Iceland 2022: days one and two

Day one

Well, most of it was travelling. I’m reasonably certain I was on the plane with – and sitting next to one of, although she’s still unidentified – the Icelandic woman’s football team. My entertainment system didn’t work. Nothing played, not even the map, although the system itself worked. It’s just whenever I selected anything, it was unavailable. Next door’s was available! She had films! She watched (skipped through) Avatar.

I took the Grayline bus into town. Last time I was here, Grayline and RE both sat right outside the door and tourists poured off in two streams. Now Grayline is relegated to the car park and a coach for ~50 transported 17 of us. We were all for bus stops 13 or 6 – this is the system Reykjavík has invented to keep tourist buses to the large main streets. Every hotel or guesthouse is a max five minus walk from a bus stop and mine is 13. I was half-expecting us to go to the depot and change onto minibuses but we were definitely heading towards downtown and then we were driving up Rauðarárstígur and I knew that’s where my stop was so I gathered all the stuff I’d managed to scatter across three seats in under an hour. My apartment is a two minute walk up a hill and using the door that’s further up the hill. The room is a studio apartment which means fridge and toaster! I have a view of the white back wall of the spectacularly ugly Iceland University of the Arts but if I go to the kitchen I can see the backs of some pretty apartments and a bit of noisy demolition that stopped on the dot of 6pm yesterday and didn’t start up again today.

I did some essentials shopping and then walked the 600m (but felt less) to Sundhöllin. One naked shower later and I was in the baby pool, which is the 39-degree shallow pool where the adults sprawl if they don’t want to sit in the hot pot. I sat in the hot pot too. It’s the same temperature but it’s deeper and you have to sit on the ledge rather than sprawl so it feels hotter. I eventually got in the lane pool and swam ten lengths against a vicious breeze so I decided to warm up in the rooftop hot pots which have always been a bit hot. The stairs are nominally inside but all the doors are open and that was a wind tunnel. The cooler pot is also 39 degrees and that was actually pleasant, except it’s much windier on the roof (it’s not the roof, it’s a balcony halfway up) than in the pools downstairs in the new extension so I gave up and returned to the baby pool.

Today I got the bus to the Sky Lagoon. Take 1 or 4 to Hamraborg and then you can either get the 35 that goes as far as good roads go and walk 15 mins through industrial estates or you can get an earlier bus and walk the entire 2.5km from Hamraborg, which is what I did. It didn’t feel anywhere near the 31 minutes Google Maps said it would be. Reykjavík, on the next peninsula north, looked depressingly close after a bus ride and a longish walk. I guess if you arrive by car, like literally everyone else, it only feels like a few minutes.

It was good! The water ranged from warm to hot, the lagoon is an infinity pool with a couple of sheltered “bays” within the rocky labyrinth it’s set in. I have no idea how much is natural. Was this a lava field they’ve dug out and filled with water or has the rock been brought in and bolted in place to create this cliff play set? Does it matter?

The water is just about deep enough to swim in although no one’s swimming here. It’s all about the views (except today when it was foggy, misty, cloudy and rainy) and the bar and the selfies. I know lots of phones these days are waterproof but it made me very nervous to see so many unprotected phones in the lagoon. Even worse were the definitely-not-waterproof ones in plastic sandwich bags or ziplock bags held carefully out of the water. The bar sells waterproof phone cases! Please invest in one!

I had a glass (plastic cup) of Egil’s Appelsin, an Icelandic version of Fanta that’s just a bit too orange. Then I did my Ritual.

Step one: lagoon. Done. At least an hour and half of lagoon.

Step two: cold plunge. Very cold (but “not as cold as it should be”). I plunged my ankles.

Step three: sauna. Better from the bottom step than the top. The sauna has a huge full-wall window open onto the sea. I’m astonished it doesn’t steam up but my glasses and camera didn’t either. I saw an eider duck bobbing about outside.

Step four: cold rain shower. Not as bad as I thought. You’re in a sort of high-sided open-top room and cold rain sprinkles down. I quite liked it.

Step five: scrub. Body, not face. Salt, eucalyptus and something else. You sit on the logs in the Ritual room to apply it and then…

Step six: steam room. Covered in scrub, you sit in the steam room and let it soak in. It was very steamy.

Step seven: shower off the scrub and return to the lagoon. I wouldn’t call this a “step” myself. Of course you have to wash the stuff off and of course you’re returning to the lagoon. This is admin.

But it was pleasant and my skin felt soft and smooth. I stayed in the lagoon until nearly 3pm when I decided I should face the wind and rain fully dressed and tackle the Maundy Thursday bus timetable and also get some food. I walked back to the main road until I found a bus stop and it turned out the anti-clockwise bus to Hamraborg was coming in one minute so I got on it. It took five minutes. The clockwise bus wasn’t due for twenty minutes and would take seventeen minutes to finish its loop and end up back at Hamraborg. Then back to Reykjavík on the 4 and get some cheese in Krónan. Actually, they didn’t have everything I wanted. Mango juice, check. Cranberry juice, check. Apple juice? Orange juice? Nope. I had to go back to 10-11 to finish up my supplies for the weekend – between Easter opening hours and long day tours, I don’t know when I’ll have another chance to top up.

Now the wind is howling and I might have a shower to wash the lagoon and the pool out of my hair v

Russia 2019 day 15: travelling to Perm

Only one more hour on the train, sitting opposite a man dying of congestive heart failure or pneumonia or TB or all of them. It’s been some delightful noises to listen to for the last six hours.

