Welcome to Siberia – A tour of the city, the cat has a lucky escape and a visitor

(11th September written up 12th September)
At 3 o’clock Diana, one of the school staff, came to the flat to take me on me “excursion” – tour of the city centre. I think the tour had three objectives:
  • to show me how to get to the school on Monday,
  • to show me some of “the sights” and give me landmarks
  • to informally assess my knowledge and skill with Russian.
It would be tedeous to describe exactly the route we took, or what I saw (especially if you do not have access to a map of Novosibirsk). Alyona’s flat is about a mile south of the city centre. Diana and I set off north up Krasny Prospect (“Red Prospect”, one of the main thoroughfares), towards Lenin Square. During the tour I saw: the school, one significant church, several cultural buildings, a Metro station and a couple of parks. As I expected, (based on what I saw) Novosibirsk is not an especially beautiful city. It contains some interesting and beautiful buildings, but most is functional, some stark or even a bit “brutal”. The tour lasted an hour and a half. Diana returned me to the flat and we said goodbye until tomorrow.
Alyona and Gleb were out. My bed is a fold-away divan. I had converted it into its divan form before going out. It is covered with a loose sheet. I sat down, to type up some of these notes into my laptop, when to my surprise the sheet beside me moved! Moosa (the cat) was underneath the sheet. I was relieved that nothing bad had happened but quite amused. As there was nothing wrong, I went on with what I was doing, and left Moosa beneath the sheet (See the photo).

When Alyona came back, I told her what had nearly happened and showed her the bump. I deliberately used the word “Catastrophe” (which is almost exactly the same in Russian). She found this incident very funny, and said that she had a favourite movie (a British comedy of manners) where a woman accidentally sits on a small dog and kills it!
A little later, “Slava”, a lady friend of Alyona’s came to visit. I am introduced. We have tea together and they include me in some of the conversation. It is very hard work both for the guest and the host when you have limited command of the language, but we get by. One of the issues I have with Russian is that it is possible to change the meaning of some words by changing the stress. Naturally, I often put the stress in the wrong place! You mustn’t do this sort of thing unless you are prepared to have people laugh at you (in a friendly way). I ask Alyona to tell Slava about the incident with Moosa. Slava finds it funny too. A little later, Alyona gets me, and herself, supper (roast chicken and macaroni). She has found the film she referred to on YouTube and we all watch the relevant clip together. I don’t recognise the film, but it is very funny (even with the dialogue in Russian), and the entirely appropriate. I’m glad no harm came to Moosa, but the incident has certainly “broken the ice”.
A little while later Alyona goes out and leaves me in the flat. I am left to tell Gleb to have chicken and macaroni for tea! I do my journal, revision and preparation and eventually go to be. I’m writing this at 3am because my body clock is still a bit haywire!

Welcome to Siberia

(Sunday 11th written up in the afternoon)
I arrived at Novosibirsk-Tolemechevo airport at 5:40 local time. It was dark and wet. Once again there was a part of the airport where there were old aircraft (often with empty engine housings) awaiting dismantling. And also once again disembarkation was by bus. Of course, now there was no customs or immigration. As usual, I worried a little about whether my bag was going to emerge on the conveyor, especially when the conveyor stopped and it still hadn’t appeared. The reassuring thing at that moment was the number of other people who were also waiting for their bags. The Russians have introduced one innovation that I hadn’t come across before; as you leave the baggage reclaim room, there are security guards who check that you have the counterfoil for the bag you have claimed attached to your bourding card. If you do, they take it from you and let you pass. I don’t know what they do, if you have a bag and no matching sticker.
Once I had emerged from baggage reclaim I had to find my taxi driver. He was standing behind the crowd of “touting for business” drivers and had a clear sign with my name (in Roman characters). We confirmed identities and he handed me a “welcome pack” from the school (probably more of that later). He was rather older than me, had a walking stick and obviously had “a gammy leg”. Naturally, I pulled my own case. It’s on wheels, and my cabin baggage is a small rucksac, so it was no trouble really, but I didn’t expect him to have parked a few hundred metres from the airport building to avoid paying parking charges. It’s a reasonable thing for him to have done, but with limited language in common, it was only when he got to the car that I understood what was happening. The drive to my new home was through the “Leninsky Rayon” which is an industrial area with a number of large factories. “Rayon” translates directly as “Region”, but the usage in English implies a rather large area. For the Russian application, thinking “district” might be more appropriate.
We crossed the River Ob (which is really impressive) and turned into a residential district. After a couple of missed turns we found the group of buildings which contained my flat. Russian street addresses can be a little confusing because although the buildings are numbered, the buildings can be arranged around a square containing parking and other shared amenities, so on occassions you can see one number (and know you are in roughly the right place) but not see the number of the individual building you actually want. The main roads seem to be easier.
The driver spoke with my host on the phone, got me to the door of the building, got the host to open the door and then left me to climb the stairs to the flat (I don’t blame him, even though it’s only on the 2nd floor).
My host has left the front door open, and I came in to be greated by a friendly alsation, a black cat, and my host Alyona. Alyona lives with her son “Gleb”, dog “Boosa” and cat “Moosa” in a flat about a mile from the centre of Novosibirsk. And that means, at least traditionally, the centre of Russia! I don’t know if the flat is typical. It’s small, but comfortable. You might find the layout strange (it is to my way of thinking). The rooms are multipurpose. For example, the washing machine is in the bathroom. I think my presence is responsible for some rearrangement of who sleeps where, but I’m not sure.

