• Date and Time: Monday 11th September, 2007. 3pm
  • Location: Sweet Moscow Hostel, Moscow
  • Before I tell you about my time in Moscow, I must breathe out. I am just recovering from the most hectic 2 hours of this trip so far. It could have been the most stressful too, beginning as it did with a realisation that I had done someting incredibly stupid, something that made the bottom of my belly fall out.

    It began at 9am. I’d been up for several hours, trying to sort out a few issues with the hostel’s computer, as requested (my expert opinion in the end was that the best thing to do was to throw it out of the window and buy a Mac). At 8am I was joined by Svetlana, the 19-year-old Russian student of Urdu who looks after folks when the manager, Baira (as featured in that photo in my album of Pepe eating a pickled sandwich) is away. We chatted for a while about learning languages and so forth, before I started to edit some Moscow pics. It was whilst I was doing that that it occurred to me that I should check the time of my train that departed for Berlin, via Belarus and Poland, tonight.

    I was pretty sure that it was scheduled to leave at 10pm, but best to confirm to be on the safe side. First off, I needed to check the address of the travel agent who was holding my ticket for me – I’d bought it a couple of months back via the internet at a cost of $219, and had to pick it up from a Moscow office that by sheer ‘coincidence’ happened to be located just up the road from the hostel.

    Looking at the email from the agent I got the biggest shock of my life, and then the sickest feeling ever, as I saw, below the travel agent’s address, the train times. “Monday September 11th, 8.20am”.

    Oh. My. God. That was, er, about an hour ago. I quickly found a wall and started banging my head against it.

    You should have seen me fly! My clothes were back in my rucksack in no time! At the door I was seen off by Svetlana, Takashi (from Japan), and the couple from Belgium. “Good luck!” they called, as I forgot my fear of long drops and summoned the elevator. Oh! But my socks! I’d left my socks in the bathroom! Back in I went, grabbed the sweet swelling pair and then dashed back out onto the landing where the lift doors were just squeaking open. I felt everyone rooting for me as I ran, rucksack laden, up the busy commuter street to the main road which I was only too familiar with having spent hours trudging its pavements on the morning of my arrival in town. This time though it was a very different place – it was quiet. But not just quiet – deserted. What’s going on? Hang on, what’s this? there, on the opposite side of the streets all the traffic is being held back by police. The buses confined to their stops. Glancing down the road things become clear, as a huge long motorcade of police cars and armoured vehicles sandwiching 2 black Mercedes came into site. “That must be Putin” I thought to myself, having dreamed about seeing him a couple of nights back.

    Despite being in a desperate hurry to get to the travel agent, I calculated that dashing across the road in front of the cavalcade would probably not be the wisest of moves – if I was able to make it to the other side I’d probably find myself feeling rather holey, or flat.

    Emerging from the underpass I darted down the sideroad as per the emailed instructions, and a few queries later found myself in the reception of MPP Megapolis travel.

    Despite being told to take a seat and wait, I couldn’t help but pace up and down the almost deserted office. They weren’t due to open for another 45 minutes, but I’d asked Svetlana to phone ahead and let them know that an idiot of an Englishman was going to show up shortly.

    I showed ‘Jenny’ (well, she struck me as ‘Jenny’) my receipt, who, unaware of the minor problem with date and time handed it over with a smile.

    When I pointed out what a silly boy I’d been she threw her hands to her head and made an “On no!!” sound in Russian. Yes, I was a silly boy wasn’t I?

    I didn’t really know what to expect. Having experienced the joys of Russia service for the past week or two I thought I might just get a shrug of the shoulders, and a “there’s nothing we can do about it”. But no, this was Jenny, Jenny the amazing, Jenny the incredible, Jenny the I-can-talk-on-two-phones-at-once. I explained the situation with my tickets from Berlin (translation service provided by her colleague on the other end of the phone) – if I missed those high-speed rail links from the German capital I had no way of getting home, at this late stage the tickets would be prohibitively expensive, and I only had £100 (US$200) in the bank. On hearing this, Jenny invited me into her office in the back, and flew into a frenzy.

    She did use two phones at the same time, babbling away with a voice that carried more urgency than an ambulance siren on speed. As more staff arrived at the office, so they were collared and instructed to make further phone calls. After about 20 minutes the English speaking receptionist turned up. On hearing my story she burst out laughing, and agreed that yes, I was a silly boy. The office was now buzzing. With all that activity, there had to be a positive outcome.