The train from Ekaterinburg to Perm is the Trans Siberian Railway from Novosibirsk to Moscow and it’s totally put me off doing any more of the journey. I hate him. The wife, who I think is called Olga, has been nice, once she realised I was a useless foreigner. I don’t have a seat, I have a bunk and mine is a top bunk. She showed me how to make the bed, how to get up and down, where to put my luggage and hopefully in just over half an hour, she’ll show me what to do with the bedding when I depart.

I slept on and off for the first two thirds of the journey. Getting the train at 6.44am meant being up at 5 – and then refusing to leave the apartment because it was too dark. I’ll walk around Moscow in the dark but Ekaterinburg is scarier. I waited until five to six, when civil twilight was well underway and the metro was definitely going to be open by the time I got there.

I arrived in time to get to platform 13, the furthest from the door, with enough time for Olga to have my bed mostly made by the time we started moving. I wasn’t at all sure about being stuck in a top bunk but I was tired and it was pretty comfortable. At our last stop, about an hour ago, Olga requested that I come down and sit on the seat, which means I’ve had views of birch forest and small villages and dying Russians. This is third class. I could probably have upgraded, given that my seven hour journey cost £14. It’s an open bunk carriage, blocks of four opposite two sideways. The bottom single sideways bunk turns into a table for two.

About half an hour before arriving at Perm, the provodnitsa, the woman in charge of our carriage, came round to tell us to get ready to go. That’s why they take your ticket when you board, so they know who’s disembarking when. Helpfully, Olga and her husband were also leaving at Perm so I copied what she did with the bedding and watched her fill in forms and consult passports and wondered if I should also be doing admin for getting off a long-distance train. They had a lot of paperwork with the name AMAKS at the top – a clinic in Perm? A new job? I decided that when I got to the hotel I’d look it up.

First job: which bus to take? Perm 2 station is a long way from the city centre, an hour and a half’s walk to my hotel. There were 6 or 8 buses but I had no idea where they were going, let alone where they stopped along the way. No idea where my local stop was either. This is why the metro is so much easier but Perm has no such thing. Eventually I got on a bus to Perm 1 station. That’s closer and I’d written out walking directions from there.

The last stop before Perm 1 was a hotel called AMAKS. Mystery solved already.

Perm 1 is by the river. It’s pretty and there’s a river station. A boat trip in my future? First, find the hotel. That was easier said than done. I was carrying two bags plus a bag of food. It was 2pm and the sun was brutal and I was still wearing the jumper I’d needed at 6am. I still hadn’t eaten and I’d been awake most of last night anyway. It was not optimal find-the-hotel conditions. Cross the railway. Can only be done in one direction and I started in the wrong one. Forget the instructions, just walk towards the blue dot I marked on my phone yesterday. It seemed i could cut corners. There was a park to my left. Surely the hotel was in the opposite corner of the park? I could walk through it. And I could sit down and take off the jumper. So I did, discovering at the same time that three goats live in the little park, pestering people for food and standing up on their back legs to eat the trees. Very good. A park with goats and a nice river – Perm had already beaten Ekaterinburg.

But then it turned out that this wasn’t the park on the map. The park on the map was a giant cemetery and there was no way round it, through it or past it. I tried. Dead ends everywhere. Yeah, dead. I raged. Loudly. But there was no way. I had to return to the main road and start again. It took an hour and three quarters from Perm 1. If you remember, that’s longer than it would have taken from Perm 2.

I didn’t do much for the rest of the day. Ate. First food in twenty hours. Had a very much needed shower – not as good as the big jacuzzi I left behind but never mind. Slept. Enjoyed being in a hotel, with people downstairs who speak English.

Russia 2019 day thirteen: Ekaterinburg

Today started slower than planned. Ekaterinburg is a noisy city at night and I had no idea if the constant yelling and bellowing was just a good Saturday night our or a repeat of the events that happened here in 1918. Fireworks – proper display ones, not the ones you buy from a cabinet in Tesco – going off quite literally in the street below my window at 4:35am did not help. Neither did the extra two hours time difference or the amazing jacuzzi in my own bathroom which I didn’t want to get out of.

So, first stop today was the supermarket, which is in the huge shopping centre (biggest in Russia outside Moscow) just visible from my living room window. Breakfast of nearly-Weetos and apple juice (no bits! More luck than judgement) and then at last I went off into the city.

This is the fourth biggest city in Russia and at the moment, it feels like it. All I can see from my window is high-rise glass towers. This is far more of a city than even Moscow felt like. Pity its metro is only nine stops on one line – I actually have to walk from the stations!

My main stop today was the Romanov death site, the little collection of cathedrals and churches built on the site where the last of the Russian ruling dynasty that began with Peter the Great was slaughtered -Nikolai II (who used to be bizarre, as they say) and his wife and son and four daughters, plus a handful of friends and allies. They were taken by Bolsheviks into the basement of a local engineer’s house and killed. Shot, and then when that didn’t work because people don’t always stand quietly facing the wall when a firing squad comes for them, stabbed. It took forever to kill them all. The house was demolished for fear it would become a focal point for pro-Tsarist anti-Soviet chaos and in the 70s, the current Church on the Blood was built.

It’s free to go inside. It’s a working church. That’s presumably why you’re supposed to cover your head there when I never had to in any of the churches in Moscow or St Petersburg – they’re all museums now. The “exhibition” downstairs is a low dark room full of gold and icons and a wall of memorial stones to the Romanovs. Their bodies are now in a tomb in the Peter & Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg along with their official memorial.

Upstairs is the main church and that looks a lot like most other churches. It’s high and light and covered in nearly-pastel paintings right up to the ceiling. However, there was a ceremony going on, probably a Russian Orthodox wedding, with a girl in a white lacy dress (not a huge wedding cake with train, just a simple dress), two singing priests in gold outfits, candles, incense, quite a few people taking photos. Some of which I’m now in the background of, with my hood up because it never occurred to me to take a headscarf to the death site.

