June 9th-11th, 1994 -- in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia
"1st May 1994: Po Chan and Bjorn spent 4 nights in this airport."
I saw that message pencilled on the wall in the departure lounge of
Domodedova Airport outside Moscow on the night of June 9th. We had
missed an earlier flight that day when we got caught up in a terrible
traffic snarl on the way south out of the city, and the flight to
Krasnoyarsk had already departed the gate by the time we arrived.
Domodedova Airport is actually the busiest airport in Russia. It
has all the domestic flights, where Sheremet'yevo Airport, where we
arrived Russia, is the International airport. Domodedova is probably
the most decrepit, poorly-lit, and dirty place I've ever flown out of.
It's falling apart in places, and doesn't look like the place has been
cleaned in years (the bathroom facilities, for instance, are too
abominable to even describe). Abandon hope all ye who enter here! Po
Chan and Bjorn certainly must have...
The airline we flew from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk was called 'Air
Krasnoyarsk', one of the dozens of small airlines that were formed from
the pieces of Aeroflot following its breakup a few years back. The
flight we took was the overnight red-eye, since we had missed the
afternoon flight earlier. All of us were more than a little
apprehensive, and with good reason: the jet aircraft we flew on would
not have been allowed off the ground back in the States. Safety
systems like emergency oxygen were either not working, or non-existent.
The flight attendant's safety instructions apparently translated into
something like: "The emergency exits are over there, don't open them
during the flight." The very day of our flight, the U.S. Embassy had
issued a warning to travelers not to fly Aeroflot or any of its
successors unless absolutely necessary, because of grave safety
concerns. Actually, the gravest safety concern of all appeared to be
the moldy-looking mystery meat that was part of the meal the airline
tried to serve us midway through the flight. Eating that would have
put me in the grave, I think!
We did make it to Krasnoyarsk without incident, however.
Krasnoyarsk is a city of over half a million, and is located in central
Asia, about 400 miles from the border of Russia and Mongolia. The
surrounding area has another few hundred thousand people, including the
formerly closed city of Krasnoyarsk-26, our destination. The
Krasnoyarsk airport, however, was much smaller than you'd expect for
all those people. It was also located a very long drive from K-26,
over some very uneven roads. I happened to be sitting in the very back
of the small bus our Russian hosts had brought to pick us up at the
airport. When we hit one huge bump on the road to K-26, I suddenly
found myself covered with pieces of luggage that had formerly been
stacked up around me. I yelled out, and one of our Russian hosts
quickly helped free me from the avalanche. As he was moving travel
bags away from me, he told me, apologetically but unnecessarily, "There
is an old expression we have: In Siberia there are no roads, only
Krasnoyarsk-26 was one of the so-called 'secret cities' of Russia.
Until only recently, these were closed to all foreigners -- we were the
first official United States Government delegation ever to visit K-26.
The 'secret city' status has given the residents of K-26 a standard of
living far above that of neighboring cities. Instead of huge ugly
apartment buildings, townspeople lived in single family houses, and
each house had an attached greenhouse. The nuclear reactor there, even
though it produced weapons grade plutonium, was a source of pride (as
well as income) for the city. This was reflected in the really spiffy
K-26 city emblem: a Russian bear, wrestling with an atom, tearing open
the nucleus of the atom with its claws. It's too bad the concept of
marketing hasn't penetrated this far into Russia, because if they put
that emblem on t-shirts and coffee mugs, they could sell thousands of
them! Being a former 'secret city' presented some problems for
visitors, though -- there are no hotels in K-26. So we were housed in
the only facility they had that was equipped to handle guests -- a
sanatorium. When a friend had earlier told me that I must be sick or
insane wanting to go all the way out to the middle of nowhere, maybe he
Anyway, K-26 was a pleasant-looking city, with a very picturesque
town square. Our meetings there were in the mayor's office, which gave
us a nice view of the square and the statue of Lenin at its center.
Out in the hinterlands of Russia, Lenin appears to be still in favor,
as there were statues and portraits of him everywhere. The statue in
the K-26 town square showed Lenin standing in a dignified pose, with an
arm reaching out toward... all we unbelievers, I guess. I was told
that particular statue was referred to as a 'cookie-cutter Lenin';
there are hundreds of exact duplicates all over Russia. Almost every
city or reasonably-sized town had one.
