25 July 2010
The Vega Hotel (left), an unlovely Soviet–era pile, stood on a raised platform facing a dull square crowded with cars being baked by temperatures not witnessed for decades. In stark contrast, a New Russian fantasy mosaic-clad apparition shimmered distantly in the heat (right).
The marginally-cooler, crowded foyer sported a Long John Silver complete with parrot, a secreted cash desk boasting a superior rouble/sterling rate to that found in the UK and fee-paying wi-fi desks for the hapless traveller! The large, milling crowd included those trying to cut a deal with Vega guests swiftly moving to lifts, guarded by burly bouncers who robustly turned away all who had no magic pass. Mine did open a pair of shining sliders to a bar/bistro – there stood lady-luck, who with a discreet wave of the wand summoned a waiter from Uzbekistan with perfect English. Despite the heat, exhaustion and the general oppressive do-nothing atmosphere, I rose to follow a trail blazed by local Russians and discover a shop/kiosk for Trans-Siberian snacks and cooling ice cream. Motivation suddenly took hold to get stuck in and start ‘Russia and the Russians’ by Geoffrey Hoskins.
The sky darkened suddenly with fork lightning, thunderclaps and heavy rain that rapidly generated massive pools. With equal speed it stopped and humidity went through the roof. Texted son Alex ‘Just had a dramatic storm. Hope James got the e-mail’. Reply: ‘Yes he got e-mail, just forgot to tell us! Glad you made Moscow OK, thinking of you – A P J S’.
At 21.30 the driver reappeared for the Trans-Siberian departure from Yaroslavsky Station at 00:35 on 26th July. A now well-disposed Intourist Official spelled out kindly the must dos and not to dos, then quizzically looked me straight in the eye and wished me a good journey. A long, hot wait with many other people/families of all ages ensued. I shared luggage-watching duties with others, regularly oiled by language confusion and peals of laughter. Then midnight struck; I went to find an open-air platform and mingled with a shadowy crowd who conversed softly between themselves. The train sat brooding in the darkness; suddenly those in the know gathered around their designated on-train door – mine was Moscow to Irkutsk, carriage 09, berth 10. Made it!