I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Endorphin Russia

(This is a running heavy post; lots to skip if you want to get to the bits about alcohol and luxury travel. Look out for "THAT'S IT ABOUT RUNNING")

Obviously I woke up way before my alarm. I like that. When I'm in decent mental shape and generally enjoying life, I can get away without an alarm and setting one annoys me because it's a little bit of weakness. I like to trust my body to sleep the length of time it needs to and wake me up naturally, and I've previously went for 2+ years straight without setting one even when I was travelling, had early flights, work, parkrun, etc.

Stayed in bed 'til it went off though, playing Threes. Fuck me that's an enthralling and addictive game. I was up early because I was heading out to do my one and only solo venture during the trip: it's Saturday, so it's parkrun.

I found out a few weeks ago that not only was Parkrun Russia an actual thing that exists, but one of the runs was in a park near the metro station just one stop away from the one next to our hotel. And because the park in question is actually the one we'd visited on Friday afternoon - Kolomenskoe - I already had a pretty decent idea how to get there, though the run itself goes along the river bank and we'd not made it down to the water.

Unfortunately I'd packed my only pair of shorts with no pocket, and hadn't brought my armband thing. Somehow I needed to head there with my tube ticket, phone, barcode, hotel key and, in theory, passport - I think I read somewhere that foreign types (or maybe everyone?) are meant to have photo ID on them at all times. After briefly testing out the preposterous idea of literally keeping my passport under my beanie, I decided I'd play super-ignorant on the last count if challenged and left it in the room. Everything else I shoved in my wallet which I wrapped in the hat. Took a screenshot of the directions from the Metro and set out, wearing my parkrun 50 shirt and feeling pretty intreipd and intimidated.

Kolomenskoe is, park aside, a residential suburb so I had to make my way past the buskers, beggars, tramps, and short headscarfed women carrying huge bags. All of life evident at 0840. As I got to the park's entrance another runner was entering and I assumed he must have been going to parkrun, so followed him. Good choice. The weather was perfect - sunny, no breeze, fairly cold. About 15 people or so were hanging around and I loitered some distance away, watching everyone assiduously go through warm ups and stretches.

With about 5 minutes to go a guy came up to speak to me, asked where I was from, etc. Viktor, nice bloke. Another lad also briefly spoke. Both wished me good luck. Then things started happening. There were about 60 or so people, I thought (and the results page says 59). Firstly a proper warmup session was being led by a girl, getting us to do lots of shoulder rotations and waving our arms and jumping 'n that. Then we all had to line up single file facing the river while, er, some stuff got said and lots of photos were taken. Then we had to form a crowd for yet more photos, then change direction and we're off!

The route is a perfectly flat - apart from one tiny bridge over a stream - 2.5km out, 2.5km back along the riverside path. And it is perfect. The views are spectacular, the weather spot on, the path very wide, the touristy cathedrals and stuff are on the way, and you can pretty much see the turning point / finish the whole way, as the route hugs a large bend in the river.

I wasn't expecting much, nor wanting much. I just wanted to do my 97th parkrun, and yeah, thought it was quite cool to do a parkrun in my 3rd country - 3rd country in just 8 weeks, as it happens, after Australia in March and all the Bushys since. The 1.5km I'd run to get to the start was, I thought, surprisingly fast at 5:35/km, despite how knackered I felt after 4 hard days of tourism and drinking. Midway through the first km I looked my watch and it said I was running at 5:01/km pace, which would be a ridiculous personal best if I kept it up, but I didn't think much of it because I have a history of setting off way too fast.

My best ever parkrun is 26:34, just under 5:19 pace. And my best ever 5km is in the same region, though "moving time" was 26:08 but I don't think I can claim that. At about 1.8km in Kolomenskoe I was still at around 5:12 or 26:00 for 5km. After the turn it dropped, and kept dropping - but only by one second at a time, and in fact I was still at PB pace come 3.75km. And 4km. Dropped to 5:17. Gave a push, got it down to 5:16 again. Kept staring at my watch and it registered 5km covered in 26:20, holy fucking shit! And the full run came in at 26:42, pretty much confirmed by the official result from parkrun HQ giving me 26:44. So not a PB, and given the course it's far far more likely that the GPS was just wonky than I actually ran an extra 70 metres by not taking the racing line, but details details: that's comfortably my fastest 5k for 2.5 years, only the second time I've ever had an age grade of over 50%, and I did it in the best setting I'd ever done a parkrun. Plus I'm only 3 shy of the ton.

Not a bad morning, that. Got my barcode scanned, spoke to Viktor again - who also had done a personal best, and who caught up to run with me a bit as I headed back to the Metro too - and made my way back to the hotel utterly fucking full of endorphins.

Fucks sake. The new flickr app is being absolutely shit at uploading photos.

Anyway. Gave Ian a knock and then did a bit of facebookery, retroactively marking my attendance at the Kolomenskoe parkrun event and posting a photo 'n that. Posted a message on their page to say thanks, hoping that what Google Translate had given me would actually make sense. I think it did. I got a friend request from Viktor, a shitload of likes, and later in the day a whole fuckton of photos got posted by the Kolomenskoe guys to Facebook and I was already tagged in some of them. Neat!


Packed, filled out my remaining mini-bar thing, and we checked out. I don't think I got charged for internet even though on at least one of the days I'd picked the non-free faster version. I'll miss having to login via a site where you have to click on the Russian flag / Cyrillic word 'русский' in order to get the English version of the page. Left our bags in their baggage room and headed out once again to Red Square.

