After a monumental day at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport we assembled for the overnight flight into the heart of Siberia. Paul Filmer takes us on the second leg of his journey.
We had already checked in at lunchtime for our planned 20:00 departure on VIM Airlines, but instead of an old, smokey, classic Soviet airliner, we would travel on a Boeing 757-200... boring! Five and a half hours and three time zones later we landed at Ulan-Ude (also known as Lake Baikal Airport) at 07:00, spying An-24s and An-2s scattered around on the taxi to the terminal.
We took a short and dusty walk to our hotel, where, at this early hour, I felt we were waking up the locals with the luggage wheels skimming over the cobbles and bumps. A protracted check-in procedure at the Hotel Polyot then took place that involved the two old ladies behind the desk moving various papers around before photocopying and stapling them in a pre-defined order that only they understood.
An interesting breakfast was followed by the chance for a morning's sleep before our planned 13:00 visit to the airport. Not being one to waste time sleeping, myself and Howard from the party decided this would be the perfect opportunity to do a short sortie into the city itself, as it would be a shame to come all this way and not explore. An interesting 20 minute minibus-taxi ride to the city cost us around 10 RUB (20p) with Howard becoming the temporary conductor passing the fare from the passengers to the driver as he sped along.
Not knowing what to see or where to go, we elected to jump off in what we assumed was the main square with a huge bust of Lenin surveying the area. This turned out to be called Town Square and as we didn't have too much time we wandered around the surrounding roads near the square. At one point we were propositioned by two attractive girls, and due to the language barrier, we didn't know if they were just being friendly or if they were prostitutes. Tourists are not exactly common here and we did feel like we stood out like sore thumbs!
Ulan-Ude was closed to foreigners until 1991 and is the capital city of the Buryatia province. It shares its border with Mongola to the south and is in the same time zone as Beijing so we were by now way east. After our brief self tour we attempted to catch a minibus back to the hotel, but they were all so crowded that we couldn't find one to fit us both in. We ended up getting a taxi back that cost a colossal two pounds!
We gathered outside the hotel at 12:30 but were told that the visit was delayed due to a visiting minister who was using the Rossiya Il-62M we spied when we landed. We had to wait for him to depart which was about an hour from our original assigned time. We killed time by exploring the immediate area including a very sorry looking market and playing with a puppy.
Further news reached us that we are again delayed. That Il-62 was still sitting stubbornly on the ramp and showing no signs of leaving. A flurry of police vehicles and limousines zoomed past the hotel, lights and sirens on, heading away from the airport. Was this the guy we had been waiting for to leave all this time? We later learn that he departed in a Mi-8!
At 16:00 a minibus suddenly arrived at the hotel entrance, almost on two wheels as it screeched to a halt in front of us, where we were kicking around dust at the hotel entrance. Our interpreter Olga appeared from nowhere and shooed us into the vehicle where the head of security was found inside. Success!
We entered the airport via an old side entrance where the security guard seemed surprised to see us, and, after casually sauntering over to the bus, suddenly sprang into action upon seeing his boss inside. The first stop was the area where the An-24s were parked, which is separate from the main ramp. This is where Buryat Airlines are based and there were four examples parked on the decaying ramp.
Remotely parked was a nice looking An-26 from the Russian Fire Service (Avialesookhrana) and a half dozen An-24s and An-26s in old, faded Aeroflot colours in the grass. The next stop was at the other end of the airfield where a herd of An-2s were parked, plus a single An-24B in Aeroflot colours with the old CCCP registration still visible.
The An-2s included some real interesting colour schemes from Aeroflot days of old including one poor example on its roof. We walked this long line as the minibus followed at a discreet distance before we were suddenly told that the tour was over. We should have been on the airfield for three hours and had only been here for around 50 minutes so far.
Hurried negotiations took place in order to photograph some nice looking Mi-8s we had spied while walking the An-2 line. This was granted so we were quickly herded back onto the bus to reach the helicopters, passing a few derelict Mi-2s on the way.
We now needed to be organised and stay in one pack so as not to take too long. A pair of immaculate Mi-8Ts in Buryatskiye Avialini awaited us on their pans, and these would be the best looking aircraft we saw that day.
We were then whisked off the airfield and back to the hotel where our mandatory dinner awaited us. Tommorow would involve one of the highlights of the trip.photo/serial list]