juliamhammond

Airlines

What you need to know about the US laptop ban

Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers.  Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.

What’s the current situation?

At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).

IMG_5286 (2)

Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight.  How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes.  This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.

So why are people getting upset?  Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?

As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge.  Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons.  They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed.  The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/lithium-batteries-spark-catastrophic-plane-fires-faa-warns/story?id=36816040

There’s more here, from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-uk-flights-usa-america-donald-trump-british-airline-pilots-association-heathrow-a7736076.html

There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling.  For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance.  I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out.  I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit.  So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.

texas-1656861_1920

So have they made a decision yet?

There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:

http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/05/laptops-banned-in-plane-cabin-on-flights-from-europe-to-u-s.html

Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction.  In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.

london-1405911

But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector.  This article from The Independent explains:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-on-flights-electronic-devices-travel-industry-airlines-travelport-a7737671.html

Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality.  I’m among them.  I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.

Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-europe-economic-tsunami-travel-industry-electronic-devices-flights-plane-hold-uk-usa-a7740396.html

I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there.  Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me.  But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more.  It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today.  At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.

Watch this space.

Update 18.5.17

Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update.  Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39956968

The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly.  Happy travels!


Flight news: Honduras

While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected.  Honduras is one of those places.  But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker.  When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey.  Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders.  (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.)  But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.

IMG_7749.JPG

Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety.  But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall.  Copan Ruinas is one such place.  I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region.  Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.

IMG_7822

While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come.  It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island.  It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.

IMG_8330.JPG

When are we going?

 


What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?

It’s one thing to pay a few pounds and hop on a Ryanair flight across the Channel, but what’s it like to travel long haul on one of the budget airlines. I put it to the test using Norwegian to carry me across the Atlantic and here’s what I thought.

Flights: LGW to SJU

Norwegian operates flights twice weekly departing Wednesdays and Saturdays.  They offer fares from under £300 return if you book well in advance which compares favourably with scheduled airlines serving other direct flight Caribbean destinations such as Antigua and Barbados.

16105936_10210274114877030_5079054604556801583_n

Check-in
Unlike their European routes, it’s not possible to check-in online with Norwegian for destinations to the USA and that included our destination, the US territory of Puerto Rico.  That’s not such a big deal when you’re departing from a small airport, but I was a little apprehensive as to how long the wait would be to check in at London’s busy Gatwick Airport.  In the event, it took less than half an hour to get checked in and proceed to security which wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Baggage

Checked baggage comes at a price; £25 for each sector if pre-booked but significantly more if purchased at the airport.  Travelling with my husband, we decided to take one full sized case and the rest as carry-on.  My much travelled Samsonite wheelie almost exactly matches the dimensions of Norwegian’s permitted carry-on at 55 x 40 x 20cm (Norwegian allows 55 x 40 x 23cm).  It’s a light case, which is a factor as it has to be lifted into the overhead bins and doesn’t go over the 10kg weight limit.  But it’s also spacious, and easily big enough for a week’s worth of clothes for the Caribbean, though if you were heading further north at this time of year to one of the big US cities served by Norwegian you’d be struggling for space.

img_7454

Seat assignment

Normally, my husband and I wouldn’t bother to pay extra for seat assignment on a short haul flight, but we decided to go ahead as this was a nine hour flight.  Each way cost us £25, a total of £100 to sit together.  I do think that’s steep.  We chose from an online seating plan opting for the back row of the plan (row 40) as this has a 2-3-toilet configuration, meaning we expected to have the section to ourselves.  You can see it here at Seatguru:

https://www.seatguru.com/airlines/Norwegian_Air_Shuttle/Norwegian_Air_Shuttle_Boeing_787-8.php

However, although we were still on a 787 Dreamliner, the plane we ended up travelling on had 42 rows ( though 40 on each of the side sections) and they were 3-3-3.   This was what we got:

https://www.seatguru.com/airlines/Norwegian_Air_Shuttle/Norwegian_Boeing_787-9.php

So we ended up with someone next to us which was a bit of a disappointment.  Fortunately, few people seemed to be using the rear toilets so it wasn’t too disruptive.

