. They let me wait another 10 minutes before they let me out at 9:10 AM (“Come go, quick quick!”), then a security guard led me through the hotel lobby to the emergency exit where a bus was waiting (Why the emergency exit? I still think the whole thing was illegal, otherwise they could let me use the main entrance, right?)
The drive back to the airport took a bit longer than planned. First we ended up in a traffic jam and then the driver drove the wrong way and we had to drive back again. Eventually we ended up at the side gate of the airport where they let us in without inspecting my bags or passport. Another tour of the airport followed and 10 minutes later I was at another side entrance where someone was waiting for me to open the door. Two minutes later I was back in the terminal, without anybody checking my passport.
I am now in the lounge having a coffee and apple cake. Getting into the lounge was a small problem, they refused to let me in without an invitation (despite flying business class and having all kinds of frequent flyer cards). They were extremely rude, first sending me to the wrong place to get an invitation and then telling me to go back to my “friends” at the transfer desk. I don’t give up easily and I eventually managed to get the invitation, but not after another lesson in Russian arrogance and rudeness. China may not be perfect, but this is 10 times worse. I look forward to being in the air in 1 hour. Too bad I will be flying through Moscow again on Sunday…