For whatever reason, the 21st of December 2012 came and went. The world as we know it had not only defiantly continued to exist, but there was also not the slightest perceptible change in the state of affairs. The one thing that there was the next day was ice, and lots of it. The weather in Sevastopol remains constantly rather pleasant throughout the year, far exceeding that of the rest of Ukraine. The harsh Russian winter, which batters large parts of the Northern Hemisphere for several months of the year is also not so forgiving as to leave the Pearl of the Black Sea untouched, and last winter was the coldest I’d ever experienced in my entire life. This is all really heaven compared to the hibernal horrors that lurk in other not so different parts of the Russophone world.
A mere stones-throw away from the coast is Simferopol, the administrative capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. It also just so happens that it’s the only international airport in all of Crimea. In contrast to the sun-baked haven of Sevastopol, Simferopol is not protected from the cold by a variety of pleasantly picturesque mountain chains. This was the place where I planned my escape from Crimea on the End of the World T+1 day.
The road to Simferopol is picturesque, and one I’d been on many times before. It’s pleasantness is spoiled only intermittently by the occasional industrial plant gathered around the former Ottoman capital of Bakhchisaray, or by the all too common heaps of rubbish scattered along the steppe. (I’ve often thought that the lack of Russian consideration for the environment stems from откружающая среда, one alternative of which is the amusing term “the surrounding Wednesday“, depending on context). Having once attempted to get to the airport using public transport out of sheer curiosity, I resolved afterwards that it’s definitely worth taking some kind of car straight from my front door to the airport, as opposed to resorting alternative mark II, bus-bus-train/bus(depending on preference)-bus-bus. Having been left in a position where my more fortunate car-bestowed friends were detained, I decided to take a taxi.
Much to my surprise, it was not only a taxi, but indeed a “taxi”, which I was going to be travelling in style to the airport in, thanks to a friend’s “recommendation” (which is something I sill need to talk to him about). I arranged with the taxi driver in advance for her to pick me up, which she did so slightly behind schedule in a Mazda, this well known crown of the Soviet automobile fleet. The doors were frozen shut and it was a warm light purple in colour. Upon entering this minute beast, I was greeted by a thoroughly festive sight. The whole car was plastered with minute Santa stickers, the type of which I normally pay 50p for ten for and hand out to my children who have been well behaved (although I have yet to award them with such Christmasy ones), tinsel, which was tastefully obstructing the rear-view mirror and figures of Father Christmas himself, who looked far much more cheerful than I was feeling at 6 o’clock in the morning. Although initially rather surprised by the comic nature of means of transport to Crimea’s hub of international travel, I was soon to become much more surprised by the fact that the taxi driver and her nicotine and caffeine deprived friend had no idea how to get to the airport. Not being the kind of person to be phased by such things, especially with four hours remaining to complete a one hour journey, it was nothing that couldn’t be fixed by asking the way (this is as so happens infinitely better than the previous time I’d been taken to the airport by a taxi driver who knew the way, but saw no reason to actually arrive on time for the flight. Arriving a mere fifteen minutes before the flight’s departure, he thought it only proper he demand I paid the bribe he gave the local traffic police after speeding for the last five minutes of the journey, despite my reminders over the past 90 minutes about the urgency to reach the airport on time).
Arriving at Simferopol airport, we were greeted my the sight of snow – lovely, fluffy and white. My ever-thoughtful girlfriend, being conscientious to the bone (having also been the one to insist that I left a full four hours to make it to a flight at an airport situated about an hour’s drive away, and where, as previously mentioned, the time taken between check-in and departure can be smoothly handled in fifteen minutes flat) had also carefully, yet matter-of-factly pointed out that flights at Simferopol may be effected by the current meteorological situation and had decided to phone the airport on the End of the World T-0 days before phoning me and announcing the airport was in fact closed that day and gave me a list of non-functioning telephone numbers that I could call later-on to find out up-to-date information regarding the traffic situation. Having had to resort to telephone numbers which worked, I called Turkish airlines and Simferopol airport and was told that the situation on the ground seemed fine and I should turn up for the flight as usual. When I did turn up as usual, I was comforted by the fact that a man who the driver shouted out whilst passing by said the to Istanbul which I was due to get on was leaving as scheduled (although I don’t know why this comforted me, since if there’s one thing I now know since living in Ukraine, it’s that people love to claim they know everything and are an expert, when I’m sure I would obtain a more accurate answer to any question if I asked my right kidney). With no other option available anyway but to enter the airport, I paid the driver and went in, leaving her to wait for my call just in case.
