How I Ended Up In Russia and Other Travel Mishaps

I was in London preparing to leave the next morning – my flight was scheduled to depart at 6:40am. From the place I was staying, I needed to leave the house 4 hours before my flight time to make it via public transportation. That put me leaving at 2am but the transportation system doesn’t operate after 12:30-1am. So the plan was to leave around 11pm to catch the last train and just spend the night at the airport.

We were out sightseeing all day, ate the famous “fish n’ chips” and went to a local amateur production of Singing in the Rain. By the time we got back to the house it was 11:15ish. It takes just under 2 hours to get from our host’s house to the airport. I was leaving for Stockholm solo at 11:30 and my route was: walk to train station, ride above ground train to Canning Town, switch the the underground Victoria line, switch again to the Piccadilly line, and ride that into the airport. That would put me there around 1am.  I had to make it to my last connection by 12:30am or it was a no go because the trains would stop running. This left little room for error.

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I had packed earlier, anticipating a late arrival from the play and a fast turnaround time. When we got back, I grabbed my hiking backpack – all 33 pounds of it- and ran out the door. Thankfully we had just switched to Swedish SIM cards so I could get data on my phone and I figured I’d just check into my flight on the train ride.

At this point, things were starting to get stressful. I’m on the London tube by myself at midnight on a Saturday night.. Nothing good ever happens after midnight on a Saturday night, especially in a city of 8.5 million people, 4 million of which ride the tube everyday. Oh, and I hadn’t charged my phone yet that day and I didn’t have a charger adapter for the UK. I figured I wasn’t going to need my phone very much anyway- I’d be back in Sweden in less than 12 hours.

Or so I thought.

There were some not-so-nice looking characters on the above ground train (midnight on a Saturday) so I did what everyone else does – pulled out my phone to look busy. I decided to use this time to check into my flight. I was met with “technical difficulties” and was told to go to airport to resolve. I still needed to know what terminal I was flying out of so I did a quick flight search. What I encountered was one measly word that had the power to outrage the masses:

CANCELLED*

Wait a minute. WHAT?! My mind started whirling: “Maybe I read that wrong. Maybe I got the flight number wrong. It can’t be cancelled. My phone is going to die. I don’t have time to turn back now. The trains are going to stop running. I’m going to get stranded. Or kidnapped. And die.”

Okay, deep breath.

First things first: I called up my dear hubby just to double check it was really cancelled (and to tell him where I was, how I most likely died, and how to avenge my death). Just kidding 😉 As he was confirming it was in fact cancelled, the line cut out.

The line cut out before I could tell my hubby that I was switching to the underground tube and wouldn’t have any service. I had decided to continue on to the airport and didn’t have a moment to spare between connections if I wanted to make it.

So here’s where I am:
walk to train station: CHECK
ride above ground train to Canning Town: CHECK
switch the the underground Victoria line: CHECK
switch again to the Piccadilly line
continue on Piccadilly line into the airport

There I was, halfway there, sitting on the overcrowded underground with my 33lb backpack, for what felt like hours. No connection to the outside world or more importantly: my husband. At this point, there was nothing I could really do so I people- watched and prayed to get there safely.

Fast forward half an hour and I’m sitting on my last train that will take me to the airport. I saw the girl next to me had a suitcase and figured I was in the right place. But part of me was a little apprehensive so I asked if this train went to Heathrow, just to ease my worries. Her response went a little like this:

“No.”

Excuse me?

“This line, yes. This train, no.”

Over the loud speaker I hear: “Our next stop is blahblahblah. This train will terminate. Mind the gap.” Um, “blahblahblah” did not sound like the airport.  My objective now was to get off the current train and hope the next one went to the airport…

Thanks to a series of unfortunate events, I FINALLY arrived at the airport around 1am. After updating my husband and trying to contact the airline custom service (to no avail) it was 2am so I settled into a comfy spot on the floor with my fellow like-minded travelers and dozed off for approx. 2 hours. For being one of the world’s busiest airports (#6th to be exact – thanks wikipedia) it sure is pretty dark and seemingly uninhabited in the wee hours of the morning.

