Beard, Glasses and a Smile

The title refers to the ultimate disguise for a Russian man, trying to pretend to be a foreigner. Glasses are incredibly rare in Russia and smiles are few and far between - at least when you first meet people. As for beards, they are so uncommon that Rob and I have an ongoing bet - the first person to see a Russian with a beard wins 5 rubles each day. Another part of the disguise would be if they didn't smoke, though I am not sure any Russian has the willpower to pull that part of the disguise off.

(Interestingly, Kofi Annan has recently banned smoking for all employees in UN buildings. Only the Russians have vowed not to honour this law.)

Komsomolskaya Metro Station, Moscow.

While smiles are uncommon, the friendliness of the Russians continues to astound. They are often stand-offish at first but soon warm up (after 2 or 8 vodkas) and can be incredibly sweet. While I did not feel it wise to travel with my gift of an onion from 2 weeks ago, another man was nice enough to walk up to us in a train station and give us a pigeon feather as a gift. Again, curious but appreciated.

Rob and I are now in Siberia after a few legs on the road. Buying train tickets in Russia is a rather difficult process - not only are our language skills still appalling, but in Russia one can be third in line for train tickets and still easily be waiting for six and half weeks. To further complicate matters, the train's departure and arrival times are always listed in Moscow time, regardless of the time zone in which you are or to where you are going. It is lucky that we have not a clue where we are going most of the time, which makes schedules easier to follow.

We spent our last couple of days in Moscow visiting some pretty orthodox churches and Lenin's Tomb (through a contact of my brother's, I actually got to meet the man who was Lenin's embalmer in the 1930's). We also did a whistle-stop tour of Moscow's Metro stations - stunning pieces of architecture to put London's tube to shame: from colourful ceiling mosaics to archways of twisting curls of white, ornate like a wedding cake, to gorgeous art deco hallways that are far too easy to miss when caught in Moscow's hustle and bustle. Highly recommended tour, and all for the outrageous cost of 5 rubles (approx. 20 cents)

On Wednesday night, Rob, I and an Austrian guy, Josef, decided to go and watch Russia play Switzerland in an important soccer match. While on the metro on the way to the stadium, all occupants of the train were kicked off while dozens of armed soldiers prowled through the carriages. That was unsettling, but was only a taste of what was to come at the stadium; Hundreds more soldiers blocked all entrances to the stadium and, after convincing them that we were Swiss and in order to let us through, there were hundreds more. Three dozen menacing guards in low-brimmed hats and jet-black leather jackets walked straight into us, saying nothing, but nearly bumping us until we produced our tickets for them.

Finally, after 5 levels of security we made it into the stadium. We were late and Switzerland was already winning 1-0. After six minutes in the stadium, a mistake by the Swiss keeper enabled an easy header by a Russian forward to go in and allowed the crowd to erupt. They sang, danced, did the wave with 40,000 people and generally went wild. The atmosphere was spectacular. Ten minutes later the same forward, Bulykin, took the ball at centre pitch, used blistering pace to beat two defenders, sliced between two others, dragged the ball past the rushing keeper and curled the ball into the open goal. The crowd went absolutely fucking bananas. The stadium shook as fans stomped their feet, rattled the walls, shot flares onto the pitch and set fires in the stands. It was complete pandemonium and I was in heaven - though the police presence now seemed slightly more justified.

As we left after a 4-1 Russian victory, 400 soldiers lined the path directly to the Metro and you had no option - that was how you were going to leave the stadium. If you wanted to catch the bus, you had better want to catch it from the metro station! The sight of all those soldiers was impressive and creepy as hell.

Thursday we left Moscow and headed towards the pretty village of Suzdal (pop. 12,000), about 4 hours away. Rob was not going to join me and rather tried to stay and make a body with a Russian girl he had met, but gave up when he could not figure out how to phone her. The public phone system in Russia is bizarre, with different cards needed for different phones. And while you can always hear the person on the other end, inexplicably, there is a button on each phone which you press if you would like the person on the other end to be able to hear you. After 3 phone cards and an exhaustive use of our 6 words of language, Rob gave up and joined me to go to Suzdal.

As for Suzdal, it is as pretty a town as you can imagine - tiny, sebody, with churches on every corner, a giant monastery in its centre and a river running throughout the village. The people are friendly and, being literally 1,000 times smaller than Moscow, it felt impossibly peaceful.

We met four traveling Australians in Suzdal - more travelers than we met in all Moscow - and sat down for a nice dinner with them. Behind us, a Russian birthday party was taking place as a group of 30-somethings got drunk and feasted. Interest in the other table was mutual and eventually one of the women came over and invited us to sit and drink and eat with them. Despite the fact we had no words of shared language, we got along famously - the women were named Tatiana, Tatiana, Tatiana and Svetya (which I presumed was short for Tatiana).

Convent of the Intercession, Suzdal.

Appetizers turned to entrees, entrees turned to cognac and cognac, inevitably, turned to vodka. Copious, copious quantities of vodka. The people were wonderful, though we had no idea what they were saying and vice versa. At one point, one of the Tatianas and her beleagured husband Nikolai were leaving, which Svetya tried to explain to us using hand-signals and a smattering of language.

"Oh," said Elizabth, one of the Australians, "They are leaving because they have 5 children already in bed."

"No," I countered, "I think he has to wake up at 5 tomorrow morning because he is a potato farmer."

Such was our level of understanding. It was like a game of charades with a gaggle of semi-literate cretins. Conversation degraded into a discussion of the importance of Christian religion in Communist and post-Communist Russia, until we passed out and left it at that.

We left Suzdal the next day, taking the bus to the city of Nizhny Novgorod the pulling the old Switcherooski, getting onto the train to city of Kazan, where we are now.

(Less interestingly, the word "Switcherooski" seems to have nothing to do with Russia. Who knew?)

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