“Dave, we need you to go to Moscow.”
I swallowed hard.
“Moscow? Can somebody else go?”
“Yes – A can go with you.”
“That’s not what I meant…”
It was with some trepidation that I decided to agree to visit Russia for the first time way back in the early 2000s. My judgement was coloured by images from spy films during Cold War Soviet Union.
I dug deep and agreed to go as my curiosity got the better of me. I wasn’t based in Moscow itself but in a town some 35km outside the city. It was summer and I imagined that it would be a cold oppressive place with miserable people.
I was wrong.
That first two week trip opened my eyes in many ways. First of all, the weather was glorious, with temperatures in the mid 30’s and wall to wall sunshine. While working in a small place wasn’t ideal, my work colleague, A, and I had the weekend off and asked if we could move to Moscow for the weekend to explore. The answer was a resounding “Yes”.
A was very excited because he was taking lessons in Russian and wanted to practice his new talent.
After work, on Friday night, one of our Russian colleagues gave us a lift into the centre of Moscow. We stayed in the Hotel Ukraina, a magnificent 5 star hotel, which is one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters, a 29 story 1000 room hotel.
When I stood outside, my jaw dropped in both shock and admiration. Here is the hotel:
Outside, there was a beer tent so after we had checked in, we opted to sit outside in the warm sunshine enjoying a beer. Previous visitors from work had recommended a Mexican restaurant to us, so we got changed and set off to try to find the place for our evening meal.
This was when I discovered that I had a problem. I could not read Cyrillic, and everything everywhere was written in that alphabet. If I had been on my own I would have been totally and utterly lost. Thankfully my colleague, A, was happy to do all of the reading and translation.
I followed him around the city like a lost sheep.
One of the first things that struck me was the Moscow Metro system. Some of the stations were and are magnificently ornate and spectacular. Don’t take my word for it – judge for yourself.
Later, we found the Mexican restaurant, which was more like a bar and music venue. Enjoying rock music, several beers, a fine Mexican meal and even a shot or two of tequila provided by a waitress wearing a bullet belt of shot glasses and a holster with bottles of tequila where the guns should be, we left slightly the worst for wear.
Alcohol had lowered my inhibitions enough for me to ask for water from a Russian street vendor in the native tongue, being careful to say voda (water) instead of vodka (vodka).
When we arrived back at the hotel, I arrived back at my room to find the phone ringing. Thinking it was Mrs PM, I picked it up and said “Hiya babe,”.
After all, who else would be ringing me at this time of night?
I was greeted with a very sexy Russian voice.
“Hello! Would you like a Russian woman for sex?”
Even in my inebriated state, I was suddenly terrified.
“No no no no no,” I yelled.
“N..n..n..no!” I said.
The next morning, A advised me to spend half an hour learning the Cyrillic alphabet. It proved to be one of the most important bits of advice I have ever received. It was like somebody had wiped condensation from my eyeballs. It was like somebody had opened a door and shown me the light.
I was suddenly able to read Moscow Metro station names and, more importantly, be able to understand them.
For the remainder of the weekend, I became a pure tourist and visited Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral and even the Kremlin itself, where I had a minor disagreement with a Kremlin guard about whether I should take my bag in or not.
Sadly that was my only trip in the summer.
My other two trips were in the middle of winter in temperatures of -20 to -25 degrees Celsius. The snow was piled high on the sides of the roads and it was so cold that the liquid snot running from my cold, blue nose was turning to ice.
Worse still, I was on my own without A or anybody else to help me.
Rather than being totally bored, I opted to catch a local train to the centre of Moscow and explore by myself. I was able to use Moscow Metro and find my way around the city and I even found the Mexican restaurant again, where I sat with Billy Nomates listening to music and enjoying Mexican food.
Mrs PM came out for the final weekend and I managed to persuade my boss to allow us to stay in the Hotel Ukraina again, this time in the middle of a dark cold winter.
As I checked in, I found myself standing next to a famous person; Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of Pulp. Instead of shaking his hand and having a quick chat, I found myself gawking at him like an absolute arse.
He was in Moscow as a DJ at a local night club.
Mrs PM was certainly impressed that I could find my way around the city. One of my Russian colleagues had arranged for Mrs PM to picked up from Sheremetyevo Airport and taken to the hotel by taxi. The taxi driver gave Mrs PM his number and told her that should we require his services, we should just call.
I was sceptical but Mrs PM overruled me. On her second day, the driver took us to a very posh and authentic Russian restaurant, complete with musical entertainment in the form of two very attractive young ladies playing harp and violin. The food was superb and relatively cheap for such a wonderful place.
Our taxi driver took us on an impromptu tour of the city before we retired for the night.
I have been to Moscow three times, twice in winter and once in summer. Contrary to my initial image of the city, I found it to be a wonderful place, full of friendly people, albeit some rather stern and bureaucratic law enforcement officers who stopped me in the street, demanding to see my passport.
I took a river cruise, saw a magnificent ice sculpture and saw the drunkest man I have ever seen, ordering half a bottle of vodka while staggering around with a bag full of bottles of beer.
Working there was a chore (working in most places is a chore to be fair) but strolling around the city in the summer, buying beer from a stand in the park, admiring the wonderful architecture, marvelling at the Metro stations and visiting the Kremlin is something that anybody should consider doing.
Just don’t be perturbed when a Russian prostitute asks for sex and make sure that you remember that water is voda and not vodka.
Here are some more photos ( I apologise for the quality – it was before I bought my first digital camera).