It was the nicest, hottest day yet. And there were bloody loads of tourists. Because it didn't seem to be cordoned off we started to wander up towards St Basil's to get some good weather close-up pics but en route it seemed that Lenin's Tomb was not doing a roaring trade, so maybe we should try and tick that one off quickly? The queue looked small but we had to skirt round the back of the huge museum to get there, and once we did we saw... another, bigger, slower queue. And the Tomb was shutting in 40 minutes anyway. Scrapped the idea and walked back to GUM, the huge shopping mall, via the lookalike photo opportunities.

Masha had told us that history will judge Stalin neutrally, 'cos he did some bad things, some good. I appreciate I know very little detail about his reign but, well, that's not exactly how my western perspective of him is. So it was a bit of a surprise to see a Joe Stalin lookalike being a popular attraction. I can't imagine anyone donning a Hitler get up in Berlin or Mussolini in Rome. Or do they?

The main reason we were back in the city centre was GUM. We had rubles to spend and each wanted to get some Russian sweets and drinks to take home with us. After another epic wander through the store we both bought some Kremlin vodka - I did briefly consider buying some of the seemingly bizarre "Jews are awesome" vodka - and a bunch of chocolates and sweets.

Back to the hotel via a food kiosk for Ian, got our bags, and made our way to the airport. Pavletsky station was well signposted and we grabbed seats on the crazily hot - even with aircon - airport express train. 45 minutes passed without much conversation really, I was flagging and already in "just get to the plane" mode, plus horribly antisocially addicted to playing Threes some more.

I barely remember passing through Domodedovo on the way in 'cos I was so fucked up on champagne. I'm not proud, but now I think it might have been a sensible move because having been sober as a judge on the way back I can say that I fucking hated the place.

Check-in was easy enough, straight up to the first class desk. But they said Ian had to take his bag to the oversize baggage desk because it's a rucksack with straps. What? At that desk he had to hand over his boarding pass then wait for a lift to come, and place the bag in the lift. And then leave the lift. What? Very bizarre.

Next, we tried to find how to actually get airside. We were departing from gate 13 and there were two "areas" which said they led to gates 1-22, but the monitors over "area B" didn't mention our flight. So we went to "area A", where the monitors did. First was outbound customs, with green and red channels, then passport control then security. At passport control we were expertly hindered by a woman walking slower than anyone I've ever seen before, and we twice joined the wrong queue until spotting the sign which said "this queue for foreigners".

At the desks, everyone was taking fucking ages to get through. I couldn't catch what the officials were saying to the passengers so waited to hear it first hand, which I never did because when I got to the desk she just found my visa, stamped it, kept the departure card, and waved me through. Huh.

At security we thankfully didn't have to remove shoes, which is good because I was sockless and my feet are pretty horrible things. There were loads and loads of trays specially for shoes though. Electronics didn't have to come out of bags so we just queued up, shoved everything in trays, and got thoroughly confused by the guy between Ian and me who wanted to take his metal rollaboard suitcase through the x-ray machine. How can anyone be so fucking oblivious to what every single other person is doing, even if you've never travelled or been to an airport before? EVERYONE is putting their bags on the machines, their metal stuff and coats in trays, and collecting the other side. Utterly bizarre.

Went straight in the nearest duty free shop and bought another bottle of vodka, and Ian checked a few shops for some very specific gifts which nowhere had. By now it's about 90 minutes 'til the flight and I'm in the mood for the lounge. BA's lounge at DME is called the Navigator Club lounge. It seemed to be the only lounge which wasn't signposted anywhere. We walked the length of the terminal and descended, as it happens next to the gate we'd fly from. The whole place was fucking heaving and people demonstrated the same ignorance and lack of spatial awareness as they do in crowded places the world over. I was getting really quite fucking grumpy, almost certainly because I was starving: I'd had zero calories so far despite having been awake for 9 hours, and expended loads. My blood sugar was probably really low, and I was on a fucking short fuse.

Eventually we saw signs to the BA lounge, which was at the opposite end of the terminal and back up the escalator. It's not a very impressive lounge, and did not really have the benefit of being a calm place away from the horrors of regular departure areas - not because it was crowded, but because the entire place seemed to be operating as a creche for 5 or 6 kids to run around and make loads of noise. Jesus christ. I nabbed a slice of cake and a can of lager, and then a plate full of cold food, and then a plate full of hot food. My mood started to improve almost immediately.

The BA app said our flight was delayed by 10 minutes, but before I'd even finished my sole can of beer boarding was announced. The gate was pretty slow going, not least because one couple seemed to be trying to get on the wrong flight and didn't understand that fact. But, down the airbridge we went and escorted to our seats in the nose of a 747.

When I'd managed to grab us seat 1A and 1K a couple of days previously the seat map made it look like there was no-one else in First. And so it turned out. We had the whole cabin (of only 14 seats) to ourselves, which also meant the entire staff for only us. Ace. He was a nice bloke who treated us very well indeed. There's kinda two ways the pointy end staff can treat customers: either some full-on "you are in First, and everything is posh here" formality or a more personalised "I'm going to give you the full First service, but interact with you in the way suits you". This guy was definitely the latter. Chatty, laughing, but no kowtowing or sense of ceremony.

Caviar and vodka? Oh, go on then.
So, two glasses of champagne before take off, a new washbag and pyjama set, and a safety demonstration during which I said "I'm pretty sure we can figure out the nearest exit when we're in row one". Take off itself was a bit mental - looking out the window there were planes everywhere, at random angles, seemingly no taxi ways or anything like that. Even some pedestrians, wtf. We thought one turning plane might actually graze our nose. I've never seen so many planes just littering an airfield.

