An Englishman in Moscow, Part Two

My first morning’s rise in Moscow was greeted by hot, sticky weather and a very welcome breakfast of bread, cured meat, cheese, orange juice and strong black coffee (the latter an essential).  Agreeing that a leisurely pace would best suit the conditions, we decided to go and explore Arbat.

Arbat as an area is named after two streets; New Arbat and Old Arbat; that diverge from a junction a mile or so west of the Kremlin, the main road becoming New Arbat while Old Arbat splits off to the left.  We approached New Arbat first and on initial sighting it might best be described, if I may, as the bastard offspring of an illicit liaison between the Las Vegas strip and a Brits-abroad package tour resort from the Mediterranean coast.  Las Vegas is where it takes its aspirations from: it’s a wide street with glitzy, neon-lit casinos along much of its length, matched by equally colourful display advertising and suitably expensive Bentleys and Lamborghinis on show.  The Costa del Lager feeling is conveyed by such things as the piped pop music playing from numerous speakers and the way in which street-dressed youths outnumber everybody else on the street by a significant margin.  That the shiny new veneer appears to have been applied very thinly to older, Soviet-grey underpinnings also colours the impression.  It is a fascinating place to see.  The government apparently has plans to move all Casinos to a centralised location that isn’t New Arbat Street.  If this occurs it will be interesting to see what changes there.

Spot The Difference: New Arbat and Old Arbat

Step away a block or so towards Old Arbat Street and you find yourself in a very different place.  It is a narrower street and it has been pedestrianised so it feels much more relaxed without the racing Moscow traffic to worry about.  This gives you time to enjoy the well preserved older buildings (I guestimate them to be nineteenth century) and pretend while looking at them that you could easily be in a similarly aged district of a French or Italian city.  Don’t close your eyes too tight while pretending though or you could easily trip over one of the numerous street stalls selling temporary tattoos, humorous T-shirts, allegedly genuine Soviet Army equipment, matroshkas large and expensive enough to mortgage and much else besides: tourism is alive and well in Old Arbat.  Peering round the odd corner reveals how small a time capsule it is though.  Far younger concrete cuboids crowd round closely and the near-gothic spires of buildings like the Ukraine Hotel are never too far from the horizon.  We found ourselves a shady terrace table and watched life walk by in its rich and infinite variety.

The walk home took us past a bar that was evidently a motorcyclists’ haunt and even though much of the metal parked outside was Goldwings is was good to see bikes again after so long without.  Our route also took us past the White House where the Russian parliament sits and – only a couple of hundred metres along the road – the American Embassy.  I found it wryly amusing that the two buildings should be in sight of each other and that while the Russian White House bore no visual resemblance to its namesake on Capitol Hill, the American Embassy looked very similar to a Borg cube from a Star Trek film.

Dinner was take-away pizza and an other personal first.  Ever tried pizza with little pickled onions on top?  I had not up to that point and would never have asked for it either but the combination works surprisingly well.

An Englishman in Moscow, Part One

Disembarkation at Paveletskaya had a familiar feeling about it: hordes of jostling, hurrying people charging down the sun-washed platform into the station where the crowd momentarily paused in the face of myriad gloomy portals identified by similarly colourless signs. Managing to avoid getting swept away by the tide I made for the nearest выход (exit) and kept my eyes peeled for Leyla and Nigar at every turn.

Stepping out through doorway number two I was presented with a less familiar sight: large amounts of space. Not what one might expect to find in the middle of a capital city. Admittedly much of that space was a building site that appeared to be the renovation of a large bus terminal but the fact remained that the far sides of that space were bordered by comparatively few but large buildings. There is a similar broad acreage as you step out of the main station in Amsterdam but the tall, slim, tightly packed buildings around it make you aware that you are in a compact city centre; from this viewpoint Moscow felt big and expansive. The feeling was compounded when it transpired that Leyla and Nigar had managed to walk straight past me in broad daylight while entering the station to meet me.

