27 Mar 2017 16:35 IST

Northern exposure

When a Russian blizzard changes the course of an Arctic adventure

With 30 minutes to land at Murmansk, our spirits were finally soaring. A little earlier we had seen a glimpse of the Northern Lights (also known as the Aurora Borealis) from the aircraft, which had given way to much clapping and cheering from both the Russians and the tourists flying to what is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle with a standing population of over 3,00,000. And while the photos on the smartphone weren’t really for keeps, there was finally hope that making the effort to travel to northern Russia in the bitter -35°C was going to pay off.

We had picked Murmansk for three clear reasons — with 40 polar nights between December and January, the city is one of the best locations to spot the Northern Lights. Despite 25 years of perestroika, Russia still keeps a lot of things within the reach of the common people, making it abundantly affordable to get there. And it was also going to give us a few days in Moscow — where we could live the culture and history of the city and of Russia through the ages.

We were finally going to get to our Arctic adventure, my wife and I told each other, only to be interrupted by the captain’s voice crackling over the PA system. Arkhangelsk is the only thing that we managed to catch in a long string of Russian words. The two of us gave each other a “not again” look as the chief cabin attendant walked up to us and confirmed what we had been thinking. The flight had indeed been diverted to another city after a blizzard forced a shutdown of Murmansk airport.

After spending close to 18 hours between airports and aircraft due to flight cancellations, and re-routing our connecting flights, we were now headed to a destination that was not on our radar.

The radar was the first thing I noticed as we came into land on this white expansive airfield after flying eastward for an hour. There were four of them, mounted on an old Russian military truck parked between the two taxiways. As we taxied our way to the terminal through a sea of snow, it was as if we had been transported into the scene of a Cold-War film.

A giant white mass with a lone aircraft touching down, hundreds of miles from its original destination with a sombre airport building; an airport jeep with a red beacon that would drive up to the aircraft and then drive off periodically, and a cabin full of people speculating where they were headed next. In the two hours we waited inside the aircraft on the tarmac, the eeriness quotient rose steadily — more so because not one other plane landed or took off from this airport. Was this for real? What if we weren’t flying anywhere tonight? Through it all the Russian fliers — mainly travelling for business — called their airport transfers and hotels rescheduling their arrival. All of that was to come to a nought. The pilot decided to fly back to Moscow, possibly because of his “unwillingness” to be stuck in Murmansk due to bad weather.

This announcement agitated a few Russian passengers, who said they were better off deboarding at Arkhangelsk and taking the train to Murmansk. The pilot acquiesced to their demand, asking the ground staff to get their bags from the hold while the aircraft was refuelled. After a two-hour wait, the passenger-light, fuel-heavy aircraft taxied back to the main runway, passing the radar truck. We had a prayer on our lips.

A couple of hours later, we landed safely back in Moscow and were ushered in to the airport through the departure terminal. It was as if the scene of boarding the aircraft eight hours ago was being played in reverse. We went back through the departure gate, up the stairs next to the down escalators, back through the security and into the departure lounge. Despite the airline’s offer to fly us back to Murmansk the next day, my wife and I — tired from spending the first 24 hours of our anniversary holiday up in the air — decided to suspend our Northern Lights adventure to another year.

Moscow welcomed us at -23°C, but the warmth and camaraderie over the next six days, not to forget a midnight airport pick-up, an upgrade at the hotel, the Bolshoi ballet, the Moscow State Circus and the willingness of the people to engage the moment they heard we were from India, made for some handsome memories. As for the Northern Lights and Murmansk, the chase is on. See you next year!

(Ranabir Majumdar is a communications professional based in Delhi NCR. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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