Saturday, 23 June 2007


This year's big trip with the ECC was to Scandinavia starting in Helsinki and ending in Copenhagen but having got a bit more confidence with traveling around the world I decide to bolt on an additional week or so at the start taking in Russia and Estonia first.

Now I had been to Scandinavia before with the club, but Russia and Estonia would be brand new, and whilst exciting I was a little nervous as not only was I traveling there but I was also organising a trip for two others, which I'd never done before. It was also the first time I'd been somewhere where I'd needed a visa to get in. Fortunately I used an excellent travel company called STA who helped me organise things.

Anyway, enough here's the report.

Day 1 - Getting to Moscow

Most of day 1 was spent getting from London to Moscow. As trip organiser I was very apprehensive about the organisation so the camera didn't leave my bag. However here are the highlights.

Met Keith at 6 in the morning at Heathrow airport.

We couldn't get our boarding passes due to a systems error with our booking. Not the best way to start, but KLM were able to sort things out for us and we were soon on the plane.

At Amsterdam we had to wait a couple of hours for our transfer to Moscow. Whilst Keith looked after the bags I went off to play on the travelators pretending to be Jamiroquai in the Virtual Insanity video.

On our flight to Moscow we had a very tall guy next to us who couldn't fit his legs under the seat. When he asked for another seat he was told that there were none available. As well as having long legs he must also have had massive fingers because everytime he was given a can of beer he'd snap the ring pull off without opening the can. Too embarrassed to keep asking for a replacement he ended up asking people around him to hand the can back for another.

As we were approaching Moscow a rather drunk Russian behind us got into a rant over nothing really and started arguing with the purser from the flight, who admittedly didn't deal with it particularly well.

Man: "You go! You go!"
Pursar: "Sir, I am not your slave. Keep this up and we will call the police. Do you understand the word 'police'?"

Man: Some sort of cursing in Russian.
Pursar: "Sir, I don't understand what you're saying"
Man: "You fly to Russia you should speak Russian"
Pursar: "Sir, we're not a Russian airline; this is KLM"

The man also refused to sit in his seat as the plane came to land so as expected there were a couple of officials waiting for him as he got off the plane.

It took ages to get through immigration, partly because the plane had forgotten to include the immigration forms on the flight so we had to do them in arrivals. Secondly we didn't have a pen to fill the form in (Keith had lost his and I was ill prepared). Others were a bit reluctant to share theirs and I ended up pleading with the officials to let me borrow one. A vast number of Chinese people had arrived at the same time as us completely filling the hall, and immigration were being very thorough with them.

Poor Jeppe had been waiting on the other side having arrived 3 hours earlier. We were supposed to be met by a "local agent" who turned out to be a Russian driver who spoke no English, and Jeppe was stuck with him for company whilst myself and Keith tried to get through.

When we did finally get through the luggage was scattered everywhere around the baggage claim. Keith managed to locate his but I was not so lucky. After searching for half an hour I gave up and reported it to the help desk who told me it hadn't left Amsterdam and would arrive tomorrow. Great! No luggage...

With no option but to leave we joined up with Jeppe and the Driver and headed to the hotel. Initial views were that it looked like America with big billboards besides the road but there were also large forested areas, which you wouldn't get in the U.S. in the same way. What was funny was the radio was playing lots of old 80s tunes and the driver, perhaps more confident with who was in his car started telling us about his love of Western Rap in particular Just Ice (an 80s rapper who collaborated with Mantronix for those of you who don't know). Quite amusing.

Anyway after about half an hour's drive we ended up at Izmaylovski Vega hotel and after trying to tell the Russians not to turn away my bag (no easy feat as most didn't speak English) we grabbed a quick bite to eat and drink from the hotel cafe and when we were told our passports wouldn't be ready from being visa processed until the morning, we were resigned to an early night. Whilst we could have gone out, to do so without any ID could have got ugly had we been stopped.

This is the hotel bedroom. Spartan but you're never intending to do anything in here except sleep so we couldn't complain.