We headed for the Metro, first by crossing the aforementioned building site via a suitably long subway tunnel. As with some of the subways in Baku the route was lined with stalls selling all manner of goods. As with some of the subways in London, the sound of a far-from-talented busking duo could be heard as we approached our exit. We rounded the corner to see two young men in clean army camouflage fatigues, one of whom had no legs. The same two men were working the same pitch when we went back to the airport days later so I can only assume that they were bona fide war veterans in need of an income; a sobering thought.

The Moscow Metro system is a very grand creation and some of its older stations very ornate. At street level we were met by a high-ceilinged ticket hall and escalator lobby decorated with marble, mosaic and murals. Descending the remarkably long escalators took us down to a long hall with vaulted ceilings and columns; the platforms for the trains being just the other side of the columns. Aside from a digital display at each tunnel mouth showing time of day and elapsed time since the last train departed (they run very frequently most of the time), there was little sign of any changes having been made since the station was originally built way back when. Particularly there was barely an advertising poster to be seen anywhere: a definite contrast with the paper that now covers so much the London Tube’s once clean and simple design.

First stop for two newcomers to Moscow could only be Red Square and that is where we surfaced a few stops later. Stepping through the large arched gateway into the square from the northern side I was struck once again by the sheer size of the place. A good few hundred yards’ worth of cobblestones separated the GUM department store on the left from the Kremlin on the right and their walls seemed to stretch half a mile before reaching the unmistakable domes of Saint Basil’s straight ahead.

The beauty of Saint Basil’s

Having seen Saint Basil’s in numerous films and news reports over the years it was a real pleasure to view the building up close with my own eyes, especially after it has apparently had a thorough wash and brush-up. The colours of everything from the bushes and the brickwork to the magnificent domes were so vivid in the bright light of the afternoon sun, it was almost as if someone had replaced the cathedral with a life-size plastic replica that morning.

As we adjourned to the GUM to seek a café and lunch, I continued to be impressed. As a Londoner I can best try to describe GUM as follows: take the architecture and colour of a generous stretch of building from one side of Regent Street and cross it with the market house in Covent Garden. The result is a stately glass-roofed shopping arcade in pale stone with several ‘streets’ of shops across several floors and stairways and bridges peppered throughout. Everybody from Accessorize to Louis Vuitton has a concession there and Apple are in the process of preparing a huge amount of space for themselves in the middle of the ground floor. I imagine GUM must have looked very different during Soviet times but today it is unmistakably a sign of western consumer brands’ growing influence over the city.

Walking out and round to the other side of the Kremlin took us into the Alexander Park. Pathways wended their way through tended lawns and trees, bounded by the Kremlin on one side and white stone balustrades and several fountains on the other.  A small brass ensemble played lively renditions of jazz standards as people relaxed on the grass, fooled around in the fountains or took some refreshment in the shade of one of the large, open-sided beer tents that had been erected along the fountain side of the park. We repaired to one of the tents for a much-needed cold drink and I tried my first ‘glass’ (plastic) of Russian draught beer. A fine ‘glass’ it was too, especially when accompanied by a bar snack that I had never tried before but I am told is quite common in Moscow: dried and salted squid.

Alexander Park

The three of us chilled out and chatted and I learned more about the local past a present from my companions.  One detail that I found particularly noteworthy for my fellow Englishfolk concerned identity cards.  Last time I looked, the British government was edging ever closer to implementing a national identity card scheme and it has been fiercely contested by many people for years.  While I can sympathise with the anti-card protests in Britain I must also say that since moving abroad I have become used to carrying my passport everywhere in Paris and carrying a police registration card at all times in Baku.  Spare a thought for those who live in Russia though, where the identity ‘card’ is a fifteen page booklet that records all manner of personal details through your life until you are permitted to dispense with it at the age of forty-five.  While there is still room for discussion regarding the amount of personal information that is stored ‘behind the scenes’ in these situations, the consideration of carrying a single piece of plastic takes on a different dimension when compared with the Russians’ obligation.

