From Russia, with Love

Note from the Editor: It has become abundantly clear to us over the first two weeks of this little jaunt that Alex lacks the rigour required for regular blog posts. Therefore, you can continue to expect frequent accounts of adventures from Melanie, and rest assured that Alex also partook in some way shape or form in everything described. Unless she’s killed him off by then. He will continue to contribute disjointed ramblings as and when inspiration hits, as well as update Instagram and the Camera Roll, which Melanie has acknowledged (but will no doubt deny) are more his forté than hers.

Yes yes, I know the title is unimaginative. Sue me.*

Better late than never, and not as good as it originally was (WordPress app… do one), welcome to Moscow. Almost without exception, whenever Mel and I detail our travel plans across Asia and Oceania as starting with the capital of Russia, we receive a reaction somewhere along the lines of “Moscow eh… Cool?”. To this, Mel would typically respond with a tall tale about how it’s all my fault that we’ve traveled North to get South-East, and I would launch into a verbose explanation as to how it came to be and that I’m totally innocent, guv. So, time to set the record straight as to how it came to pass that we travelled via Moscow, how it totally blew our expectations and why it transpired to be worth the additional £100 each it cost us to get in to the country.

The ‘Guess the Country’ Competition was top of our agenda.

In the beginning…

Picture the scene – It’s 2016, and with many months having passed since Mel’s booze-fuelled epiphany that we should go travelling, the hangover has abated and despite the lengthy intervening period, she remains convinced that it’s a stellar idea. But, as with many big commitments, how to make the first move? It’s all well and good talking the talk (as you might know she can do), but putting down the dollar is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. So, as events unravel, it falls to ‘Organiser’ Alex to step up to the plate.

Many of you will know that we are running this trip on a pretty stringent budget. With this in mind, it was important we got the best bang for our buck when it came to flights. We knew that Bangkok (more on that another day) would be the obvious starting point for a trip round SE Asia, and that stop-over flights would be the cheapest way of getting there, which gave us three options. We could travel either via Amsterdam, Riga, or Moscow, and we figured that as we were stopping over, we might as well spend a little time in our chosen city.

The logic unravelled as follows:

  • We’ve both been to Amsterdam before, and loved it (who doesn’t?), but want to try something new;
  • What the hell is in Riga? (sorry Sergejs);
  • Moscow.

Gleeful that a decision on route had been reached, and that we could then get a well priced red-eye from Moscow to Bangkok (saving on a night’s accommodation and food – crafty), we went ahead with booking our bargain basement flights with Brussels Airlines and Aeroflot. Winner. Despite knowing very little about the city, we were sure that we’d be able to find plenty to fill a few days.

It was only later, when beginning to explore the logistics of Visas for the trip, that we established that it would cost circa £100 each for us to get in to the country, and that it was a relatively expensive city to get by in. Goodbye handy money-saving option. Almost simultaneously, it came to our attention via Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man that Moscow was recently voted the ‘Least Friendly City in the World’. Plus everyone kept laughing at us. Cue concern.

The best laid plans…

Rub for good luck! Inside one of the many ornate Metro Stations. Thanks for the tip, Dasha!

Keen to make the best of what, by this point, seemed to be a bad situation, we set about figuring out how we’d spend our time in ‘The Hero City’. Thankfully, I had a couple of Russian colleagues who were great with providing pointers and reassurance that our time in their home country would be well spent. However, I hail from the UK, and that makes me a skeptical sod.

Fast forward, and we arrive in a country that speaks minimal English, and doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, to find that Mel’s bag has decided that it would rather holiday in Brussels for a few days. Commotion ensues. Not a good start. But from there, you may be surprised, dear reader, how this tale unfolds.

Now, I should make it clear at this point that I am under no obligation to say anything good about anywhere. Quite the contrary in fact, the old man in me would just like a good moan. Furthermore, we have since left the country (I am actually on a beachfront in Koh Phangan writing this, exemplifying how inefficient I am at this kind of thing), so I can confirm that neither Putin or the re-branded KGB have a gun to my head.

A gross misrepresentation…

The title of this blog post was initially chosen on a whim, and primarily because I’m about as creative as the bench on which I am sitting. However, as I began to think about what I was going to splurge onto my keyboard, it proved to be a poignant statement.

