Moscow: day 3

Despite (or maybe because of?) the excess vodka, I slept much better and woke up feeling refreshed this morning. Though because of the dehydration I had to take another £8 bottle of water from the mini-bar. I hope this project has a good travel budget.

Today we had a short day, just a few hours of talks in the morning, along with a tour of the computer room at the institute, where we got to see their new supercomputer. These days supercomputers are getting more and more like a load of normal computers stuck together, but even so it was weird to see the unused colour-coded surround sound jacks on the back of each board. (A lot of people, including some of my colleagues, would probably take issue with that statement, and of course it is a big oversimplification… it matters a lot that you have the right kind of computers and that you stick them together in the right way, and even then they’re very difficult to program… but the fact is, the components of supercomputers are much more similar to ordinary PCs than they used to be a few years ago).

After the final talks and the signing of the contract, they took us for a tour of the Keldysh museum, where we got to see the former study of Mstislav Keldysh. Apparently not many Westerners have seen it yet. No pictures I’m afraid… I left my camera outside as I wasn’t sure they’d want people taking photos, but other people were happily snapping away on their phones and the staff didn’t seem to mind so it probably would have been fine after all. It was pretty interesting… though as a pacifist I don’t entirely approve of Keldysh’s missile work, it was kind of fascinating to see the office of a genuine Cold War-era Soviet scientist, complete with hotline to the Kremlin and many amazing gifts from other scientists and politicians (including a brandy dispenser built into a miniature electric rocket, and the most beautiful collection of minerals I’ve ever seen).

In early afternoon, after only a day and a half, it was time to say goodbye to our hosts and be on our way. They presented all of us with lovely 2012 Moscow calendars that were so big they hardly fitted in our luggage, and then we were off back to the airport. We weren’t keen to repeat Monday’s taxi ride so we got the train this time. It was cheap enough that we were allowed to go first class and I made full use of the extra leg room and free high speed internet.

The journey home was mostly uneventful, which is generally what you want from air travel as “events” tend to be bad news. They had a weird body scanner thing at the airport security but thankfully it wasn’t one of the X-ray “nude” ones there’s been all the fuss about (thankfully because I didn’t have to be dosed with carcinogenic radiation, and the poor airport staff didn’t have to look at a nude image of me). But beyond security was even weirder… the terminal was very nice but seemed to be only half finished. There were acres of empty space and very little else.

And no restaurants.

We were all quite hungry and had kind of assumed we’d be able to get a meal before the flight, but as it was we had to settle for a snack in a coffee shop. (At least they had decent, if weirdly named, sandwiches… instead of being labelled “Chicken” or “Tuna” they were “With the chicken” and “With the tuna”. I think one of the Friends writers may have a new job designing packaging for sandwiches in Russia). This wouldn’t have been so bad, but then the advertised “meal” on our main flight never materialised either so I was pretty hungry by the time I got home.

(One thing I’ll never understand about airports: WHY, on proper airlines with seat numbers already allocated, does everyone get up and rush to queue up at the gate the moment it opens? It seems utterly pointless to me, they just end up having to stand for ages in the queue, then once they get to their seat they’ll get disturbed by all the people behind trying to get in. Besides, why does anyone want to spend any longer than necessary in an aeroplane seat? I just don’t get it).

Moscow: Day 2

Unfortunately, I didn’t get very much sleep. Moscow is only 3 hours ahead of Edinburgh so I wasn’t anywhere near as jetlagged as I was in Japan… but it was enough to make a bit of a difference, coupled with being unsettled by being in such strange and unusually grand surroundings. So I dosed myself up with coffee in my room and at breakfast, then we headed for the metro station, thankfully guided by a native.

It was cold and a bit wet outside, colder than Edinburgh had been when we left anyway. It was at this point I realised that in my semi-conscious daze yesterday morning I’d brought the wrong shoes with me. Instead of the new ones I had the ones with several small holes in and the heels worn down to a funny angle… bah. Apart from the small number of ticket machines and kiosks resulting in big queues, the metro wasn’t really any scarier or busier than the London or Paris ones… in fact it was a good deal more civil than the Underground when it came to people shoving you out of the way. And was much posher looking.

Soon we arrived at the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics for our meeting. By this point I had already been appointed unofficial-official-photographer for the trip, by virtue of having brought the best camera (though admittedly not necessarily knowing how to use it properly).

