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In Ex-Soviet Union, Travel Is More Than an Adventure

MOSCOW'S Outer Ring Road was heavily congested. Usually it takes 45 minutes to get to Domodyedovo Airport from my apartment. This time it took more that two hours.

We arrived at the airport a full 28 minutes before our Kazakhstan Airlines flight was due to depart for the capital of Alma Ata. Plenty of time. I stretched, relaxed, resumed breathing.

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But after four minutes of searching for directions to the proper gate, my colleague Lindy and I began combing the terminal for an information counter or a hapless soul unlucky enough to be wearing the scratchy blue polyester uniform of an Aeroflot employee.

No luck. Capitalism may have officially replaced communism, but traveling in the former Soviet Union is still as brimming with bureaucratic nightmares as it always has been.

Finally, we were directed to the Intourist terminal, an isolated lounge left over from the days when the government forbade Soviets to mingle with foreigners.

I sprinted to the counter, dropped my 30-pound bag, and pulled out my passport and ticket.

``You're too late,'' announced a woman in garish make-up with an Aeroflot badge pinned to her chest, citing the unbending rule that all passengers register an hour before any flight.

A few minutes of fruitless argument later, we were schlepping down one of the world's steepest flights of metal stairs, only to emerge stranded on the icy tarmac, ducking to avoid overhead planes.

After a few adrenalin-filled moments, I spied an empty airport bus containing an idle driver staring busily at the ceiling.

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``Take me to Section 2!'' I shouted through the window. A conversation involving a hefty amount of rubles ensued. Two minutes later I was standing before another Intourist counter.

``Quick, stamp my ticket,'' I yelled. ``My plane's about to leave!''

``It's already left,'' the woman lied.

After several minutes of futile pleading, during which more ticket-takers joined in a hearty if-all-the-other-passengers-can-make-it-to-the-airport-in-time- why-can't-you chorus, I rejoined the bus.

Two minutes later we were climbing the steps of the still-parked Kazakhstan Airlines plane, a former Aeroflot Ilyushin jet repainted to give the mistaken impression that it was part of a new fledgling fleet - but still serving the same dreary Aeroflot food, usually chicken or Spam.

``Hello!'' I said brightly as we entered the downstairs luggage compartment of the dual-level plane.

Two minutes later I was exchanging money with the driver of a forklift. Hurtling back to the Intourist counter, I attempted to frighten my former acquaintances into submission. ``Don't you ever try to threaten me again,'' a peroxide blond yelled, and threw me out.

Back on the plane, Lindy was already deep in conversations with the pilot and several flight attendants. We were all getting chummy when a militia-jeep drove up. Four hefty men jumped out.

Two minutes later, we were back on the tarmac, watching our plane lift off without us.

Some days later after arriving in Alma Ata, we left for the subsidized Hotel Chaika in the northern mining town of Karaganda, still shaken by a harrowing experience involving a close encounter between the nose of our plane and the tarmac. After 10 minutes of bargaining, the hotel employee showed us to our room - a spacious two-room suite with green velvet furniture.

``How much will this cost?'' I asked anxiously, thinking of the limited funds we had brought from Moscow. ``Nothing,'' he said. ``Thirty tenge,'' or about three dollars. We chuckled delightedly.

The following morning I went to pay the bill. The hotel director seemed overly happy to welcome us into her office. ``Here it is!'' she said gaily, handing me a slip of paper for $380.

``What if you had eaten a restaurant meal that on the menu was listed as costing $20, and then were given a bill for $700?'' I argued. ``What difference does it make to you foreigners?'' she said.

Two nights later we left Karaganda, chastened by a dressing-down from the director but poorer only by $6 each.

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