Our motley crew were united in one thing. We wanted to do what we could to connect with a group of people in the world who were within minimal reach of Bible information. So, we were aiming for an “unreached people group”.
We had a hunch we’d find them in Kalmykia, the only republic in Europe with a majority Tibetan Buddhist population. In fact, we had a number of hunches, but that was the first. This was to be a reconnaissance visit – to find the best place for a long-term team. Along with Pam and me were Phil (musician), Rod (mystic), Dave (computer man), Chip (manager), Diane (counsellor) and Ed (bad golfer). Like I said, we were a motley crew.
Although we did a fair bit of flying that day we felt like we spent a good part of it in minibuses, first of all between two Moscow airports – Sheremetyevo and Vnukovo, and then from Rostov-on-Don airport to the imaginatively named “Hotel Tourist”.
Rostov-on-Don was meant to be a staging post for visiting Kalmykia. Dave got busy working on the necessary bureaucracy and the rest of us had a good look at Rostov. Not only was everything new to us but we, as Westerners, were new to them. Through our translators’ contacts we were whisked away to visit a children’s hospital. We marvelled at the kindness they showed both to the children and to us. On leaving they showered us with a bewildering assortment of gifts – hand lotion, packs of postcards, an Easter cake, some boiled eggs and a classical record of six Bach violin concertos.
Eventually Dave, who was doing the hard yards with bureaucracy, came back and reported. It wasn’t going to work for us to travel to Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, so we were going to the city of Ufa, our next option, two time zones further away. A confetti of paperwork was arranged in a nine-hour grind of office work somewhere – Aeroflot tickets re-routed through Ufa, visas arranged for Ufa and our request registered with the Rostov city authorities to stay in the hotel we were now leaving after three days.
About the only thing we knew about Ufa was that the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev began his dancing career there – not much to go on. So, back to the airport and off we flew to Ufa (that wonderful city even sounds somehow ethereal).
These were the days which seasoned travellers refer to as the “old Aeroflot”. We were being hosted by the “Intourist” travel agency. This sounded fine until the plane landed and everybody stood up to reach for their bags. But then the cabin crew said, “All Russians sit down again!” Apparently that was how they sorted out the international tourists from the locals. Our team, at this point, sticking out like a sore thumb, then realised that the best way we could help the now-sitting, glowering Russians, was to get off the plane as swiftly as possible so they could be released.
We were clearly directed to go and enjoy the Intourist lounge while our paperwork was being processed. The airport even provided a neatly uniformed staff member to greet us at the said lounge. Her greeting lives on in the memory to this day because she opened lips adorned with the reddest lipstick Roubles could buy and said, “You owe me five dollars”. It appeared that each of us owed her five dollars.
Before long, Diane twigged what the problem was and spent the next twenty minutes or so gently teaching the greeter the subtle difference between saying, “Good afternoon – there is a five-dollar charge for the use of the lounge”. and “You owe me five dollars”. The airport HR department had been a bit stingy on supplying language training for their staff. According to the visitors’ book an American political personage had gone before us and he was less than complimentary about Miss Redlips’ greeting.