Mother Russia

A near broken and heavily bruised nose from a drunken incident on the wedding reception dance floor, lack of sleep from waiting on the ground outside the hotel accommodation in the early hours of the morning after losing the hotel room key, and a delayed flight resulting in an additional 3 hour wait with a hangover. This isn’t the shape you want to be in when you are in Queenstown, New Zealand embarking on 2 days of flying to Moscow, on the other side of the planet.

The Queenstown Airport international departure lounge is filled passengers ready to fly to Sydney. After three and a half hours of delay, voices cheer and hands engage in applause when Jetstar Flight JQ 224 is finally announced for boarding. We ascend up the mobile staircase to the aircraft door. Legs are still aching from hiking the Tiki Trail and Queenstown Hill Summit. Regine and I complete the international arrival cards as the aircraft taxis its way to the runway. Regine has the window seat and the voice of a bloke from Wollongong sitting next to me on the aisle seat requests to borrow the pen to fill in his arrival card. This was the start of a conversation which lasted the entire way to touch down in Sydney, making the flight over the Tasman Sea seem much shorter than it was.

A foot long veggie Subway, a box of sumo salad, and three paracetamols are consumed in the Sydney International Airport before we walk to the gate to board the next and biggest 14 hour overnight haul to Doha. The A380 gracefully becomes airborne above the bright yellow lights of Sydney. I watch out the window into the night from the upper deck of the enormous aircraft as the suburban lights dissipate along the face of the blue mountains.

After many hours drifting between sleep and HBO’s Chernobyl Series, the plane makes its descent into Doha’s Hamad International Airport. This was Regine’s first time back to Qatar since she moved to Australia in August of 2018, and even though she was worn out, I could tell that she was excited to be back.

Our connecting flight was close. The transit time allowed for a quick photo by the big bear, followed by a quick snack of hummus and falafel in the food court, and a quick browse of the books in WHSmith, all in timely enough fashion to catch the airport passenger rail to Terminal D to board the final flight to Moscow Domodedovo. Russian dialogue filled the aircraft cabin. Some people are silent as their mouths are already concealed by face masks to evade Coronavirus. The seat in front of me is reclined straight into my aching nose immediately after take off, and the Persian Gulf has never looked so beautiful as the aircraft approaches 30,000 feet. Iran also looks inviting from above. It feels like the flight is taking a lifetime as the plane makes its way over the vast expanse of the Caspian Sea, though somehow it feels like we were in the taxi to Queenstown Airport just a few hours ago. What is the local time in Queenstown by the way? It is best to not know.

There is an internal blanket of grey in the sky below the aircraft and the plane starts slowly falling towards it. After countless minutes of anticipation, the plane descends far enough below the thick grey clouds to reveal the winter landscape of Mother Russia. The wheels of the plane connect to the runway, and we have arrived. This has been a dream since I was 21 years old, but I am a little too tired to realise the significance of it in this moment.

We have arrived, but have we really arrived? We still need to get through passport control. The flight from Doha to Moscow: 4 hours, 40 minutes. Russian Border Control processing: almost half the time of the flight. After having my soul stared into, and questioned as if I were guilty of war crime, the Border Control Official makes the decision to put a stamp into my passport. The neon light above the booth gate switches from red to green, and I am cleared to enter. Soon after Regine also turns the corner and walks towards me. In the words of Ewan McGregor: “We are in Russia for god’s sake!

Regine’s checked baggage is waiting on its lonesome as it took us so long to get through the border. Our next challenge is to get to the metro area of Moscow. There is an Express Train from Domodedovo, though I am uncertain as to whether or not this is the exact train that goes to Paveletskiy Vokzal. A customer service officer confusingly gestures that it is, and we purchase a joint ticket for two passengers. A boom gate is to be entered. We are two people to both enter the electronic gate individually, with the one ticket. Regine enters first with the one ticket and I attempt to follow only to have the electronic gate close and sandwich me as I am half way through. Russian words are shouted at me, and I am too tired to try and make sense of what is going on. Somehow the gate opens again, I say “thank you” in Russian, and I walk through to where Regine is standing, carrying my miserable existence onto the train.

