Airports are also great opportunities for people-watching, observing others’ comings and goings and trying to figure out what they might be up to and what their story is. One thing my schooling and professional journalism experience had taught me was that every person had an interesting story, a tale unique to them that — no matter how mundane it might seem — would be interesting to someone. The task then, was how to discover those stories and tell them to a wider audience.

There was the woman with her boyfriend. Or maybe it was her brother? Seeing they were wrapped in each other’s arms, I doubted they were siblings. Maybe they were on their way home after visiting one or the other’s family for the holidays, or were just beginning their holiday. The feelings they gave off were of carefree gaiety, a verve and zest for life.

There was the middle-aged couple with a child in a stroller. The child, a young infant of what appeared to be just a few months, was completely quiet; though his eyes were wide open with wonderment. Maybe it was his first trip in an airplane? That might involve lots of screaming later.

I also saw a pair of large men who appeared to be ethnic Kyrgyz. One of them wore glasses and was dressed in a nice button-up shirt and gray slacks, while the other was more casual in jeans and a jacket. Perhaps they were from Bishkek? I’d greatly admired that city when I was there a few months prior, marveling how a teeming area of hundreds of thousands could emerge from the harsh Central Asian terrain in northern Kyrgyzstan.

My musings on the backstories of my fellow patrons were soon interrupted, however, by the presentation of a plate of green things covered in a thick layer of dressing and chunks of meat and cheese, which simultaneously appeared with a large mug on a saucer filled with steaming brownish liquid: breakfast.

It wasn’t the greatest salad I’d ever had, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. And though I’d had better cappuccinos, I’d also had many that paled in comparison to this — a solid B-plus in the School of Airport Cuisine for the Budget-Minded.

The 435-ruble ($13) breakfast cost wasn’t great, but still qualified as “super” compared to what I’d seen at a rival restaurant just a few feet away. That was my justification, anyway, as I left the restaurant and whipped out my camera for a few snaps of the terminal and the blanket of snow clinging to the sloping windows and the airplanes, runways, buses, and every other surface outside like vanilla icing on a cake. Normally willy-nilly photography in Russian airports is strictly verboten, but my day job as a reporter for a well-known Russian news agency gave me a certain leeway. Wearing a thick-black sweatshirt bearing my employer’s logo in massive block letters, undoubtedly helped convince the authorities I wasn’t engaged in any subversive activities. Considering my past run-ins with Eastern European law enforcement — including brief detainment in a Lithuanian airport over suspicions that my US passport might have been a fake and a tense encounter with a police officer in Poland for sleeping at a bus station — it was a relief.

There were still a couple hours to kill before departure. I had two options: sit down quietly and read some more of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s This Earth of Mankind, or wander off and explore some more. I chose the latter. It almost got me arrested.

Passing past yet another coffee stand, roughly the 30th cart selling fake fur ushanka hats with red stars and, inexplicably, a Baskin-Robbins (what its purpose was in a land as known for permafrost as Russia was beyond me), my attention was captured by the plastered logos of various companies outside that hallowed sanctuary all seasoned travel vets covet, but I had never set foot inside: the airline club lounge.

Normally, of course, one has to be a member of an airline’s frequent-flyer program to enter a lounge. I’d spent a fair percentage of my life in the air, but in my constant quest to find the cheapest airfare from Boise, Idaho to Muscat, Oman, I had never consistently flown the same airline enough to warrant joining a frequent flyer program. Thus, I had never been allowed entry to the fantastical domain of leather recliners, free coffee and magazines, and warm towel massages.

But in that moment, I saw a chance to remedy my plight. On the list of eligible airlines was Air Koryo, the North Korean state-run outfit I’d flown from Pyongyang to Beijing rated by rating group Skytrax as the “worst airline in the world” due to being banned in most every country on earth (though in their defense, it had seemed fine when I flew them, which was an even better experience than some European low-cost carriers I’d been on). There weren’t any Air Koryo flights to Moscow, or at least there hadn’t been any I knew of since the Soviet Union fell. So why were they listed here? I had to investigate.

I strolled into the lounge, head high and shoulders back like a man who was used to being taken care of.

The slender receptionist with dishwater-blonde hair was unsmiling.

“Welcome,” she said flatly, with all the warmth of New Year’s in Siberia. “Are you a frequent-flyer member?”

“Yes, I’m an Air Koryo member.” It was probably fairly obvious I wasn’t Korean. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be a language quiz.

The woman was unfazed. “Do you have a membership card?”

Membership card — oh, right, time for more excuses.

“Um, no,” I started. “Air Koryo does not give cards to its members.”

“Then how will I know you’re a member?”

An idea hit me. “Here, I have my old boarding pass and itinerary.” I whipped the forestry product souvenirs out of my backpack, which clearly showed they were printed in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name).

The woman scrutinized it for a moment before handing it back to me — still no smile. “This will not work,” she started. You can’t just come to a lounge after your flight. You have to be a member, OK?”

I was confused.

“But I am flying now,” I retorted, unintentionally dropping into a German accent.

“Yes, but you already flew Air Koryo.”


“Now who do you fly?”

“To my final destination, you mean?”



“And are you an Aeroflot member?”

“No.” Things were rapidly unraveling.

“Then do you see the problem?”


“You are not a member,” the woman said, still cool. “You must have a membership, which you do not have. Now go.”

“But maybe I’ll just buy a membership here now.”

“No. You must do so online. Goodbye.” With that she pointed toward the door. I got the hint and walked through it.

Defeated, I zigzagged through the winding terminal. The feeling would last for but a few minutes.

“Aeroflot SU two-oh-four with service to Berlin is now boarding. All passengers are requested to come to gate D-nineteen.”

The harsh metallic announcement signaled the end of the longest planned layover of my life, Christmas Eves in Toronto aside. But despite the realization I might have been the poorest person to walk through Sheremetyevo’s terminals in some time, I had no real complaints. And why should I have had any?

If my second foray in North Korea had taught me anything, it was always to keep an open mind.

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