Friday, 17 August 2007

From Russia With Love

Where in the world can you buy authentic Russian vodka for less than the price of a punnet of strawberries?

Moscow of course!

I’ve been working hard to get a Moscow for the past year and a half but can’t seem to score one on my roster and can never persuade anyone to swap with me. Now that I’m working in business class, it’s even harder to swap, because duty free commission is highly coveted. Imagine my surprise when one popped up on my roster! I was even more surprised when we were in briefing picking positions and I ended up scoring duty free! On BOTH sectors! Woo hoo I said – we had a total of 21 passengers there, and only 11 on the way back. I didn’t make the millions I had hoped to, but a few hundred $$$ commission is better than nothing.

I’d hoped for a trip in winter, so I could see some snow, as I’ve never had a trip with work where I’ve seen snow. However, I wouldn’t wish a Moscow in the dead of winter on my worst enemy – it gets as ridiculously cold as something like –30 degrees! As if I’d sign up for that, and AS IF anyone could give that away in winter!

The bus ride from the airport to the hotel is always a minimum of 1 hour and depending on traffic, can stretch out to 2 hours. We were all warned to go to the loo before disembarking, and after having our passports stamped rather violently we set off. The landscape was quite pretty, very green and deeply wooded. It reminded me of Dusseldorf, with all the forestry. We drove past a river where people were sun baking and swimming and also past a massive public apple orchard. Apple trees covered in ripe green apples stretched for miles! I was tempted to jump ship and run through the rows of trees like the couple in the tv adds for Victorian vineyards!

It was a muggy 33 degrees and the hotel felt like it’s central heating was on! We scoffed down some of the packets of gummy bears on the counter in the foyer, did a quick outfit change in a our rooms and came down to catch the free shuttle bus into town to visit the red square. The 11 seater bus was full, so we occupied ourselves for an hour at the beautiful outdoor restaurant drinking beer and eating fries.

Once settled on the bus, we made our way through the streets and I quickly realised that there wasn’t a word of English to be seen ANYWHERE. I had to find a money changer and was worried about signage, but there was a massive neon sign displaying dollar and euro symbols. With my US dollars changed to Russian rubles, off we set.

We located the square and marveled at the architecture – the domes and turrets are absolutely stunning and everywhere we looked there was another building to ooh or aah about!

I was very excited about visiting the Red Square, as the Kremlin was the KGB’s headquarters, or so I’m lead to believe. Lenin's mausoleum is also there, right in the square - a big modern black mark on the gorgeous old square. Having a passion for criminology, espionage and all things secretive, I was delighted to do my own march on the red square. We got there at about 7.30pm and the sun was going down, which made all the gold gilt glisten in the sun. The red colour of the buildings seemed to glow, and cast long elegant shadows over us. We had a photo shoot, with all 7 of us posing, laughing and marveling at the fact that we were behind the “Iron Curtain” in Moscow. It’s certainly somewhere I never thought I’d get to.

After the sun went down and I got separated from the group and was worried I was lost, we all met up and started the long walk back to the bus stop. We picked up some souvenirs outside the square, including music boxes in the shape of the turrets, fridge magnets, postcards and military style hats covered in fantastic badges. When crossing the road, you must walk through a tunnel UNDER the road to avoid being hit by wayward traffic. During our underground stroll through one such tunnel (which smelt strongly of cat urine) I came across a lady selling paintings she’d done of the square and surrounding areas. I was drawn to a pink sparkly one, so I struck a deal with her and handed over all my remaining dollars and rubles.

Clutching our purchases, we staggered onto the bus and made our way home. One of our male crew decided to go clubbing and was getting off the bus as we were getting on. We had been warned not to go out alone but off he went. I wasn’t surprised to hear the next day that he’d been mugged and had his allowance stolen. He also scored a punch in the face. Silly boy.

After a good sleep in my room with a thoroughly depressing view, a few of the girls and I headed off in search for a grocery store. I had a bee in my bonnet and only wanted fruit for brekky, and I also wanted to grab some vodka. The concierge sent us off with very accurate directions and we found the little supermarket that sells vodka that’s cheaper than strawberries. After racking up close to a thousand rubles ($35-ish), I went to the checkout and handed over my credit card, as I only had 100 rubles left after my impulse painting purchase. Both the owner and checkout lady looked at me and my card as if we both had a serious case of leprosy and at the same time said “niente!” with such venom in their tone I almost took a step backwards!

We worked out that they didn’t have card facilites and that there was no ATM in their vicinity either. Getting frustrated that I couldn’t understand anything, I used my rusty sign language and determine that I had a 2 minute walk to an atm ahead of me. So off I went, with a crash course in Russian that involved words like “turn right” and “walk straight for two minutes”. All was good, I got my rubles and my food and set off for a short nap before my flight.

The return sector was uneventful but I did notice the a Moscow flight smells almost as bad as an Indian one. While the smell is different, there was a rank combination of sweat, body odour and something I couldn’t put my finger on. After a while it dawned on me: most of passengers were Russian and the majority of them, male and female, all smelt as though they were recovering from a hard night out. The sickly sweet smell of sweat and alcohol pouring out of the pores of 350 people permeated the cabin and made me feel rather sick.

So, in about 3 months I’ll be trying to get myself another Moscow to see some snow!

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