Five days in Moscow
in Moscow, Russian Federation on 16th September, 2010


I woke up at 4am on Wednesday to catch a flight to Moscow via Helsinki. I was still suffering from jet lag from Canada but managed four hours sleep before getting up. Landing in Helsinki felt like I was back in a "big" city again. The prices of everything in the airport were unbelievable. I could barely afford anything there. It's no surprise the average income in Finland is €3,000+ a month. On the plus side, they had wireless phone chargers, free wifi and an internet cafe made up of modern iMacs.

I had planned to use my Estonian phone number in Russia so Pavel could contact me when he needed to but when I turned my phone on it asked for the pin to my sim. I couldn't remember what is was and after a few attempts the sim card locked itself. I thought to myself that I was going to be on my own and no "phone home for help" option would be available to me when I got to Russia.

The flight to Moscow was a quick 90 minutes. I met a Belarusian girl on the flight who had immigrated to Canada a 18 months ago. She was traveling from Vancouver back to Belarus via Seattle, New York, Helsinki and Moscow. I know a lot of people who don't visit that many places in a year, let alone in a single trip.

At passport control I was escorted through the diplomat queue and was stamped through faster then I normally get through in the UK. My bag turned up right away and there were clear signs pointing in the direction of the high speed trains to the city centre. It only cost me £6.50 to get all the way from outside north Moscow to south Moscow whereas in the UK you'd struggle and spend an age trying to do the same.

I had a bit of a time getting used to the Metro system in Moscow. If a station has two connecting lines, they station will have two station names, one for each line. This was a bit confusing but soon became clear. The trains are very quick and have more space then you'll find in London, even in rush hour. The only down side is that they might close the train doors and leave a station before people have even had the chance to get on. The doors also close quickly and violently, not something that you'd easily be able to hold open. I guess this is why trains were always two minutes apart on the dot.

I got to my hotel and no one there spoke English. They gave me stamped document slips to hand in each morning in exchange for breakfast. Pavel wouldn't arrive for another few hours. I wrote out a note to him telling him where my room was and handed it to the woman working there. It took me two minutes to explain to her that I wanted her to give the note to Pavel when he arrived.

Russia is a country where you need to speak Russian and read Cyrillic to accomplish anything useful. If you're speaking with a Russian, they'll translate words or make them understood anyway they can but then they'll continue the conversation in Russian thereafter. This is much the same as in England or the US but it's one of the first times I've had to deal with this in all the 28 countries I've visited. Russians didn't seem to mind me bulldozing my way over their grammar system so I was able to do a lot more on my fifth day of my trip then on my first.

Pavel landed a few hours after me but his bank card was eaten by a cash machine in the airport and he spent two hours trying to get it back. When he arrived I was so hungry I was ready to eat the curtains in my hotel room. We got some sushi for dinner at a nice restaurant down the road from us.

The next day we walked around the Kremlin. It was an amazing place. The police everywhere looked fierce as fuck and I couldn't get it out of my mind that, had things turned south during the cold war, this place would have been a radioactive hole in the ground.

I managed to get a Russian sim card for my phone while I was there. I was on my phone a lot and I only spent €5 during my whole time in Russia. When you get a phone in Russia, you need to prove where you live, show your passport and if you don't have a house then you need the official document from the government validating your visa and confirming which hotel you're staying in. Three days after I got my sim card Pavel went back to the same shop and got another sim, he didn't have any ID on him but they said they remembered him and just registered the sim card under my name. Nice security system, I'm sure the FSB will appreciate that one.

On one of my little adventures off on my own I came across a shop selling guns. I went inside and they had assault riffles on the shelf. I couldn't believe a shop like this existed not even a kilometre from the Kremlin. They had AK47s for £400. I took Pavel back there a few days later and he asked the guys about the weapons. Apparently they're converted or replicas and they don't shoot real bullets anymore, just pellets. I'm sure the spray of pellets from a modified Kalashnikov would still do some pretty serious damage.

Pavel and I made friends where ever we went. People in the street were approachable and helpful, Pavel had girls in shops giving their number to him and basically nothing I heard about Russia before I went was accurate. My impressions of Russia were moulded in 1993 with terrifying documentaries so everything I found there was a really pleasant surprise.

We had dinner one evening with two girls living in Moscow, Natasha and Anna, in a German-themed bar near Belaruskya station. It was really hidden away in a sea of soviet tower blocks and I doubt we'd have found it on our own. We ate and drank all night and the bill only came to £10 each.

One evening after a night out clubbing we caught a cab back to the hotel. The cab driver looked like he was from Afghanistan and barely spoke Russian. We agreed to 400 rubbles for the trip. I swear to god that was the closest I'll ever get to the feeling of being in a formula one car without actually being in one. There are no rules of the road being obeyed in Russia, we didn't dip below 120 KM/H at any point flying around the streets near the Kremlin. I couldn't make out who manufactured the car but it was on it's last legs and giving it everything it had. The seat belts were ropes without buckles. I'm sure the car would explode on impact so being belted in just result in burning to death instead of being ejected across the moon surface-like roads. We split the fare between us and I have to say, it's the best 200 rubbles I've ever spent.

I also visited the central museum for Russia's military excursions. It was incredibly detailed. They had exhibitions on every vertical of their defence systems from land troops to intelligence gathering and details on everything from world war two to the recent conflict in Georgia. They even had the U2 spy plane they shot down and loads of American missiles and kit they had managed to get their hands on. Behind the building they had MIG jets and enough kit two invade a good chunk of the new EU.

There was a point when I was walking down new Arbat looking at this massive boulevard of new shops and listening to music being played over loud speakers. It made the feeling of an exciting new shopping street. Surrounding these shops were towering 25-story blocks of flats. For a moment I imagined the street without these new shops on it and got a sense for what this street might have been like before the Soviet Union collapsed. I really can't believe that now I, as an adult, have had the chance to visit a place where my parents nor grandparents would not have had the opportunity when they were my age.

I didn't have enough insurance for my camera equipment so all the photos I'm posting are from our camera phones we took with us. Sorry for the poor quality.


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