In 1994 I was returning from a three-week birding trip to Malaysia, in the company of Mark and Janice Hollingworth. We were flying with Aeroflot to save several hundred pounds, which necessitated a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Moscow, before catching a further flight to London. As we approached Moscow, an announcement was made (in Russian) over the tannoy which brought gasps from the passengers, but bewilderment from us. Everybody was busy fastening their seat-belts, the cabin crew were scurrying around, and, no word of a lie, a stewardess was in tears, being comforted by a colleague. What the hell was going on? Within a minute everybody was seated, belted-up and the plane went into a very steep and sudden descent. All was quiet. I don’t like flying at the best of times, and this appeared to be one of those scenarios that I had nightmares about. However, regardless of the uncertainty about our impending doom, I found myself to be remarkably calm and collected. I simply sat - and waited.
The Airbus was landed quickly. Whatever the reason behind our sudden descent appeared to have not affected our ability to do so. We were alive! However, looking out of the window something was not quite right. This wasn’t an international airport, more like a landing strip in the middle of nowhere. Where on earth were we? All of the passengers on board had started to talk at once, then shout. Semi-scuffles were breaking out and the cabin crew were walking around, diffusing situations before moving on to the next flashpoint. Again, this was conducted in Russian, a language in which I know two words - ‘Niet’ and ‘Nostrovia’. An English-speaker was sitting close to us, and explained that there was absolutely no explanation being given as to why we had suddenly diverted to a small municipal airport. The passengers were mutinying! It was not long before two armed soldiers came aboard and several of the more vociferous passengers were spoken to. After half-an-hour it all calmed down a bit and we were told that we would be leaving for Moscow as soon as we were able. What did that mean?
To appease us, the television screens were lowered and entertainment provided. For the next FOUR hours we sat, without any idea as to when we would finally move. The screens played three items, over and over again. One was a short Russian film that could only be described as smutty slapstick (Benny Hillski?). The other two were music videos - ‘Do The Bartman’ by The Simpsons and, you’ve guessed it, ‘Hotel Califonia’ by The Eagles. I already knew the words, I already liked the track, but being constantly fed it became torture. I imagine that somebody sitting on this very same plane must have got the idea for 'interrogation methods through the use of repetitive music’ that were to be used at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre in the years to come. Every time the reel of programmes ended we begged for it to be turned off, but no, here it came again. For. The. Fifteenth. Time…
We tried to counter this by starting up a Russian bird list, that struggled to reach four species. Carrion Crow and Skylark were two of them, I cannot remember the others. To cut a long story short, we finally arrived at Moscow long after our flight to Heathrow had departed. We were then put on an old Tupolev jet to Helsinki (I swear I could hear the gears being changed on the flight) where we were then handed over, by now sobbing, to the kind people of British Airways, who finally took us home.
So when I now hear the first chords of Hotel California start up, I don’t think about “dark, desert highways” but of the inside of an Airbus, parked up in a field, somewhere in deepest Russia.