I sat on the steps outside and wondered what it would look like if we had a revolution like that. How many Mountbatten-Windsors would you need to kill to end our monarchy? More than six. How wide would you need to go? How many cousins and distant relations would you need to wipe them out? Now, a revolution like the one Kyiv had five or six years ago, that might not be so bad for our current predicament…

Next I walked up the main road. This end of Ekaterinburg is less glass and towers. I don’t imagine there’s much that’s recognisable from 1918 but there are some older buildings there. And then I went into the station and bought my train ticket to Perm. It took a few attempts – the machine wanted my card and PIN before I even started telling it where I wanted to go and the list of trains is given in Moscow time, local time not appearing until one screen before the end and you have to enter all your passport details – no wonder the guard wanted my passport when I boarded the St Petersburg train. I even know I’ll be departing from Track 1.

And then I got the metro home and had a very late lunch and jumped back in my lovely jacuzzi.

Russia 2019 day nine : Flying to Murmansk

4:45 is a stupid time to wake up, especially when you’ve paid for breakfast every morning and you’re not going to be able to eat this one. And this is the convenient flight, the rare one that doesn’t dump me into unknown Arctic Russia at 4am.

I’d asked about getting to the airport for an 8.30 flight and the receptionist was adamant that the metro to the airport bus was the best way. He even got out a city map to show me how to navigate there on the metro, as if I haven’t lived underneath St Petersburg for the last three days.

That said, I did jump off in the wrong place. It’s just not fair to have Moskovskie vorota and Moskovskaya three stops apart on the same line. Bus 39 was waiting when I emerged at last and although the orange machines wouldn’t accept my smartcard, the conductor was right there and she sold me the sort of paper ticket I’ve only seen in Kyiv and on the Moors Valley railway.

I had to go through basic security just to get into the airport. I checked in online yesterday but I checked in again to get a paper boarding pass. Then through real security, which was fine except that I had to also go on a conveyer belt through a scanner. The operator clicked his fingers every time it started moving as if he was trying to convince us he was working it by magic.

Now I’m sitting at my gate with a bottle of pear Fanta. My opinion is broadly that it would be nicer if it wasn’t fizzy.

Gate change! I get comfortable at D02 which is on my boarding pass and the screen and then suddenly a flight to Sochi is going from my gate and I’m supposed to now be at D08, which the announcer voice is pronouncing as V.

To be continued from Murmansk. I hope it’s cold because I’m carrying a big coat that’s been most inappropriate for the weather so far.

The flight was uneventful except that I was stuck in the middle seat and the person with the window seat spent the entire flight wearing a sleeping mask. We got given a biscuit-thing and a cake-thing which I haven’t sampled yet – it’s been a long time since I’ve been given free food on a plane.

We landed and the pilot announced that we’d landed so people started to get up only then the cabin crew went marching down the plane ordering them to sit down and slamming the lockers closed. Were we being held hostage on the plane? What was happening? What was happening, as far as I can understand, was that we were reversing just far enough that we’d require a bus to take us to the terminal. (We absolutely did not need a bus. It was right there).

Getting through the airport as a domestic arrival with hand luggage took all of twenty seconds and then I declined several offers of taxis in favour of the bus – by which I mean marshrutka, battered old minibus. I sat in the back corner which turned out to be a very good decision because we picked up a lot more passengers than we had seats on the hour-long drive into the city and you can’t give your seat to someone in more need if you’re wedged in the corner. Just try not to lean on the back door because i have zero faith in that withstanding any pressure.

Murmansk is a grim dirty little mining/port town, just like Narvik, redeemed by its location, just like Narvik. I bet it looks pretty magic in winter, if unbearably cold. We drove up the east side of the Bay of Kola which looks like a perfect dark blue Arctic fjord surrounded by hills just made for snow. Here’s the frontier feel I looked for in Kiruna.

The station where the marshrutka dropped us is only about 200 yards from my apartment but here came the logistical problems. First, I had no idea where no. 22 is and the nice girl in the jewellers (well, if you’re going to approach a stranger in a Russian Arctic frontier town who isn’t going to speak English, that seemed the least threatening option) didn’t either. She’s on the same road but doesn’t seem to know what number her shop is in. Then I found it but it’s an entire building, home to half a dozen shops and 70ish apartments. Where’s the door? How do you get in? You phone the place. The person who answers doesn’t speak English, of course. You text. No response and you wonder if the number is actually working. And then the answer is Russian. I took to my guidebook’s language section and went for “I’m in front of” and eventually got the full address including apartment number. I’d been about to go to the big international chain hotel up the road – they would surely speak English and if necessary, it’s a roof. More expensive than the apartment but it’s an option.

I found the door and rang the bell. About four times. No answer. No answer to my “Да, я здесь” text (Yes, I’m here). It’s now about 1.15. I arrived at the station around half past eleven. I haven’t eaten today. My bag is heavy. I went to the hotel. Trainee Maria was wonderful, once she’d realised my booking wasn’t at her hotel. She phoned my landlady in Russian and five minutes later, I was standing outside the door again, being let in at last. We’d met before. When I’d first phoned, I’d gone looking for someone looking for a visitor and she’d looked like she was looking for someone. But when she spoke to me and I failed to understand a word, she apparently took that as meaning I wasn’t the person who’d just phoned her and not understood a word.

Anyway, arrival, check-in, payment and quick tour was done somehow with no mutual understanding, although I did get straight on the wifi and use the Google Translate app. She’s not very good at typing and I’m not convinced she can see very well either.

