Notes from a British tourist in Moscow

I visited Moscow in November 2014. Here’s what it was like.

My first glimpse of Moscow is from the aeroplane, as we duck under the warm sunshine into low cloud, on the approach to DME airport. There is something that looks like snow on the ground: it’s -3°C, and the next few days will dip to -15°. But it isn’t snow — it’s just thick frost, it seems.

Out past the border check and the baggage carousel in this relatively new airport, accosted by five illicit taxi drivers, I am welcomed via a crumpled piece of paper as “Crinland” by a shaven headed man with a thick Russian coat, complete with a furry collar. He snaps one word — the name of the hotel we’re going to — then stomps off to his car, sucking a cigarette, while I follow with my suitcase over bumpy tarmac, past some construction works. We get in to his mid-range Ford Mondeo, he puts his foot almost to the floor, and we speed away along a smallish, quite bumpy road. The first traffic lights we reach are on red. Next to us is a rusty, brown, Lada — the window slightly open, a cigarette in the hand of the driver.

All this reinforces my guess about what Moscow will be like. But it isn’t anything like that.

The road quickly changes to a well-maintained dual carriageway. There are Ladas on the road — but not many. Most are Ford, VW, Skoda, Toyota. There are Range Rovers, Audi, BMW, and more luxury brands.

We thunder along at 120kmh through the countryside. Every few hundred yards, by the side of the highway, is another tall advertising billboard, all run by different companies, all different sizes and heights. Some advertise new housing, new cars, office space. They are relentless. I set my stopwatch, and in just sixty seconds count fourteen billboards: three for housing, two for cars, one for a forklift truck, five just containing text, one blank one, one for an aeroplane of some sort, and one for a casino. It’s just the drivers on this road, the Russian countryside, and some advertising billboards. A lot of them.

Then we hit the suburbs of southern Moscow. A McDonalds, then a “Meдиа Маркт” — a German Media-Markt, selling TVs and phones. A КФС, selling fried chicken. Its interesting which companies have changed their logos here, and which haven’t bothered. Starbucks changes the name of the store but not the logo. Krispy Kreme has a fab Cyrillic logo, as does Pizza Hut. Swatch, Levis, and many others, arrogantly continue to use their Latin names.

I’m struck that — apart from brand names — there is little English around. In Japan or Korea, there is English everywhere: but not here. Its quite taxing understanding what a shop actually sells.

Later…

I am having a meal in Кружка, an underground beer bar, this branch of which is relatively close to Ново Кузнецкая Metro station, a ten minute walk from the hotel. The concrete walls have been painted with bright graffiti-like pictures. In front of me, in green and black, is a graffiti line drawing of a woman putting her finger into her mouth in a vaguely suggestive manner; and a happy looking bearded man waving his hands in the air in a victory salute. The ceiling is spray-painted brown. The tables are battered dark brown affairs, and the chairs are padded benches. It sounds quite utilitarian, but it isn’t really: it is warm, pleasant, and quite homely. I feared this would be horribly smoky, but it appears illegal to smoke indoors in Moscow: to my immense relief. As such, it’s really very pleasant.

Two suspiciously boyish girls are on the table next to me, drinking beer and chatting. On the other side of me are a few Russian people who had a meal and a few larger beers than I managed. Their beer glasses are plastic, I notice. The European Champions League is on the telly, and most people are glued to this apart from the girls — CSKA Moscow is on the television, fighting valiantly against Roma.

I’ve just paid, by using Google Translate, which I discover to my delight has an offline mode — I type in “Could I pay the bill?” and it chucks it into Russian and puts it in big text. The waitress smiles at that, possibly in relief at trying to understand what the British guy wanted this time. She’s comes back with some vaguely terrifying Russian money as change. I got some Russian cash, assuming nobody would take credit cards here — but everyone does. Even American Express. And the offline mode of Google Translate, while still useful, is mostly not needed: there is WiFi (free, no registration needed) almost everywhere.

The next day, I acquire a Troïka card (Moscow’s Oyster card) and navigate down into the subway. Every station I see is in great condition, with amazing decoration inside — I spy a Soviet flag in one, still happily flying. Every station is also really very busy; but bigger than London Underground stations, nothing that scares.

There’s no WiFi on the Moscow subway stations. Instead, it’s where you need it — on the train. Get on, sit down, connect to WiFi and jab hopefully at the green button to connect, and I am given fast WiFi which just works. The Moscow subway is deeper than most, yet achieves something that is impossible in London.

A train comes every ninety seconds (you can check, there are timers at the mouth of the tunnel), and the subway is quick and cheap. I visit the Fallen Monuments park, and get up close with a statue of Brezhnev, probably the only properly scarily Soviet in my lifetime. The hammer and sickle monument behind him claims the Soviet Union as the home of peace.

I pop over to the Atrium, a large shopping mall close to a train station, keen to understand what life is like for most Muscovites. A bright shopping mall greets me, with a food court and a Hamleys toy store, a Sony shop and a collection of lingerie shops. People walk past the Burger King and another Texas Chicken Shop to find a bite to eat. The only slightly strange thing to note is that all these stores sold draught beer — Baltika, a Russian lager, or Stella Artois.

I visit Red Square, which was relatively unimpressive since much of the middle of it was being used to build what I guess will be a Christmas market. I take the odd photo of the guards, who seem just fine with that. Lenin’s still there, but closed to visitors when I turn up: apparently nobody bothers any more. Opposite him is the GUM, the state department store, now restored and reborn as a swanky shopping mall — brands like Swatch, Levi, H&M and Samsung occupy units where once Soviets queued up for a loaf of bread, if you believe the propaganda we were fed. There’s pumping loud music from some of the stores.

Nestling round the back of the GUM is the only tourist shop I’ve seen: selling Russian dolls and fridge magnets with Soviet posters shrunk down to manageable fridge magnet sizes. On the way back to the hotel, I spot a Starbucks.

I expected a cold, dark, foreboding place, where foreigners were overcharged, snapped at, and treated with suspicion; where concrete buildings stood in disrepair; where the acrid smell of cheap cigarettes were on every poorly-lit street corner.

Instead, I got a rather more exotic version of London, New York or Paris.

I can’t quite work out whether to be disappointed or relieved.