From Russia…with Love

Hello Russia!

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.

Cyrillic signs....groan!

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.

Moscow Metro stations- attractions in themselves

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!

Marble on the Metro!

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.

The name put me right off...

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!

The Trans-Siberian station

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!

Ticket to ride!

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.

St Basil's Cathedral

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!

Pretty (expensive) shopping centre!

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.

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.

Scunny fans everywhere

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.

With Husanbay outside the closed Kremlin ticket office

With Husanbay outside the closed Kremlin ticket office

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.

The Bolshoi Theatre

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.

Detail on top of the Bolshoi Theatre

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!

Red Square and Cathedral

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.

Sunset over Moscow

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.

Goodnight Moscow

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!

The Kremlin by night

Stop the world…i’m getting on!

So here we are then, I’m on a  plane to Moscow after probably the most hectic, stressful, and emotional weekend I think I’ve ever had.

How did this happen?!

 

Only a few days ago, I was filming Star Trek fanatics as they try to teach the world to speak Klingon. Backpacks and mosquito nets were a million miles out of my mind – partly because somebody was trying to teach me how to say hello in a made-up Trekkie language.

 

It was soon Friday, and it didn’t feel real saying goodbye to colleagues and good friends in the Look North newsroom. My day-to day life, the normality that I love, the routine of pottering along Spring Bank to the BBC and arriving late for the morning meeting. Of publishing a story far too close to its slot, driving producers and directors crazy. Of stopping by at Tesco to pick up something for tea. Watching the series-linked Coronation Street (yes, im sure this blog will turn out to be revealing!) Everything I have known for my six years in Hull was about to come to a clattering halt. Life on hold…for now.

 

So I set my out of office on the emails – felt weird writing that I wouldn’t be back until next summer. I wheeled my camera kit into the outside broadcast store and said farewell to it –any video journalist will tell you how attached you can become to the kit. After all, it’s been everywhere with me – Africa, Iceland, Antons Gout (Google it, its near Boston – the Lincolnshire one!)

 

Today was a sad day too – my best mate, former housemate and all round good badger Matt was also leaving the BBC, but unlike me, he wasn’t returning anytime soon. Bagged himself a well-deserved gig at Sky News didn’t he, and quite strange –but quite fitting – how it worked out our last day would also be together.

 

With formalities over, it was across to the Rugby Tavern for a drink with those who couldn’t make our leaving meal, and then on to the Bengal Lounge on Princes Avenue for curry and beer. There were 23 people who thought we were worthy enough of a send-off – either that, or to make sure we actually went, one of the two. Oh, and I know the exact figure as I had to work out the bill at the end.

 

Saying goodbye

The plan had been to go to Pave and then on to Sugar Mill. That plan changed when my mate Rich Mcelvanney helpfully declared my house as a venue for drinks – as if I didn’t have enough to do, let alone clearing up after a party!! However, it was a great night, good to chill, have a laugh with some good friends and ponder as to how I was going to wake up at 6.30am to complete one of the first major parts of bringing life to a stop – taking my car back to the finance company.

Matt next to me ordered a 'special'

 

I love my car. I bought it three years ago – an Audi A3 S-Line. It was always a bit of a tip inside, but show me a reporters’ car that isn’t! I prefer to think of it as a working car- that the waders in the rear passenger footwell was an essential bit of kit. Almost as much as the scrunched up McDonalds wrappers, coffee cups and empty bottles of Coke which would roll around. It was sporty red, went like stink and looked the business on the odd occasion I got round to washing it. I’d almost lost it on my last day at work – some homeless guys found my keys in Queens Gardens and held it to ransom demanding a reward. I ended up paying them a tenner to get my keys back – partly as I was relieved they’d been found, partly because, as they rightly said ‘we could have just nicked it’

 

I found myself talking to it as I drove along the M62 to Leeds at 8.30am, reminiscing about our journeys together as if it was an old friend. The highlight for me – and im sure the car – was a tour around Europe and France last year, a trip taking in Paris, the Alps and the Normandy beaches. Yet today, stripped bare of all my belongings and rubbish which made it my car, I was abandoning it at a car auction site off the M1. In a sea of cars, mostly heading back to financing companies for what I imagine are whole variety of reasons (and im sure many wont be happy stories) there was mine. It needed a whole load of work doing to it if I’m honest, but it had looked after me and kept me safe. The only tell-tale sign of its past, getting me from story to story?  A BBC Radio Humberside car sticker in the back window!

 

Now things had changed. Without a car, and on a train back to Hull, life had started to change. The house needed sorting out so my new housemates had somewhere to live, packing needed to be started, insurance needed finalising. And then I was hit with  what’s likely to prove a major issue for me – my iPhone died.

 

I decided to upgrade to the new i0S 5 operating system through iTunes, except it wiped out all my phone coverage. I had been trying for weeks to get o2 to unlock the handset so I could use foreign sim cards inside it, but for one reason or another, they couldn’t do it. Apple were being most unhelpful too, saying I had to pay as it was out of warranty. To cut a long story short, I was advised by o2 to ‘jailbreak’ the handset online, and unlock it from the network that way, especially now it was unusable anyway on their own network.