But now I have an apartment in Murmansk for three nghts. It’s kind of old-fashioned – in Soviet Russia apartment decorates you, that sort of thing. This is definitely not a major modern cosmopolitan city like the two I’ve just left. But I have a bath and a kitchen and more space than I’ve had for weeks and despite the difficulties, I like Murmansk.

Russia 2019 day 8: St Petersburg

It was raining when I woke up although by the time I got out of bed and had breakfast and packed and got outside it was merely grey and threatening drizzle.

Today was the Hermitage which I’ve been putting off. Finding it was no problem; I ran into it by accident yesterday but finding the entrance was harder – there was no queue yesterday to show me the entrance. That’s because it’s closed on Mondays.

The entrance on the embankment is for your groups. Back to Palace Square. I go in the front door – what’s misleading me is the lack of queue here. People don’t come here on their own without pre-booked tickets and they really should. There were four people in front of me at the ticket machine where there was the population of a small city at the tour entrance and of a large town at the internet tickets entrance. Then it’s maybe ten minutes to get through security and ticket control. “Take a sandwich and a bottle of water” says the guidebook. Nope. No liquids – although if you play stupid enough you clearly can because that tourist didn’t buy that litre carton of orange juice in the cafe. I’m glad I brought a refilled Fanta bottle today and not my own plastic bottle because I would not be surrendering that. Still, probably not many people hiss furiously what I did at the security gate. I don’t like this city half as much as Moscow.

First, the big staircase. Oh, and all the tour groups posing on it. Then back downstairs to see the Egyptian stuff and go in the cafe-lounge for a new drink and a croissant because I was very hot and sweaty and thirsty and furious.

Once I’d done that I could go and have a try at the Hermitage. I’m really not an art person or a museum person but you can’t not go to the Hermitage (and for 700₽ – less than £9! That’s a ridiculous price for something on this scale! Imagine tickets to the Louvre costing €10!) The first few rooms were palace rooms and I did like the Malachite Room, which is mostly a fairly ordinary imperial room, only with endless fireplaces, vases, pillars and tables made of malachite.

Other highlights: the red & gold throne room, the red & gold sitting room and the room that was gold from floor to ceiling. When I have a house, I need a room as gold as that. I charged through the Winter Palace with very little regard for art, though. I paused at the necessary pictures mentioned in my guidebook but the rooms themselves were far more interesting.

As for getting around the place – well, there’s only one staircase to the top floor and only one to the stuff on the ground floor under the nice gold room, which has no public connection at all to the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art in the New Hermitage. Entire corridors on the middle floors are closed and the obvious routes round them one-way only. There’s no way at all to get into the coins & medals upstairs unless that staircase in a closed room is actually open.

They say it would take a year to see the Hermitage properly. I saw plenty in the four or so hours I was in there. No, I didn’t look at most of it properly but I found more that I liked than I expected to. It would be nice if there were more places you could stop to drink that bottle you brazenly removed from the cafe-lounge – it’s a pain to have to return to the corridor by the Egyptians every time you’re thirsty.

When I left, feet very flat and tired, there were soldier-types practising marching in Palace Square. The mini-platoon in ceremonial uniform was absolutely surrounded by Chinese tourist cameras. The two in camouflage uniform apparently counting steps were getting less attention. Then the platoon returned to their bus on the edge of the square and mini military band took their place, although they took so long about it that I gave up and went home, amused to find hundreds more soldiers in green uniforms waiting at both zebra crossings on the way back to the metro.

I had a quick break back home and then went to find Vladimirsky Cathedral which is almost as close as my local metro & therefore easier and quicker to just walk to. It turns out this is a working cathedral (although it became an underwear factory during the Soviet era) populated by babushkas in headscarves and not a tourist in sight. I didn’t have a headscarf. So I stayed by the door, very quiet, not taking photos, not wandering, just standing silently and looking for a couple of minutes. It’s not very spectacular. Either it has a low ceiling or the main domes are closed inside as well as outside – it’s covered in scaffolding.

And that’s it for St Petersburg. Tomorrow I leave the realm of vaguely-European cosmopolitan cities I’ve been to before and safe-if-boring chain hotels and head to Russia’s ugly industrial slightly-radioactive port city in the Arctic.

Russia 2019 day five: moving to St Petersburg

Seven o’clock isn’t actually very early to get up but it felt like it, especially for a train leaving at 9.20 from a station two metro stops away. I got there in time. For the first time, the day dawned grey and with the sound of tyres on wet roads. That could be due to obsessive road-washing but no, it was a damp day.

I’d heard that I needed to be at the station an hour before the bullet train left, to go through security and find my platform, neither of which turned out to be a problem. Security meant dumping my bags on the conveyer belt of an x-ray scanner, as I’d already done a couple of times, and then again to gain access to the Сапсан platform. The departure boards spoke English but I think I’d have been able to figure it out. Sapsan has its own platforms and its own branding and I can read Санкт Петербург so I’d probably have been ok anyway.

One thing that surprised me was that the guard didn’t want tickets for boarding, only passports, and then I needed the last four digits of my passport number to use the wifi. It was like being on a plane except Russian-style – men guards in big military hats and white gloves, women guards in tight grey pencil skirts, an entire army of them, at least one per wagon.

It’s called a bullet train and Sapsan means peregrine falcon so I was expecting fast. And it does make the journey from Moscow to St Petersburg in four hours instead of nine or ten but the fastest I saw, briefly, on the carriage displays was 219km/h which is 136mph which is fast but it’s not that fast. It never felt faster than the train I take from Southampton to London.