Once in the air, chatted with our cabin guy a bit about how we wished it was a longer flight. The fizzy drink kept flowing and the meal service started: Belgian oscietra caviar washed down with a Russian vodka, then some duck to start followed by a main of seared scallops and for dessert, a big cheese plate. And a large bourbon.

I watched the last 20 minutes of Wolf of Wall Street, which was disappointing, and then two episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm which I laughed very hard at. We'd actually taken off early and had a short flight time so there wasn't time to see masses of stuff. I just about managed to fit in "David Blaine - Real Or Magic", a show where he does all kinds of tricks to celebrities and the tricks are amazing. I'm a sucker for magic anyway and Blaine's tricks are out of this world. He does this one on Harrison Ford, in his Kitchen. Indy says very little throughout the trick, just nods of the head, and at the big reveal he looks shocked as anything then turns to Blaine and says "get the fuck out of my house". Fantastic. I properly loved that show.

"One for the road"? Well, don't mind if I do. Do like champagne. Do like flying.

There's no chauffeur service with BA, so the luxury experience ended when we got off the plane. There's only a fast track at immigration for non-British passports, with natives like us just ushered to the electronic gates. Our bags came out fairly quickly and we made our way to the Piccadilly Line via a stop to get some queen's heads in exchange for our remaining roubles. Went to Hatton Cross and got off to get a bus, feeling a bit drunk, very knackered, and sad that it was over. Also a bit confused by how cosmopolitan everything seemed, but glad all the Rs and Ns were the right way round.

Moscow was awesome. And that's 27,030 miles flown in 2014 so far. Next up: 22,855 miles in 8 days (and another new passport stamp) in August. My first trip of my 40s.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Big Guns

Last night, there was a black guy in the hotel bar. First black person we'd seen since getting here. This is not a cosmopolitan city, and one of the possible effects of this would be depressingly apparent on Friday afternoon - though not as bad as the FCO advice that racial attacks are common in particular in the days around Hitler's birthday. April 20th. Hello, April 18th. Last full day in Moscow: like a good Skid Row song, it's time to bring out the big guns.

First, the Kremlin. We'd probably have gone yesterday but it's shut on Thursdays. We had no idea if Good Friday was a public holiday here, and the fact the tube was crazy busy was no real clue because IT'S ALWAYS CRAZY BUSY. There were a few more people around in tourist central though, and in fact a lot of people queuing for tickets. We joined the shortest one and moved forward very very slowly, watching some people struggle with the machines in various ways and all people struggle with their interaction with the staff manning the counters.

After about, I dunno, 20 minutes of inching forwards and witnessing lots of Russians wield passports and print outs, we were now only third in the queue. The westerners at the front had some kind of misunderstanding and stood mysteriously to the side, the girls in front of us bought tickets, and then a pincer movement of over 60s attacked us. A very kind pension age tour guide explained to us that, obviously. this queue was only for tour guides and people who'd bought tickets online. The signs obviously said so. But being a fairly unpopular and not very famous attraction like THE FUCKING KREMLIN there were understandably no signs in English, and the Cyrillic for "tour guides only" is particularly impenetrable. But honestly, she was kind, and said one of us should join another queue while she'd let us attempt to buy our ticket ahead of her anyway. She also asked me "aren't you cold?", because I was in short sleeves. Heh. "No, I don't feel the cold" "Then you are very well adjusted to our country!"

Autocorrect just tried three times to turn "cold" into ".cold". Sigh.

Finally I got tickets, for both the cathedrals and the armoury. The latter only has 4 tours a day, self guided with audio and 60-90 minutes long. The door calls them seances. We'd got tickets for the 1200 tour, aka 12am. Russia has trouble with midday it seems. It was about 1130 so we wandered up, through security, and after a bit of a wait, into a series of rooms worth more money than anything I have ever seen or ever will again.

The armoury is just ridiculous.

No photos, sadly. Not allowed. Look it up if you want to see details of the most elegant, opulent, artistic, incredibly crafted things on the planet. From royal carriages to faberge eggs with working train sets inside* to coronation gowns to tsar thrones to horse decoration to ceremonial muskets and staffs to gifts of silver and gold given by religious leaders and European royal families. Gobsmacking in their intricacy, quantity, ostentation, beauty, ... too hard to describe. We English were well represented with both the oldest and newest carriage plus some of the most impressive tableware, including two silver snow leopards. Wow.

(*this egg was actually not on display. bah)

In the armoury we came across the disdainful posh English family behind whom we'd queued for soviet scran on Thursday and, awkwardly for me (because I wanted to talk about them) they congregated next to us outside the exit too. We kept a distance as we wandered up to the entrance to the cathedral square and smirked a bit when they got turned back for not having the right tickets.

The kremlin is actually a kremlin. It's a citadel, a fortress, a walled city inside which all yer top boys live and lived. The standout thing for tourists is the square which has 4 cathedrals on it, each topped with loads of gold domes and the insides decorated with some astonishing religious art from floor to ceiling. Also lots of dead tsars. Again, no photos allowed inside, but the outdoors wasn't exactly non-picturesque. Upon leaving the Assumption(?) cathedral we saw one guy cross himself before entering. Really? On Good Friday? Is that really the time or place?

A girl asked me to take a couple of photos of her in front of one cathedral, and we spotted her 20 minutes later asking someone else to take an almost identical shot. Was I that bad? :-(

As had been apparent for some time, Russia doesn't really do small. So as well as these cathedrals, we also snapped the hoofing great cannon and giant fuck-off tsar bell. Trying to get a photo of one of us standing next to either involved a changing-of-the-guard style manoeuvre to figure out when it was acceptable to be The Next Person Being Pictured By The Piece Of Tourism. Some fabulous hindering by a family was expertly followed by an ill timed swig making the photo of me by the bell be amusingly poor.

