Click the link to follow the journey in the series, Train Of Thought
Arriving in Moscow’s Belorussky (aka Smolenskaya) station in the afternoon, I scoured every inch of the station to find an English speaker. There was none. My worst nightmare had come true. Reviewers had warned that the staff at my hostel also spoke no English.
A deep sense of loneliness emerged from the pit of my stomach – an emotion I had not felt since I travelled solo to India 20 years ago. It was this pain that had kept me away from solo travel.
I found a mobile phone kiosk with an English-speaking assistant and got myself a local SIM card.
I rang Elena Barinova, a contact I was given. But there was no answer.
I longed to see a hijab-clad head amongst the throng of people in the street.
Then, like a miracle, I heard voices speaking in English.
I turned around to the two women and said: “Oh, my God, you speak English! I must hug you!”
Amy Eagleburger and her Russian friend Marina Semenikhina helped me figure out the Metro map.
Smolenskaya station was like a bombsite with a patchwork of bricks and sand for pavements and, after what seemed an eternity, I reached the Winterfell on Arbat hostel, completely worn out.
Arbat is the happening place in Moscow, with glass towers and designer outlets, hence the pavement upgrading. My basement hostel has tiny rooms with double beds and single bunks on top. A collapsible table allows you to work or eat sitting on the bed. But there is no space for you to open your suitcase on the floor. There is free tea and coffee and a washing machine in the kitchen. And the young staff all spoke English.
Over a mug of Korean ramen beefed up with my prawn sambal, I relived my adventure from Warsaw to Moscow over the last 24 hours. The Russian Polonez train was ultra-modern, with a shower room in the second-class carriage. I had a cabin to myself.
My provodnitsa (conductress) was a typical dour “Olga” from the bygone Soviet era. Before anything, I got shouted at for flushing toilet paper down the loo. Despite the Polonez being of European standard, the toilet discharges onto the tracks. The toilet paper has to be thrown into a basket and disposed off by the conductors.
Olga had a kettle in her office for my noodles and coffee. Fed and watered, I was in bed by nine but just as I sank into a deep sleep, there was a loud knock on my door.
“Immigration!” shouted Olga. We were on the border with Belarus. Bleary-eyed, I came face-to-face with an old woman with a weather-beaten face, in a green uniform. She scanned my passport and told me to look at her face as she checked my passport.
“Take off your glasses!” she barked. Olga wouldn’t let me shut my door after that, so I crept up to my bunk until a slight commotion woke me up. The Russians were here!
Rather than an austere ex-KGB type, I was greeted by a beautiful, tall Russian woman in a grey suit with a fashionable jacket that left only 6cm of her skirt showing. She politely asked me to open my suitcase, and chanced upon my two large ziplock bags with three months’ supply of medicine for hay fever, indigestion, diarrhoea, constipation, diabetes, cholesterol and my problem knee. I had misplaced a copy of my prescription given by my pharmacist.
She went for my box of knee medicine – a particular brand of painkillers – a banned substance in Russia.
“Where is the doctor’s signature?” she asked, looking at the box.
I said I didn’t bring it. I pulled up my trouser leg and showed her the scar from my knee replacement operation. She seemed to understand it but said she had to check with her superior. And along came a beat-up old woman like the one from Belarus. They took all my medicines away to deliberate.
“Oh, my God,” I thought, “after all the preparation and expenses, would my epic odyssey end here?”
After an inordinately long wait, she returned – and told me I could keep all my medicines. (Honestly, if I were a man, I would be glad to be handcuffed to such a beautiful woman and be taken away.)
In the morning, I had a shower and went to the restaurant car. It was empty.
From behind the counter came the sound of singing. I asked the assistant if I could record her singing. She gestured towards the corridor and, with one hand clinging to the handrail, Irina Glazkova sang a couple of arias. I ordered coffee. And she sat down and sang Carmen for me. Was I dreaming?
I was brought back to the present and my congested Moscow room when I received a message from Barinova, the contact given me earlier. She would pick me up in the morning. How sweet!
Over lunch, I shared my travel plans with her and her colleagues. She was worried about my going to Irkutsk in Siberia without being able to speak Russian, and gave me the address of a travel agent. I said goodbye to her, feeling more confident and happy to know someone I had just met could be so caring. In the evening, Yulia Gusarova, a journalist I knew from a press trip, braved the Moscow monsoon to see me.
Getting around Moscow is difficult if you cannot read the Cyrillic alphabet. I am grateful to have studied Russian (not really) at Universiti Malaya all those years ago so I could negotiate the Metro. There was only one place I needed to see in Moscow, the single image in my mind that spells Russia. And there it was in all its glory, beckoning me as I approached the Red Square – St Basil’s Cathedral. This colourful building with bulbous domes was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 to commemorate the capture of the towns of Kazan and Astrakhan.
Each of the original nine domes houses a separate chapel, while the main church is in the central dome. A 10th dome was added later.
Opposite the square is Gum, the departmental store commissioned by Catherine II in 1812; it is as impressive as London’s Harrods. On Barinova’s suggestion, I decided to dine in its plush surroundings. Just to be fair, I also checked out a fast food joint and was as much impressed by way the brand looked in Cyrillic as by the Central Asian staff who were a legacy of the Soviet Union era. Here I made friends with Khurshid Muhammad, a former karate exponent from Tajikistan who had taken part in a tournament in Malaysia. Small world indeed.
Walking the streets of Moscow, talented buskers were entertaining with the classical music that the Russians excel at but this city of my dreams, post-Glasnost, also gave me the happy-clappy music of the pink- and orange-clad Hare Krishna. Loneliness? What loneliness?
Find out in a fortnight what Siberia has in store for our traveller.