There were other images of Lenin to be found in our travels
besides those cookie-cutter statues. For instance, attached to a wall
just outside the passenger waiting room at the Krasnoyarsk airport
there was a bas-relief sculpture of Lenin's head. (One of the people
in our delegation had his photo taken there stroking Lenin's beard.)
And our last day in the Krasnoyarsk area, we were taken upriver to tour
a large hydroelectric power plant on the Yenesei River; at the
entranceway to the dam there was a huge portrait (in ceramic tiles) of
him. That dam, at over 400 feet tall, was one of the largest in
Russia, so I guess they had to have a jumbo-sized image of Lenin to
It was during that visit to the hydropower project that the most
surreal event of the entire trip took place. The dam is too tall for a
conventional lock for barge traffic, so instead, there is an unusual
cog railway transporter that carries barges and river traffic from the
river up to the reservoir above the dam. I had walked to the end of
the railway and was photographing this mighty machine, when all of a
sudden two anxious-looking women appeared and started gesturing wildly
and talking very loud to me.
At that point I decided the best place for me just might be back
down the path with the rest of the group, but the two women followed me
and were intercepted by our Russian hosts. More loud talking and
gesturing ensued... a lot more. The gist of the conversation,
according to one of our translators, was as follows:
Woman #1 (pointing toward me): "This man is a SPY!!!"
Woman #2: "We demand that he be detained, and his camera
I got back on the bus and tried to look as innocent as possible.
Evidently, I had annoyed the security people, and now there was hell to
pay. Thoughts of concentration camps in the dead of winter swirled
coldly through my mind. I could almost taste the salt I'd soon be
mining in Siberia. Suddenly, with horror, I realized that the least of
my worries should be about being shipped off to Siberia -- I was
After a while, and much more agitated conversation, the two ladies
stalked off with scowls on their faces. One of them glared at me as
she left; her eyes bored into mine. Our Russian hosts got back into
the bus, and as we drove off I started to breathe a little easier. It
was all over, I thought.
I was wrong...
About five miles down the road, the bus was flagged off the road
by the military. (One of the women had apparently radioed ahead.) The
soldiers motioned our Russian hosts out of the bus, and once again
there ensued a long, loud heated conversation with all kinds of arm
waving and gesturing. And once again, our Russian hosts proved to be
silver-tongued, because we were allowed to proceed, though not before
one of our delegation bemusedly speculated, loud enough for the rest of
us to hear, "Hmm... I wonder if they'll let us go if we give him up?"
It was a hot day that day. I was surprised to find out that,
except for the jumbo-sized mosquitos (which don't take any prisoners),
June in Siberia is very pleasant! I'd brought along a heavy jacket,
but I never needed it, not even once. By the time we got back to K-26,
we were all pretty much hot, sweaty, and more than a little tired, but
our hosts had just the thing to perk us up before dinner: sauna!
At this point, I have to tell you that I am a sauna neo. I had a
chance to try it, once (in Finland), but I couldn't understand the
local language well enough to tell which of the two saunas at my hotel
was 'his' and which one was 'hers'. There happened to be a sauna at
the guest house in K-26 where we had our meals, so I joined four others
(all men) in disrobing. If you think that I was perhaps just a little
bit apprehensive about this new experience, you're right. But surely,
I thought, there was nothing that might happen that could even remotely
compare with the misadventure I'd survived earlier in the day.
I was wrong...
On the way to the heat room, I missed seeing a half-open doorway,
and walked buck-naked past it just when one of the guest house's
attractive young female housekeepers was passing by on the other side.
I'm not sure who was more surprised, and we both stopped dead in our
tracks for about half a second before I hurried on past the doorway,
out of sight. In that short half second, though, I saw her eyes get
big and round, and her jaw drop open as she dropped what she was
carrying and brought her hands to her face in surprise. Thinking back
on that moment, I remember that I first felt flattered by her look of
utter astonishment. (I have to wonder if I surpassed her expectation
of an American male...) But then, as I was hustling away, she did
something that completely deflated the moment for me...
* * * * *
Check out Richard's other travel adventures: