It was only when our train was within about 90 minutes of Moscow station that our little section of carriage 9 got talking. Up until that point, the atmosphere had been somewhat strained by Marilyn and her daughter. Mother had had a funny effect upon us all. We felt that we had to behave ourselves whenever the mother scolded the child (which was constantly). But when we all woke up at about 5am on Sunday we discovered that mother and daughter had done a disappearing act in the night, and had been replaced by a rather talkative granny, age 45 or so.
This is what platzkart is all about
Well, that was it, we were off. Once it had been established that I wasn’t Russian and that I didn’t understand any Russian (that didn’t take long) the questions came with all the force of a machine gun, and at about the same rate of rapid fire too. The lady from the next carriage translated: What was I doing in Russia? Why had I come from Japan? Did I like Russia? What was my favourite city? Was I married? Did I know anyone in Moscow? Where was I going to stay.
It’s when the line of questioning reaches that stage that I start to become uneasy. I begin to imagine being welcomed back to people’s houses, and being unable to relax for fear of offending the generous host. Of having to continue to make a huge effort to communicate, when all I want to do is take it easy in an English-speaking environment for a while. Like at the hostel I booked a couple of months beforehand. So I tell them, “Yes, I know people in Moscow” (well, I’ve exchanged emails with the hostel receptionist haven’t I?). “I’m staying at a friend’s house” – and this is true, well, now it is as I’ve met the owner of this 8th floor apartment that has been converted into a guesthouse of sorts.
They seem satisfied with this, and move on to the next topic: the ring on my finger. The granny becomes very animated when I show her a photo of *Twinkle*, passing it around whilst nodding and cooing in approval. It’s then that the slightly odd-looking chap in his 20s (another recent addition to our carriage) starts to tap-tap away on his Nokia. I’m curious. He’s been eyeing me suspiciously ever since he got on. Glancing up at my bunk, looking away when I catch his eye. What’s going through his mind?
Suddenly, he sits bolt upright, and reading from his screen announces to the world, “My name is Arthur. I am a student. I want to be an actor”. I try to suppress my involuntary laughter (caused more by surprise than anything), and instead just manage to splurt out, “You speak English!!” A look of satisfaction gradually spreads across his face until he is positively beaming. Spurred on by this initial success he ignores my question that follows (“do you live in Moscow?”) and instead returns to his touch-screen Nokia, beating out his next sentence. “I am 24 years old. Where are you from?”. We’ve already covered this ground, so I assume he’s just going for the stuff he kind of knows. Well, that’s OK. I answer his question, although he pays no attention to what I’m saying – he’s too busy tapping out his next announcement.
The sense of relief I am expecting to feel when we arrive at Moscow never comes. Instead, there’s just sadness that our little community has to split up so soon. It’s not quite over though – the granny beckons me to follow her; she guides me off the platform, around the corner and down the stairs to the Metro ticket office. I thank her, say goodbye, and start to think about my first task of the day: finding the hostel.
PepŽ waits for the Moscow Metro
Initially I was really impressed with my navigation skills. I’d found the street that was given on the booking confirmation on my ridiculously undetailed Lonely Planet map, and figured out which subway train I needed to take to get there. Grateful that it was only 6.30 on a Sunday morning (both streets and platforms were deserted, giving me time to think), I made my way to what I thought was my station. Emerging from the dimly lit passage, I was faced with Lenin, sitting outside what I guessed to be Lenin’s Library.
Not Lenin’s library
The hostel was number 31 Arbat Street. This street seemed to match the description given (Arbat something-or-other-written-in-Russian), so off I set in search of the building.
The Moscow Metro
Number 5, number 15, and after no less than half-an-hour, number 29. …and then the end of the road! Where was number 31? Was this some cruel joke, or was it a kind of Harry Potter type arrangement, with the doorway magically opening between the brickwork of number 29? I wasn’t about to run into the wall to find out, and instead returned to studying the map. It was only then that I realised my mistake. I was on Arbat something-or-other-written-in-Russian, whereas the hostel was on Arbat something-or-other-ELSE-written-in-Russian. Knowing that there must be a good reason for me getting mixed up which would reveal itself in due course, I smiled, and made the turn south for the correct Arbat street.
A cow walks past the Hard Rock Cafe opposite our hostel
It must have been about 8.30am by the time I found the building. I was expecting some sign to jump out at me with the words “Hostelling International” – but there was none of that. It was a normal door in a normal early 20th century apartment block. Odd, I thought, this definitely was the right address. I dialled 31 on ye ancienty keypad, and pressed the bell button. There’s a feint ring… but no reply.
Pepe and the Moscovian flowers
Now I was stumped. How was I supposed to get in? A temporary ray of hope hit me when I saw a nearby payphone, but that simply insisted that there was an error with my visa card. I was half-expecting the message on the LCD to flash up the message “Nice try – but you’re gonna have to be a bit cleverer than that”.
What else could I do? Not much. I stood there contemplating the situation. Should I sacrifice my morals and pass the time with a coffee in the ‘McKafe’ (the burger chain’s answer to Starbucks, complete with Starbucks interior and Starbucks music) down the road? My desperate need for the toilet adds to the pressure, and I was about to cave in when suddenly, the door behind me opened, and an old headscarfed babushka emerged. I seized my chance and slipped in before the door closed behind her – and found myself in the most unhostelish entrance hall.
A long dark corridor led stoney-floored towards a wide stairwell at the back of the building. There was a strong smell of rotting garbage in the air – must have been coming from that waste-chute in the corner, unless there was something I’d rather not know about behind the cobwebbed stack of forgotten chairs on my right. Next to the staircase was a metal cage – a lift – it looked like it was experiencing an afterlife following years hauling blackened men up some Siberian mine shaft. I glanced at the solitary cable that held it dangling mid-air – and decided to walk. (Later, on seeing the sign stating that a hefty fine would have to be paid by those riding more than two at a time, I thought what a good idea this had been).
8 flights of stairs later I found myself at the door to the Hostel Sweet Moscow. The only indication that this was the place, and not some family home, was a little scrap of paper stuck to the door. In Times New Roman it said, “Welcome”.
I ring the bell. The sound of a cuckoo can be heard, against a backdrop of teeth-brushing. No footsteps though. No latch-turning. I ring the bell again. This time, after a little pause the door opens. Standing there is a lady whom I later learn is an opera singing granny from New York. “I’m 71 don’t you know” she tells anyone who will listen. I can’t help but admire her, despite the manner in which she uses most people as doormats.
I guess I’m in Russia
In the end, check-in took me no less than 5 hours. I didn’t mind though. I was happy to sit in the reception area, which also happened to be the living room, and kitchen, and manager’s office, chatting with other guests, checking my emails (on the only computer in the place, an ancient machine with its side-panel removed, revealing a tangle of wires and a hard drive that clicked away furiously with the sound of the hard drive pixie’s footsteps). Finally, my online booking was retrieved and I was shown to my bunk. “You’ll be OK in here” said the girl from Manchester who’s brother and sister both lived just up the road from me in Sheffield. “We slept in here last night; no-one snored at all”.
Golden turrets against a torrid sky
And so began my time in Moscow.