I landed in Moscow with a bump…to the head. From a very large, very heavy leather laptop bag that slid out of a luggage compartment and straight onto me. The seatbelt signs hadn’t even been switched off, but one bloke decided he needed his stuff earlier than everyone else, therefore catching me unaware. Glasses flew off, the lot. The guy next to me actually had a go at the bloke who opened the compartment, but to be fair to him, he was beside himself about the whole situation and couldn’t apologise enough.
It was about an hour’s wait, semi-concussed, to get through passport control. I’d been expecting it because of how difficult it is to get a Russian visa. There was no point making people jump through hoops, getting invites from people or companies in the country, listing exactly where and when you’ve been abroad for the last 10 years, even going in depth about what I do and have done for a living, if they weren’t going to be thorough at the border.
Before long, my passport had been stamped, and I was officially in the country and on my own. I knew the British voices I could hear around me would start to disappear, and by the time I reached the AeroExpress train to the centre of Moscow, I was the only foreigner around. I ate a slice of leftover Dominos pizza I had foil-wrapped in my bag, and took in the pleasant aroma in the carriage. It was like an air freshener had been placed somewhere nearby.
At this point, I had no idea where I was going. I’d booked into a hostel that I had put down on my visa application for the authorities, but I had no idea where in Moscow it was- I’d planned on getting all that on my phone. I remembered reading it was within walking distance of Red Square and the Kremlin, so I looked to see where the nearest Metro station would be on the basis that someone would recognise the name of it.
That’s when it started to dawn on me just how difficult it is to navigate around the city. Absolutely everything is in Cyrillic, with no English translations or letters anywhere. I didn’t really know where the station was that I’d just arrived at, but by analysing a few maps in my guidebooks, I worked out I was to the south east of the city centre.
With my rucksack weighing me down, I found my way to the Metro station, and as often is the case I’m finding here, joined a long queue for a ticket. I got their form of a travelcard with five trips on it, and made my way down to the platform.
Well, to say the stations are elegant would be an understatement. Never have I seen such amazing architecture in a railway station. The ceilings and walls were more like what you would see in a historic museum, ornate plaster sculptures and pictures, fantastic chandeliers and marble from the floor to the roof. The only thing that lets it down is the slightly dilapidated looking trains which run through them….oh, and the fact its nigh-on impossible to work out where you need to be going!
So much thought has obviously gone into how to decorate the stations, that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to someone that people might need maps on the platforms. The Cyrillic words don’t seem to match the Cyrillic words in my guidebook, and with no helpful pictures or arrows anywhere telling which train heads where, it was a bit of pot luck. I got on a train (which incidentally, are full of maps) and matched the next station name with the one in my guide. I was heading in the right direction!
I emerged into the cold dark night, onto a fairly quiet street, at around 11pm. Most of the shops were closed, and there were very few people around. I walked for about 15 minutes, aimlessly I guess, wondering where the hostel was. I knew I was near the main sights, and next to the Bolshoi Theatre a taxi driver pulled up. I asked if he knew the hostel, but even I knew that without the street address, he had no chance. Besides, he needed a magnifying glass to try and read my English, and with a shrug of his shoulders, he drove off.
I needed help, and my only lifeline without my smartphone was yet again my netbook – and a backstreet Dunkin Donuts with a big ‘Free Wifi’ sign on the door. I bought a coffee and browsed the web, finding all the details I needed. Or so I thought.
I waved the screen under the nose of a taxi driver, who made a grunt and motioned me to put my things in the car. There was a familiar smell inside – exactly the same smell as the airport train. Perhaps its some ‘Moscow public transport’ aroma, which would be a nice, unexpected touch.
I sensed the hostel wasn’t too far away, and as we whizzed through the streets and the bright lights of Moscow (speed limits don’t seem to exist here) we quickly got to the address on Tverskaya Street. There was nothing. No signs, no brightly-lit doorway I was expecting – just an abandoned old shop on the otherwise thriving street.
The taxi driver went around the block a few times, said something in Russian and then took me back to the abandoned shop, pointing at the number 27 on the wall – the number given on the website. Bemused, I paid him, got out and went to a mobile phone shop nearby. I was told it was down past the Metro station, so I walked for 10 minutes past there. Realising I wasn’t getting anywhere, I asked at a Pizza Express – where a waiter told me I’d gone the wrong way and to go back where I’d come from. I trudged back and then asked a doorman at a hotel, who told me to go back on myself and then turn left. So I did, and still couldn’t find it. I showed my laptop page to another doorman at a bar, who seemed really helpful – and then directed me back to where I started in the first place.
This went on for about an hour, and by now my back was aching and feet were hurting. I asked two more shopkeepers, pointing at my laptop, each gave different responses. I’d started to wonder if I’d ever find the place, and with tiredness creeping in at about 12.15am, I knew I needed to find it sooner rather than later. After walking right along the street, and obviously looking lost, another taxi driver asked me where I was going. He was brilliant – we agreed a price and he agreed he’d help me find the hostel. He took me to exactly where the first taxi driver dropped me off!
After a bit of searching around the back, it turned out the hostel was an apartment high up in the block above the shop. The taxi driver rang the buzzer, a door opened, and in I went. At 1am, I’d obviously woken up the guy that runs the Eesti Airlines Hostel, but I was just relieved to be able to drop my bags and sit down on a bed.