Our laid-back conversation was most unexpectedly but pleasantly interrupted by the appearance of; believe it or not; a couple of friends from Baku.  Leyla was aware that a couple of people she knew were going to be somewhere in Moscow at the time of our visit but with the city being so vast we had not dared make any plans to seek them in the short time we had; yet here they were casually walking past us in a park after we had been in the city less than twenty-four hours.  Three became five and we celebrated the isn’t-it-a-small-world moment in animated tones before parting some hours later.

Next stop was Nigar’s apartment via ‘taxi’.  There are official cabs in Moscow but people also happily hail any car that is passing and bargain a price with its driver to get from A to B – it’s cheaper.  On the third or fourth attempt Nigar found a driver who was deemed suitable and off we went.  His route was apparently a little more scenic than necessary but as the price had been fixed before departure our only loss was a few minutes in traffic.

At the apartment I was introduced to Nigar’s husband, Dima, and two year-old son, Nikita (lovely fellows both) and after some time to rest and recuperate we all stepped out for dinner.  Our destination was the John Bull Pub: a place where the décor, the music and the menu are so British it is scary and they even serve Newcastle Brown Ale on draught.  Having not been in a British pub or anything even close to one for many months it was a strangely familiar-cum-Twilight-Zone feeling to be getting this close to the experience while sitting on a terrace in Moscow.  I ordered an other pint of Newkie Brown and continued to enjoy the good company, good food and good surroundings.

Lunchtime News Headlines

My apologies.  I am aware of the embarrassingly long pause since I last posted any news and I am striving to rectify the situation.  Here is a quick grovel and some headlines in the meantime:

Part Three of the trip to Russia was supposed to be reaching your screen today but was further delayed last night by a water leak, a landlord and a power cut.  ETA now a little uncertain but shoud be before Christmas.

Once Russia has been immortalised in print there will follow tales of such exploits as my first foray into the countryside (thrills, spills and dastardly deeds aplenty) and my first public DJ performance in Baku (strangely similar) plus highlights of this year’s Baku International Jazz Festival.

Work has been most challenging of late, some might even say provocative.  Some of our colleagues in a different office have been making some rather sweeping decisions and changes, apparently without the benefit of forethought or common sense.  They are in the process of tidying up the aftermath while my immediate colleagues and I are preparing to have some polite but firm words.

…and now for the weather.  Azerbaijan is very much in the throes of summer now with blue skies, bright sunshine and temperatures well into the thirties.  Sangachal is doing a particularly good impression of a fan oven today and the temperatures are being boosted by a hot, gale-force wind that is blowing up a huge cloud of dust as far as the eye can not see.  In contrast I am told that Britain is grey, damp and in some parts flooded at present.  Let’s hope things improve next week as I am planning to pay a visit.

Cleared for landing

When I woke up with that familiar feeling in my ears and stomach my inability to understand the announcement on the speaker did not hinder my realisation that we had started our descent into Domodedovo.  On looking out of the window my initial thought was “where is the city?”  Moscow had been described to me as being huge yet the vast majority of the land beneath us remained green and tree-covered as before.  As we descended we made a few turns during which I spotted what might be Moscow and what I assumed to be a minor airport hidden inside a forest.  Ten minutes later we had landed inside that very forest clearing and were taxiing to Domodedovo’s terminal buildings.

The sense of isolation was complete.  I can not recall ever having landed at a major city’s airport before and feeling so remote from the city itself.  The unfamiliarity was compounded by the intriguing view across the clearing as we taxied.  There were several hundred aircraft to be seen (some mothballed but the majority in service) and with the exception of a couple from Uzbekistan Airlines they all carried liveries of companies I had never heard of.  Nearly all were Ilyushin and Tupolev models as well: barely a Boeing or an Airbus to be seen apart from the one I was sitting in.  It’s an airport Jim but not as we know it…

The buildings of Domodedovo are either new or recently renovated and impart a cheery sense of open space and brightness in most areas.  Those Uzbekistan Airlines crews could take a lot of positive suggestions back to Tashkent Airport on the subject and I can only pray that Heathrow’s Terminal Five might approach similar standards when it opens.  Even the immigration hall managed to feel like a pleasant place which was just as well seeing as I did not feel entirely optimistic as I approached the counter.  Refusal of visa and subsequent deportation failed to occur thankfully: I was asked to show my ‘plane ticket (no doubt to prove that I would be leaving before my permitted seven days expired) and then waved on my way with what looked suspiciously like a smile (immigration staff of England please take note).  Welcome to Russia.