Legroom

On the outward leg, we found the space to be really cramped.  Neither of us are exceptionally tall, but we do have long-ish legs.  When I checked I was surprised to find that the legroom at 31-32 inches was similar to most long haul airlines.  The width also compared to the norm at about 17 inches, though this would have been more comfortable if we’d have had window and aisle as we expected rather than window and middle which is what we got.  We could have opted to pay extra for Premium Economy which offered a seat pitch of 46 inches.

fullsizerender-34

Food

Neither of us felt it would be a good use of our funds to pay for the in-flight meals, opting instead to have a meal before we left and take snacks on board and pay for drinks airside.  We were happy with this decision; the trays of those fellow passengers opting for meal service looked OK but not over-generous and we didn’t feel we’d missed out.  A lot of people had done the same as us.  It was an even better decision on the return journey when we had a shorter journey (thanks to a speedy tailwind) and of course, being an overnight flight, we slept for a significant portion of the journey.

Entertainment

The choice of entertainment was perfectly reasonable though I had a good book to read so didn’t end up watching any of the content.  There were recent films I hadn’t seen.  You should be aware that you either need to purchase headphones or bring your own.  Also it’s worth noting that the WiFi that you find on some European flights with Norwegian isn’t available on their Trans-Atlantic routes.

Blankets and pillows

These aren’t given out free of charge as you’d find with a full service airline.  You can buy a blanket at a cost of $5 but we found bigger, fleecier and warmer ones in Walmart for $3 a pop.  Since we unpacked, they’ve been appropriated by the dogs!

img_7392

Dreamliner

This was my second time on a Dreamliner after flying from Easter Island to Santiago de Chile on one in 2015.  They make a big deal about cabin pressure, mood lighting and windows that have sunglasses mode, and claim this helps to alleviate the issues with jet lag.  I’m not sure this had an effect, though as there’s only a 4 hour time difference the effects of jet lag would be minimal anyway.

The verdict

Would I fly Norwegian Trans-Atlantic again?  Yes, I’d definitely consider it.  I was happy with the experience overall though I’d see if I could upgrade to an extra legroom seat next time.  In the interests of marital harmony I’d probably be best not to comment on whether sitting with my husband was worth £100!

Update May 2017

At the time of writing it’s unclear whether Norwegian will be flying the LGW-SJU route this autumn. The airline is considering whether it will fly to Puerto Rico at all, but if it does, the London route will probably be the only one to survive the cull, managing 81% occupancy last season. Watch the press for details.


Just back from – a day at Copenhagen’s Christmas markets

dsc_0185

What next after the German Christmas markets?  Germany’s legendary Christmas markets draw the crowds each winter and rightly so.  As I found out when I visited the Bavarian city of Regensburg a couple of weeks ago, they’re atmospheric, colourful and every bit as good as people say they are.  You can read about the trip here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-regensburg/

So how do you top that?  With a visit to Copenhagen: take the German Christmas market model, swap the Glühwein for a glass of gløgg and add a healthy dash of hygge.

dsc_0415

Best of all, if you haven’t the time or the cash to go for longer, it’s possible to visit the Danish capital for the day.  It was my second trip to the city.  The first was back in the days when the cheapest way to reach Copenhagen was to fly to another country.  That wasn’t quite as daft as it sounds, as the airport in question was Malmö’s in nearby Sweden, a fast train ride across the Øresund Bridge.  This time, I flew direct to CPH, leaving Luton after watching the sunrise on the 8.40am flight.  Ryanair uses satellite terminal F which is a long walk from the main terminals.  Factor in a five to ten minute walk just to get across the airport and don’t expect a travelator.