You only really get to see about a quarter of the kremlin grounds, but that's ok because the rest looked pretty uninspiring anyway. We left via the bridge and the no entry sign that nonetheless led to exit gates, and bumped into Masha the tour guide. She seemed happy to see us and we conversed a bit about what we'd been up to and were about to do. It's a city of 12 million people and we ran into the ONE person we knew, in a spot she hadn't taken us when we were her customers. Her current punter stood back and said fuck all. She didn't apologise for being late on Wednesday, which seems a bit off.

We did have plans for what we were immediately about to do, but they were so untouristy and un-Russian we couldn't bring ourselves to be honest with her. Because our next port of call was an Irish pub and a pint of Guinness.

A seven bastard quid pint of Guinness at that. Silver's was a pretty respectably genuine pub and it was easy to get a seat and drink. On the wall were many many photos including two of Iron Maiden, one signed, and right next to us one of...some guys with big fuck off guns. Hang on. And the fellas at the bar, two of them were very Irish and having a loud talk about museums of the republican cause. And when joined by another English guy the causal racism of "oh, you mean the paki?" in their conversation jarred heavily. Do non-cosmopolitan cities attract expats who like that very facet? Sigh.

Felt a bit Moscowed out, and tired, probably because we'd not yet eaten and it was now gone 3pm. But here the weather gets warmer all the way up to 7pm and there was still the matter of Kolomenskoe to attend to. This is a park out in the sticks, 380 hectares of stuff including some palatial ruins, wooden houses, some more cathedrals, etc. Also it's next to the Moscow river, has a honey farm and a church of "St. John the beheaded" or some such. And a falconry, but we didn't see that. It's a nice walk and the whole place had more signs and guides in English than almost anywhere in the city centre.

Back to the hotel and a brief chill turned into an impromptu kip, but by 7pm I'd sorted meself out and we went down to the second floor. There was a rumour of a restaurant in our hotel - despite no ads in the lift (they were only for the pie-vending lobby bar) and the in room brochure only mentioning breakfast and lunch, we thought we'd see what it was. Went to the second floor, past the mysterious "floor -" between 2 and 3. Turns out the place exists and is open from 0700-0300 and has an 80s disco on Thursdays and other discos on Friday and Saturday. Well alright then!

A few people, a lot of tables, a lot of gaudy decoration including a bear with a hat. Too dark to get a photo. A waiter gave us an English menu and after taking a while to decide what to eat we both were told that our first choices weren't available. This also happened with our desserts later. They could save a bit on printing costs if they limited the menu to only the things they actually have.

That's a bit unfair tbh, especially as the food we did have was fantastic. Cheeses and spicy fish and rabbit and nom. I tried to order a second beer by saying "dva Tuborg", but the waiter didn't understand and sent over the one who speaks English. He took three attempts to understand too, even though we'd pointed at our glasses and signalled for two. A similar misunderstanding occurred when we asked for the menu to choose desserts, but worse was to come as that guy left and we were served by the lady who didn't understand English, my Russian, pointing at our glasses, or even seemingly our pointing at the drinks we wanted from the menu. It just about worked and we decided to not try for another.

Making the universal "bill, please" signal made a mockery of universality but saying "check, pay" worked. It was surprisingly cheap meal. By now it was gone 10pm, we were the only customers, no sign of any disco and the rolling not-news interspersed with ropey 80s music on VH1 was grating. Finished the night with mini bar raiding and chocolate while listening to Ian's fantastic cheesy rock spotify playlist. But I won by revealing to him the glory of Europe's Prisoners In Paradise, which you should all listen to/suffer immediately. And then, I wrote this. It's now 0115 and my alarm is set for 0745, even though I'm on holiday and we have nothing to do tomorrow except buy vodka and go to the airport for a late afternoon flight. In seats 1a and 1k. YES.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Stalin's coffee cup

The Budweiser (Budvar) in the hotel ain't bad y'know. I'm not sure how much it costs, but I kinda don't care. Me and Ian had a few before heading upstairs to continue our conversation about JavaScript vs Dart over some mini-bar bottles. During a brief break I managed to secure us seats 1a and 1k for our return flight in Saturday. Very happy about that.

I just typed - well, had autocorrected for me - "ahoy" instead of "happy".  Corrected it myself this time but I know for a fact that several errors appear in every post I make.The fault lies with me ultimately, both for using an ipad rather than a real keyboard and also making most posts at like 1am after 6+ drinks. So, y'know, sorry.

Anyway. Finished last night with them mini bar beers and a podcast or two while writing up yesterday, and then slept another night in this sauna of a room. Thursday's plan was to meet up around 1030 and do a bunch of the things Masha had suggested. We actually set off about 1100, fresh out into the glorious Russian sunshine. Totally different weather to yesterday's bleak grey windy rain, there were no clouds and I was in sleeves and shorts. Was a bit nippy though.

Being so sunny outside, we started the day by heading around Stalin's coffee mug stain, line 5 of the Moscow metro. Masha had suggested 3 stations to visit and they were all on the circular line, 4 then 3 then 2 stops from Pavletsky. Recollection said that the first one was a celebration of the friendship between Russia and Ukraine. Oh come on, really? Now? But let's see...

It's a piss take. Just unbelievably ornate. I can't be bothered trying to describe it, nor the other stations - just believe me (and see the photos when I put them on flickr) that the Moscow metro is as amazing as I mentioned yesterday. All 3 new stations were mind blowing. The tube never stops being crowded though.

