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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Loose Coypus On Board!

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URUMQI, China -- As the crowd mobbed onto a Kyrgyz Tu-154 jet heading from Novosibirsk to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, it became clear that it was not going to be a comfortable trip.

Extra rows of seats had been crammed onto the plane, so that only a midget could relax on the two-hour flight. The carpet was threadbare, and under the lighted cabin signs in Russian, such as "Toilet" and "No Smoking," Chinese translations had been pasted up.

Like the Tu-154 that crashed near Irkutsk in July, this was a Russian plane that had been sold to China, then bought back third-hand -- in this case, by the Kyrgyz national airlines. It boded ill for three weeks of travel in Central Asia, the western part of China and (later this week) Beijing.

So it was a relief to find that the China Xinjiang Airlines jet flying from Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Urumqi was a new Boeing 707. There was plenty of leg room, and little TV screens folded down above every other seat so we could track our altitude and progress. This regional Chinese airline flying from a former Soviet city perched at the edge of a windblown steppe managed to use modern commercial aircraft. Meanwhile, airlines flying out of Vladivostok, which once dreamed of claiming its destiny as a northern Hong Kong, often seem more like they were traded up from Air Chad.

The experts assure us that travel in Russia is relatively safe, despite the crash that killed 135 people this July near Irkutsk and several other accidents last summer. But it is sometimes hard to relax on an old workhorse while wondering just whether it is going to rattle apart in flight.

On a recent Sibir Airlines flight from Vladivostok to Novosibirsk, clouds of steam hissed from the wall, and a large ceiling panel flapped open on takeoff, shaking dust over the passengers in the first row. The stewardess slammed the panel once we were airborne, but every so often it would drop open again, once narrowly missing her as she served the passengers beer and Moldovan communion wine.

Tu-154s, while rivaling big American and European aircraft in their size and speed, are often lacking in comforts closer to the passenger. The toilets have wooden seats that you might expect in an outhouse (luckily, they have yet to adopt the railroad's approach of letting waste drop from a hole under the vehicle). The seats have soft backs, so that you spend the flight getting your back therapeutically adjusted by a kid with steel-toed sneakers in the seat behind you. No matter how many times you scold him or gripe to his mother, some half-remembered children's song seems to reassert itself in his mind:

Antoshka (KICK), Antoshka (KICK), let's go (KICK) dig (KICK) for spuds (KICK).

I have yet to see an animal on China's seemingly more modern air fleet, but dogs are commonplace on Russian flights. If dogs seem like a nuisance, however, consider the creatures that Nikolai Lugin, a Sakhalin regional agricultural official, transported from Moscow to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk last year.

Lugin -- who is encouraging Sakhalin farmers to raise ostriches for their eggs and meat -- transported the African birds in an Aeroflot jet's baggage compartment (the kind that is accessible from the passenger cabin by stairs). To compound matters, he brought along a crate of coypus, an otter-sized South American rodent with webbed feet and a long tail. He was hoping to convince Sakhalin residents that the rat-like coypu, when barbecued, tastes better than pork, and there is the additional bonus that one can make a fur hat from the skin.

Perhaps sensing their fate, the rodents bolted from their cage in the baggage compartment of the airplane high over Siberia.

Lugin recalled, "The stewardess came up to me and said, ?Excuse me, but your coypus have escaped and scattered all over the place. We have boxes of grapes down there, and they're going to eat all the grapes.' I had 10 coypus, and I found nine of them. I just couldn't find the tenth. I figured one coypu couldn't eat too many grapes. But it turned out he had just gotten into the cage with the ostriches."

Ultimately, I think I can speak for all ostriches, coypus and hound dogs trembling underfoot on seven-hour flights, and for North Korean President Kim Jong Il: I don't care what statisticians say about airlines being safer than driving. I'm always glad to get back on solid ground.

Russell Working is a freelance correspondent based in Vladivostok.