    Initially, taxis and buses to the Russia / Belarus border were looked into, but no, it really was too late. Even with a suicidal driver we’d never catch that train. Trains of course were out too – this was a non-stop international service, so the national ones had no chance of competing. Flights …er, what was the whole point of taking this trip…? (I must confess that I did think that if worst came to worst, I might have to take to the air. I mulled over whether I’d reveal it or not on the Mumble!!) (I know honesty would have got the better of me).

    Another major issue was my Belarus transit visa. It came into effect at midnight last night, and is only valid for 48 hours. Miss that window of opportunity and I have to traipse back to the embassy and go through the entire application (and payment) process again.

    After 45 minutes of frantic activity Jenny struck gold – there was a train leaving Moscow tonight, not to Berlin, but direct to Cologne, the very place I was heading for (after Berlin) to catch my high-speed train to the UK via Brussels! A miracle!! This train was even better than the first one – despite leaving Moscow 14 hours later, it arrived in Cologne 25 minutes earlier!

    And guess what time this train is leaving? 22:00. Exactly as I had (mistakenly) thought from the outset. Funny thing that…

    But what about the cost? What about the $200 I’d paid for the train I’d missed. Surely I couldn’t expect any refund for that, what with me having given absolutely no notice, thus effectively absently occupying the seat all the way to Berlin. Two Hundred Dollars. It made me sick to think about the wastage. And the price of the new ticket? $300. But then Jenny gets her calculator out and deducts 75% of the value of my wasted ticket – I just need to pay the difference – $150 – almost exactly what I have left in the bank back home.

    And so the story has a happy ending. I’m told to return in a couple of hours when my tickets will be ready. This gives me time to drop my bags back at the hostel and buy some flowers for Jenny, who blushes when I present them at lunchtime. I’d wanted to buy chocolates for the receptionist too, but was now down to my last 10 dollars – if I spent that, I wouldn’t be able to eat until Hereford!

    Walking through the office on my way out from Jenny’s office, a couple of members of staff in their mid-40s shout across the room, “Hello Mr. Brown, how’s business?”. Laughter erupts all around. I tell them that thanks to their company business is great – although my name is not Mr. Brown!

    There’s a postscript to this story.

    Back at the hostel I started chatting with the Dutch chap who’d had a restless night on the bunk above mine. I ask him if he’s liking Moscow. No, he’s not. In fact, he’s desperate to leave but can’t find a flight. There’s something about the way he’s talking that tells me that there’s a story behind his desperation, but I don’t push it. Instead, I tell him about Jenny the amazing travel agent – maybe she can help. As we head off to the now-familiar office together I learn more about his plight – he’s been jilted by his boyfriend, and can’t bare to be in this city any longer. I sympathise with him. Its not nice to be in such a state in a place with so many memories.

    Opening the door of the office, I am greeted by laughter – it’s the secretary – “what are you doing back here?!” “It’s not me, it’s my friend. He needs to get out of Moscow, and the service is so good here that I couldn’t help but recommend it!

    I’ve left him in their capable hands.

    With all that sorted, and my eye firmly on the clock, I’ve been shopping and bought 3 huge loaves of bread, a big bunch of bananas, half a dozen (now hard-boiled) eggs, some olive spread and a tub of Philadelphia. Sandwiches have been made – they should see me through.

    If I was able to turn the clock back 12 hours in order that I could get that train this morning, would I do so? Well, although it’s cost me all the money I have left in the world (literally), I don’t think I would. The kindness shown me today was priceless. As was having the chance to talk more with the staff and other guests here this morning, and then of course there’s my friend who, had I not missed the train, maybe wouldn’t have been able to get out of town today. Oh, and I wouldn’t have seen Putin either.

    Anyhow, I SHALL be on that train for Cologne tonight. It’s a 34-hour journey that will see me pass through 4 countries – let’s hope my bananas see me through.

    Bye bye Moscow, thanks for having me. It’s been fun.

    [a full account of my time in Moscow will be uploaded once I arrive in the UK. Can’t afford to miss another train so it’s off to the station for me! In the meantime, Moscow photos are now available in my online Web Gallery]