Time to go topside and see if the weather was still holding - well, it was. So we did a bit of Groundhog Day, heading back to follow the exact same route Masha had walked us yesterday, taking sunny rather than grey rainy photos of the gorgeous architecture. Except only St Basil's from afar, because that end of red square was cordoned off. Was someone important going to the kremlin? We never found out. But we were amazed by how empty everywhere seems. Does everyone just travel the tube all day? I mean, it's nice, but...

It was lunchtime. We went back into the GUM to sit in the soviet canteen on the top floor, queuing up behind some frightfully posh English family discussing their plans for letting out one of their houses and how to avoid as much tax as they could. Later, the young lad in the suit gave each of us an independently disdainful look as we passed him while depositing our empties. Pfft. ("Depositing our empties" is not a euphemism)

We queued for a while and largely self-served 4 dishes - I had a layer cake, chicken cutlet with rice and mushroom sauce, beetroot salad, and a chicken and prunes thing. And a drink that was the thickest yoghurt drink ever. Grand stuff.

Since we couldn't go to St Basil's, we couldn't go to the river. So we though, ok, let's go to a different part of the river: our map from the hotel had an advert for a 2.5hr cruise which promised "the one and only Moscow and paradoxes typical for it". To get there we briefly thought about another metro ride but actually decided to walk.

So, first, back across red square and into Alexander's Garden. We were just in time for the changing of the guard, assuming prime position to watch the rather excellent stomping and head tilting at 3pm. Good hats too.

The route to the river allowed is to investigate another box-tick suggestion, Arbat, This is a long pedestrianised precinct a good 10 minute walk from the kremlin, largely comprising people in sandwich boards advertising fuck knows what, and a lot of painters ready to do caricatures and seemingly not one customer the whole length of the road. We also saw the first pub we'd come across, Harat's. It looked terrifying.

At the end there was an English language tourist sign to the ministry of foreign affairs. No idea why that would be worthy of mention to us westerners except HOLY SHIT LOOK AT THAT. Another enormous and preposterous piece of brutal and giant architecture.

The river was meant to be near. Some gung ho road crossing and a couple observing a remarkable dress code (apparently tights don't require a skirt) led us to the river, and look, boats! We walked up and saw a boat just leaving ... doh. But as if turned out, these were not the boats we were looking for. A couple more bridges up and there was the Ukraine Hotel (oh come on!)? a radisson of such extreme scale it was ... tiring. Seriously, Moscow does scale very very well.

The boat ticket office was there and we bought tickets, in first class, because of course we were going to go first class. The ticket women had said the only difference was being on the upper deck, and more privacy - only 8 tables. What they hadn't said is, oh, and you'll be very out of place and every other table will be a couple, a gorgeous woman and a man dripping with money. And half the men will manifestly be total wankers. Meh, whatever. We got beer, and after take off we went outside, donned the shades, and watched Moscow flow past.

Thee was actually no commentary at all. Totally not what the advert had led us to believe. But we were outside so who cares. The few clouds had disappeared and it was lovely. We saw various bits of tourism we had no idea about, then a bridge being climbed by bona fide local nut jobs with no regard for safety. Just walking up the structure, standing on the top, dangling over the side and we exchanged waves.

Before long we saw a space shuttle, the. Peter the Columbus the Great. Enormous. We'd been past Sparrow Hill, Gorky Park and the Kremlin and turned round within sight of...whatever that huge building was. The KGB? I'll look it up one day. After that we were sailing directly into the sun, so went back inside and got more beer. Professional photos were being taken of the couples, especially the women who were being encouraged to pose lots. Not for us, thanks. Not that they asked.

Eventually we got back to the Radisson. I had a tactical piss and wondered why a single person attempted the door 4 times, with gaps. IT'S OCCUPIED. Sheesh. Then a walk back along the river to that Ukrainian metro station, which had a French entrance. Huh?

Oh, yeah, the river. There are paths and there are parks and there is a lot of space and there aren't many people. Because they're all on the tube. Ian and I had actually had an argument and I totally lost, to facts, about population: Moscow has 12 million and I was convinced London had/has 18 million. It has nothing like that many. Fair enough. But that actually makes my other point more valid: where are the runners? There is NO BASTARD running around Moscow. No one. I mean, we saw about 5 individuals and then one group of people seemingly warming up, But fewer runners than you'd see in honestly any given 90 seconds next to the Thames between 0800 and 1800. Do Russians not run? What gives?

Back on the metro, 4 stations anti clockwise. For the non-Cyrillic readers there are numerous ways to get around: repeat (not applicable), counting (works), checking the platform signs which show the changeover points that give you a directional clue (worked), or my favourite of all: listen to the train announcements. On the Moscow Metro, the announcements are male in one direction and female in another. I love that.

Tomorrow we're going inside the kremlin, and the the most important part of any foreign trip: seeking out Guinness. Somebody give me a hell yeah.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

East Feast

Ouch. My head hurt a bit. Nothing too bad, but the sauna conditions hadn't helped. I swigged water like a bastard and kinda felt ok, but it was damn early, 7am or so. We had fuck all planned til 1130 and I wasn't in the mood to grab breakfast, so just stayed in bed listening to the Steve Austin and Doug Stanhope podcasts while playing Threes. Eventually I figured a shower etc might be wise, and then we went down to reception.

Moscow Private Tours come very highly recommended. Not personally, but tripadvisor looked very very good. The worst review was one which had a personal response from the management saying yeah, but, you arrived on a different day to the one you told us... Dude, just delete your shitty review, you tool.

