Monday, August 30, 1999

TR Russia

Moscow, Russia
(8/26 –8/30/99)

Moscow is a very difficult place to visit! My first indication of this fact came last April shortly after I moved to England. One of my goals was to run marathons and visit new countries so I obtained a list of planned marathons from Runner’s World. This list included the country, city, date and contact #s. My next step was to contact the #s/names to get entry forms and info on each marathon. When I tried calling the Moscow #, nobody spoke English at the other end - not unusual so then I proceeded to step #2 which is send a fax requesting info. This usually works because they can get the fax to someone who understands English and send a response back. But for Moscow the fax # did not work! I had hit a dead-end until I went to a few marathons where I finally managed to find an entry form (in English). Since they did not require the entry fee with the application I sent one in and surprisingly received confirmation that my application was received. Now it was time to make travel reservations.
About that same time I was booking the Baltic cruise which included a visit to St Petersburg and the cruise line advised us that you must have a visa to visit Russia unless you only participated in the excursions offered by the ship. Without a visa you could not leave the ship on your own. I quickly investigated the process/requirements for a visa and it was ugly! You must be invited to Russia and sponsored by an individual or company. You must indicate where you will stay every day while in Russia and have a written confirmation that includes your visa application #. Then that data must be presented to the Russian embassy for processing which takes 10 to 14 days. It’s one of those vicious circles that are difficult to get around unless you have assistance inside Russia.
I decided to skip it for the cruise but unfortunately I had to do it for the marathon trip. But I took the easy route and handed to job over to a travel agency in London that specializes in travel to Russia. Their Russian representative invited me to Russia and handled all the paperwork inside Russia and then the London office took my passport to the embassy. Finally I had a hotel reservation, airline reservations and a visa! The visa cost me $100! Once I had the visa, I thought “Now that I have it what is stopping me from traveling inside Russia once I get there?” I did find out the answer but will tell you later.

I apologize in advance that there may be a lot of details following but it is necessary to visualize yourself in my place and truly understand and feel what it is like to visit Moscow on your own!

