Memories of my first trip to Moscow in 2005 for the World All-Round Championships did not leave me hankering to visit again. From what I remember the diesel fumes on the bus ride through traffic were overwhelming, we ate fish heads for breakfast, the hotel played host to late night ‘call girls’ and I had cabin fever like never before. We spent one afternoon touring the city, which gave us a taste of the good things the city has to offer: spectacular subway stations, the Kremlin, fur, tasty pastries, and borsht!
Unfortunately traveling to a city for a speed skating competition leaves little room for meaningful cultural experience and this short tour was just a tease. Further horror stories from a World Cup last year that I conveniently missed only served to justify my dislike for the city. So when I heard that we were going back this fall I braced for the worst.
The day before we left we learned that the roof at the oval in Moscow was structurally damaged and there was a possibility that it could collapse. I am ashamed to admit that when I learned this news I let myself hope that it might be postponed, or moved, or cancelled! When it was decided that the competition would be moved to another oval in a small town 120km southeast of Moscow, Kolomna, I figured at least now there was the possibility that the trip might not completely suck. To lessen the blow we opted to start the trip in Berlin and traveled to Kolomna just two days before the World Cup.
The bus ride from Moscow to Kolomna took about three hours. It was dark and late as we settled in for round two of jet lag. On two occasions the bus driver stopped on the side of the road for a cigarette. The second time he stopped for about fifteen minutes. It was close to midnight. When he started driving again we reached the hotel about four minutes later! This is the way things are done in Russia! We learned then that we weren’t staying at that hotel and only one Dutch skater got off.
We continued on and realized that we were heading out of town, into the boonies. It was pitch black and we could see nothing of the countryside. As the bus turned down smaller and smaller roads, a large bright building slowly emerged in the distance. We eventually ended up on a small, snow covered dirt road that led to our “hotel”. It reminded me of the movie “The Shining”, a connection I regretted making when, jet lagged and lying awake at 2am, I listened to footsteps traveling up and down the hallway outside our door.
We were met with a group of World Cup volunteers who were very organized and had us fed (no fish heads!) and in our rooms in no time. The rooms had all been recently renovated and were surprisingly nice! It was rather peculiar however that there were no phone lines in any room or anywhere in the hotel. Theories and rumours as to what exactly this place is/was began to fly. It was an insane asylum, a rehab facility, an old hospital, an orphanage… Either way its remoteness and oddities were a source of entertaining conversation.
Morning light and a bus ride into town revealed our surroundings. We really were in the middle of nowhere! It didn’t take long for the many books I have read about Russian history to come to life in my mind. It seemed desolate, barren and endless. Colourful houses built long ago that had shifted to tilt at seemingly impossible angles peppered the side of the road.
In Canada houses like that would have been abandoned or torn down. But I saw signs of life inside and I couldn’t help but wonder about the people who lived there. What did they do? What kind of lives had they had? Were they happy? Somehow I could only imagine that it had been a tough life for many. I imagined hardship and suffering during the cold harsh winters under the old communist regime. Is this really how things were? I thought of this often on the many bus rides to and from the rink.
In Moscow we were often met with rudeness and an unwillingness to help. In Kolomna it was different. Everyone was very kind and welcoming and they very much wanted to make sure that we had everything we needed. They took great care in preparing the ice and ensuring that the competition ran smoothly. The volunteers were plentiful and kind. My heart began to soften and I felt guilty for having so callously judged this big country.
There was one volunteer in particular that caught my attention. He stood quietly at his post, a security checkpoint, for endless hours each day. He stood out to me because he had the kindest, gentlest face I have ever seen. I must have walked past him thirty times. He was maybe sixty years old, had dark grey hair and wore a nice dark suit and shoes. Again I found myself wondering what kind of life he’d had, who is family was, if he was happy. Once when I walked by he was leaning against the wall, bending over to give his back a stretch after standing for so long. I caught his eye and we shared a little chuckle.
I very much regret that I did not have a small gift to give him, a Canada pin perhaps, to somehow show my appreciation for his help. The lack of a common language and a bit of shyness prevented me from doing anything other than giving him a nod and a smile as I walked by. I wished I had made the podium that weekend so I could have given him my flowers for his wife, if he had one. Maybe that is trite and sappy, but I guess I like to think that there are people in this world we cross paths with, for some reason other than chance, that make us happy to be alive.
We left Kolomna at 3am, on a rather chilly city bus and encountered a considerably uncooperative gaggle of check in agents at the airport. Our team paid nearly eight thousand dollars in excess baggage fees -15 Euros per kg over the allowed 20kg per person. Must be the mob! After much haggling and insolence and nearly missing the flight, we ended up ‘home’ nearly fourteen hours later. It was enough to make me loathe Russia all over again.
Thankfully now, as I bask in the comparative luxury of my new surroundings in the Netherlands, the thought of this man’s kind face is enough to bring a smile to my face and erase even the most vicious of Russian travel days.