Alyona prepared me some breakfast; bread, tea, cheese and little salami sausages. After a little conversation I had a shower and went to bed. Alyona went back to bed too. I didn’t see Gleb at this time but after all, it was 7am on Sunday! I didn’t get up again until after 11:00 local time.
Once both Gleb and I were “up”, Alyona made breakfast for us all: blini (pancakes), smetana (sour cream), tvorak (another semi-solid milk product, hard to describe, but good) and, of course, tea. Just like the hobbits, I had a second breakfast. I sorted out my clothes and things and then went for a walk “around the block”. I really did stick to “round the block” too. I didn’t want to get lost, especially before my orientation excursion later in the afternoon.

In transit: Heathrow, Moscow and Novosibirsk

(Saturday 10th Sept – Written up Sunday 11th September 2011)
10:50 Settled at last! All right so far.
I had a poor night’s sleep last night. I was plagued by the cat flea bites. I fear that I may take some of them with me to Russia. I wonder if they will count as illegal immigrants?
I got up earlier than I had planned to, but was itching so much that it seemed better to move around and do something to distract myself. That at least allowed me to do some surfing and send “I’m moving” eMails to Noreen and Exlinguo.
I was at the bus stop in Ashford in good time. Dave carried my rucksac out for me and waited until the 555 arrived. There was one other passenger who was going to Heathrow Central. She was on her way to the West Country. At Terminal 4 we “met” and Australian couple who unfortunately had missed their flight (back to Australia). They left us at the Ariel Hotel and seemed cheerful enough.
I had to look quite hard for the check-in desk. There are some new areas in Terminal 1 and Transaero is in “K”, which is one of the new areas. The queue was full of Russian schoolchildren going home from an English course at “Harrow House” in Swanage. I exchanged a few words with the (english) representative. He said that this was him finishing for the year. These were all departures and that typically he had 200 to deal with! I guess that must be “inbound” plus “outbound”, but I’m not sure.
Checkin went OK. There was no problem with the weight of my bag. Transaero seem to have a code-share with BMI (British Midland) (UN444 = BD2901). I think that the check-in staff are BMI (or BMI outsourced) as well. Security was the usual irritation, but no problems and I was through by 10:30. One minor annoyance is that I will have to retrieve my bag and clear customs in Moscow. Still, maybe that will make Novosibirsk easier.
Since passing security; I’ve bought whisky, water, and sent a confirmation text to Dave. I’m waiting for the Gate number to come up. There seem to be a number of British wheelchair athletes in the lounge. I don’t know if this is anything to do with the (para) olympics or not.
14:00plus
My flight departed from gate 5(d?). It was delayed by 30 minutes due to a delay to the inbound flight. The aircraft is a very new 737 _800_. I noted that it has very large upswept winglets. The flight is pretty full. I heard one Irish voice nearby but did not speak to him. Service from the cabin crew is very good. Certainly not the old Aeroflot stereotype. We were offered sweets for take-off and landing. Drink and the choice of two meals (Fish and rice or chicken and pasta), with a glass (plastic beaker) of wine if you wanted it. I chose the chicken. It came with a pickle starter and a carrot and something spiced side dish. It was all quite decent, if a bit on the small side. Aircraft made up time and landed on at the orignal scheduled arrival time.
The flight was uneventful. Arrived in Domodedovo through low cloud. There was steady rain and the temperature was rather warm.
Taxiing would have been a planespotter’s dream! There is an area of apron where superannuated aircraft are waiting to be scrapped. There were lots of models I recognised (even if I can’t name them) and plenty more I didn’t. Ages ranged from Soviet era, to much more recent and included at least one 747. The airport stands were the same with airlines and aircraft I did not recognise.
Disembarkation is via a bus. I’ve been warned that I have to clear emigration, collect my bag, clear customs, check in again and clear security to go airside again (I hope everyone was following that). It makes sense, because Russia has many regional airports which are never going to justify having immigration and customs.