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After waiting, waiting in the wrong line, and then waiting some more, 6am rolled around and I waited in line again to reschedule my flight. Upon further investigation (that came in the form of 4+ handouts I received) I learned the flight cancellation was due to the SAS pilot strike. I was told I had 2 options: book another flight at my expense or fly to Copenhagen, and take the 5 hour train to Stockholm *seat on train not guaranteed, also at my expense. The only flight options available for same day travel were routing through Istanbul with layovers of 36 hours. Turkey.. political unrest, attempted coup, bombings.. not really my thing. Not to mention Turkey is on the USA travel warning list. Neither of these options were appealing so I pushed a little harder and she was able to find one more option: London to Stockholm via Moscow.

My mind started whirling again: “Moscow.. Russia – I’ve never been there! Wait, am I even allowed in the country?” Call it sleep deprivation or what have you, but the latter found itself escaping from my mouth. To which the agent responded, “Yes. Wait, what passport do you have? American? I think you should be fine.” How reassuring. She handed me my ticket, a meal voucher (score!), and sent me on my way. 5 hours to take-off.

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I treated myself to traditional English breakfast.

I switched terminals, ate, went through security, charged my phone, took a nap, shopped for souvenirs, and made it to my gate. After swiping my passport for the final check in to the flight they paused and said, “Miss, can you please step over here.”

WHAT NOW?! There I was, detained in a line all by myself, in a foreign country with no sleep while everyone else waltzed right onto the plane. Was my bag too big? I’m not on the no fly list. Maybe I really wasn’t allowed into Russia.. All that suspense to tell me that since I was a late add-on to the flight, I wouldn’t receive any meals. Okay, I could live with that.

The flight to Moscow was pretty uneventful so I took a nap only to be woken by the flight attendant asking if I wanted curry or noodles – double score! I was on the plane and I got a meal! It didn’t really bother me that I was traveling 1794.3 miles out of the way of my final destination. It was a new adventure.

When going through border and customs in Russia, they stamped my boarding pass. I asked pleaded that they stamp my passport. If I was going all the way to Moscow, by golly I was going to get a stamp to show for it. But my several attempts proved unsuccessful. She didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Russian. Although I’m pretty sure she understood me, she just didn’t want to. I even contemplated reaching for the stamper (I blame sleep deprivation) but quickly came to my senses: the goal was to leave Russia, not to be detained indefinitely.

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In Russia, no one smiles. As I made my way to my gate, my smiley face was met with glares. The gate was a little elusive. It kept changing every couple of minutes. All the airport gates I have been at are usually quiet with lots of seating. This was the opposite. It was a big room filled with 4 gates worth of people – standing room only. Announcements were going off all the time in Russian. Every non-Russian person was completely lost so we found solace in each other. I was standing next to an older gentleman and his wife and he asked – in English – if I was from Russia, to which I responded no. He said he could tell because I smile. 🙂 Further confirming that people don’t smile there! He was an Ethiopian refugee who lived in Sweden for the past 60+ years. The wife didn’t speak much English. We got to exchanging life stories and phone numbers. They were a really sweet couple!

Take-off time was fast approaching so they checked us in and took my boarding pass with my Russian stamp :(. They loaded us on to the bus and drove us out to our aircraft. I was almost home to Sweden.

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I happily took my window seat and before I knew it we were landing.

At that moment, Sweden had never felt more like home.

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*when in Britain, spell like the Brits

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5 thoughts on “How I Ended Up In Russia and Other Travel Mishaps

  1. messerly218 says:

    LOVE this post!! You are a soldier natalie. You could teach me a lot about traveling. You have a great perspective on things. I’m so glad you used that time to pray. Also, you are a very good writer! My favorite parts were about you smiling , lol, calling Simeon about avenging your death and about the russian stamp in your passport. I bet it felt SO good to be with Simeon again.

    Like

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