I left London on Aug 27 and flew to Moscow via Stockholm since there are no direct flights from England to Russia? Upon arriving at the airport and passing through customs I was immediately besieged by several taxi drivers wanting to drive me into the city. Now I have learned that in most European cities there is normally a train, bus or metro that will take you directly into the city center much cheaper and faster than a taxi. So I went looking for some information. To my dismay it quickly became apparent that no one spoke English! I did find a lady at a hotel booking desk that spoke enough broken English to inform me that there were no direct trains, buses etc but I could take a combination of a city bus and the metro. I asked her what the going rate was for a taxi -$40 to 60-since I did not feel confident in taking city buses, etc without more information and I knew that no one would speak English on the public transportation.
So I decided to negotiate and play one taxi against another and finally got the price down to $30. Negotiation meant sign language, using my limited Russian –Nyet! - and stating the price in $US which they did understand.
So now I am off to the city and the Rossija (Russia) Hotel hoping the driver understood my pronunciation of Rossija. As soon as I get to the taxi I realize that this as not an official taxi but (hopefully) a local man moonlighting with his car to make extra money.
An hour later he drops me off in front of a huge building that he points to and utters something that sounded like Rossija. The sign on the front is in Russian and believe me there is absolutely no similarity between English and Russian and no way to even guess what a Russian word is! So I figure worst case I walk or take a taxi somewhere else but at least I am somewhere now and alive!
I get out and walk into a huge lobby with two reception desks. Go to the one on the right and get in line. Still can’t find anything that tells me this is the Rossija . I wait in line for 15 minutes while I observe that everything is done manually and in no rush. Worse still, I realize that neither receptionist speaks a word of English. My turn. Fortunately I have a hotel voucher from the travel agency that I just hand over along with my passport and visa. I try speaking English and get a look that says “ Are you crazy –I don’t speak English”.
I watch as she manually checks some papers (there is a computer on the desk but they never use it?) and then makes two phone calls. She abruptly hands me back all my documentation and says “West”! I try to get a clarification on this word and using sign language, etc she gets me to understand that where I am standing is East and I must go to the West! OK I am supposed to go to the other side of the Building? Out I go and walk around the building that occupies a whole city block. And I am amazed to find when I get there that I am looking at the Kremlin and Red Square directly across the street! Now I at least know I am in Moscow.
Into the lobby and go to the reception desk to the right. Same process only after 15 minutes she points to reception desk across the lobby. I still do not understand why the other reception desk was the only one who could admit me since my room was above the right side of the building? Anyway, go the other side and finally the clerk does find my reservation and processes it. She takes and keeps my passport which is scary and hands me a small card that has “Rossija Hotel”(I have finally confirmed that I am at the hotel!) printed on it and as well as some numbers. I wait for a key but she moves on to the next customer. Back in line and sheepishly ask where my room is and do I get a key. She understands enough English to explain the numbers on the hotel card represent my floor and room number and I must turn the card in on the floor to get my key. Off to the 10th floor where I find the floor matron looks like one of those Russian villains out of a James Bond movie. Of course she speaks (or pretends not to) no English. But finally I am checked in and have a room.
I throw my stuff in to the room and take off to explore Red Square which is right across the street. I find out later that the Rossija is the biggest hotel in Russia, about 5000 rooms, takes a complete city block and is divided into 4 sections-East, West, etc that are not connected internally. It used to be the “IN” place in Moscow where all the VIPs stayed because of its proximity to the Kremlin. But it has not been updated for at least 20 years!
As I walked around Red Square I was very impressed with the architecture. St Basil’s Church, which is on the south side of the square and is recognized as one of Moscow’s landmarks, is truly unique and over 400 years old!
Within 20 minutes I notice another runner walking around. He is wearing a Boston Marathon t-shirt. I stop and ask him where he is from. An American from Florida who has visited Russia many times and is now living in Rostov. This turns out to be a stroke of good luck because he knows and understands the Russian culture, how to shop and get around and he even has a very rudimentary knowledge of the Russian language. We go to dinner together and he helps me order because there is no English version of the menu.
After dinner he takes me to a local Produce (convenience) store to buy bottled water, pop, etc for the room. I could never have done that without his help.
Let me explain the process. You go into the store and all items are behind a glass counter. They all have a Russian name and a price. You make a list of the items you want and the prices, add up the prices and pay the cashier the total price first and then tell her the individual items that you need and she approves your list and gives you a receipt. Then you take the list back to the counter and the clerk gets your items for you. If you can’t speak Russian it is impossible to shop there!
You can buy most of the basic items such as water and pop in the hotel shop on a self-service basis but the prices are 400% higher!
Over dinner my new friend answered the visa question for me. To travel internally in Russia you must have a visa allowing you to do so. You cannot buy a train/bus/air ticket without a passport and visa. If you drive anywhere you are likely to be stopped and your papers checked. He said that he was normally stopped at least once or twice a week in Rostov.
He also indicated that graft and coercion/bribes were considered a normal way of life.
We parted after shopping since he was staying at a smaller hotel further from the city center. But he had given me a lot of useful information that was to make my life a bit easier the next few days.
After he left I decided to go to the hotel bar for a beer because I wanted to sample some Russian beer and knew that I could not drink the next day (marathon day). As I stood at the bar with my American uniform on –jeans, running shoes and a marathon t-shirt- a local Russian approached me and asked where I was from. We talked for awhile and I asked where he had learned English and he told me matter-of-factly “the black market”.
Alarm bells started to ring! Is this guy a ‘new Russian, e.g. Mafia? I wanted to make sure I steered clear of those guys. He asked/insisted nicely that I go with him to visit his bar where the beer was 50% less. Not sure that I would want to piss this guy off I reluctantly agreed to go for a beer. Fortunately his bar was 100 feet from the hotel lobby on the sidewalk in front of the Rossija. There are thousands of such sidewalk bars in Moscow as well as little kiosks or huts every few hundred feet where one can buy beer , vodka or pop. Half of Moscow seems to always walk around with a beer in their hand.
My new Russian friend introduces me to a few of his friends, none of whom speak a word of English. I buy a few rounds (beer is $1.25/pint) and we exchange stories about America and Russia and again I get a good education. Fortunately he is not Mafia but does pay them protection money every week! The next thing I know it is 2 am and I know that if I don’t quit drinking it is going to be a bad day tomorrow so I make excuses about the marathon and leave.
I figured that I had only about 4 or 5 pints of beer but the next morning I felt really bad and I couldn’t understand until why until I learned that the beer was 12%. Most Russian beers are 8 to 12% and one is 17.5%. Boy has that stuff got a kick to it!