dsc_0197

From the airport it’s about a fifteen minute train ride into central station, with plenty of English speaking staff at the airport to help out at the ticket machines.  I opted for a 24 hour travelcard (not to be confused with the expensive Copenhagen Card) which cost 80 DKK.  As it turned out, I walked more than I’d intended, but had I chosen to cover more ground, the card would have been valid for unlimited journeys in the city centre by train, metro and bus.  By just after midday, I was in the city.

dsc_0193

Now like I said, I’ve been to Copenhagen before, so this blog isn’t going to be reviewing the Amelienborg Palace or the Little Mermaid.  This time, I was focused solely on Christmas.  Emerging from the station coffee in hand, the Tivoli theme park was right across the street and impossible to miss.  I decided to save it until the end of the day and instead walked the short distance to Axeltorv Square.  My first Julemarked of the day was a small affair, a cluster of stalls all bearing the names of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories.  It was a little underwhelming, just a few stalls selling items like sheepskin rugs, warm hats and Christmas decorations.

dsc_0137

A few minutes from Axeltorv Square, a rather large wooden pig caught my eye.  Behind it was a wooden Christmas tree which looked to be made out of broken up pallets or something like that.  A few huts made out of the same material formed a crescent around them.  This was a Julemarked with a difference, focused on recycling, a statement about the excesses of this festive holiday.  But it wasn’t preachy: instead it embraced the spirit of Christmas on the cheap.

dsc_0147

The huts all offered a way to help out with the expense of present-buying.  There was a Swap Shop where you could leave an unwanted gift and in return got to choose something for yourself.  A woodworker’s hut provided tools and off cuts for those who wished to be creative and make a gift.  The lady running the plant hut gave me a small packet of tomato seeds which I shall plant when I work out when’s the best time.  The largest hut of all was a recycling “factory”.  Inside, piles of yarn, card and other craft materials were piled alongside glue guns.  Several people were making table top Christmas trees, but what made this unusual was that most of them were adults rather than children.  What a great idea!

dsc_0160

Next up was a stroll along Strøget to the wonderful department store Illums Bolighus.  This amazing store is a mecca for any devotee of Scandi-style and its products, though expensive, are the stuff of envy.  Every display could have held its own in a fancy homes and interiors magazine.  The question was not whether to buy, but what to leave behind.  Illums Bolighus, if you’re reading this, open a store in London won’t you?  I promise I’d keep you in profit.

dsc_0317

A few doors down from paradise at the end of the street, was another Christmas market.  The entrance was marked by a wall of Christmas trees ready to go home and the market itself housed more food and drink stalls than any other market.  At the sausage stall, a man munched on a hot sausage in a roll.  At his feet was a dog.  It sat, as motionless as if it was doing the Mannequin Challenge, eyes fixed on his master’s hand.  Tiny drops of saliva dripped from the wet fur around his mouth and puddled on the floor.  Finally, the man was finished, save for the last half inch of sausage, which of course the dog had as a reward for his patience.

dsc_0311

There was still more to come.  Straddling a pathway opposite the beautifully decorated Hotel D’Angleterre, the Kongens Nytorv market was probably the busiest of those I visited.  Located between Nyhavn and Strøget, a fat queue of tourists wound its way between stalls selling everything from churros to ham hocks, night lights to sheepskin slippers.  There were craft stalls and of course, many more gløgg huts.  The crowds were frustrating and as it was still daylight, the life size polar bear models looked tacky.  I would return that way after dark, when they were illuminated and looked better for it.

dsc_0290

Through Kongens Nytorv and out the other side I breathed a sigh of relief to have wriggled free of the crowd.  Fortunately, I was only a stone’s throw from Nyhavn and yet another market.  I sat on the quayside enjoying a glass of gløgg – not too fussed on the addition of blanched almonds but the raisins were a welcome find at the bottom of the glass.  If you’re not sure if you’ll like it, ask for a free taste.