The Airport Express Train takes us past birch forests with melting snow, factories, and towering blocks of Communist era apartments. Oh and mud.. people say that Russian winter mud is on another level, and I guess I caught a glimpse of that from the window of the train. We arrive in the heart of Moscow. Regine’s heavy Hybrid Kathmandu pack needs to be carried on someone’s back. It is me who accepts the CrossFit session through the damp cigarette smoke-filled streets of the city. There it is, on the other side of the Moskva River: The almighty Kremlin, and St. Basil’s Cathedral, with its lollipop coloured onion domes oriented towards the heavens.

We drag our jet-lagged bodies through the heart of Red Square, and continue walking toward the Tverskoy District, where we land on our feet in a cosy vego cafe. Our next and final challenge is to get into the building where our accommodation is located. I have already pre-translated the directions on the hotel website from Russian to English. Trip Advisor has assured me that this this going to be an experience. I call the door bell. There is no answer. I call the door bell again. Once again, there is no answer. We stand in the alley way at the front of the steel prison-like door, both wondering what our next move might be. Suddenly, the door is opened from the inside and a young man exits. I grip the door before it slams shut. As per the website directions, we go to Apartment No. 257 on the 4th floor. I call the door bell. There is no answer. I call the door bell again. Again, there is no answer. I knock on the door. There is no sign of life, just an intermittent high-pitched beeping sound in the stairwell. The delayed flight in Queenstown offered more time to sit and read the Trip Advisor comments for this hotel. Because of this, I am aware that the there might be some luck on the 6th floor. Regine stays behind while I take the stairs without her lead-weight backpack, and find the un-signed but official entrance of the hotel. We check-in and have our Russian Visas registered. We arrive in our traditionally decorated room and are both fast asleep by 17:30.

Our first two full days in the Russian capital are spent exploring the main sights of the city, which include the colossal monument of Tsar Peter the Great, Gorky Park, The Bolshoi Theatre, the Central Business District, and the worlds tallest Orthodox church, ‘The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour’, where two extra friendly gypsy ladies peer pressure Regine and I to touch their pet pigeons. We opted to move on before we had the chance to discover what their true motive was.

 

First impressions of Moscow: all of the buildings and monuments are extremely ginormous. The citadel of the Kremlin is large enough to be a suburb of its own (maybe, it kind of is?). The main arterial roads are enormously wide. For example, if you wanted to kick a footy over the entire width of the road, you would only bother attempting if your name was either Saverio or Anthony Rocca. The foot paths and public walkways are decorated in what appears to be the Christmas lights from the prior festive season. Shops and cafes can be difficult to find, as they are secretly hidden well within the internal layout of large terrace buildings. I am sure that if you were a local person, you would be used to this and you would know exactly where to go. As for foreign nationals, finding a certain store can be a complete mystery.

Bundles of flowers are also very popular in Moscow. Sometimes men carry bundles of flowers on their commute to their lover, and sometimes smitten Muscovites walk together with the lady having already received them. Very sweet.

In spite of some of the weathered and failing fixtures in the common bathroom of our hotel, the accommodation begins to feel like a home away from home. The traditional and quirky appearance of the hotel floor has a unique charm which has grown on me. On the 6th floor, through the decorative wrought iron bars of the window in our room, I notice that it doesn’t get completely dark outside after sundown. Somehow the light of day discreetly transitions through the afterglow into the bright light-polluted glow of endless city lights below a blanket of low and foggy cloud cover. In the hotel room, the internal window sill offers a platform wide enough to sit, albeit with legs somewhat cramped. The window pane invites you to glance through the iron bars to the low-hanging cloud cover in the sky.  You might imagine that I have traveled to an earlier century. Maybe the turbulent years of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, or the era of the Hammer & Sickle. What have these skies witnessed throughout the centuries of Autocratic rule? What was life really like under the Iron Curtain?

