Arriving at lunchtime, officially further from home than I have ever been before, my first job was to take the metro two miles across town to my hostel. Once I finally found the station however, there were about two hundred people queueing for tickets and just two windows serving them. Add that to the fact that I still hadn't found a cashpoint to get money to pay for any tickets and I thought "Sod that", checked my map and set about walking it instead.
Fifty minutes later and pouring in sweat, I arrived at the hostel with no further checks of the map and one stop to ask a policeman directions. I had a shower, put on clean clothes and submitted almost all my other clothes to be washed. I must have been spending too long on the internet as well because one wide-eyed fellow guest asked me if I was a writer!
By evening I was ready to face the town. This was made considerably less daunting as I had arranged to meet up with an English girl I had met on the train. Making sense of the strange characters on all the road signs was an obstacle to overcome, but she confidently assured me that she had used her journey time to learn the "acryllic alphabet", so clearly nothing could go wrong.
A concerted effort to find a restaurant from the guidebook drew a big blank so we ambled and eventually went into a Ukrainian-themed place with lots of folksy decor and the waiters' outfits looking like a kind of regional equivalent of Ronald MacDonald. Still, the food was nice, they endured the language barrier politely enough and a woman on a nearby table was kind enough to come over and spend a few minutes translating for us.
Wednesday morning we headed to Red Square and The Kremlin (after it had taken me 40 minutes to find the meeting point). We headed into the latter and spent a couple of hours looking at the various churches etc on display but found it all slightly disappointing. Nothing nearly so grand or large as my preconceptions might have associated with the centre piece of the capital city of one of the biggest and oldest nations on Earth. Slightly bizarrely, it also had a couple of Samauri exhibitions which included little more than a dozen similar-looking swords without handles and half a dozen kimonos. It is still the seat of government so there was no shortage of soldiers, important people pulling up in black cars and even a series of men in dinner jackets leaving one of the buildings clutching large, orchestral instrument cases under their arms.
After lunch it was the sculpture park south of the river then back across for a photography museum that seemed to have moved since the guidebook was written (a common theme of the holiday so far - the price you pay for buying the books 5 years previous). After an art gallery we hunted around for the dubiously-titled 'Cafe Margarita'. To my surprise, it actually turned out to be very cool indeed. Filled, it seemed, by locals and with plenty of atmosphere. During the meal, the waitress came around and handed everyone a little plastic pot. I unscrewed the top and found some nuts inside, which seemed like a nice free extra. Luckily, I held off eating any right away and therefore making a bit of a fool of myself. It turned out that these were homemade maraccas for shaking when the live music started. The band consisted of two violinists and a girl on the piano. I'm no expert, but I'd say the technique involved, the lead girl in particular, was exceptional. These were no buskers who simply knew how to drag out a tune without going off-key. I think I left my sunglasses there and went back for them the next night but sadly "I left my sunglasses in your restaurant" was not in the small Russian phrases section of my guidebook. I think my mime got the message across, but it was still met with a firm shake of the head. Finally, it was 20-30 minutes searching around for a place showing the first semi-final of the football which was eventually located in an American bar.
The next morning, back at Red Square for St. Basil's Cathedral which was a step up on the previous day's churches and certainly very colourful albeit still not what you would call big. Afterwards I had to head out of town to find the offices of the travel agency to collect my onwards train tickets. Searching for the building was interesting but walking through it following rough signs for the correct office was like stepping into a mid-seventies Communist time warp. Indeed, we were trying to take pictures of the corridors, waiting for them to empty, quickly taking a snap then hurridly hiding the camera as steps started to come around the corner or a door would open.
By the end of the afternoon, Cathy had gone off to board the train to Mongolia with her friend who had just flown in, so for the first time I was alone in this big, strange city and I have to say it initially came as a bit of a shock. Two days in and I still wasn't comfortable with the place. It's very hard to know how to even describe Moscow and I get the feeling most Muscovites would struggle to tell you either. It's not even as simple as a city in transition either. I was expecting to see lots of dark, angry Communist-era buildings mixed in with the trappings of the tacky west. But the older buildings were all done out in whites and pastel colours which were very pleasant on the eye but perhaps a bit disappointing. The new bits in town generally felt very unwelcoming and not at all reassuring in the way I might have expected as, in theory, it would reflect something closer to the surroundings I live with in the UK. Throw in the fact that nobody working in shops or bars etc EVER smiles and the many wild dogs roaming the streets and it made for a curious cocktail.