Four hours passed surprisingly fast and before I knew it, I was packing up ready to alight in my second city. Escaping St Petersburg Moskovskaya was a lot harder than getting into Moscow Kurskaya and once I was outside – onto Nevsky Prospekt, I discovered later – it was chaos. Far more chaotic than Moscow. So far my images of the cities were that Moscow is the huge old sprawly dirty scary city and St Petersburg is the smaller, more delicate and pretty one. London and Helsinki. But I’d been wrong about Moscow, which is the cleanest city I’ve ever been in and surprisingly ordered, although it has too many cars, as does every major city in the world. I have three full days to see how right or wrong I am about St Petersburg.

My hotel was just down the road, although my luggage seems to have doubled in both volume and weight since I arrived in Russia so it felt far too far. Carrying it from the station to the hotel in Perm next week is probably going to kill me.

First things first, a quick lunch from my Moscow leftovers and then back to the big shopping centre behind the station for new supplies. There’s always a supermarket in a shopping centre and this one possessed the same supermarket as the one at Kyivskaya the other night, my favourite one so far – although in this particular one I question their decision to put the chocolate and confectionery on opposite sides of the shop. Same goes for drinks & juices and cheese & yoghurt.

I knew I wasn’t going to do much today. But when I’d walked into the hotel, they had an excursion booking desk and front & centre was a big poster for Feel Yourself Russian, the folk show we saw here seventeen years ago and it’s still running, with the same posters. I’d been considering hunting it up but since it right there I booked it for the evening.

Transfer is included in the price – that means a taxi gets sent for you. I’m not a huge fan of taxis and by the time I arrived, I wished transfer was not included. It would surely make tickets half the price and I’d be far more comfortable on the metro. In a car with a stranger, on streets I don’t know and which don’t match the route I looked up before going out, driving at 70km/h on inner-city boulevards, overtaking, traffic lights going green onto green-lit zebra crossings and it took twenty minutes for me to notice the three-foot crack across the windscreen. I was pretty sure someone was going to die before we arrived and while it was probably going to be a pedestrian, I wasn’t ruling out it being me.

I don’t remember going to the Nikolaevsky Palace last time but how do you forget walking into a palace, up a huge ornate staircase that gets specially pointed out in the Wikipedia entry, and into a palace chamber? Even better, there’s a string quartet halfway up the stairs and people in Imperial Russian costumes dancing around.

Last time, we took photos throughout. Not in 2019, although fully half of the front row didn’t get the message and there was one woman at the far end who didn’t once look up from her phone or remove on earphone.

Audience aside, it’s a great show. It starts with a four piece male choir (who leave waving CDs and traditional wooden clacking instruments) and then they bring on the band, complete with enormous triangular guitar-thing and two accordions, and then the Cossack dancers. It’s all so chaotic and colourful and crazy. There’s someone in the band whose job is to whistle deafeningly, and the male dancers yell and the female ones shriek. And yes, they do the floor dancing that looks really bad for your knees.

During the interval there were snacks, Russian-style. We wandered freely around the palace – well, the part that was open to us. There’s a lot of palace that isn’t. The second half was similar except it was a different dance group and the band had been wedged into the corner so they had as much stage as possible.

I recognised some of the costumes from my old photos and I recognised the dance of two elderly Cossacks hugging each other, which is actually one person with boots on their hands as well. Bit disappointed there was no chicken dance this time or playing of tiny saws. But they did a dance with one person continually falling off the stage and one where they all sat on the stage and took it in turns to show off their favourite floor-dancing and at the end, one woman crouched while one of the men spun her round and round using an actual handle.

Afterwards, those of us who weren’t on a tour bus gathered around Sergey, who delivered us to taxis back to our hotels. This one wasn’t quite so scary but I’d still take the metro over my first Uber. I saw St Petersburg by night. There’s a palace or neoclassical mansion quite literally around every corner. There are horses pulling decorative coaches. My brief impression, somewhat blurred by speed, is that I like Moscow more. There are ladies selling tourist junk from tables along the street, I saw litter and using a zebra crossing seems to involve taking your life in your own hands. I felt safe in Moscow at night. I’m not so sure about St Petersburg.

Russia 2019 day four: Moscow

Earlyish start today. I went to the Kremlin.

It was a bit messier than planned – my bottle leaked, soaking everything in the main compartment of my bag. So there I am sitting on a bench underneath Park Kultury trying to fit everything in the side pockets and the handy pockets in my t-shirt.

I joined the queue at the ticket office and when I eventually got inside, I discovered that I’d been queuing for the desks selling Armoury tickets. You can just walk in and walk up to the Cathedral Square ticket desk. There are even ticket machines. Still, the queue gave me time to obsessively flick the pages of my guidebook in the sun in an attempt to dry it without all the pages ending up stuck together.

Quick security check at the entrance tower and I was walking across the bridge and through the Trinity Tower into the Kremlin grounds.

I’d like to say walking into the heart of medieval, imperial, Soviet and modern Russia was a magic moment but I was stuck to the back of several tour groups with no sense whatsoever of where I was, where I was allowed to be and what was going on.

I was standing outside the Kremlin’s newest building, the concrete and glass Soviet addition that now houses the Kremlin ballet. To my right was the cathedral complex and if I wanted to step into the road, it had to be on the crossings. Kremlin guards are very quick to blow their whistles at anyone who steps into the road – and there are quite a few roads crossing the open square.

First up was the Patriarch’s Palace, quite tall and very narrow with silver domes. Under the arches and into Cathedral Square was Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower on the left, the big square gold-domed Dormition Cathedral on the right and the Archangel and Annuciation Cathedrals behind. Plus a lot of tour groups.

I started in the Side Chapel of St Varus in the back of the Archangel Cathedral while I figured out where I was allowed to go. There was a queue going into the Annunciation Cathedral so I sat and sketched the Dormition Cathedral while I waited – even worse than my St Basil’s sketch which did at least all fit on the paper! – and then followed them in.