I noticed a familiar smell in the room – the same I had noticed on the train and in the taxi. Then I saw the front of my rucksack was wet and foamy…thanks to a split bottle of Lynx shower gel. Explained a few things!
I woke up at 9.30am on Tuesday. My priority was to find the station to buy tickets for the trans-Siberian train that leaves that night, train number 4. It’s the one direct train from Moscow to Beijing that leaves every week, and according to my research, usually had quite a few Westerners on it doing the same as me. I knew I had to stop somewhere with a Mongolian embassy, so decided that Irkutsk was the best place to stop off. Its near the worlds largest lake, Lake Baikal, and everything I read seems to say its beautiful.
I somewhat more successfully navigated my way around the Metro to the mainline Yaroslavsky Station, and queued to buy my ticket. The attendant did not know any English, so thanks to the brilliant Trans-Siberian Handbook I’ve got, filled in one of its forms which gives all the information they need. Unfortunately, the train to Beijing only had third class left – and after watching Karl Pilkington on An Idiot Abroad make the same journey in third class on television a few weeks ago, I knew ‘sitting on a shelf like an ornament’ wasn’t for me!
Instead, I was told there was a train the next day, and asked if I wanted to go in the day or at night. I asked for the night one, giving me an extra day in Moscow, showed my passport, paid 9,800 Roubles (about £200) and that was it – I had a ticket in my hand!
Now it was a case of taking in the sights – first stop was of course Red Square and the Kremlin. They were really busy areas, and there was some sort of Festival of Light being set up, so Red Square was full of lighting pylons and a huge stage in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum.
It spoilt the view a bit, so I headed down to St Basil’s Cathedral, more commonly known as ‘that funny church’ because of its colourful and oddly shaped domes. Its an extraordinary building, and I walked around to get the sun in the right place for the photos.
I sat down opposite the cathedral to have some lunch. I’m still making my way through Saturday night’s Dominos pizza that I’d ordered in when I was busy trying to fix my phone. It came close to being thrown out, but Dad wrapped it in foil for me and it had kept pretty well. Two slices later, and I made a move for a nearby shopping centre called Gum, highlighted for its spectacular glass roof. With its range of D&G, Hugo Boss and Ferrari shops, it was hardly Princes Quay…but its glass roof was fairly nice!
I had a look around inside the Cathedral – which to me, felt more like being inside a dolls house than a church – and then strolled back through Red Square.
My fact of the day is that the name Red Square has nothing to do with the country and communism – instead, its all down to the original cobbles which were once laid there. The red cobbles were ripped up years ago when a smelly, dirty market was condemned, and replaced with the present grey cobbles.
I kept having to make double-takes everywhere I went.
Every few minutes, I’d see a Scunthorpe United fan wandering around. And then another with a scarf in the air. Then whole groups of them wearing the claret and blue Scunny tops around Red Square. It was very surreal, but turns out it was a Turkish team in almost identical kit that was in town for Champions League match with CSKA Moscow! I doubt they’d be shouting ‘Up the Iron’ much
I made my way to the main entrance to the Kremlin, stopping by at the tomb of the unknown soldier and the eternal flame beside the Kremlin wall. Its guarded by soldiers from the Russian Army, and at the changing of the guard, Basil Fawlty’s ministry of funny walks did spring to mind! I went to buy a ticket to go inside the Kremlin, but despite the guide and the ticket window saying its open until 4.30pm, it was closed. A man walked up to me and asked if I could understand why it was closed – I obviously had no idea, but we walked up to the main entrance together.
His name was Husanbay, a 31 year old from Uzbekistan. He’s living and working in Moscow as a Chinese teacher, but has a wife and daughter back in his home country. He’s trying to get into international relations, but needs to study first so is saving money to get into a college somewhere. He was good fun, and had really good English, and we seemed to get on, so we walked around together talking about our lives back home and the places we’ve been – or in Husanbay’s case in particular, the places he’d like to go.
We wandered to the Bolshoi Theatre and marvelled at the detail on the outside of the building, its huge pillars and the statues of the horses and of Karl Marx outside.
Without my panic of the night before – and the weight of my bags – it was a much nicer experience to take it all in. We then walked looking for the former headquarters of the KGB, and there was supposed to be a museum about it there too. We found neither, and at around 5pm, headed for the Metro. It was interesting to see that Husanbay, despite living in Moscow, also struggled with navigating around the underground system!
We swapped email addresses and gave him my website details, before saying our goodbyes. We’d spent a good few hours together, getting to know one another, and I wished him all the success for the future before he jumped on his train and disappeared into the tunnel.
Back in the hostel I decided to double check my train tickets. The train leaves at 00:35 on the 19th of October. Today, was the 18th. I suddenly twigged – half past midnight means the train leaves in just a few hours time, and I didn’t have another day in Moscow after all. I had to get my things packed again, bought provisions for the journey, and said goodbye to the guys I’d met at the hostel.
They were a bit bemused by how I’d turned up after sightseeing saying I was staying an extra night, and then suddenly I was packing up and getting ready to go. I explained what had happened and they laughed. Im just pleased I decided to double check – I’d have looked a right fool turning up 24 hours late for a train!
Speaking of which, I’ve got a train to catch…better go!