That night I went to a small local bar I had passed a couple of times to watch Russia play their semi-final against Spain. Once I had finally bought my drink and found what appeared to be about the only half-decent standing spot available, a group of Russian lads invited me to join them on their sofa, which was great. Granted, my space was right behind a post obscuring some of the screen, but the wall on the left was one big mirror so I enjoyed unchallenged views of AISSUR and NIAPS throughout. One of the guys told me that his favourite English team was Tottenham, complete with an Ossie Ardiles "Tottingham" pronounciation. By the end it had all gone horribly wrong for them as they lost 3-0, so it was solemn handshakes as they trudged off into the night, one by one.
Friday morning I went to the State History Museum. English translations disappeared halfway around but they weren't very descriptive in the first place. Starting with prehistoric man it ran all the way up to 1917 when, oddly enough, the exhibition came to an end. Sitting outside, some (presumably drunk) guy who was part of a wedding party tried to photograph me. When I jumped up and walked off, he followed me still trying to get me with his camera. Then it was south of the river to the large Tretyiakov art gallery for a couple of hours.
Matt had arranged for me to meet up with a friend of his (Ben) who had just flown in for the weekend with his Russian wife (Lisa) for a Christening. They were great company for a couple of hours and she gave a more-than-spirited defence of Russian in general and Putin in particular in response to what she saw as a biased western-media. At the very beginning, Ben had whispered confidentially to me "Lisa's a bit of a patiot". Funny how the English seem to be the only people who don't regard that as an entirely good thing. At the end we were waiting a quarter of an hour for the bill to turn up and then another fifteen minutes later, still no one had taken our money so we could get our change and leave. Catching a waiter's eye wasn't getting us anywhere either. So, suddenly, they said "Let's just go then". I was a bit uncertain but they were the locals so I followed their lead. Off we went and divvied up the money as we walked to their metro station. Karma was to catch up with me before the end of the night...
I went to a big Georgian restaurant they had recommended which had live music which veered from traditional folk songs to modern naff dicso - often within the same song! Walking back afterwards a car pulled up and three big men in black jumped out. and started anxiously staking out the pavement. Seconds later a second car pulled up with three more men you wouldn't want to mess with before a short, balding, middle-aged back got out and walked into a non-descript building. Presumably either a high-ranking government official of a mafia boss. Or both. This reminded me of a guy at the hostel who said he was about to take a picture of the KGB building when a black 4x4 with darkened glass pulled up alongside him. He knew it was probably just a member of the public but bottled it anyway and just put away his camera.
Walking home along the river I met a French guy who was travelling home from a year working in Hong Kong. His train had arrived at 6pm and he was due out at 8am so was looking for bars and clubs for the night. I offered to show him Red Square on the way to a busier area. As we walked through the square, I noticed a pair of soldiers clock me speaking English and came towards us. They asked to see our documents. I knew I was obliged to carry around my passport, my Russian visa, my entry card and my hotel registration document. I also knew that the last of these was back at my hostel. Sure enough, this was a problem and were were taken around the corner to meet the boss. He explained that I was to be driven away to the police station where his boss would keep me for three hours and then fine me 5,000 roubles (100 pounds). I got the general feeling that this wasn't going to happen but hammed up my shock and regret to maximum levels. After a few minutes, the boss sent the other two away to think about it. A minute later they returned and it was explained to me that there had been a first decision but now there was a second decision. Although the whole situation was worrying, you couldn't help but enjoy the sheer pantomime of it all. Much as you would join in with "He's behind you" or "Oh, no he isn't", I gave it my best "Really? A second decision? What is it?" It was that they thought it would be best if I gave them 3,000 roubles informally and promised not to be a bad boy again. Would you Adam-'n'-Eve it? I was taken into the booth. I only had 2,000 but the boss was happy with this. We exchanged jolly smiles and handshakes and were allowed to go. I thought I saw another soldier about to approach us five minutes later but he stopped and walked back to his post. I thought, what am I supposed to say if he stops me also? "Don't worry, I've already paid the other guy"?
I smuggled the French guy into the hostel to use the internet so he could check his mail then headed off to bed. The next day was just about packing, buying snacks and heading to the station for my train. I'm glad I went and it was interesting to look around, but I have to say that Moscow itself wasn't a place I ever really warmed to. Whether that is informed by not having settled down this early into the trip or whether it is the other way around, I can only speculate.