By Thursday we are still attempting to overcome our jet lag. I walk from our hotel to Moscow Leningradskiy Station to attempt to purchase two return tickets to Saint Petersburg on the Sapsan bullet train. I arrive at the station, which is the same size as Adelaide Oval. The tall and thick wooden entrance doors require you to be able to deadlift at least 115kg to push them open. The ticket office inside the station is confusing. It appears that a coupon number is needed to order tickets at the desk. The machines which dispatch the coupons do not have an English language option. I file at the information desk where another passenger asks me a question in Russian. I explain with my very basic Russian that a coupon is needed. She walks back out to the machine and I, with little confidence, follow her to see what she does. She asks me if I am going to Saint Petersburg and I confirm. She prints off coupon number b180, and she hands it to me before she confusingly walks off. What on earth just happened? The coupon number soon appears on the number board, accompanied by an announcement over the speaker. At the desk, I explain that I am poorly speaking Russian, but wish to order two return tickets to Saint Petersburg. All of a sudden another lady storms in front of me at the desk, and she demands that her tickets have some details amended. I can understand the service officer say something like: “excuse me, I am serving this gentleman.” I am already flustered enough, and sympathise with the fact that it might be an emergency. I take a step to the side and gesture for them to re-assume their dialogue. This is not going well. All of a sudden, the lady that has pushed in turns her head to me and says in perfect English: “what time do you want to go to Saint Petersburg?”. It appears that her tickets have now been fixed, and she is now willing to return a favour and help me with my tickets. I push my disbelief and confusion aside and roll with what is unfolding. There are no tickets at 5:45am, only Business Class. “Are there any tickets on later Sapsan services?”, I ask. All of a sudden there are available economy tickets on the 5:45am train. But there weren’t just a moment ago… Upgrade marketing by stealth perhaps? The tickets are ready for purchase, and we confirm that transaction will be made by card. “Passports please?”, the sales lady asks. I have my passport with me, but I do not have Regine’s passport. This is the end of the line. The purchase cannot be complete without both passports. The two ladies on both sides of the desk appear embarrassed at my misfortune. I try to thank my English to Russian/Russian to English translator, but she is quick to flee and escape into the crowds of her fellow countrymen inside the Leningradskiy station hall. The lumbering entrance doors of the station are easier to exit from with rage coursing through your veins.

Over 10 kilometres have been travelled by foot by the time I return back to our accommodation, and I am a broken man. I explain to Regine that I did not purchase the tickets. I resign to the fact that we are not going Saint Petersburg and lay down on the bed. Regine is a lot more rational in her thought processes, and she decides to research for an online booking for the train tickets. She finds the same train times which were lined up at the ticket office, and proceeds through to payment options. Confirmation of card payment is received by e-mail with the attachments of the PDF tickets. It appears that we might be going to Saint Petersburg after all, and I have learned that I am a f**king idiot.

Regine and I leave to exit our building at 04:05am. As I push the door open, the hotel owner is outside in the midst of opening the same door from the other side at the e.x.a.c.t same time. Both parties are equally taken by surprise. She was all alone out in the alley in darkest depths of the freezing cold night? Where could she have been coming from? I am hoping the strangeness of it is not a precursor to an even stranger day ahead. We trek to Leningradskiy Station and muscle our way through the front doors. In the main hall a man dressed as a railway official takes Regine’s phone completely from her hands to confirm that we are passengers on the Sapsan. I have an instant flashback of being in Sofia, Bulgaria in early 2014, where I fell victim to a similar situation – a gentleman in the main train station hall dressed in official rail company attire attempted to accept a direct cash transaction for walking me all the way to the departure platform. Fortunately, Regine’s phone is handed back to her and the official extends his arm in the direction of where everybody else is already walking.

We board the high-speed Sapsan train, however, we are not seated together. I guess that is ok though, because we will be in Saint Petersburg in just 3 hours and 40 minutes. I am seated on the aisle next to an unhappy, overweight, middle-aged Russian male, who presents restless body language every time I turn my head to look out of his window. I have come all the way here from Queenstown, so I do my best to sneak a few peaks of the Russian countryside winter wonderland, while he is immersed in playing the Candy Crush game application on his smart mobile cellular telephone device. The train smoothly blasts toward its destination at an almighty pace. As we close in on Saint Petersburg, I notice (from the adjacent windows of the train) that the landscape is changing from forests to boggy wetlands. Another Ewan McGregor quote: “nobody ever said anything about wetlands!