I was later to learn that all the cathedrals are pretty similar inside – vivid frescoes up to and all over the ceiling and the inside of the domes, huge pillars, tombs around the outside and a massive gold altar screen covered with icons. No photos, obviously, but each one came with a six-page leaflet that contained a diagram and pictures of special items and icons. Gradually, I covered the three big cathedrals, the smaller Church of the Deposition of the Robe and the Church of the Twelve Apostles inside the Patriarch’s Palace. I say that they’re all the same but that doesn’t mean it’s not a spectacular sight.

It’s also a pretty spectacular sight to see the Kremlin walls from the inside, with the occasional glimpse of the domes of St Basil’s peeping over. And then there’s Putin’s house behind the cathedrals and Putin’s office on the other side of the square and the Arsenal next to the Trinity Tower. Oh, and the cannon that’s too big to use and the bell that’s too big to hang, with a small bit broken out of the bottom and that broken bit weighs eleven tons. And there’s even a bit of park and a hot dog cabin and the Kremlin’s own rose garden and water feature.

I knew the Kremlin would take me a while, even without the Armoury, but before I knew it, it was mid-afternoon. So I headed to the Saviour’s Gate Tower, the exit. Except that the path was closed, I wasn’t stupid enough to walk in the road, the tower was fenced and the outer door was closed. How do you leave the Kremlin when the exit is closed? How do I get out? Am I now a prisoner in the Kremlin? And for a while, it felt like I was. How do I get out? Back through the Trinity Tower, it turns out.

My plan was to go to the rooftop terraces of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the big white cathedral with gold domes just down the road. My visit there last night when it was closed had identified a cafe outside and I desperately needed liquid. I’d drunk whatever hadn’t escaped into my bag by 10am to make sure nothing else could spill and it’s ludicrously hot in Moscow at the moment. I went into the cafe, was shown to a seat at the bar and given a menu.

Twenty minutes later, I still hadn’t had my order taken. I know it’s a posh cafe of the sort I shouldn’t really be in and the staff are busy but I needed liquid and I could have drunk it and been on the roof by now. Being invisible on the bus yesterday was great but today when I couldn’t get a drink… eventually I left in a fury, leaving some unmistakable English in the doorway in response to what I assume was “thanks for coming, have a nice day!” from the girl who seated me. Do not bother going to Kiosk cafe outside Kropotkinskaya metro station, it’s a total waste of time. Now, the ice cream stand outside the cathedral, that was able to provide me with a bottle of Fanta in under 30 seconds.

I bought my terrace ticket and climbed 240ish stairs. Good stairs, the sort of stairs that belong in a cathedral built in the 1990s, just a lot of them. Well, there have to be. The roof is a long way up.

I could see everything from up there. I definitely saw five of Stalin’s Seven Sisters. I may have seen the other two, I’ll need to check when I get home. I saw the entire Kremlin laid out in front of me. I saw the Starbucks building next to Paveletskaya that I can see from my own window. I saw a lot of gold domes.

Back downstairs two roof circuits later, and a brief sit on the steps in the shade for a drink, I had a proper look at the inside of the cathedral. Very big and open and clean and bright, just as elaborately decorated as the Kremlin cathedrals but in a way that made it feel bigger, not smaller. A lot shinier too. An American tourist on the steps outside said they made Jesus & co look a lot more “realistic, like African or Egyptian or something”. We’ll leave her idea of where Jerusalem and Bethlehem actually are alone – the baby Jesuses (or Josh, if you prefer) in the Nativity scenes she liked so much had the faces of skinny white models in their early 20s only with her head shaved.

My last stop of the day was back at the top of Red Square in search of postcards for my scrapbook. I found some lovely arty ones but no traditional real postcards, real photos of places and things, particularly church interiors. Never mind, I’ll be back in Moscow in two weeks (when the Tattoo will have left Red Square – hopefully nothing will move in to replace it) and I’ll have another look then.

Tonight I need to pack because I need to be at the station for my bullet train to St Petersburg between 8.30 and 9am tomorrow. It’s only two metro stops away but it’ll mean leaving my room with breakfast inside me by 8.15am at the very latest.

Russia 2019 day three: Moscow

Today started slowly because it could. Tomorrow I will probably get up early to queue for the Kremlin (when I get back to Moscow in a couple of weeks my hotel literally overlooks the Kremlin & it would be so easy to run downstairs to do it then – but leaving it until the last day of this odyssey seems risky) and I need to be at the station for my train at about 8.30 on Saturday morning.

My first stop was Red Square again because this is Moscow and it’s like a bright light for a moth. This time I went to see Lenin. Long queue but it was in the shade. Most rigorous security so far, in a city where there’s a metal detector and a bag search in every doorway (although the bag search, as with every bag search I’ve ever had, seems to looking for an alarm clock & curly wires sitting right on too).

There’s a line of graves at the bottom of the Kremlin wall, each stone topped with a carving of the head of its occupant. I found Stalin (the one with a small crowd around it) and Yuri Gagarin is in there too somewhere, the only other one I’d heard of. And then into the mausoleum. Silence, no photos, ushered along a walkway in a dark black & red room that wouldn’t be out of place on a Peacekeeper Command Carrier – and there’s Vlad lying on top of the tomb. Not a wax figure or even a bronze carving. That’s Lenin, his actual body, dead 95 years, lying right in front of me, an actual dead embalmed body. He’s in good condition for someone so very dead.

I walked down through the market. The back doors of the huts are padlocked when not in use but I noticed that if you want to break in, you only have to undo four screws to remove the metal loops the padlock goes through. High security there.

