NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: Like living in a parallel universe - the weird world of the airport transit zone

Simon Calder describes the netherworld that the fugitive now calls home

As Edward Snowden will have discovered by now, the airport transit lounge constitutes the most superficial travel experience on the planet.

The former US security official, wanted by Washington for treachery, is thought to be between flights (and between jobs) at Terminal F at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport – a particularly depressing example of suspended animation.

These days, a corner of every foreign airport is forever Ireland. Moscow’s main aviation hub acquired its first Irish pub over 20 years ago, and now has at least three taverns dispensing faux bonhomie. Those who prefer to go Dutch can visit the Rembrandt Bar which “reproduces the style of Holland, the country of flowers and canals”.

Ironically, the Netherlands’ aeronautical hub, Schiphol, is one of the few airports in which the transit traveller can enjoy an uplifting time on the ground. An outpost of the Rijksmuseum offers anyone changing planes the chance to escape the 21st century briefly in favour of the Dutch golden age. The only surprise is that, on average, only 500 of the 140,000 daily passengers find their way to the elegant gallery between E and F piers to immerse themselves in the genius of the Old Masters.

A boarding pass marked SIN will take the transit traveller on an 11-hour flight from Amsterdam to the airport that offers the most complete holiday experience. Had Mr Snowden flown south from Hong Kong, he would have found it easy to fill the long days of transportational twilight.

Passengers changing planes in Singapore can enjoy Scandinavian levels of social care, including a free 15-minute foot massage. The airport has its own nature trail, encompassing a rooftop cactus garden, koi ponds and a tropical butterfly habitat. While the nearest beach is a 10-minute landside taxi ride away, transit passengers can take the plunge in a rooftop swimming pool. Anyone spending S$10 (£5) in the Singapore shops qualifies for a free ride on what is claimed, at 40ft, to be “the world’s tallest slide in an airport” – not a category for which there is fierce competition.

For passengers with five hours or more between flights, there are free city tours. After a 20-minute bus journey to the heart of the city state, jet-lagged travellers are invited to stroll unchaperoned around the colonial quarter; so far, none is reported to have absconded.

A sightseeing trip is not on the agenda for Mr Snowden. He was permitted to spend the first 24 hours at the airport without formality and is now thought to possess a Russian Federation transit visa issued by the airport’s own duty consul. Using such a document, the Iranian human-rights activist Zahra Kamalfar spent over nine months at the airport until Canada granted her asylum.

Another Iranian, Mehran Karimi Nasseri, spent 18 years at Terminal 1 of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. His story inspired the film The Terminal, which in turn helped perpetuate the myth that transit lounges are diplomatic no man’s lands. In fact, they are areas in which the authorities are prepared temporarily to tolerate the presence of individuals with no intention of remaining in the country. If the Russian state wanted to apprehend Mr Snowden, it could do so – but it appears that the Kremlin has some interest in his remaining in passenger purgatory.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
booksNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015