Asia: Flying in the face of reason

Even seven years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cheapest way to reach Asia is aboard an Eastern bloc airline. Graham Hoyland recalls his hair-raising attempt to save cash on a trip to Delhi

In 1983 I tried to cheapskate-it to India by buying tickets from a bucket-shop in London. The carrier was to be an airline called Ariana Afghan; I hadn't heard of them but they sounded exotic - and cheap.

The first intimations that this was going to be the Flight to Hell was the Aeroflot plane standing at Heathrow ready to take us on the first stage of the journey to Moscow. The vicious-looking grey brute of a plane reminded me that this particular airline was part of its country's armed forces reserve. It took off with the roar from Armageddon and accelerated like an SS20 missile on speed. The stewards were frightening; the stewardesses even more so.

We stopped at Prague, then Moscow, and were herded on to an Ariana Afghan DC-10 that seemed to be leaking fuel from its wings. I wondered what the spare-parts contract could be considering that this was an American aeroplane owned by a country that was under occupation by Russia, which was still having a Cold War with America ...

It was early on Monday morning, and a group of Russian hard-men got on board, presumably en route for a week's oppression in Kabul. The one sitting behind me suddenly grasped my seat in both hands and unaccountably launched into a frenzy of head-butting. The seat twanged and thumped against his forehead whilst I politely leaned forward and gazed out of the window.

Kabul airport was a sea of USSR helicopter gunships, and all photography was strictly banned. We learned here that the local rebels used Ariana Afghan flights for missile practice, which explained the unconventional, low, jinking landing approach.

In the airport lounge there was the head of a Marco Polo sheep mounted on the wall wearing a startled expression and the legend "Stuffed by Jones Bros. Seattle". You wouldn't think they would brag about it.

Eventually we made it to Delhi, had months of happy Himalayan climbing but eventually had to face the real danger - the return flight.

This was even worse: 13 hours lying on the floor at Delhi airport waiting for the flight. Then we got stuck at Kabul gazing at that bloody sheep again. Then we were stranded in Moscow for three days over some military Red-Square holiday, and were put in an awful hotel with Dominatrix Russian waitresses: "You! Don't sit there! Sit there!"

But the worst moment of all came as the knackered DC10 attempted to land at Prague for the second time.

The three-day wait at Moscow had been caused by heavy fog at Prague airport, and the airline had obviously been given instructions to move us on, fog or no fog. On his first attempt to land the poor pilot had been completely unable to see any airport lights at all, and we were now on the second eerily silent approach glide towards oblivion. The atmosphere in the plane was extremely tense, and the fog outside the windows was so thick they looked as if they were stuffed with cotton wool. Suddenly my straining eyes glimpsed the ground racing past at 200 miles per hour. Not down there!

The plane reared up wildly, and the screaming engines clawed us back up into the sky. The intercom crackled, and the pilot's voice, high on fear and tension came through. "We have," he announced, "just missed Prague Airport".

Well, thank God for that, I thought.

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