The sun emerges from the cloud cover just before the Sapsan pulls into Moscovsky Vokzal, and the spirits in the Huntley camp are high. Welcome to ‘the Venice of the North.’ We exit the station and walk straight to the mind-blowing Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The church was built as a memorial to Emperor Alexander the 2nd, at a site alongside the Griboedov Canal where he was assassinated in 1881. The intricate architectural detail of the building is remarkable to see at close range, though it is difficult to decide which is more spectacular. The exterior of the church?, or the jaw-dropping interior? Each person can be their own judge.

 

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Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Tsar Peter the Great’s Summer Garden does not look very Summer-like just 6 days after winter, though it is pleasing to walk through nonetheless. The walkway along the Troitskiy Bridge offers a viewing deck toward the impressive Peter and Paul Fortress. It is fair to assume that the Neva River is freezing cold. Giant blocks of ice migrate in unison toward the Baltic Sea with the westbound direction of the current. We walk a fair distance following the Griboedov Canal to a restaurant called ZEN Vegan Burger. My confidence in speaking basic Russian has very slightly improved. After scraping enough words together to order our lunch, the shop owner commends me by kindly noting that my Russian is well. The restaurant is dark inside, but the interior is textured with a careful balance of neat lights and candles, both of which set a calming mood. Lunch is delivered to the table, and it may honestly have been the best burger I have ever had in my life. We are given complimentary vegan cookies before taking our coats from the hanger.

We re-assume our tour of the city, and walk to Saint Issac’s Cathedral, the Winter Palace, and the State Hermitage Museum. These buildings are astonishing. I stood for a moment staring at the sites wondering who had the idea to construct buildings with such an unfathomable footprint. Could you imagine preparing the site works? With one side wall to located at point a, with the opposite side wall at point b, some 300 metres away. The grandeur of the monumental buildings is simply too much to capture through the lens of a camera. It is tempting to simply put the cameras away, but it is still worth while collecting pictures for memory sake.

It is just shy of 16:00, and we both agree that our eyes cannot take in anymore world famous architecture. We slowly make our way back to the train station via a souvenir shop, and a large shopping mall where we take the best part of an hour to rest our weary legs.

We arrive back at Moscovsky Vokzal, and wait at platform 7 to board our 9 and a half hour overnight train back to Moscow. Also waiting to board the same wagon is a lady and a gentleman. The gentleman is dressed similar to a low-ranking commissar of the Red Army. For what reason is he dressed in this uniform? I am not sure. For the purpose of this entry, he will be referred to as “Comrade”. Our tickets cause some confusion as they are inspected before the door of the train. The Steward utters something unfriendly after viewing the tickets and takes a step back. We are not sure if we are allowed to board, but we try to anyway, and nobody stops us. Once on-board, we do not know what cabin or bunk we are meant to be sleeping in. We eventually figure it out, and discover that we are both sleeping in alternate cabins. We stand together in the corridor of the train wagon, preparing ourselves to separate. Regine is very unimpressed and tells me that “she wants to go home now”. I too am struggling to get my self up and about for the ride ahead. I offer to help Regine up into her top bunk, in a cabin full of 3 Russian friends who have already made them selves at home. Regine now wants to be left alone, and I get the hint that I am to be on my way. I arrive at my cabin door, and guess who has settled in with their uniform hanging at the foot of my bunk? The Comrade and another Russian male have made the cabin their home, and I feel like it is my first day of school.

Successfully getting yourself up onto the top bunk requires you to train intensive calisthenics for months prior. To get down from the bunk requires you to choose between either a ruptured ACL, or a sprained ankle. After agonisingly muscling myself up onto the opposite bunk (because my assigned bunk has already been claimed by uniform), I lightly spray my boots with a small air freshener, take 3 paracetamols, and awkwardly arrange myself amid the supply of pillows and linen. The Steward stands at the door of the cabin and provides a rundown of the nightly operation of the train. Something about how to use the toilet in the middle of the night is the only thing I capture. The door is then slammed shut, and I wonder how poor Regine is faring in her cabin. The train very gently accelerates and makes its way off into the night.