The James Bond film ‘From Russia With Love’, whilst not heavily set in the country itself, portrays a typical Soviet-era view of Russians and their ‘motherland’. The same can be said of many depictions of Russia in subsequent Bond movies, and popular culture before and since. Russia is shown to be vast, bleak, dangerous, unwelcoming, dilapidated and repressive. Frankly, with our preconceptions formed from these reference points, our expectations of the country were probably similar. However, our actual experience of Moscow and Muscovites couldn’t be further from the stereotype.

Granted, it is pretty massive. Looking across 6+ lanes of a one-way street to the Bolshoi Theatre, just as a storm had passed. Still Mel’s picture of the trip so far, I think!

Upon arrival, once bag-gate was a distant(ish) memory, the first thing that struck was exactly how huge Moscow is. I mean, really huge. We’d later discover during a Walking Tour that Moscow is in fact the largest city on the European continent at circa 15 million people. Despite the sheer size of the place, and the complications posed by the Cyrillic alphabet and limited English signage, we managed to find our way to Safari Hostel, chosen primarily for the stuffed toy giraffe featured in one of their pictures online. Having settled, thoughts turned to food, and Mel managed to locate what was by any measure a pretty ‘hip’ backstreet joint (see her first post) serving all manner of steamed dumpling.

On the way there, we encountered massive streets, all brightly lit and decorated with various paraphernalia, from rows of coloured lampshades to planted arches and al fresco dining. This was in stark contrast to the tiny street down which the restaurant was located, whisking us from an almost Mediterranean environment to one more akin to the back roads of East London. Later on in the week, again following our stomachs (this time for burgers), we stumbled across Balchug Island, which felt like Moscow’s answer to Shoreditch. Both very much unexpected.

More like a European Market than Central Moscow.

Whilst these two eateries stood out as being amongst the cooler locations we visited, they did share a common thread with the rest of the city – clean, modern and safe. Not at any point day or night, be it wandering through tourist traps or out in the sticks did we feel threatened. In fact, quite the opposite, we found people to be friendly and accommodating (once you got past the gruff exterior!). Our Walking Tour guide Elena stood out as a prime example, as did a bloke who left off eating his dinner on our last day to act as translator so we could order our food. While arguably the former is paid to show off the best of the city, the latter was under no obligation to assist my incomprehensible ass!

See, shining.

Moscow, much like Russia as a whole, struck me as a very proud place. Be it the cleanliness, the grandeur, the parades and celebrations that were underway, the extremely impressive architecture or the characterful little touches, this thread was prominent. Our visit to the Museum of Cosmonautics was another shining example (literally… as pictured). It was abundantly clear the pride in Russia’s contribution to space exploration, and rightly so. The whole place was opened on the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person to orbit Earth, and contains the capsule that was used for this endeavour, alongside all manner of artificial satellite models (including various iterations of Sputnik and a great 1:75 model of ISS), rockets, propulsion units, landing vehicles, Soyuz modules and even a piece of moon rock from Apollo 11 presented by NASA. Sadly no pictures were allowed inside, but take my word for it (and ignore Mel’s!), it was cool.

The massive monument that sat atop to Museum of Cosmonautics. Check here, where I’ve added a Melanie for scale.

In fact, The Museum of Cosmonautics serves as a handy metaphor for modern Russia. It’s vast and impressive, both in scale and content. It’s modern and friendly (even the US Space Program got a shout out or two). It’s also a reminder of how the country is moving to become more progressive; gone are the days of Stalinism, an enforced atheist state and widespread repression. Rather, Roscosmos (as the Russian governmental body responsible for the space science program are commonly known) now frequently launch international astronauts out of our atmosphere, and contributed the first two core modules to the International Space Station, as well as the last in 2015. Facts. There’s no denying that there is still room for improvement, as there arguably is everywhere, but the situation appears to be miles removed from the expectations set in ‘The West’ before our trip.

So, there we have it…

Moscow. Stop one of many on our little wander around (almost) SE Asia, and other interesting lumps of this little planet. In the lead-up to the trip, we’d say to people that whilst we have to deal with a few days in Moscow, at least everywhere else will be awesome by comparison. Now it seems that the opposite is true, and the rest of our destinations have an awfully high bar to reach.

At our age, sometimes you need a good sit down. This time it was on the Astronaut Thomas Stafford commemorative bench, celebrating 35 years since the first international flights of the Soyuz and Apollo spacecrafts.

*Please don’t sue me Mr Brocolli.


2 thoughts on “From Russia, with Love

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