Anyway, expectations were high. We'd been downstairs early so went for a very brief wander to the junction just up from the hotel where in the dark last night we'd spotted some kind of tourism potentially worthy of a photo. Turns out it's a WW2 monument and, yeah, not bad. Weather was pretty bleak and grim though. Headed back to the hotel at 1125 to wait for our guide, turning up at 1130.

No sign at 1130. Still no sign at 1145. Hang on. This sucks. That girl over there, she's not our guide is she? Ian had a word, which clearly wasn't understood. No, that's not her. I texted our guide saying hey, me and my friend are waiting, ... and left it five minutes. After that, and no response, I called and got "BOODOOBEEP, lots of Russian, BOODEEBEEP, the subscriber you are calling is unavailable". Oh. Called the Moscow Private Tours office and got no response. Oh. Emailed them and, er, just sat around in the hotel. WTF?

I called the guide's mobile again, and that time got "failed call" immediately. I emailed the agency saying, hang on - no guide, no phone contact - and sat back down, fidgeting, Hoping for third time lucky I tried to call the guide once more and an out of breath, extraordinarily apologetic lady answered, sounding mortified at her own timekeeping. She was going to arrive in 40 minutes. So went back to our respective rooms to play Threes. The agency called me to say shit, so sorry, was I sorted yet and don't worry, there'd be a partial refund and internal investigation. I mean, seriously, it's fine! We've been delayed by 70 minutes on a 4 day trip. She's on her way, no big deal. But thanks for chasing up.

Went back down to reception half hour later and she arrived almost immediately, again apologising for being late. It meant we had no chance of visiting Lenin's mausoleum, but honestly that's no problem. And so we set off, firstly having metro tickets bought for us before being shown a few stations.

I can't imagine a city where "visiting tube stations" is an actual thing you want to do. No one is ever going to say "hey, you MUST see Colliers Wood!", but Moscow is different. The stations are vast, high ceiling caverns of architectural beauty. Each is different, with statues and mosaics and murals and arches and paintings and holy shit. She took us to 3 different stations and explained a few things to us - the poet one was modelled around, the brass statues that people rub for luck (they really do - not just tourist schlock, we saw regular folk rubbing the brass appendages several times), the way the circular metro line came into existence as a result of a Stalin coffee cup staining an existing map and being interpreted as instruction. Even if that's not true, it's a great tale.

Apparently 6 million people ride the Moscow subway every day. I'm not surprised. There are trains on every line every 90 seconds or so, and they are all crowded. It's a real experience and I love riding it.

Eventually we had to go topside. The weather was shitty but hey, we're English, it's fine. Ian had actually got the "aren't you cold?" treatment as soon as we kicked the tour off. Once on the street we were opposite the big theatre, otherwise known as the Bolshoi. That means big, and next door is "the small theatre". Good naming scheme, Russia.

We saw the hotel metropol. what used to be one of the only hotels where foreigners were allowed. A whole lot of today involved being told about how life was, for locals and visitors, in the soviet era. Those crazy days. Thank goodness for the stable, well meaning, accurately representative democracy of modern times.

The Duma came next. It's the Russian parliament, and an object lesson in perspective. Sometimes, things are big, and sometimes, things are near. The Duma was big and near. From a distance it looked like a fantastically grey and brutal Soviet square-edged building, coloured only by a gold motif above the door. From up close you realise the floors are huge, the windows are huge, the everything is huge. Overly so. I loved how overbearing it was.

We saw a museum or two, some colourful architecture and a gate built in 1997 that looks a lot older. A statue of a military genius, the zero kilometre point of Moscow (ie, from which all road signs are measured, a la Charing Cross) and then, oh, hello! Red Square! I've heard of you.

It's not red and it's not square. Turns out the word for red is also the word for beautiful, and not only that but "red square" is the location's 4th name since it first became A Place People Reference. I forget the other names - the first was "fire square"?

Apology time. I failed to take a pad and paper with me today, so all this post is coming straight from two things: memory, and the rapidly written "what just happened?" notes I scribbled when we got back to the hotel earlier. So I may be full of shit, and I may start getting terse as the later parts of the day had to battle for attention amongst my memory cells.

Anyway! At the far end of red square is St Basil's cathedral, in which we spent 35 minutes in taking photos of excellent apostolic art inside a very beautiful Gaudi-esque building. Proper tourism. bitches. We were met outside again and taken for souvenir shopping - my nieces will LOVE me - and then food and drink, a good job since we'd eaten nothing all day and it was 1530.

The guide price included an optional extra for food, so we didn't have to pay. Perhaps being a master of intuition, she took us to a pie shop and bought us two pies each. Cabbage and potato-mushroom were my choice, as we ate over a green tea while discussing what London is like. Ian was asked what he did: "I work for the BBC" "Oh, so you like small children?" came the deadpan answer. Ha!

After food came GUM, the enormous shopping mall that's been there since 1893 when it was "just" a traders hall. Unlike the "look how modern we are!" malls of Asia, this one still shows off soviet stuff, for people like us to lap up. On the top floor in the soviet kitchen we bought drinks, then we walked through the longest mall supermarket ever, being shown where to buy chocolates, cakes, fish, caviar, vodka, and soviet soda stream. I had pear flavour, which tasted nothing like pear. Or was it cherry that tasted nothing like cherry? It was X that tasted nothing like X, but my god it was sweet.

The weather was still shit and we had a decision to make: an unimpressive walk, three more metro stations, or a walk through the park next to the Kremlin to a restaurant. More food? Oh, ok then.

