Ever watched that Tom Hanks movie, the Terminal? The one where his character, is not permitted to either enter the country or return home as he is now stateless. Whilst not Speilberg’s best work in directing, it is a great portrayal of being in an airport which could be considered “No Man’s Land” as you are yet to enter the country you have travelled to until approved by Border Protection.
Well, this is the very similar story of how me and my mother ended up travelling from London to Sochi for the Winter Olympics, being denied entry into Russia, detained in a very small russian airport with the only option to be deported to Ukraine.
Growing up, I was a competitive figure skater and on my way to becoming the next champion figure skater like my idols Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski. Whilst I unfortunately did not live up to the same legacy as Torvil and Dean, I held onto the dream of attending the Winter Olympics at some point in my life. Every 4 years when the Olympics rolled around, I was always overcome with regret of how I never had seeked to attend and see my favourite skaters, but most importantly, how I had never attended with my biggest supporter of my early skating career, my mother.
As Sochi was never a place I had dreamed of visiting, I was slightly hesitant about the trip, but was tempted to go as Russia is renowned for having the best figure skaters in the world and one of the best of all time, Evgeni Plushenko, was performing in his final olympics, so considered it the most ideal opportunity to live out my childhood dream. I booked the tickets (£750 each for one event) and was ready to head to my first Winter Olympics.
To travel to Sochi, we needed Russian Visa’s from Immigration. I slept in a hostel in London (couldn’t afford a hotel as was still paying for the tickets and the visa cost was £300), got our passports approved with Russian Tourist visa’s. They were marked with a One Entry Visa. This is where, in hindsight, we should have known was our downfall.
Surprisingly, tourism in Sochi is not renowned so booking flights was quite difficult. Seeking a direct flight from London was a pipe dream, so after getting inventive, I found a flight to Moscow and then from there a flight to Sochi, with a stop via Ukraine.
And so with everything booked we headed on our journey to our first Winter Olympics. We dressed for the occasion. Winter puffer jackets with big hopes of travelling and exploring Russia.
Once we arrived in our first stop Moscow, we were met with Border Customs. We had our passports stamped on our visa as our first entry. An hour passed in Moscow Airport and the announcent for our second flight to Sochi was called and so we again headed through Border Protection. This is where we should have known where it went wrong.
Believe it or not, Im not fluent in Russian, and so when the border officer asked if I was going to Sochi via Ukraine in broken english, I confirmed hestitantly as his face was telling me something was wrong. He did not proceed to ask any other questions and so with that confirmation stamped my passport. And unbeknownst to me, stamped my visa as Closed.
We naively travelled on our second flight of the day to Sochi, via Ukraine.
To clarify, when we landed in Ukraine, we did not exit the plane. As Sochi is such a small airport, there were not many flights and so this was just a casual stop at a very close by country to pick up any other passengers. So we did not consider this to having left Russia. Once we landed finally after our third flight within 12 hours to Sochi, it was around 1am and we were exhausted but excited that we had finally arrived.
I cannot stress enough how small the airport in Sochi actually is. It’s tiny. It has one gate, one terminal, one Duty Free store and one border gate.
The border officer took one look at our closed visa’s and we were quickly met with other officers who took us into a small isolation room to question us to our intent of being in Sochi. I can confirm that Russian’s do not have the warmest demeanour so we were slightly afraid and very confused to what was happening. The officers who interrogated us confirmed they worked for Russian Goverment, the Kremlin.
The language barrier left us at a miscomminucation, but within a few hours they brought a english speaking representative from the airline to help us to communicate. Our interpreter was asked to ask us by the officers where “our men were” and why, two women had travelled alone, without men.
Were they not know aware they were in the midst of holding the biggest sporting event in the world and international travellers were most commonly flying out of this very small airport every day?
We explained our visit and showed proof of our event tickets but they did not believe the evidence as it was not booked through a travel agency.
Our biggest takeaway from our conversation with the officers were that they had never left Russia and so could not understand what a self planned vacation to another county was. It was in their duty as a Russian officer to never leave the country and so explaining our sitaution was never really understood.
We were forced to return to where we came from, which from their observation was Ukraine and so with that and with a quick sign of a document to state that we would never return to Russia, we were forced to go back into the Terminal.
Having watched the movie, The Terminal very recently prior, I had remembered that past a certain point in the airport, Tom Hanks’ character became trapped in No Mans Land, which is not considered the country you travelled to or from.
We were no longer considered on Russian land and would not be allowed back through the point of entry. So defiantly we sat on the floor hoping they would allow us to stay on russian soil. By this time we had not slept in about 32 hours and we had to use the bathroom. Unless we wanted to relieve ourselves on the floor, we had to go through into the terminal, which we knew would mean there was no point of return and our olympic dreams were once again, over.
We did not want to give up hope of being allowed to go through Immigration so we slept for 3 days on the benches and floors in the airport, and with no food, survived off our cheese savouries snacks and Russian vodka from the Duty Free.
On the final day, we met a team of people from Amsterdam, who were leaving Sochi to go back home and after having explained that we were trapped in the airport, they convinced us to fly back to Amsterdam with them, and having only survived on vodka, we drunkenly thought it was a brilliant idea. My mother immediately started the search of hotels in Amsterdam and I went to the gate to book us two seats on the flight.
The stewardess at the gate called over an officer who looked and behaved exactly like the T1000 from the Terminator, and he calmly with his steely exterior, told us, we were not allowed on the flight to Amsterdam but had to be deported back to where we came from, which again, they claimed was Ukraine.
At this point, it was no longer our decision, and so we were escorted by the T1000 officer onto the Ukraine Airways flight.
Landing in Ukraine, albeit grim, we were glad to have water, food and the sense of freedom no longer being controlled by the Kremlin.
With this new sense of optimism, we contemplated exploring Ukraine for all it has to offer. We stood at the automatic airport doors as they opened and then they slowly closed. We did not leave the airport. In fact, we decided to just book a flight home and so with that we finally left and got back on a flight to London. Five flights within five days.
Whilst I wish our fortune of bad luck ended there, unfortunately, we were met with a near death experience failed landing into London, a swelling of my mothers foot from the cabin pressure to make it the swell to the size of a watermelon, an illegal drive without a license to the Emergency Room by myself to seek medical attention on the foot and then aptly staying another 6 hours at night on those clinically cold benches again, I can safely say, this was surely an experience I’ll never forget.
I have to see the silver lining in all this, and will say confidently, that although it was a bad experience, it could have been a hell of a lot worse, as the day we landed in Ukraine with the potential of sightseeing, was the day of the Ukrainian Revolution with protests against the Russian goverment. So with that, we knew we had made the right decision to not venture into Ukraine
Unfortunately, with most likely no hope of re-entry into Russian anytime soon, I will have to enjoy my short but impactful visit on such a unique country. And know that next time, to travel with men.
And as for my dreams of attending the Winter Olympics, well we always have Beijing, China in 2022 to look forward to. Hey, what could go wrong.