This is the view from the hotel window. The Izmaylovo complex is now one of the larger hotel complexes in the city but it was actually built to serve as the Olympic Village for the 1980 games. I have no idea if I was sleeping in a room previously occupied by a famous athlete or not.

The island on the lake over to the right used to belong to the Russian Royalty but not anymore. In fact the whole area was opened up to the public and it's now part of Izmaylovsky park, which is massive in size and houses one of the more popular markets in the city on Sunday. A pity that we were leaving before then.

Just a little bigger than any park we have in London. I'm sure you'll agree.

The Russian Language
I had tried to learn the spoken language before flying out and failed miserably, some of the pronunciation of words was too quick for me to repeat. I did however have a go at reading Cyrillic that way I'd have some idea of what the signs meant. It's actually not that bad, if you treat it like a puzzle and get used to the fact that some letters written in Russian mean something different to the UK e.g. B is a V. It also has roots in greek so if you're American you can read the fraternity symbols!

Here's a breakdown
Upright Name Sound
А а A Alimony
Б б Be Bed
В в Ve Vet
Г г Ge Gamma
Д д De Delta
Е е Ye Yet
Ж ж Zhe Leisure
З з Ze Zither
И и I Boy
К к Ka King
Л л El Lemon
М м Em Monkey
Н н En Noose
О о O Oh!
П п Pe Pie
Р р Er Rabbit
С с Es Cent
Т т Te Two
У у U Boot
Ф ф Ef Fun
Х х Kha Loch
Ц ц Tse Hats
Ч ч Che Chair
Ш ш Sha Shop
Ю ю Yu You
Я я Ya Yak

Day 2 - Moscow

The first proper day in Moscow had us visiting Gorky Park and the Red Square. To get to either we had to figure out the Metro, which to be honest was very straight forward.

We bought a 10 trip pass, and got a plastic card for our troubles. This card worked exactly like the Oyster cards here, touching it against the barrier to open it up. What we hadn't quite figure out initially was how we managed to get to a station where you have to change twice but only changed trains once (we started at the east end of the dark blue line and ended up down the dark green); very weird.. Anyway after eventually finding the right station we made our way to Gorky Park.

This is Oktyabrskaya station, the nearest to Gorky Park. Had we turned left out of the station the park would have been 5 minutes away, but turning right took us 20, better to take the scenic route if you're a tourist I guess.

That's a statue of Lenin, opposite the station entrance. You shouldn't need the history lesson on this guy but just in case. His name was Vladimir and he was a revolutionary who started a revolution one October. He then fled to England where he changed his name to John and formed a successful pop quartet called The Beatles before being assassinated. He now lies in state in the Kremlin.

Looks just like any city really.

Two different ways to advertise: the sides of building and the old school sandwich board.

This is one of the entrances into Gorky Park. Known to most for the film of the book about 3 bodies found here and the investigations around it, Gorky Park is one of the main parks within the city. As a theme park fan Gorky also has 3 small parks within it, hopefully enough to keep us entertained.

This is the Andreevsky Bridge that starts in the park before crossing over the Moscow River.

In the distance the park's big wheel.

In the foreground is the Moscow beach, a cafe club that brings a little bit of the Summer to the city. Behind that is the main theme park and beyond that is the statue of Peter the Great and the Red Square.

A shot across the Moscow river.

The theme park opens at midday and you don't have to pay to get in, only for the tickets to ride. However you do have to pay to enter Gorky Park itself, but its very cheap and I reckon only in place to deter beggars. Before going on the rides I needed to go to the toilet and found some toilets just inside the park. Now I'm no expert in toilet mishaps but the following three must have happened to us all at some point.
  1. The lock on the door doesn't work and you have to lean forward to keep the door shut
  2. You discover the toilet is of the squat variety
  3. You finish only to find there's no toilet paper
Now imagine the predicament you'd be in if you had all three at the same time. Yep! That's what happened. Fortunately I had practiced playing Twister beforehand and always carry tissues on me for just such a situation. Just to make matters worse I then spotted toilet roll sitting on a table by the entrance, that wasn't there on the way in. I guess someone else had been using it.

The first coaster of the trip was Twister Coaster, a standard spinning mouse ride.