As I was nursing my slight hangover I decided that I needed to take a city tour to learn the landscape and some history. One of my new friends had told me there was an Intourist office in the hotel, which I found. Gold mine! The staff actually understood and spoke English. One of my first requests and disappointments was how to get tickets for the Bolshoi Theater. Unfortunately the season did not begin until Sept 1st! This became my only source of communication and information in Moscow! Other than that staff no one spoke English, there were no signs or information in English. Even the Intourist office had no brochure or written information in English. All the TV stations were Russian- English movies were dubbed, even the Euro-Sports channel was dubbed. I never felt so isolated!
The city tour was OK. They showed us all the major attractions in Moscow and most are within a 3-mile radius of the Kremlin. But even the tour guide only had a basic knowledge of English. But at least I knew where to go and fortunately I could walk to them all which meant I didn’t have to use the public transportation system. Normally I prefer to use the local system but I felt unnerved, almost intimidated in Moscow!

After the tour I decided to go to the race HQ and pick up my race packet. What an experience! There were several lines but nothing in English so it took me at least 15 minutes to figure out what line I was supposed to be in. Fortunately I had brought a copy of my entry form with me and handed it over to indicate who I was. They gave me my number and race instructions (in Russian) and kept my copy (with the English instructions)! After that experience I figured it might be safer to attend the race pasta party because at least there would be other English-speaking runners there. I was expecting the normal pasta buffet where you gather with your d buddies but when I arrived they sat me at a formal table with 5 Russians and served us at the table. It was a very quiet dinner –for me!

To bed early and stay away from the hotel bar! Also time for the nightly call. Without fail every night about 30 minutes after you retire you get this call: “Englis, you Englis? You want beautiful Russian girl come your room, give you sex or massage?” It was amusing the first few times but by the final night they were calling several times and I was afraid to be rude in case the Mafia came knocking on my door.

The next morning I rose early to confirm where the race started-remember that my only instructions are in Russian. I know it starts in Red Square but where? No problem! There are thousands of police and military lined up in Red Square shoulder-to-shoulder on both sides of the race course for the first half-mile. They look very ominous since it is raining and they are all dressed in a dark gray raincoat!
The race starts and the first 2 K is over the bridge by the Kremlin and around the city on the south side of the Moscow River and then back over the bridge and on to a boulevard along the Kremlin and Moscow River. They have blocked off a 10K route along this boulevard and there is a policeman stationed every 200 feet along the course with several at every intersection. There was no concern about traffic control- no traffic got near that boulevard! But I think there were more cops than spectators along that 10K route which we had to run four times to finish back in Red Square.
The course was flat and fast and since it was cloudy and raining for the first hour heat was not a problem. But the support was not great- mileage and water every 5K and I was concerned about the water when I saw them scooping it out of large containers. I was expecting/hoping for bottled water!
Nevertheless I did finish with a PR for this year (3:37:45) but still didn’t break the 3:30 mark!

After the race I decided to explore Moscow some more while I waited for my appetite to reappear. Finally around 4pm I was hungry so I headed to McDonalds off Red Square figuring it would be easier to order fries and a coke to satisfy my normal hunger for grease and salt after a race. Wrong! I did not recognize one thing on the Russian menu except Koca but by pointing at pictures and using sign language I did get my order.
As I was walking back towards the hotel I noticed several thousands of police and military gathering around Red Square which was cordoned off and they were starting to cordon off the streets around the square. When I looked down one side street I noticed several army trucks full of raw recruits waiting in the wings to be called. What the hell was going on?
I was forced to detour several blocks around the square to get back to the Rossija hotel but I was following tens of thousands Moscovites going down the same path. Turns out there was a Rock Concert in Red Square to start a week of celebration for Moscow’s 852nd birthday.
The entrance to the concert was on the side street next to the Rossija so I was concerned that I would not be allowed to get back into the hotel. But when I flashed my hotel card I was permitted by. So I sat at the outdoor bar in front of the hotel and watched the concert for a few hours- all in Russian of course!
Then it was to bed but not until I had my nightly phone call!