Land-side things got a bit more challenging.  I knew I needed to find a cash machine and I then needed to find the station for the Airport Express so that I could get into central Moscow (however far away that was from this seeming Elysian field).  The first machine I found said it was out of order (my Russian lessons were starting to pay off) and the second went through the motions before telling me that it could not complete my transaction.  Trained on English airports where cash machines are few and far between I got a bit anxious and proceeded to the nearest Bureau de Change (knowing full well that it was going to be a painful experience).  I traded in the few dollars I had brought with me and was duly horrified by the commission deducted from my transaction.  I then started the ten minute walk across what appeared to be the entire length of Domodedovo Airport towards the railway station and discovered that there was a cash machine pretty much every one hundred metres once you left that particular part of the arrivals hall.  Did I feel like a plonker?  Maybe just a little bit…

As part of my preparations for the trip I was given a piece of paper with some simple Russian phrases written on it that would insure purchase of the correct ticket for the Airport Express.  Typically I reached the station to find that I had put said piece of paper in such a safe place that not even I could find it (and it of course re-materialised in my bag just after I stepped back into my apartment on returning home).  Mustering my biggest smile and as much Russian as I could fake (starting with “do you speak English?” – answered predictably in the negative) I dived lemming-like into my first Russian language encounter on ‘home’ ground and after a few moments of mutual incomprehension managed to walk away with what seemed to be the right ticket.

The train I needed was still some time away so I had a while to stand around on the platform (not a single seat was provided curiously) and observe my surroundings.  The station was near the edge of the clearing and much of the view was trees.  Across the other side of the tracks from the platform was a grassy bank where a number of people had congregated to relax in the peace and shade during the hot, sunny weather.  Such a sight would simply never be seen at a London airport (or many other ‘major’ ones I would think) – had I really landed at one of the world’s biggest capital cities?  I had barely been in Russia thirty minutes but I was already becoming fascinated by the place.

When the train arrived, its square, plain-painted form looked somewhat dowdy compared to the bright young station that it was visiting.  Perhaps in an attempt to redress the balance its interior had been embellished with garish seat covers, rather kitsch-looking curtains at the windows and a collection of high-mounted televisions (all switched off) but nobody was fooled.  My fellow passengers from all walks of life included a woman with a small cat in a basket (a young boy soon latched onto her) and a woman I guessed to be a member of railway staff with a trolley-load of newspapers, magazines and books (for sale I assume), who came and sat next to me for the latter half of the journey while she scribbled notes on some paper, made a couple of ‘phone calls and then had a quick snooze.

The journey to the city centre was scheduled to take around forty-five minutes.  For the first half the route was bordered by endless trees, mostly birches and some conifers.  The occasional road could be seen nearby and we passed a few stations and shunting yards but otherwise the built environment remained conspicuously absent.  After twenty-five minutes we reached the intersection of two major-looking roads (perhaps one was an outer ring road) and a scattering of new-built tower blocks could be seen.  From here onwards the buildings became gradually more numerous and more densely packed until we arrived twenty minutes later at Paveltskaya Station, Moscow.


The compass points north…

With a long weekend approaching, a desire to flee the city limits and a wide range of destinations to choose from, what to do?  An exploratory thrust into the further regions of Azerbaijan was considered but swiftly dismissed as it appeared everybody else had already had the same idea: out-of-country it was then.

I have commented in the past on how central this place feels sometimes and the roving of the imagination when picking through possible travel destinations is one of those times.  Istanbul is easy, Milan, Vienna and Paris not too hard either, Kiev and Riga well worth considering and Dubai a doddle while Tehran and Tel Aviv are both within easy reach of the more politically adventurous traveller.  After much deliberation the final choice was a surprisingly simple one: Moscow.