I once rode one of these in Germany with some friends and it was a brutal experience, not because the ride was rough but because the Operator really knew how to get the most from it. It was so good that I came off with both eyes blood shot from the forces. This one seemed to be running on programmed routines and so wouldn't have been as good, so I didn't bother riding it. It's nicely themed though.

We never got to see what was in the Dome, it never opened, and we never bothered with the Icarus.

We'd actually entered the park from the back; had we entered through the main entrance we'd have seen the dancing fountains sooner.

This is the entrance to the kiddy part of the main park.

A german Mt Rushmore themed dark ride, in Russia. Go figure!

This is the Buran shuttle that never actually launched. Now it's a walkthrough exhibit. At least you wouldn't be able to dispute the quality of theming inside that, it is the real thing after all.

Another German ride, this time just a normal pirate boat.

As you can see this park looked like a travelling fair with the majority of rides just stuck on concrete.

Silber Mine was a really cool ride with some interesting trick track that I hadn't seen before (even through the mid-course brakes). It was quite easily the best ride in the park.

There also wasn't any queues, as you can see the place looks deserted. It did mean that we had to wait a little while for the train to fill up before it was despatched. No big deal really, we weren't in any rush.

Silber Mine is actually quite a decent ride!

Off in the distance behind a locked gate was this Fabbri ride that wasn't running. Given the distance between it and the rest of the park I can only guess it hadn't been open for some time, and the other rides had been moved. Or maybe it was a new addition to the park and being quarantined.

A weird 3-armed top scan type ride.

Certainly very colourful and I guess a new addition to the park.

Fiesta Express is a kiddy ride with a mouse style layout (lots of hairpins). Yes I rode it, yes I did get some very strange looks from passing families and no, I did not care.

My first lunch of the trip and I went for a dodgy looking kebab. Actually it turned out alright although Jeppe with his more refined palate didn't like his. What was more amazing was that not wanting to drink Coca Cola I was surprised to find they had Irn Bru in Russia.

This is the largest of the three parks, big enough to have a grown up thrill section and smaller rides for the kids.

There was supposed to be a dragon coaster in this park but it had been removed. I reckon Jeppe has made off with it under his jacket.

They don't mind stealing Disney images in Russia. In fact I was soon to realise they don't mind stealing anything.

Perhaps the cheapest maze in the world..

The kiddy park was well themed and maintained.

Interesting jellyfish-like water feature.

Inflatable go-kart track. I wonder if the temptation is there to turn right out of the inflatable area and make off into the park.

Having done the main park and the children's park the last one was the one in the centre of the park, but it was apparent that this one had not been open for some time. Everything was closed and left to rot.

This was a station platform but not anymore, you can see one of the trains left on the ground. I'm guessing this was one of those rides where trains move in a circle and get a jump part way around.

The powered coaster had been left to rust and had become quite overgrown.

The park's main wheel again, it wasn't running either.

and then it rained...hard! We found some shelter underneath some fairground game stalls and listened to some Britney Spears.

This is the view from the main entrance. I think they were getting ready for a George Michael concert, due to take place in a couple of day's time.

Our approximate route in and around Gorky

Having finished with Gorky Park we made our way towards Red Square but before visiting there we had to collect our train tickets to St Petersburg. This turned out to be quite an adventure, our instructions were fine but no-one in the building the company worked in seemed to know of them. We found further instructions posted on a building but even they weren't clear. Eventually a guy in a coffee shop knew where to go and having made our way over some roped off areas and through a construction site within the building we eventually found the office and got the tickets.

So to help others here are the instructions to finding Olvita Travel Services...

Follow the provided instructions that take you past the McDonalds then turn at the church, a little way up on the right you will see this green fence. Turn right here.

Go through this gate and not visible in this shot there's a hidden door just around that little corner.

There you go, enter that.
and follow the signs to the office.

Having got the tickets we then made our way back towards Red Square.

Map of Red Square

This is one the State Historical Museum with the Zhukov statue in front of it.