I wake just after midnight and spend around 20 minutes trying to decide whether or not I should go for a toilet run. I am busting for the toilet but I would prefer to not have my leg in plaster. The urge to urinate is too much to bare, and I painfully abseil out of the bunk. The toilet at the back of the wagon is not a happy place.

With an body-breaking reach, I switch off the light in the cabin and fall back to sleep with the assistance of the soft vibration of the train. The Comrade wakes through the night, and is not shy of making loud sighing sounds, and slamming the cabin door during exit and entry. A fist knocks on the door just after 04:00am, prompting the approaching arrival in Moscow. The train arrives, and Regine and I reunite in the corridor of the wagon. Regine has had a good night sleep, and she appears to be in better spirits now that we are back in Moscow. We both exchange our overnight stories as we walk back to our accommodation in the Tverskoy District.

 

Our final two days in Moscow are spent souvenir shopping, last minute sight seeing in Moscow, and for me, consuming a bottle of Russian Vodka in the recessed internal window bay of our hotel room. Our accommodation has become our little home. Our time here has gone so quickly, and we feel somewhat sad to be departing.

Our bags are packed by 06:00am, and we exit the building of our accommodation to catch a taxi to the airport. Regine has ordered the taxi via a Russian ride sharing app called ‘Yandex’, which operates exactly like Uber. The driver has already arrived some 50 metres up the road. The driver steps out of the car and helps load our baggage into the vehicle. My tiredness gets the better of me, and I make the mistake of going to the wrong front door the car. Of course, on the left is the driver’s side. Regine confirms that we wish to be taken to Sheremetyevo International Airport. I speak some Russian with the driver, maybe enough for him to assume that I can understand a lot more than I actually do. He starts explaining something about the payment of our fare. “Maybe”… something, something, something. I explain to him that I do not understand. He continues to explain, and I reaffirm that I still do not understand. A silence fills the inside of the taxi, and Regine and I feel tense as we look out of both of the windows from the back seat. “You are American?”. “No“, I tell the driver, “Australia”. “Ahh, Nicole Kidman”.

The vehicle merges onto a major highway, and I can see an aircraft ascending in the far distance ahead. We must be travelling in the right direction. The vehicle swerves abruptly on the road. I divert my vision from the sky to the rear view mirror to see the driver’s face in low light. I can see well enough in the dark to notice his eye lids lowering over his vacant blue eyes. Like a scene from a movie, you know exactly what is going to happen next. I think nervously of what to do! Do I softly touch his shoulder and ask him what his name is? I am watching his eyes in the mirror like a sniper, and notice that he is starting to wake up. I speak loudly to Regine in the back seat as a technique to ensure that the driver does not relax with quietness and drift into a micro sleep.

By the grace of god, we arrive at Sheremetyevo International Airport’s Terminal E. The ‘problem’ with the intended electronic payment through the app has not gone away. Regine raises her voice stating that the fare is “to be deducted!” The driver gets out of the vehicle and yells at bystanders to summon anyone who is speaking in English. A lady walking nearby kindly attends, and translates that Regine’s card is not valid, and that the fare has been automatically transferred to cash payment. Neither Regine or I have any ruble in our pockets. The only thing that can be done is use an ATM inside the airport to withdraw the money. This required passing security, making withdraw, and exchanging notes in a coffee shop to have a near correct amount for the fare. All of this is to be done as fast as possible before the taxi driver’s short term airport pass times out. I arrive back outside to his car with the money. Regine is standing there, but the driver has retreated inside the airport terminal to try and find me. He soon comes back out and I hand him the money for the fare, with the addition of a – this has been a nightmare – tip. The man hands me 100 rubles in return. We both look at each other with a degree of mutual respect, and nod goodbye, albeit with blood pressure levels at an absolute maximum.

We enter the airport and reconcile our early morning stress with Starbucks and Burger King. Russia has been what I have dreamed of since I was 21, and as I stood at the large glass window of the departure lounge, I fixed my vision in the direction of a forest on the far horizon, hoping that I will be back again some day.