The next morning I had to decide between visiting the Kremlin or the Pushkin Museum which is the 2nd largest in Russia. I chose the Kremlin and spent a few hours walking around on my own. You can visit the cathedral square and the 500-year-old churches inside the Kremlin but you cannot enter the congress buildings. Again there were police every few hundred feet and lots of black suits with earphones coming out of their collars (KGB or whatever they are called now?)

Then it was time to go to the airport. The city/government has set taxi rates to the airport- $15- and when I tried to ask why it cost 50% less to go to the airport than from, I never did get an answer.

So I know it was along story but the summary is:
Moscow is very beautiful, lots of nice things to see and do. It is very inexpensive if you go and do the things the locals do and stay away from places frequented by tourists BUT you must be able to speak Russian or have a translator.
Thus I would strongly recommend that you visit Russia as part of a tour and have access to a guide and translator at all times.

My only regrets were that I could not see a ballet at the Bolshoi and I didn’t have time to visit the Pushkin Museum. But then again those are two very good reasons to go back!

Sunday, August 15, 1999

TR Belgium

Trip Report
Middelkerke Marathon
Middelkerke, Belgium
France, Belgium, Italy and Canada
(8/14 –8/18/99)

What was supposed to be a great trip and vacation turned out to be a trip and week from HELL!

I wanted to run a marathon in early August since the last one was July 4th. The only race I could find was in Belgium which was OK but I had to book it through a local running/tour operator because I couldn’t find any information on it to arrange the travel myself. Since the tour took us by coach to Belgium I figured we would just go on from there for a week’s vacation in Italy.
The trip started out OK. We traveled by coach from London to Dover and across to Calais, France by ferry. The tour made an obligatory stop in Calais for everyone to load up on booze. Most things in France are expensive just like England except for beer and wine, which are about 50% less. And since they eliminated duty free between EU nations you can now bring back unlimited quantities of items that are bought in another EU nation. So everyone was buying at least two cases of wine or beer which was the limit that the bus would hold per person. We could not participate because we were not coming back with the coach.

We overnighted in Brugges, Belgium. It is a nice city with lots of canals and three main squares in the city center with lots of quaint shops and restaurants and outdoor cafes. We enjoyed a good Italian dinner (pasta for the race) on one of the squares and people-watched for a few hours. Brugges is definitely worth another trip for a long weekend.
But one of our problems started to appear on the first night. Communications!
You have heard me complain before about the telephone systems in Europe - they suck! Most of the hotels have old analog systems and rotary phones which restrict you from accessing voice mail and you cannot connect a computer. We had purchased a set of telephone adapters, which are supposed to enable you to adapt a US telephone connector to various European systems. But it was useless in Belgium and Italy because the hotels don’t use standard connectors!
So Nicole was very upset because she had decided to lug her PC around to stay connected to the office but she was never able to connect!

Anyway the next morning we traveled about 20 miles to Middelkerke, Belgium to run the marathon. It was indeed a small race with only about 300 running the marathon. The marathon started at 9:30 am. It was warm (mid 60s) and very windy. Since Middelkerke is a coastal resort it seemed that the wind was always in our face no matter what direction we were running. I was still recovering from a bad sinus infection and taking antibiotics and painkillers and wasn’t sure how they would affect my breathing and energy level. So I just treated the race as a long training run and took it easy. I don’t know whether it was the strategy or the painkillers but I completed the race in a satisfactory time (3:39:41) and with no pain or agony, which is unusual.
A 10K and Half-marathon started at 2:30pm after most of the marathon runners were completed. We stuck around to watch the start and attend the award ceremony for the marathon but that was a waste of time since it was conducted totally in Flemish and we didn't understand one word!
At that point Nicole and I split from the tour and caught a train to Brussels. We stayed in a 3-star hotel just off the GrandPlace thinking that we would have a better chance for a standard telecom connection. No such luck but the location was great. We walked over to the old fish market, which now accommodates rows of seafood restaurants for an excellent Flemish seafood dinner. We were also able to communicate verbally since 60% of Brussels speaks French. After dinner we walked over to the GrandPlace which is the main square. The buildings are about 400 years old but have been maintained and refurbished and the architecture is just amazing. We sampled a few of the 500+ types of Belgian beer and people-watched again. We were also treated to a light and music show when they turn all the lights off in the square at 10:30 pm and the town hall emanates classical music and all the interior and exterior lights synchronize with the music. Very spectacular show! That was our second trip to Brussels and we still want to go back.