The park was pretty cool, showing us the eternal flame and some soldiers standing in boxes next to some commemorative plaques mentioning cities from huge battles in previous wars (Napoleonic, WW1, WW2). I got a bunch of Cyrillic script correct as I identified the words for Minsk, Kiev, Murmansk, and a few others. Chuffed.

The restaurant. Greeted by a guy in some kind of awesome native <somewhere> garb, we were seated and hey presto: here comes an order of many many native foods and four different vodkas, plus some non-alcoholic beer. It's all amazing. The pepper vodka is wonderful, like a herbal schnapps mixed with a bloodshot from garlic and shots. The pickles and borst were great but the dumplings were DIVINE. Holy shit, so so nice! Originally a Siberian dish, so Russian Far East and very similar to gyoza. Christ, as I type I want more. Right now. NOW.

Our guide was great. All day she'd told us all kinds of history, legends, information. She was friendly, happy, smiley, forthcoming and indulgent. And at the restaurant she bought us a bonus course to apologise for being late, which made me feel awkward. She also said she doesn't normally drink vodka but the weather made it appropriate to have one. She had two. Heh.

The Ukraine got mentioned a lot. Hmm. I'm sure it wasn't deliberate, but... yes, you gave them the Crimea as a gift. Yes, you have a metro station devoted to your friendship with them. But look, we're awkward westerners who know that some shit is going down right now. Don't make me feel on the spot!

After the food, we were escorted back to our hotel via rush hour tubes. At reception she gave us a gift of a Moscow Private Tours fridge magnet and a block of chocolate, to apologise again for her lateness. That, the extra course, and actually we'd had a 90 minute longer tour than booked, ... wow. This is an object lesson in customer service. And to top it off she tried VERY hard to refuse our tip. I'm not joking: Moscow Private Tours are great. Sometimes the sign of how good someone is is how they operate when things go wrong, and today was just ridiculously good. She thanked us for being great customers while we were, like, seriously, thank YOU: the tour was amazing and who cares about an hour delay?

Whew. That's a lot of stuff. Oh, and did I mention she also noted for us on our maps what other metro stations we should go to, how to get tickets to the kremlin, the armoury, the mausoleum, how to visit Arbat, Kolomenskoye, and the Peter the Great statue? Looking forward to the latter: apparently the statue is of Columbus, and was offered to Spain and some South American countries but no one wanted it. But the sculptor was mates with the Moscow mayor who said, well, just change the head and I'll take it. Best of all, Peter didn't even like Moscow (lots of family deaths) which is why he moved the capital to St Petersburg. Fantastic stuff.

Right. Pretend I'm ending this with some vaguely deprecating remark about what the next entry will contain, at least to start with. You have to pretend, because I've no idea myself.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Champagne Communism

Oh, FUCK YOU, Pages on iOS. It's all very well that you have an undo button, but where is redo? Eh? Cunts, I'd written plenty and now it's all gone. And as for turning "written" into "siren", you what?

Er. Anyway. I'm typing this on the Aero express train from Moscow DME / Domodedovo to ... wherever it finishes, somewhere in the city. Apparently, there I have to change onto the green metro line in some direction or other to get to my hotel. I'm expecting lots of Cyrillic, which I've tried (vaguely) to learn recently, and found very hard. I'm very drunk. It's 1700 local time, 1400 back in the UK, I've been up since 0430 and have had 9 glasses of champagne and a large vodka in the last few hours. Oh, hello, this must be a holiday....

I play Ian at snooker once a month. Have done for going on 18 months now. We've known each other since 2007 or so and he's long been complimentary about my luxury travel blog posts. As with most people, I've tried to get him to sign up for sundry credit cards over the years - to help him play the game, but also to help me play the game very very hard - to no avail. But a few months ago, over the baize and a few black drinks, I mentioned that there was an expiring 2-for-1 voucher in my BA wallet and, fuck it, fancy a trip to Moscow? Because, right, Moscow counts as "Europe" and is therefore "cheap" to get to, but also uses long haul aircraft - a 747 with proper business and first class. I'd knock off a passport stamp and he'd get to see what all the fuss is about without the commitment of a long haul jaunt and the associated expense. Originally I booked us business out, first back, but in the end upgraded us to first class both ways. Best to travel in style eh?

As it goes there are three services to Moscow each day but only one with the posh seats, which meant we were on the 0855 from Heathrow. For people who don't like to hang around in airports, this means you can turn up at 0820 and hey presto. For those of us who want to make the most of the experience, this meant turning up at 6am. Ian had to get a cab round from the opposite corner of London, while I chose to use public transport and get 3 buses. Also I got up late. D'oh.

Fast forward! I'm in the hotel now. My room is baking hot and the air con doesn't seem to work. This is unpleasant, given how dehydrated/drunk I am. Is it a surprise I'm drunk? Let me rewind.

Yes, I got up late. Actually my alarm went off at 0430, I'd hoped to wake up beforehand but scuppered it by not going to bed 'till way past midnight. I'd been advised by computers to leave the house at 0450 to get to Heathrow T5 by 0600 but was a good 15 minutes later than that, though after 2 buses and one tube I still made it on time. I love London Transport. I even managed to stream a load of music from Amazon while on the tube with no signal. How did that work? Anyway, Ian's cab had deposited him early, which have him time to scope out the foreign exchange, and once I got there he forked out for commission free roubles before we went through fast track security.

Um, about "fast track". It's not right fast if they send you back to see BA staff, supposedly because going hand luggage only is weird for a trip to Russia. It's also not right fast if the bag scanner breaks down and you end up scrunched into the next door queue. Plus, we went through the wrong security. Not that they didn't let us in, but it was some distance from the north gates next to which is the Concorde Room.