My travelling companion was to be Leyla and we both had good reasons to head north: mine a strong curiosity to visit a city I had not been to but had heard and read so much about, hers also to pay a first visit but moreover to see a long-standing childhood friend, Nigar, who moved from Baku to Moscow several years ago.  Flights departed daily and took under three hours; we had no accommodation worries because Nigar and her family kindly invited us to stay with them – all very simple really.  Or so we thought…

Obtaining a Russian visa for a British passport is similar to persuading a second-hand car salesman to fix something under the ‘warranty’ he has just sold you: you get there in the end but only after committing a higher degree of effort and expenditure than originally expected.  Having become somewhat comfortable with the ease of travel afforded by a British passport in various parts of the word, it came as mild shock to discover the degree of bureaucracy and cost involved when crossing this particular border.  A souvenir of the Cold War perhaps?

The application for a straightforward Tourist Visa requires written confirmation of a hotel booking made through an approved travel agent and stamped accordingly.  As a hotel booking was not part of the itinerary I had to apply for a Private Visa.  This process obliges my host in Russia to send a letter to the Ministry of Interior who then provide a letter of approval that must be supplied to the office handling the visa application; a process that could apparently take several weeks – time that we did not have.

Fortunately after much casting about an agency was identified where I could pay the USD $315.00 fee for the visa plus an additional USD $50.00 for a ‘hotel reservation’ and the process would be completed within five working days.  The way in which they smilingly took all they apparently needed from me one evening and then announced at eleven the next morning that they needed the full fee in cash by half past twelve did little to please or inspire me.  The joy of finally receiving the visa was similarly diluted upon finding that its start date was one day later than my flight but as there was enough grey space for blame to be shared in that instance I gritted my teeth and solemnly moved the flight (with ten minutes to spare).

Saturday morning dawned bright and warm and I set forth for my 08:45 flight with a small sense of achievement having passed the paperwork test.  A further minor challenge I was not expecting came courtesy of Baku Airport Duty Free.  I am told that when visiting a Russian home it is customary to take a bottle of vodka along as a gift for your hosts.  My plans to furnish myself with said offering from the selection offered by the airport were immediately sunk when I approached the checkout and was told politely but firmly by the man that alcohol sales were banned; chocolate and cigarettes only.  Apparently it was something to do with a ruling from airport security and he added cheerily that it would probably only last a couple of days.  I was not about to wait and find out though.

This was my first flight on Azal and after hearing many good things about them I was looking forward to trying them.  They got off to a good start by bringing the departure forward by twenty minutes (the fact that barely two dozen of us were checked in to board a 757 probably helped) and while their choice of meal for breakfast was definitely more of a lunch/dinner menu (spicy salad, assorted pickles and some sort of beef ‘n’ greens fry-up with rice), they bettered Uzbekistan Airlines in the drinks department by offering wine and vodka with ‘breakfast’, even if it was at nine in the morning.  Thumbs-up for leg-room too.

After ‘breakfast’ with tea I needed little encouragement to drop off for a snooze having got up at five o’clock.  Occasional moments of wakefulness in my window seat were greeted by views of open green countryside, rivers and lakes and we headed north of the Caucasus range.  With those pleasant images in mind and my autopilot set to doze it was next stop Moscow.


Закрыто по техническим причинам

…also known as “closed for technical reasons” – a familiar message to be read on signs adorning numerous counters and doors around Russia, allegedly.  Sorry for the break in the news flow.  The technical reason was a simple one: I was not here to do any writing.  I decided to take advantage of the national holiday on Monday (Spring Bank Holiday in England coincided with Republic Day in Azerbaijan this year) and do a bit of travelling.  As it turned out the quick trip became a slightly longer one and almost a bit longer again at the last minute.  Having returned to Baku last night and made a brave attempt at catching up with work today I will try to sit down tonight and tell all – or as close to all as can be fitted into a Friday night anyway.  In the meantime, bon weekend à tous.