At the bottom of Red Square, I got on the hop-on-hop-off bus. Go upstairs, sit down. So I did and once we started moving, the steward came up to sell the tickets. Only she stopped before she got to me. Well, we were at the next stop. She had to deal with new passengers and she’d come back. Only she didn’t. So I got a map, another set of headphones and a free ride round the Heart of Moscow circuit, taking in the Kremlin, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Bolshoi Theatre, big shopping centre, FSB/KGB headquarters, Kitay Gorod and back to St Basil’s.

Then I came home for a late lunch, an escape from the sun & heat (what happened to Russia being cold?) and a nap.

I went out again at 6. I wanted to go on the cathedral roof but I was too late – that’s going on the list for tomorrow as well – and then out to Kiyevskaya to visit the Hotel Ukraine.

First of all, the entire area around Kiyevskaya station is a building site. But there’s a shiny new shopping centre right opposite and as it happened, I needed food. Best supermarket so far. And the shopping centre itself is shiny inside. I spent a while enjoying the lights and fountains at the lifts and then the fountains outside before going in search of the hotel.

It’s about a 20 minute walk to the hotel and no obvious route except through a housing estate. It reminded me a lot of Pripyat but I think that was down to the number of trees rather than anything else. And at least, I came through a gate in the dark estate onto a huge bright road and the enormous hotel on the other side.

It’s had new owners since I stayed there. There are expensive shops around the bottom, including a Rolls Royce dealer. There’s a doorman in proper fancy uniform and guards on the metal detectors and inside it’s all white marble and high-end boutiques. No wonder it’s a pain to get here from the metro. No one staying here nowadays is arriving by public transport. Actually, there’s very little sign of it being a hotel – no reception desk. You wouldn’t bring a school group here now. I immediately knew this wasn’t a place someone dressed like me should be, especially not clutching a plastic bag of shopping. So I left.

When I got back to Paveletskaya, I realised for the first time that the entrance is green and has gold murals round the ceiling so I paused to take photos, which is when an older lady stopped to ask me where the station is. In Russian. I got the tone of voice and the word вокзал which I knew from my brief Ukrainian lessons to mean station – the real railway, rather than the metro station we were in. Paveletskaya main station is on the other side of the main road so I pointed and said, in English, “over there” and then, just to make sure I’d understood the question, I made a train noise and when she said да, I pointed again. I’d been asked for directions in Russian and been able to understand and respond (not entirely sure “over there” was helpful but the best I can do) and that’s the greatest achievement of my life so far.

Then I came home triumphant and made a cheese sandwich in a hotel I don’t feel too much of an urchin for.

Russia 2019 day two: Moscow

It turns out my bit of not-so-central Moscow is really noisy – lots of people driving noisy cars far too loud and far too fast and I can’t tell whether that’s on the road below or on the Garden Ring, which is one of three roads encircling the city centre. And then at 10.30, either a war broke out or huge fireworks.

Breakfast in the morning was very typical Ibis/chain hotel so bread & butter, croissant & jam, orange & apple juices for me and then I went to see Moscow.

First obstacle: the metro. Thanks to my lack of Cyrillic last time, I’d been very impressed by Martyn managing to navigate it but it’s not so hard. The ticket machine speaks English and spat out a single journey ticket and then the metro itself astonished me by being absolutely identical to the one in Kyiv. Same escalators, same layouts, same signs, same trains, same interchange stations.

I took green line 2 from Paveletskaya to Teatralnaya and exited at Ploschad Revolyutsii. I’d looked up how to get to Red Square from here but I couldn’t remember and it didn’t matter. I followed a lane and emerged on a street hidden under iridescent butterfly hangings and as I walked along, I got a glimpse of red towers ahead. This was the street I’d planned to end up on…

But Red Square wasn’t quite as easy as that. It was occupied by an International Military Tattoo. Getting in and out was only through metal detectors and bag searches, which I imagine is pretty permanent in this day and age but the north end of the square was all Christmas-style market, in wooden huts, and the southern end was the parade ground. You couldn’t really see Red Square. The Kremlin walls and towers rose up over it all but St Basil’s Cathedral, which is lower down the hill, was almost invisible behind rows of seating. Obviously, all this meant foot traffic was pushed down fenced walkways which meant the first real look you got of St Basil’s was from virtually underneath it. So I went inside. I’d planned to do it, I’m just not sure I’d planned to do it so quickly. There was a short queue for tickets (you get in cheaper if you’re Russian!) but no queue for entrance.

In my attempts to find the exact name of one of the churches I took a photo of, I’ve read quite a few opinions on the interior and most of them agree that it’s disappointing compared to the outside and borderline not worth it. These people are wrong.

This cathedral was built by Ivan IV, known as the Terrible although originally it meant more like Awesome (like a winter storm at sea, not like the way we use it now) to celebrate various victories. It’s nine churches clustered together, none of them big enough to fit more than about twenty people in. No European soaring open light spaces here for thousands or coronations.

Despite its size, there are only two floors. The downstairs has fairly low ceilings and every surface that can be painted on has been. The Vatican has nothing on this. The main attraction of downstairs is the Church of St Vasily the Blessed, the most recent of the churches and the one that the whole structure accidentally acquired its everyday name from – Vasily being Russian for Basil. The cathedral itself is officially named the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat (it used to have a moat) but that’s a bit of a mouthful. Vasily’ crypt is all gold and icons and all the slightly tarnished splendour you’d imagine for the resting place of an actual saint.

Finding the stairs is a bit of a challenge. So is climbing them. They’re clearly newer than the rest of the cathedral but some of the steps are ludicrously high, there’s an awkward turn two thirds of the way up and they’re very narrow.