Having cautiously entered the departure lounge of the airport (in reality the larger of two sheds, the one with walls) I approached the screens and looked up to see that flights to Kiev were severely delayed, but the one to Istanbul-Atatürk, my home for a further eight hours before commencing onwards to Heathrow, was on schedule. With a smile I called the taxi and said that everything was on fine. I grabbed a coffee and relaxed and wondered what to do for the next few hours in an airport, whose only entertainment facilities consist of an old woman selling religious paraphernalia from a stall. Fortunately, the previous day I’d bought two editions of Вокруг Света, a Russian equivalent of National Geographic mixed with History Lover’s Monthly to keep myself entertained. When I felt that a sufficient amount of time had passed before I could check-in, I proceeded to check in for my flight.
When I approached the desk, I was somewhat surprised to see the speed with which the queue evaporated before getting to the front and talking to the assistant. I said “I’d like to check in for the flight to Istanbul”. With a certain demeanour and matter-of-factness, whilst simultaneously missing out any details which could be interpreted as being useful, she looked up and said “it’s cancelled” and offered no further information. After minimal wrangling, I, along with all of the other passengers who had been due to take that flight, discovered that the solution to our problem lay elsewhere – at the counter of the three-man Turkish Airlines office on the first floor.
The situation was, in the words of the eloquently spoken and cheerful young man who seemed to be second-in-command of the two-man and one-woman team, unparalleled. It was the first time in the past five years that Simferopol had been closed for five consecutive days due to a frozen runway and that the runway would remain frozen for at least a further three days (I thank those now who gave me assurances in advance and for their knowledge aforethought). We had two options available to us. We could either go home and wait until everything got better and then come back again. On the face of it this seemed like a bad idea since I had no idea when I could actually come back, and it seemed like the only way to do it was to be at the airport and wait and see. As I later came to learn, there had been people returning to the airport for days being told the same, before they eventually decided to go with option two.
Option two involved still flying to Istanbul, but via Kiev. Kiev is reached by a fourteen hours train journey under normal conditions. Kiev at this time was experiencing blizzards and temperatures of -12 degrees. I wasn’t phased by not being able to take off when actually reaching Kiev, I’m well experienced with airports functioning well throughout the year despite abysmal weather conditions in the winter – as long as the abysmal weather conditions are constantly reoccurring on an annual basis, the local authorities are used to them and know how to deal with them – it was just the unpleasantness of it.
Fortunately, ever cloud has a silver lining or in this particular case, four. During this particular stage of this particular adventure, a Pole in front of me said to me, in Polish, that he was just leaving the queue and would be back in a moment. He wasn’t so much surprised by me answering him and saying it wasn’t a problem (since Polish and Russian are close enough to make basic communication possible) he was surprised by me answering him in Polish. As it turns out, Zdziesz, Marek, Maciek and Michał were a group of Poles on their way to Dar-Es-Salaam, via Simferopol and then to Istanbul, which turns out to have been the most convenient route. Finding it hard to believe how anything at all could be convenient about Simferopol, I was too tired to care and was happy to have some nice, new, fun travelling companions. We all set off together to Simferopol train station, where we had several hours of waiting together, before arriving in Kiev, with several more hours of waiting, before eventually leaving for Istanbul, where we had more. Unfortunately, we lost each other at Istanbul airport for several hours. Much to my horror there was no internet at the place we’d arranged to meet up. After six hours, much to my delight, we ran into each other again by coincidence. We sat, chatted an had a drink, before we walked off to our respective gates to our flights which were leaving at more or less the same time. After checking the screen, the flight to Heathrow was leaving on time, the one to Dar-Es-Salaam was delayed by an hour. We said out farewells and I walk off to the sound of four voices behind me, shouting in unison, Kurwaaaaaa!