But the next day it was on to Milan, Italy by air. We realized as soon as we arrived that we had bad timing since August is the month that Italians take vacation and everyone leaves! The city was almost deserted. That has pros and cons. Hotels were cheaper and easy to find. I booked a 3-star at the hotel desk thinking again that we would get a better room/hotel with tone phones and a standard connection. Wrong guess! And we found that the cons were that 50% of the restaurants and shops were completely closed for the month of August. The only restaurants open were in the tourist areas where you get a pizza, ham sandwich and two beers for lunch –for $80.
So we decided to take a city tour in the morning which included the main highlights of the city such as the Duomo Cathedral, the Castello Sforzesco and the Scalla Opera. We didn’t get to see Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of the ‘Last Supper’ because you had to have an appointment to view it for 15 minutes. We left a day earlier than planned because we thought that Milan was a very dirty and unattractive city. It did not make our list of places to return to.

Then it was off to Naples by air. We booked a hotel right on the main square in the center of town which turned out to be a mistake. It was supposedly a 3-star hotel but had no air conditioning. And it was very hot in southern Italy. We had to leave our windows open all night and listen to the traffic in the square that never stopped all night. And again rotary phones and no modem connection. Naples does have some natural beauty as much of the city is built on the coast and up the side of the mountains. But it is a very filthy; garbage and trash lying around the roads and streets (and I’m not talking about the hookers on the corners)!
We decided to take a tour and leave but there are no city tours. So we hired a private guide to tour us around the city for 3 hours. That was quite a trip! Our guide was a vet about 70 years old who had lived in Naples all his life. He spoke better English than we did Italian but not by much! But he knew Naples and the area. And a driving lesson was included for free! He aimed the center of his hood down the white line (didn’t matter what kind of road, he picked a white line) and never veered. It was up to the other cars to get the hell out of his way. After a few brown stains on his upholstery I realized he had been driving this way all his life and was still alive so I relaxed some and let him do his thing. The other rule in Italy is that nobody follows rules. The most aggressive driver wins! Nobody stops for red lights or stop signs, nobody signals, etc; it is just a big game of chicken!

After the tour we picked up a rental car (thankful for the driving lesson) and headed south to Sorrento. We stopped at Pompeii for a visit to the ruins which was interesting but it was 90+ degrees by then and we started to look forward to ocean breezes so we continued on to Sorrento. As we got closer we realized that we had finally found a place in Italy that we might like. And we were right. Sorrento is very pretty. It is situated on cliffs that are about 100 –200 feet above the Bay of Naples and is built up into the side of a mountain.
The town was full and only two hotels had rooms left –a 3-star (been down that road already) and a 4-star which was one of the most expensive hotels in town. We decided to treat ourselves and booked the 4-star. It was a very modern and luxurious hotel built into the mountain about 1000 feet above Sorrento with views to kill for. We could see Naples across the bay and the Isle of Capri. It even had air conditioning but guess what – rotary phones and non-standard telephone connections!
We decided to eat dinner at the hotel because the views were so spectacular and after dinner I opened a second bottle of wine to sip on the patio overlooking the bay while we plotted our next day. Nicole decided to call our son in Colorado to let him know where we were because of all the problems we had experienced with the phones. That’s when all Hell broke loose!
We discovered that our family had been sending us emails and leaving voice mails for three days to inform us that my dad had died two days earlier! It was a shock to the whole family that he passed away so suddenly and so soon after our mom. Now it became a frantic exercise to figure out how to get home to Canada in time for the funeral. We ended up driving the rental car to Rome- did get to see Rome from the ring road on the way to the airport- and catching a direct flight to Canada. We did make it in time but I was the only one at the funeral wearing Dockers and a polo shirt!
It was a much different occasion that my mom’s funeral as we were prepared for that one. I am glad that we only have two parents so that I never have to go through that ordeal again!
So we never did get to see Rome and Nicole never got to buy a leather purse that was one of her few shopping goals in Italy. But I will take her back to Italy before we leave.

We are back home in England now planning our next trips because life must go on and this summer has driven home how fragile and short life can be and I am even more determined to enjoy every moment that I may have left!