dsc_0231

This time I decided to have a bit of food before exploring the market.  I found that the further down the quay I walked, the lower the prices were for comparable dishes.  A huge plate of roast pork with crackling with red cabbage and potatoes later, I had a browse round the stalls.  Hopefully my husband isn’t reading this but I did come home with a very soft and fluffy cushion cover.  (I am kind of banned from buying more cushion covers.  It’s become a bit of a thing.)  Sunset was spectacular, casting a pretty pink glow over the harbour side buildings.

dsc_0258

As night fell, there was one more Julemarked that I wanted to see before I left and one that was worthy of the long queue outside.  Yes, the queue was round the block.  What did I expect on a Saturday night?  Tivoli opened in 1843, making it the world’s second oldest theme park (the other is in Denmark too, but much less famous).  Tivoli is expensive, with a hefty entrance fee of around £15 just to get in (the rides are extra) but it is such a charming place during the run up to Christmas that it’s worth it.

dsc_0379

There was plenty to see, both in terms of the theme park itself – I loved the carousel – but also in terms of independent retailers and the range of food stalls.  The temperature had slumped well below freezing though by this point and with so many people packed into the huts and restaurants, there were very few places where I could escape that intense cold.  The lights and decorations kept me going for a while – they were superb – but by 8pm I was really feeling it despite being properly kitted out in thick padded jacket, scarf and gloves.  It was time to grab a cup of cocoa from the station cafe and return to the airport in plenty of time for my 10pm flight home.

dsc_0437

I ♥ Copenhagen


Just back from – a day trip to Regensburg

I’ve washed the smell of wood smoke out of my hair and a couple of Ibuprofen have sorted out the backache, for now at least.  My latest day trip was the longest yet, but proof yet again that you don’t need to overnight to enjoy a rewarding experience over in continental Europe.  This time, I had my sights set on Germany’s famous Christmas markets.

dsc_0116-2

This month’s destination, hot on the heels of Budapest, Bremen, Belfast, Lisbon and Amsterdam which have previously featured on this blog, took me to Nuremberg.  A flash sale on Ryanair’s website netted me return flights to the Bavarian city for the princely sum of £4.08 all in.  The offer was one with limited availability, not only in terms of seats but also in validity, solely for flights on Tuesdays or Wednesdays in November.  Such offers come up quite often and it’s worth subscribing to Ryanair’s email alerts if you’re within easy reach of Stansted.  I also saved money on my airport parking by purchasing it through the Holiday Extras website which saved me over a fiver.  My 7.35am flight from Stansted was on time and we touched down shortly after 10.15am.

I made use of the Bayern ticket which I’d learnt about on a trip to Munich.  The ticket’s valid for a day from 9am to 3am the next day which gives plenty of time for sightseeing.  It offers unlimited travel throughout Bavaria on all trains except ICE, IC and EC (so basically excludes high speed trains) as well as city transport in many of the larger cities.  The cost?  A flat fare of 23 euros if bought from a ticket machine, 25 euros if bought from a kiosk.  Unfortunately there’s no train service from Nuremberg airport which means no DB ticket machines (a U-bahn service operates instead with a fare of 3 euros for a ticket with 90 minutes’ validity) so I had to buy the Bayern ticket at the Airport Information desk for the higher price.  As it covers the U-bahn that was still the cheapest way of doing it.

It wasn’t long before I was in Regensburg and my first stop was the Neupfarrplatz Christkindlmarkt.  Most German Christmas markets get underway on 25th November this year, but Regensburg’s begin a couple of days earlier.  The market was well underway at midday, a mix of traditional market stalls and refreshment huts.  Next I checked out the Lucrezia Craft Market, though that was still being set up.  There were some stalls that had limited wares on display, the likes of sheepskin clothing, wood carvings and handmade silver jewellery.  To reach the third of Regensburg’s markets I needed to cross the old stone bridge at the Spitalgarten.  Again, setting up was in progress but the walk was a pretty one and there were sheep waiting in the wings to coo over.

