Saturday, December 01, 2007

A Few pics of Moscow, Nightmare journey home and how I came to spend 4 hours in the most expensive hotel in the world and the odd things I saw at 4am

As you can see winter has started to make itself felt in Moscow.
I had a couple of hours and went to Red Square where I slipped and slid around in the cold. They don't grit the sidewalks or streets in Moscow but there's no shortage of labour and people are shovelling away around the monuments and in front of business'.
The result is a slick film of snow making walking treacherous for the unwary or drunk.
As you're probably aware there was an election in Russia today. That probably explains the heavy police presence.

A few opposition leaders were arrested earlier in the week, but most Russians didn't really seem bothered. I read the English language "Moscow Daily" and it was vehemently anti Putin. It printed rather wild allegations without much hard facts back up (Putin is the most corrupt leader ever to have existed in any country and is worth upwards of $400 BILLION).
it's true Russia is turning into a one party state, corruption is endemic and Putin turns the screws on anyone who doesn't agree with him, but an English language paper, available in most hotels , rants and rave its opposition.

There is a free(ish) press it seems.

One of the oddest things I saw in Moscow is pictured below. I saw many similar enterprises and it took a while to work out what was going on.
Perched inside the last porta-pottie is an office-cum-store selling vodka, toilet paper and taking payment in exchange for access.

As you can see below, all manner of crap and military stuff is for sale..

In this picture you can see Russian dolls, icons as well as a SPACE HELMET, MILITARY PILOT'S MASK AND GEAR.

Marx and Lenin are still everywhere.

This is in marked contrast to other countries in Eastern Europe.

There's clearly no love of communism as the population is universally chasing money, but the chasm between rich and poor is growing. Are the red brigades going to stage a come back?

No way.

Though Lenin still occupies pride of place in Red Square, his Mausoleum was smaller than I expected.

I didn't make it for visiting hours and I'm kicking myself now as its hard to say how long the waxwork will remain on display. There's a group of grumpy policemen stationed outside though the tourists seemed more interested in the garish and massive Christmas tree positioned 20 meters opposite.

There's an irony lurking there. Both Karl and Vladamir would be mightily annoyed I suspect.

Leaving Russia was more difficult than I had thought.
I''d been warned that the trip to the airport would be long given the shocking traffic. The airport I was taken to (this is an important point) was 20 kms from the city center.

It took 2 1/2 hours.

When I got there I heard a familiar voice.

"There's a man with a hangover I suspect"

I'd met Angus and Andy the night before whilst out with my rep in Russia and we all attempted to partake in a traditional Russian sport: Vodka.

It ended rather badly and I was the first to decide that I was done.

They were not worse for wear and carried on.

My sore head was made worse when the guys gently pointed out to me that I was at THE WRONG airport for a British Airways flight. The driver ( and my rep) had got it wrong. My airport was 70kms away.

2 1/2 hours to go 20 kms.

2 hours until take off.

Do the math .
I decided to buy a ticket on their Aeroflot flight and get to Heathrow that night (Friday) as planned.

Expensive mistake?


No matter.

A bit embarrassed I went along with them into the departure hall, checked in, went through passport control and had my single entry visa stamped out and cancelled. (This is another important foreshadow of trouble ahead.).

Our flight time came and went and we stood crammed into a departure area in front of a gate proclaiming the destination "Munich".

It was now 9pm .

An announcement in Russian came over the loudspeakers that our flight was now going at 7 50 am.

The Frankfurt, Rome and Paris flights were also cancelled.

After collective yelling and cursing, directed at indifferent sullen staff we all headed back to collect our luggage.

There was a problem however.

I had (as did most people) a SINGLE entry VISA.

It had already been cancelled.

Technically I was not allowed back into Mother Russia without a new VISA which I could only get with a letter of invitation, passport picture, itinerary etc, delivered to the embassy in LONDON.....

Faced with a couple of hundred angry foreigners as well as quite a few even more vocal Russians, official resolve wavered and crumbled.

Back we swept into the terminal public areas (WITH our duty free booze and ciggies). Soon we were wandering back and forth at will. The strict security guards of a couple of hours ago had vanished.

There was an angry exception. Two of my companions pointed out the absurdity of what seemed like a random effort to reinforce the xray rules by a grumpy old bugger who took exception to an Englishman cursing him in his native Russian.

A standoff of sorts ensued.

We gave in and put our bags through an attendent-less machine.

We then walked back and forth a couple of more times.

The line up for hotels was huge.