This is Resurrection Gate. Originally built in the 16th Century it was knocked down by Joseph Stalin of all people, to allow tanks through (lovely). The gates were rebuilt in the early 90s.

I think its good luck to throw coins over your shoulder, much like at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. However here there were a couple of beggars who'd position themselves behind the thrower and collect the money for themselves. (woman on the right and the guy in the brown shoes). As you rotated they'd run around.

This is the Kazan Cathedral, like the gate rebuilt in the early 90s. Stalin didn't want any churches in Red Square so had ordered the demolition of the original building.

Here's Red Square with St Basils straight ahead and the KGB buildings on the right. Yuri Gagarin is apparently buried within the walls of the Kremlin. When I found that out this image sprung to mind.

Poor Han Solo!!

This is Gum, the main shopping complex in Moscow, immediately beside Red Square. An odd place to have a shopping centre, until you realise its run by the state.

Lenin's tomb, which was closed when we got there. It used to be open all day but now it is only open for a few hours in the morning, time we had spent at Gorky Park. So if looking at corpses is your thing be sure to arrive here early. Apparently he has no feet, probably an issue with the preservation process.

Spasskaya Tower at one corner of Red Square. Built in 1491 its also known as The Kremlin Clock. I can't think why.

Here you are in Red Square in front of one of the most amazing pieces of architecture in the world and you decide to have your group-shot picture taken in front of the Gum department store, and a bit that is covered up with paper for renovation. Takes all sorts I suppose.

Built in the 1550s and not knocked down by Stalin, after some persuasion by the PM at the time. Its rumoured that the architect Postnik Yakovlev was blinded once he'd finished this to ensure it was never bettered. A tough break but what a building to end your career on, and he would have been given a free dog to boot!

The building consists of nine seperate chapels within a single building. The aim was to have each chapel represent a different saint, but they were put together, to represent them being conjoined.

It's such a gorgeous building and surprisingly not that big.

Spasskaya Tower

A close up of the onion towers.

An amazing building made better by some glorious weather. The rain that had dampened Gorky Park had passed.

Like Lenin's Tomb, the KGB buildings were closed in the afternoon so we were unable to go inside, although all I had wanted to see in there was the worlds largest cannon.

We chose to have dinner in one of the restaurants alongside Red Square. The food here was really really nice (Russian staple Beef Bourginon people) but the toilets are quite peculiar. As you sit down there's a fun house type mirror opposite that can make you look smaller or larger depending on the angle. Quite bizarre.

This is inside Gum. Not knowing if was going to get my luggage back I took the opportunity to get a feel for what clothing I could buy, although I held off making the purchases.

Back to the hotel and I'd received some great news, the luggage had been delivered. So whooping like a little kid who had got the best Christmas present ever I ran down to reception to collect it, I think I may have done one of those jumps where you click your heels. We then got ready to go out and experience some of the Russian nightlife.

Weird art installation on the way to the club. We'd chosen a club called Night Flight, based on it being "popular with foreign visitors", although the receptionist at the hotel hadn't heard of it.

This wasn't it...but a cool way to advertise your place, I think.

It was just down the road from here (Pushkin Square). When we got there we paid our entrance and was given a free drink token, on entering the nightclub bit it there were a few guys at the bar, but the rest of the place was full of women, really gorgeous women, mostly sitting in a row down the right hand side. It became apparent that they were all prostitutes, not quite what we'd been looking for. So in true News of the World reportage style, we had our free drink, made our excuses and left. It wasn't until we got back into the hotel that Jeppe read his travel guide which said that the place was full of gorgeous women, all of which were hookers. Ah well, lesson learnt. If hookers are your thing then I strongly recommend this place.

Looks like the Russians got to see Transformers before we did. This is the cinema close to Pushkin Square.

This is the main statue at Izmailovsky station indicating we were back at the hotel.

Having had the weirdest night we thought it couldn't get any weirder, but that was not to be the case. We thought we'd give the hotel club a go, and were told by the guy on the door that it was a Strip club. So we'd left one strip place for another, so succumbing to fate that we were destined to end up in such a place we gave in and entered...........and had a very enjoyable evening, which I'm not going to talk about here! :D