 

With time already against me, I spent the entire Saturday night, the day before departure, frantically learning how to hack my phone in a desperate attempt to make it work. Getting to bed at 1am, then back up at 6am to have another go, there was a glimmer of hope. It detected a network, and it was unlocked – except I’d lost wifi capability. So I tried the process again, following instructions on the web, and promptly lost the entire contents of the phone. It overwrote my contacts in the iTunes backup file, all my texts, notes, apps, music – the whole lot.

 

By mid morning, and with a train at 4.40pm that afternoon, I still had little in the way of packing done, and my only means of communication with my parents was through Skype. An hour later, after sensing and seeing my panic, they were at my house to help out. I had to abandon the idea of fixing my iPhone, and face up to the fact I’ll have no music, no maps, no ability to call, no emails on the go, until I can get something sorted somewhere. Instead, Mum and Dad went out to the phone shop to get me a cheap handset, so I can at least make calls, and then in what was a mad four hours, helped blitz the house in one of the biggest clear-outs/tidy ups its ever had!

 

A hug for mum after all the help!

Cut off from friends, it was really nice to have a visit from Matt Richards and Andrew Billington who popped round to see how I was getting on. It was ten minutes before the taxi was due to arrive, and they were met with cardboard boxes and allsorts being thrown out of the front door and into an army of bins, one of which I’d had to borrow from my friends house down the road. If im honest, it was chaos at the time, but it was really thoughtful of them both to come and see how I was getting on, and I really appreciated it.

 

Setting my house alarm and locking the door to my house was one of those moments when I felt the nerves kick in again. It was another point of realisation that I’m stepping out of my routine and throwing myself into something completely different. I put the bins out –its bin day on Monday – which was probably one of my last chores for a while, then it was to the station. Mum and Dad’s TT can’t fit three people in, let alone all my backpack and luggage I’d manage to somehow gather together in time, so there was a taxi involved. When I got to the station, it began to dawn on my how much I needed the iPhone – I couldn’t get the ticket booking reference for my train, as it was on an email…on the phone. Thankfully, the lovely Samsung netbook im writing this on that the folks bought me began to prove its worth – although it involved a dash to the Royal Hotel to steal a wifi code!

 

Saying farewell to Mum and Dad

Saying goodbye to mum and dad was sad. We’d had such a hectic day, I really wanted to spend a bit of time with them, but hadn’t. We had five minutes to wait before the train arrived to take me to Doncaster, and then London, and that’s when it started hitting home. I know they’re worried sick – and will be worried sick – until I arrive back home next year. However much I tell them I’ll be fine, I know it does little to help. We had a few photos together, to mark the official start of my travels, and that’s when I had to get on the train. It’s a weird feeling knowing you wont see each other for so long…and I’m not ashamed to say there were a couple of tears.

 

Bye for now!

And that was it – I was on my way. The first leg around the world on a busy two-carriage Northern Rail service to Doncaster. A journey I have made so many times, but not always with such a distant destination. It was a beautiful early evening, the sun was setting and glinting off the water as we passed under the Humber Bridge. I looked up at the north tower, knowing it will be at least seven months before the sight of it welcomes me home again. The East Coast segment to Kings Cross was helped by my bargain £25 First Class ticket, and made full use of its free wifi thanks to Dad Skypeing me. He enjoyed his look out of the window at Stevenage, so much so as the train stopped and went quiet, he jokingly shouted ‘hello Stevenage’. I had some funny looks from the other passengers, who’d obviously paid substantially more to try and avoid that type of behaviour, as it boomed out of my laptop!

 

I was able to switch off a little in London, thanks to a trip to a restaurant in Chinatown and a few drinks watching a fantastic band in O’Neills in Leicester Square with my friend Robyn. They did loads of covers, but they were good covers – Franz Ferdinand, Oasis, Greenday, even a rock version of an Abba song. I great night, and good Guinness!

 

The next morning was when the iPhone loss delivered another problem – the cheap handset alarm didn’t go off at 8.45am like I asked it to. Instead, it was almost 10am, leaving less than three hours before my flight left Heathrow. I had planned to take the cheaper Piccadilly Line option to get there, but time meant the only way I had a chance was the £18 Heathrow Express from Paddington – and even then it was cutting it fine. The Tube was painfully slow, but somehow made the 11.50am train. Bearing in mind the flight was at 12.55am – and they usually start boarding half an hour before –  I knew it was cutting it fine even by my standards.

 

I ran through Terminal 5, and a check in agent sent my backpack through. I sprinted to the queues of people waiting to get through security, waited my turn, and that’s when panic mode kicked in. Lots of red flashing lights, and asked to see the airline. So I did – and my bags were being unloaded.

 

I went back to the check in man, and he was brilliant. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen on the Airline or Airport programmes, and sat at home muttering how they should have got to the airport earlier etc.. A couple of phonecalls from his desk, and he punched his fist in the air. I presume it was a celebration, and not a bad aim at my chin, as quickly I was being rushed through security and to the gate. I was actually there in plenty of time in the end – but I was probably the biggest, sweatiest mess of a passenger on the flight!

 

And so there we are, I’m writing this on the British Airways flight to Moscow, wondering what on earth I’ve let myself in for. The question ‘what have I done’ has floated around in my head a few times now  – leaving the Autumnal looking London and UK behind, I’m left wondering just what lies ahead before I hit the tarmac once again on home soill