Tilda opened the door of our cabin and in fell a middle aged man, bottle of vodka in one hand, cigarette in the other. He stumbled, looked around and grunted something, possibly in Russian. We were on the Tallink overnight ferry to Riga and yet another sweaty passenger was clearly looking for love in the ship’s gloomy hull. Carefully, we turned him around and squeezed him back out of our door and into the corridor where the flickering lights bit intermittently through the haze of smoke. I bolted the door, got into my bunk and waited for the next knock.
By two the next afternoon we had arrived in Riga and were greedily tucking into ‘Lucky-Dip Crepes’ (minced beef, banana and crème fresh for me). Riga is a gnarled, medieval old city and as we walked around the locals seemed noticeably solemn under the heavy November clouds. Hundreds of padlocks locked to the park bridge caught our eye. Every one beautifully engraved with a name and wedding date, fastened there for all eternity by the city’s newly-weds. The romance grabbed us and, that evening, we brushed-up, got in a taxi and went to…………………………….Aquapark – the largest water park in all of Europe! Wahay!!
The next day we bought tickets for the overnight train to Moscow, paying $28 for a second-class bed. Sharing our rather cramped six-bed carriage that night was a fantastically animated, short, intoxicated man who talked and talked and talked to us, in Russian, for most of the night. He reminded me of Hoggle, the troll from the film Labyrinth. It was only when Scott, a Russian-speaking American student told him eight hours later, that he realized we weren’t actually Russian. A complete absence of any vocabulary what so ever on our behalf had obviously not suggested otherwise. Hoggle simply shrugged it off with a nonchelant wave of the hand and rolled over to sleep.
When I awoke, the world was covered in snow. It was like the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and for the first time I really felt far from home. It was stunningly beautiful. We jumped off the train and went immediately down into the famous Moscow underground system. Scott had advised us not to make eye-contact with anyone, especially police, as this is considered a sign of guilt. Photography is highly illegal anywhere on the Underground which is a real shame as, even with our heads cautiously bowed, we were stunned by the incredible décor. Each station has an ornate mix of marble pillars, chandeliers, gold-leafed fixings and is a far cry from the sooty, dark tube stations of London.
Using maps on the equally plush trains we made our way to the North of the city (Cyrillic is surprisingly easy to read; most letters are simply substitutes for roman letters. It’s like a basic code). We wondered around the slush-lined suburbs for hours without any sign of accommodation until finally finding a hotel-come-college just before dark. The receptionist spoke only Russian and some French but, with my broken French, I managed to sort us a room for the night, with breakfast, for $40 each.
Later that night we went into the centre of Moscow and it is incredible. Such power and intent in every building. London is decorative and elegant, commemorating victories, discoveries and monarchs. Moscow is powerful. It screams “we are great, we are here to stay”.
Sunday we saw the Red Square and the Kremlin. What a place! There were huge eagles and robed monkeys on display, people throwing coins over their shoulder for good luck and elderly, hunched women frantically scrabbling on the cobbles collecting them. Beggars, elegant ladies in high heels, noisy buskers, tourists, armed police; and all this set to the backdrop of the rainbow-coloured seven domes of St Peters Cathedral.
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The weather, language and awe of Russia have really let me know that our journey has begun.
1,500 miles gone, 13,200 to go.....