Hello, Concorde Room!

You're only allowed in this place if you have a super posh card you get given rather than earn, or you're actually flying in first class. Which we were. So we got seated and had a full English, with decent bacon but awful hash browns. Polished it off in under 15 minutes and went to the bar, where we started on the champers. Last time I was I'm the Concorde room, my one and only previous visit in January 2009, Ewan Macgregor was here. This time it was empty enough that I was one of the two most important people there. Had 2 glasses before heading to the spa for my massage.

I call it a massage, they call it a massage, but having asked for "firm" pressure I can safely say it was a beating. My back took an absolute pummelling, but my god I felt great after. Ian's started just after I left, so I waited for him at the bar. Oh, hello, more champagne. Another couple of glasses, the barman tried to keep us there when I asked him how long a walk our gate was.  But we left, got the monorail thing and arrived at the gate after almost everyone else was onboard.

Ah, first class. My god. Somehow this had only cost £110 and 40k miles. In the nose of a jumbo, at 0830 but once you're airside all bets are off. I'd love a champagne, thanks. The cabin service manager came to introduce himself and the bubbles kept flowing. A bowl of nuts and some compliments about my headphones, because they'd been effective enough at cancelling noise that I totally didn't notice the crew attending me. Close, almost missed a glass. It kept coming, throughout the 3.5hr flight. I tried to watch the whole of Wolf of Wall Street, but couldn't quite get through it as the entertainment system was busted enough to require two reboots, which took half hour or so to complete. Not that I was that bothered; Threes is an apt distraction. I got over 30k the other day y'know.

BA's first class is decent. It's not spectacular. I mean, don't get me wrong, fucking hell it's an amazing way to fly, Jesus. But it's not Qantas. Perhaps that's because I knew I wasn't going to be there for 20-odd hours, but it's also true that the seat isn't as wide and nothing like as private, the cabin overall isn't as roomy, and the entertainment system less polished. I love the nose of a 747 though, probably more than any part of the A380.  What BA does have though is a dial to adjust the seat, rather than a bunch of buttons or presets on a touch screen. The dial is great. I was surprised to discover as we approached landing that I'd managed to put my seat too upright, and had to be readjusted for safety.

By the time I got off I believe I was 9 champagnes and 1 large vodka in, plus the nuts, two breakfasts, an amuse bouche, two danishes, and some salmon and caviar. Fuck you, diet chef. I was thoroughly bollocksed, at half midday UK time, 1530 local. Oh dear. 7 hours later I would learn that also on the plane I took custodianship of a few thousand roubles, as Ian implored me to explore my pockets and hey presto, there they were. I honestly have no recollection of him giving me those. Slightly frightening.

Moscow Domodedovo was a pretty easy airport to arrive at. I think. I only really remember breezing through easily, but not in a hurry, and we had no bags to collect. Hand baggage only, bitches. The aero express train tickets were simple enough to buy, and before we knew it we were speeding through bleak suburbs to the soviet heart, and I was starting this here post. Towards the end of the journey they made an announcement about "small children or any other personal items". Huh.

At the terminus, we knew to go get the green tube to our hotel. We got tube tickets fairly easily, after I went a bit gung ho and guessed which ones to buy. Unfortunately there was very little data, and it was rush hour, and there were no signs in Latin script and we didn't know the Cyrillic version of the tube stop for our hotel. Also, drunk. So we kinda just stood on the platform for a bit before getting a random train, 2 stops, and changing to go back one stop because some onboard Latin had helped us discover we were actually really close. Hurrah! The hotel was signposted from the platform and we found it easily, checked in, and found our saunas. A little break was required...

Euronews is no CNBC. Also I fell asleep for so long that Ian woke me up about 2030 with a knock on the door. My room is hot enough, his is ridiculous. We decided to have a brief wander around the local locale, largely in order to buy water. This was achieved with the help of a photo of a bottle of water and a loud "3 OF THESE". English isn't spoken in these parts.

I feel very foreign around here. And illiterate. In a country like India or China, I don't look local and the alphabets are so different it just washes over me. But in Europe, the locals don't know until I open my mouth that I'm not from round there, and I can at least make a good fist of pronouncing most of their words. But in a Cyrillic country, I am fucked. The words look like they ought to make sense, but, no, they don't. They're weird. Why are some of the Rs and Ns backwards? And why aren't they actually the equivalents of R and N? Grargh. Pactopah is restaurant? Really? Etc.

Anyway, we wandered around a bit, it was fairly cold but not threatening. Back to the hotel and the lobby bar, sadly missing the mounted bear head we'd been led to believe would be present by the hotel website. Sat and had 4 pints of Budvar in staggeringly solid and heavy glass mugs, and also some arbitrary pie, microwaved so badly that the centre was stone cold like Steve Austin. Which was appropriate, because Ian and I had a long drunken talk about wrestling and stuff. I reckon they'll split the belts soon. making Daniel Bryan defend both titles separately until he loses the heavyweight title at Summerslam. You heard this inaccurate prediction here first, people.

Good god, I am really quite drunk. It's now almost 1am on Wednesday morning, so 10pm back home. The TV keeps telling me that Ukraine is really quite a mess right now and my host nation has something to do with it. At 1130 (spoiler alert!) a lass from a tour company is meeting us in our hotel lobby, to take us around the city and show us some red coloured square or summat, maybe a church, I dunno. Also she is getting us some traditional Russian food and a vodka tasting session. Sounds awful. I think I'll not ask her about Pussy Riot.