Immigration was a long queue. When eventually I got to the head of the queue, I didn’t like the way the officer seemed to be picking at the visa with her nail. She referred it, and me to her supervisor, but it was all right in the end.
Baggage collection was the usual cause for mild concern as I wondered whether my bag was going to imerge, but the bag was there in the end.
Customs was straight through the green channel.
I had to be careful not to go outside the terminal building and had to fend off the taxi drivers who were gathered touting for trade. Once I was back at a check-in area, I had to find the appropriate check-in desk. Signage was good and I had no problems. There was a reasonable queue at check-in, and I was fortunate that the young man at the one I chose spoke English. He gave me clear instructions where to go. I had no problem identifying the gate I needed using the screens which alternate between English and Russian (or at least Roman and Russian). The signage is mostly bi-lingual. Security was ok. With the immigration etc, I had forgotten that I had put my duty free whisky into my rucksac. Security detected this as liquid, but once identified as duty-free (in a still sealed duty free bag) this wasn’t a problem. I expect they get absent minded people like me all the time. One good thing regarding security (at least at Domodedovo) is that the Russians have seats before and after security, bins for you to dump bottles of water in and supply little plastic booties to wear after you have taken your shoes off!
Gate change. Board via bus.
This time time the aircraft is a much older 737-500 with no winglets. The furnishing of the aircraft is the same (except for the signage) as the 737s on the LHR ORK route. This is hardly surprising.
The trip was uneventful. Once again the food was surprisingly good. Choice of beef goulash or chicken something. I had the beef.
During the trip I spent some time looking out of the window. I noticed from time to time there would be what seemed to be a bright flash on the ground which slowly subsided. It took me a time to realise that this was in fact the full moon being reflected in water (not sure if it was lakes or rivers) on the ground, and then being obscured by the clouds. It was a strange and rather beautiful sight.

Ready for the off?

(9th September 2011)
I hope I am. The bag is repacked and reweighed. I am close to the limit but not over it, and there are a few heavy items which can be moved to hand luggage if that is necessary. I’m just off now to get something to put in sandwichs for tomorrow.
Sandwich material has been purchased, as has a tube of ointment for insect bites. I’ve been eaten by cat fleas!

Applying for a visa can be stressful

I definitely committed now.

Main booking: I’ve transferred the money to “the Russians” in Siberia. That makes it pretty difficult for me to back out. It means that I have lessons and accommodation for a month.
Transport: The instructions for applying for a Russian Visa say that I should not book my flights until I have a visa. On the other hand, the requirements for applying for a visa say that I need to have a fixed itinerary (that means airline tickets). Anybody spot the circular argument here? As usual, the answer is to take the risk oneself and pay the money, so I’ve bought the plane tickets; Heathrow to Moscow Domodedovo to Novosibirsk (LHR –> DME –> OVB). I’m flying InterAvia all the way, so at least I’m not changing carriers, there is plenty of time for the change, and the change all in the same airport, which is the most modern of Moscow’s several airports. In for a penny, in for several pounds!
Visa: Always a bit of a challenge. In my case things are complicated a little by being a UK citizen who doesn’t live in the UK. Things are also complicated by me not having a regular job. However, with a bit of help from an “agent” and a certain amount of original documentation, I think I have surmounted that obstacle. I hope I will know shortly because I sent the documents, the application forms and my passport registered post yesterday. If things work as I hope, then I should have the passport and visa back in a couple of weeks. It will be all right if it takes a little longer, but I will be biting my fingernails!
The only thing left to do, apart from pack my bags, is organise transport from Ireland to Heathrow. I expect I will use my old friend Eurolines (cheap, and effective but interminable) and stay for a few days in the area to catch my breath.