Russia 2019 day 1: flying to Moscow

Getting on a plane at Heathrow at 8.40am means getting up really early and so when the plane is delayed by an hour because the company that cleans the planes didn’t turn up last night, it’s very annoying.

It was the biggest plane I’ve ever been on and the first one where ‘turning left’ meant anything other than trying to invade the flight deck. It had two aisles! I had to walk through a section of lie-flat beds! The expensive economy seats were big and padded and they were given pillows and blankets!

I got to the back of the plane, to the rows of squished seats that I recognised, other than that there was a section in the middle that doesn’t usually exist. By dumb luck, I’d managed to get one of the last two window seats when I’d checked in and there was a pillow and blanket and a complementary set of earphones waiting for me. I’d never been able to sit so far behind the wing and the end of it seemed so far away.

I set my entertainment screen to scroll through the flight map and info. We flew over the border between Germany and Denmark and over the southern Baltic – I saw Kaliningrad and Poland and the long sandbar that connects them to Lithuania. Meals were brought round, although they only had egg and cress sandwiches by the time they reached us at the back. No Martyn to feed my meal to on this trip to Moscow.

We overshot Moscow, did a big circle over the countryside to the east and came back. It takesca long time to empty a big plane like this, not helped by my neighbours refusing to move until everyone else had gone. So I was last off the plane and last in the passport queue.

This was the big I was nervous about. Didn’t I need a landing card to go with my visa? What if I’d filled in the customs declaration form wrongly? It turns out the nice Russian border control lady will scan both passport and visa and then print your landing card from the info provided on them. The customs form is only relevant if you have anything to declare and $110 is not worth noticing.

Next was currency exchange. I’d had a feeling it would be easier to get roubles from a cashpoint and I was right. I found the bank, was closed into a tiny glass room with a Russian banker and dropped my shiny fresh dollars in the slot. She counted them twice, looking at them carefully, and then put them in an electronic counting machine before barking something at me in Russian. And then when I failed to respond, because my Russian is very phrasebook-page-one, she did what the English do and repeated it but louder and more aggressively. It was only when I said that I don’t speak Russian that she tried “to roubles!”. If I worked in a bank in an international airport and was handed some foreign currency by someone with luggage who looked blank when I spoke to them, I would conclude they were a non-Russian speaking foreign tourist a lot sooner.

So next time, just use the ATM.

Next was the Aeroexpress train to my local station. Easy. The ticket machine speaks English and takes cards. I could follow the signs to the station. I’d noticed on landing that airside at Moscow DME isca building site; now I learned that so is the passenger side. The station looked just like the one at Rome airport – long arched building over a long platform with a track each side – and the train arrived the same time as me, a double-decker just like the one in Rome, only in the red and grey of Russian rail.

For an express train, it didn’t go that fast. We passed a lot of birch forest and then the Moscow suburbs, made one stop and then went to Paveletskaya station, which is the Aeroexpress terminus but also my local metro station.

To get into the station, I had to dump all my luggage through an x-ray scanner and then finding the exit was surprisingly difficult. I finally emerged into fresh Russian air onto another building site. I’d looked up my walk to the hotel on Google Maps so I recognised the tower that needed to be on my right, the Starbucks that needed to be on my left and the castle-shaped building that stood at the top of my road. And my hotel was visible a few minutes down, with a big red Ибис on the top that was recognisable despite the Cyrillic letters, which I knew spelled Ibis in Russian. I’m finding so far that I need to read everything, reading in Cyrillic is slower than reading Latin letters and everything I’ve read so far makes sense. Драив on the side of a taxi – I spelled that out slowly. D. R. A. EE. V. Draeev. Russian, that says drive!

I checked into my hotel. I was offered a room on s lower or higher floor and of course chose the higher. I’m on the ninth floor. There’s not much view but the Starbucks building is visible – it’s tall and tower-like and it’s clearly important because it’s lit up at night.

I charged my phone a bit – twelve hours uncharged and three hours playing music on the plane had flattened the battery a bit – and then went looking for a supermarket. There’s one on the street behind my hotel. I bought apple juice because яблоко was the first Russian word I ever learned (obviously. How can you navigate Moscow without knowing how to ask where your apple is?) and bread (хлеб) and other bits and pieces and then I came home and did nothing for the rest of the night. I assume I heard fireworks and not a huge gun battle at 11.30. And if this bit of Moscow is loud (it is), imagine how loud my last two nights are going to be in a few weeks when my hotel is literally backing onto the Kremlin.

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