Upstairs is as much of a maze as downstairs, only it’s a little more open and sometimes you come across a big area open to the sun, especially at the top of the stairs that criss-cross the southern end. Some parts of the maze are therefore very light and some are very dark and narrow. There are a lot of frescoes and colours going on here too – I like the airmail effect of red, white and blue stripes by the stairs. You fall from one church to the next, never knowing what’s going to be through the next door, what you’ve already seen, where you’re supposed to go. There’s a map near the southern end but I’m pretty sure it’s the wrong way up and ‘you are here’ doesn’t match up with what I’m seeing at all.

It was while I was lost in a darker part that I heard a choir echoing through the maze and if it’s difficult to navigate, imagine trying to follow an echo that’s coming from everywhere at once. It turned out to be a four piece male voice choir in what seems to be the Church of the Holy Trinity, judging by the spiral on the ceiling. They’re very good but it sounds better echoing around the walls than coming from four men in white shirts.

At last I left. I wanted to see it properly from the outside too and the only place you can really do that right now is from the south. I found a bench and sketched it for my scrapbook. I can’t draw but even if I could, there’s just so much going on. Every church is a separate structure, there’s endless decoration from top to bottom, domes poking out from behind domes, practical square bits at the bottom, a tree blocking part of it.

By now I’d made up my mind to run back to the hotel, partly for lunch but mostly for spare camera batteries. But I had a deadline. Scheduled electricity maintenance meant a planned power cut between 2 and 6 and it was already 12. I decided I’d go to Alexadrovsky Sad station instead of fighting my way back through Red Square and that was how I realised how triangular the Kremlin is. Would have been far quicker to just go back through Red Square. Still, eventually I found the Kremlin ticket office (and queue) and Kremlin entrance (and queue) and got to the metro. Best way home: change to line 5 at Park Kultury.

At Park Kultury, while changing lines, I spied the souvenirs. I’d been keeping an eye out. Moscow’s Oyster equivalent, the Troika card, comes in wearable forms and I wanted a ring. You can’t operate the Tube by waving your hand over the turnstile. You can pry the chip out and put it in things but TfL really don’t like that. Moscow loves it. So now I have a pearly white ceramic ring on my finger, preloaded with ten journeys and can enter the metro by touching the gate and it’s like actual magic. Not to mention it saves finding a card or getting out my wallet every time.

I finally got back with thirty-five minutes to spare. I didn’t stay long. I grabbed my stuff and tried to put some money on my ring and failed – you can only do it on the website in Russian and the app, which is in English, wouldn’t accept my cards. I had to do it in person at the metro station. I dropped some stuff on my bed – two used metro tickets, the box for my ring containing the instructions and my unique ID number, my phrasebook and camera case and personal alarm (I’d managed to set it off at Park Kultury without even noticing – well, I noticed something. Thought I’d get on the train and escape because there’s a quiet alarm at the station but no one’s reacting. Got on the train – it continued. Alarm in the whole metro system and no one seems to care! Oh… no… it’s me.

I decided I’d go to Gorky Park while I waited for the electricity to come back on. The nearest station, it turns out, is not Park Kultury but that’s where I went. I crossed the bridge over the river and saw the statue of Peter the Great which I’d assumed to be in St Petersburg, which is after all his city and his capital. I saw that from a rooftop last time. A church? Where is there a church convenient for viewing it? It took the entire length of the bridge for me to realise it was from the white and gold Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was only built around 1997, I think. This is why I had to come back here as an adult!

I had had no idea what the weather would be like but it was hot. I found shade in Gorky Park and then walked down to the fountains to discover that in ten minutes, they’d start their music and light show. People were sitting around the edge with their feet in the gutter so I joined them. The lights aren’t visible at 3pm and the fountains aren’t really in time with the music but it’s fun to watch. I walked around the fountains. At the bottom, you’d get a view right through the fountains to the huge chunk of Soviet gate at the park entrance if not for the spray. On the far side, there was a man on roller skates dancing to the music.

I went to Oktyabrskaya and took the metro back to Alexadrovsky Sad and finished my circular walk of the Kremlin, past the Unknown Soldier – I know the guards march in peculiar Russian style but right then they were standing still. Back at the top of Red Square, the arches were closed. And the next set. And the next. Red Square was completely closed! You can’t close Red Square! I walked through the expensive shopping centre and back down to the benches at the southern end where I’d sketched At Basil’s, only now the sun was setting and it was harder to see and definitely harder to take photos. Rather than wind my way north or circumnavigate the Kremlin again, I walked along the top of Zaryadye Park and three little churches on the same street back to Kitay Gorod station and home just in time to join the queue returning at 6 and wanting to use the one lift operating for three hotels (this one is attached to the Mercure and the Accor and we had the only lift that worked during the power cut). There was a woman behind me who huffed and whined the entire time we were waiting for the lift. It was taking too long. It’s on the ninth floor now, oh great! It’s going to be half an hour before we get back to our room and I have to change! It would be quicker to walk. If it had taken much longer to arrive, my responses to these would have become audible – well, they already are but it’s amazing how deaf people become if you stare at the lift while you snap “Then just walk!”

The power finally returned a few minutes after I got back to my room – yes, lady, on the ninth floor, the lift goes to all floors, not just yours – but the wifi took a bit longer to come back to life. I used the time to paint my sketch of St Basil’s and now with some colour, it makes more sense and also looks so much more wobbly.
Last job of the day: more food shopping. I ignored last night’s Магнит and tried the Daily минимаркет next door. Mistake. This was the kind of upmarket posh place that has pale wooden shelves instead of real shelves, looks like a National Trust giftshop and sells neither bread nor plastic cheese slices. So to the Billa. I’d seen it on the map when I’d searched for supermarkets and I know Billa. Unfortunately it’s further than it looks. I’ll stick to Магнит for the rest of the week.

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.