I crossed back over the Danube for a lunch stop at the Regensburg Sausage Kitchen, one of the oldest restaurants in Germany.  Prices were reasonable and they did takeaway, though even at the end of November, it was warm enough in the sunshine to eat at one of its picnic tables.

dsc_0082-2

The main focus of my visit was the Christmas market at the Thurn und Taxis Palace.  Regensburg’s Old Town has hundreds of listed buildings but this palace and its grounds are the jewel in the crown.  The Christmas market is more than just a market, with live music and even visiting alpacas and camels.  The latter obviously play a role in the Christmas story but I think the alpacas were just there as a crowd-pleaser; certainly every time I held up the camera, they turned their heads and posed!

dsc_0123-2

But let’s get down to business: this is no ordinary market.  Princess Gloria from Thurn und Taxis apparently is pretty hands-on with the organisation of the market and I did see a couple of elegant, well-dressed women who might have been her.  The market, less well known outside Germany than the likes of Munich’s markets for instance, attracts a mainly local crowd, though it’s definitely worth making the journey for.

dsc_0137-2

The market attracts artisans not just from Germany, but from surrounding countries such as Austria as well.  The man selling delicious hot cheese bread had made the journey from the Voralberg and the journey had done his cheese no harm at all.  It was cheap, filling and almost worth the market’s 6,50 entrance fee in itself.

dsc_0103-2

As darkness fell, the market took on a magical atmosphere.  Open fires and strings of fairylights added to the romance of the market and there were plenty of stalls to browse.  It’s at dusk when you really start to appreciate the attention to detail.  Stallholders decorate their huts with freshly cut branches from pines, spruces and firs: the smells as well as the aesthetics are something to savour.

dsc_0163-2

The good thing about not having to pay for accommodation is that there was plenty of cash in the budget that could be used for souvenir shopping instead: I was spoilt for choice amongst a wide selection of products including sheepskin rugs, rustic Christmas ornaments, clothing and handcrafted metal ware.

The palace itself, larger than Buckingham Palace, looked spectacular as the lights came on.  At six, a pair of trumpeters heralded the official start to the festivities, followed by a choir and costumed soloists.  The balcony overlooking the main courtyard provided the perfect staging.

dsc_0171-2

Eventually, it was time to wander back to the station for a train to take me back to Nuremberg.  The seven hours I’d spent in this delightful city was plenty to enjoy it without rushing.  My flight departed more or less on time at 10.35pm; I’d landed and cleared immigration well before midnight UK time.

I’m already planning my next day out to a European Christmas market – but this time, I’m off to Copenhagen and I’ll be blogging about it next month.


Will you be trying Eurostar’s cheap deal?

Interesting article in the news today that Eurostar will be offering some very cheap deals  on its fares to Paris, Brussels and Lille.  The fares will be available for trains from the end of November to mid-January and you can book from next week.  Simon Calder was explaining the offer during a breakfast television segment this morning, and the Independent article he wrote on the story can be read here:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/lowest-ever-eurostar-fares-to-paris-but-seats-not-guaranteed-a7421771.html

paris

On the face of it, £19 each way sounds like a bargain and I’m certainly one who’d usually espouse the benefits of train travel over flying.  However, I’m not sure I like the terms and conditions – if it wasn’t enough that you don’t find out which time train you’re on until almost the last minute (you could end up trying to get to St Pancras very early!), if the train they allocate for you gets full at the last minute you’re going to be bumped to a jump seat.

I had a look at easyJet’s website to see what kind of prices they’re offering from Luton, Gatwick and Southend – there are some good deals to be had especially in January, with Southend coming out as the cheapest at the time of writing.  It looks like flying won’t cost much more than the Eurostar, and of course you get to choose exactly what time you depart and return.  In terms of travel time, it would take me as long to get to LTN, LGW and SEN as it would to central London, so for me that factor doesn’t influence my decision.