There were no rooms at the airport.

Aeroflot had blocked everything available. In an uncharitable moment ( now) I believe this was for their OWN use. There was one bored old dear at their transit desk but she simply ignored everyone.

As luck would have it the two guys from the night before worked for Expedia and were soon bellowing down the phone at various contacts ( pulled from Friday evening parties and dinners) to try and secure 4 rooms ( we had by now picked up another stray traveller to our little group) SOMEWHERE in Moscow.

We had a problem.

When we passed through immigration 5 hours earlier they had taken away our immigration cards we had filled out upon landing. No hotel in Russia can give you a room without this card.

Despite this,Andy (the Russian speaker of our group) seemed confident.
Within the hour we were in a taxi on our way to the Ritz Carleton. The most expensive hotel in the world.

Usually the rooms here start at $1000 per night. For our 4 or so hours we were being charged considerably less. In deference to the rule breaking necessary for us to be even allowed to stay (the immigration card issue AND the reasonable amount we paid), I'll not reveal names or the deal we got.

The ride was nothing short of terrifying. It was snowing and slippery. The traffic weaved in and out without reference to lanes or signals.

We all noticed a tapping noise on the roof of our car. The driver said it was the antenna. He stopped the car IN THE LANE OF TRAFFIC ON THE MOTOR WAY, got out and started messing around. As one we all swivelled around and stared at the headlights of lorries bearing down on us from behind.

We survived.

When we arrived after a heated debate on the proper route (again from our feisty Russian speaker) we were asked by the bellboy if we were SURE this was our hotel.

Its clear we were not dressed in a manner usually befitting the Ritz in Moscow.

It was now 12am and we needed to be ready for the trip back at 4.

We agreed to head for the bar after dropping our stuff in our rooms.

What does a $1000 a night room look like?

How many pillows does a bed need?
The shower was astonishing.
The electronics to open the blinds and work the lights were baffling.
Off to the O2 bar on the 12 th floor overlooking the Kremlin and Red Square.
The first sight which greets you are two astonishing looking hostesses who Sheppard you to your table. You slink along behind them taking in the dismissive glances of REALLY REALLY rich people and their mini skirted thigh booted hookers. They all look simply MARVELOUS.
You look unshaven and tired.....and poor
As we sat nursing our $10 glasses of beer and toying with the idea of trying a $30 "shot of pure oxygen " in walked a steady stream of Americans.
Men and women.
Very Rich.
Extremely drunk.
Teetering, careful walk hammered.
Long stare at you as they go by.
You check to be sure your fly isn't open.
Giggles all around.
I decided to call it a night and head for the shower.
I was too afraid of not getting up so I settled for a shower and two hours of CNN.
At 3:30 I was showered and waiting in the lobby in a clean(ish) shirt and feeling relatively human.
For the next half hour, sipping a coffee I watched a remarkable circus.
Hammered Russians began to arrive with annihilated women in tow.
Some in miniskirts, all in fur coats a couple unable to walk unaided more than a couple of steps.
Once the girls were deposited in a chair the guys sauntered to the desk barked commands and flipped Black Amex cards at the fawning desk clerks.
This went on until we left. There was also a guy dressed head to toe in black leather driving a little tricycle wheelchair around the lobby yelling into a cell phone.
The rest of the night was uneventful and I made my flight.
I'm of the feeling I made three new friends and look forward to seeing them again.
Though its quite early, I'm absolutely shattered and will bring this to a close. Tomorrow I'll give you my overall impressions of Russia.
Until then I bid you adieu.
Love to all


Anonymous said...

I bet all those fur coats have no knickers !! LOL penny xx ps sort out your flights for christmas this year !! after reading last years event x

Anonymous said...

What a nightmare experience. I hope the Ritz pillows helped cushion the blow. x

Anonymous said...

I am surprised all those statues survived throughout the reign of Stalin. I guess he did have to give some credence to Lenin...

How can they say that Putin is so bad? Have they already forgotten the Man of Steel?

Interesting to find out they have "freeish" press.

Any noteworthy food?

Terry said...

The food was "stodgy"in a comforting sort of way.
Important as you need something to soak up the gallons of frozen vodka.
The statues are everywhere but there are many throwbacks to Stalin and WWII heros.
"The Great Patriotic War" is celbrated everywhere.
Most Russians don't even notice the references to the past.
Its all babes, bucks flash and poverty now.
All in all I found things to be corrupt, dodgy and depressing.
The Russian mentality is very different to a European or North American outlook.