Personally, I’m no great fan of Paris or Brussels, and as I’m off to Nuremberg soon with Ryanair for the princely sum of £4 return including tax, I shan’t be booking.  What about you?  Would this special offer tempt you?


Checking in to come home, Russian style

img_9445

I stood, motionless, in the middle of the crowded space. People came and went around me. Some queued, others waited patiently next to piles of luggage, still more hugged relatives in emotional goodbyes. For all the world, it looked like a regular airport, going about regular airport business. I reckon I’ve been to thousands of airports in my time, striding confidently across halls, dealing with airport officials, polite on the outside even if seething on the inside at petty officiousness and stupid rules. I’m no fan of airports, you understand, but they are a necessary evil to get me to somewhere exotic and exciting.

But this one had me stumped. For the first time, I couldn’t find check-in.

How do you lose check-in? How is it possible not to see row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts, with their maze of retractable queue barriers that make you pace this way and that like a caged lion? How do you lose the planeloads of people that must have got to the airport before you as your flight is going out late afternoon?

Like a detective, I scoured the room for clues. The space was devoid of signage, even in Russian. I couldn’t see anyone holding a boarding card and most people still had large suitcases. Was I in arrivals, I wondered? I headed back outside. The sign read “Departures”.

Back inside, I started to ask fellow passengers but drew only blank looks. Pointing at my suitcase and shrugging my shoulders in a kind of a “what do I do with this?” mime wasn’t working. Pointing at the airport page in my phrase book and again at my suitcase wasn’t working. I glanced at my watch. At this rate I’d miss my plane.

Half an hour before, I’d been so relaxed. Russia, so daunting at first, had lost its ability to intimidate. My vocabulary was still limited to a dozen words (and only then if “Big Mac Meal” counts) but I’d learnt to match the Cyrillic alphabet to their Latin translation which was enough to make a quiz game out of most days’ activities. The people I’d met on the numerous trains and buses that had transported me 3500 miles across the Russian steppe to Ulan-Ude had, without exception, been helpful and charming. For three days, Aleksandr, the Russian Army officer headed for Chita, had fed me omul for breakfast on the slow train to Irkutsk, asking nothing in return save for a compliment about his red-haired wife in the photo album he carried in his kit bag. That same smoked fish hung in the market in Listvyanka, a tumbledown village on the shores of Lake Baikal. An elderly woman, head covered with a colourful babushka, pointed out the sights from the bus and used my phrase book to explain she was off to buy crystals.

I thought about her, in the airport terminal, and cursed my phrase book. What editor would include the word for crystal but not check-in? It was hot in the hall, and I wiped my brow with the back of my hand. I was starting to panic. The voice inside my head told me to calm down. I still had twenty minutes before check-in closed. There was a queue forming at the far side of the room and I joined the end of it. My question about whether this was the check-in queue leapfrogged up the queue like a Chinese whisper. Back came the answer – no.

No? No?!!!

I turned away from the queue and the mutterings of its occupants. I was running out of ideas. Now I started to mentally re-plan my journey home. If I couldn’t fly back to Moscow, I’d have to take the train, a four or five day trip. I’d miss my Moscow connection and have to pay for a new flight. More than that, I’d have to suffer the humiliation of telling friends and family the reason I’d missed my flight and suffer months of good natured ridicule.

Indignant, I thought to myself that no airport was going to beat me. I scanned the hall again. Along one side, there was a blank white wall. It looked like a recently-erected partition, free of scuffs and scratches, though I couldn’t be sure. I wheeled my case over for a closer look. On inspection, there appeared to be a concealed doorway. I knocked and waited. A businessman in a hurry pushed his way past me and through the door. I looked through, of course, to find out what was behind it.

There before me stood row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts. I made check-in with five minutes to spare.