Once inside, while my colleagues got on with business networking and preparing their talks, I got out my netbook and turned to the important task of finding a way to get online. My internet fix is nearly as important as my caffeine fix in keeping my brain from melting down. The meeting venue didn’t seem to provide wireless networking like some do, but that didn’t stop me for long. I discovered a free public wi-fi network (let’s call it WaspLine_Free, I’ve changed the provider name to avoid them embarrassment), but it was very slow and unreliable… frustrating. Then, purely by accident, I discovered that if you disconnect from the free version of the network and immediately connect to the standard one (WaspLine, much faster but you’re supposed to have to pay for it) you’re still recognised and can surf on the fast network for free! w00t! (Cue lots of comments about Ubuntu being a dodgy hacker tool when other people found out what I was doing).

The meeting passed quite quickly as the talks were interesting. We had a lunch break during which we walked to a nice restaurant nearby, and another session of talks in the afternoon. Then it was time for the Moscow walking tour.

We got some nice views of the river and of the Kremlin, though didn’t go very close to it. We also marvelled at the traffic again, it was like some sort of carefully choreographed daredevil show with cars continually coming within a hair’s breadth of crashing but never actually crashing. (Maybe it actually WAS a carefully choreographed daredevil show. Maybe someone told them we were coming).

Then there was this marvellous example of corporate sponsorship being sensitive to its surroundings:

(Though I wasn’t impressed that the one item of Bench clothing I own started falling apart after only a few months. I hope the Bench benches are more hardwearing than my jumper turned out to be).

Then we had a tour of the art gallery. Despite knowing next to nothing about art, I always like art galleries, and I really wanted to listen to the guide. But I kept getting distracted by how tired I was after not much sleep and how my feet were killing me after walking around for hours in those substandard shoes, and as we reached the last few galleries I became more interested in looking for a vacant chair than in looking at the paintings.

Finally, there was dinner. We returned to the restaurant near the institute and tucked into the generous buffet that was set out for us. I was just starting to feel pleasantly full and there was still piles of food left when I overheard someone saying the main course was on its way! It wasn’t just the food they were generous with… every time I turned round to talk to someone I would turn back to find my glass had been topped up with vodka (I forget which kind of vodka but it was nicer than the kind I usually find the remains of in my kitchen the morning after a party), or with red wine, which I switched to later on in an increasingly futile seeming attempt to remain conscious.

Moscow: Day 1

When work first asked me to go to a meeting in Moscow, I’d assumed it would be similar to when I’d visited places in Eastern Europe… when I went to Prague and Belgrade (both lovely cities incidentally, you should visit if you haven’t already) it was just a case of wandering off the plane, showing your passport and in you went. But not Russia. Turns out it’s more of a need-a-visa-and-4-vaccinations-don’t-drink-the-water-OMGG-home-office-terror-alerts!!1! sort of place.

Still. I don’t like to be put off by trifling things like that… if someone else is paying for me to go somewhere exciting, I’m never one to turn them down. So I got on with the visa application which turned out to be a pretty smooth process (only slight hitch was that they completely replaced the visa form website without any warning in the middle of my application, making me think I’d gone insane until one of my colleagues mentioned that it had changed for them as well), and getting my first injections since high school (less scary than I remember them being).

Our flight out wasn’t even too obscenely early in the morning, which is always a plus.

(I like taking photos from planes. I was very pleased with this one I took over Siberia on the way back from Japan last year…

… even though it was taken with my phone camera. It’s just a shame you can’t take them during take off and landing due to the electronic devices rule, since that’s when it’s normally most interesting. Maybe if you had a fully mechanical film camera you’d be allowed to). The flights all went smoothly. So did getting through passport control (though my colleague’s passport seemed to be causing some amusement among the immigration officers. I’m not sure it’s good when immigration officers laugh at you, but it’s better than some of the things they could do, at least). Then came the taxi ride from Sheremetyevo airport to our hotel.

They say you’re more likely to die on your way to or from the airport than you are on the flight. Today, I had no difficulty whatsoever believing that.

It was just as well my seat (with no seatbelt that I could find, incidentally) was facing backwards. A few times I tried turning round to see what was going on in front, but quickly decided I’d rather not know and went back to just watching my forward-facing colleagues getting whiter and whiter instead. (What was going on when I looked was our taxi hammering it down the wrong side of the 2-lane road, overtaking everything including ambulances with their blue lights on, and swerving back in with inches to spare whenever something came the other way. Meanwhile the driver’s idea of a satnav seemed to be squinting at a map on the tiny screen of his mobile phone held in one hand as he drove with the other).

As we entered Moscow itself our first impression was that it reminded us of Glasgow… a huge wide motorway ploughing right into the city with plenty of high rise blocks and McDonalds alongside. (Though you probably wouldn’t get away with parking in any spare space you found on the M8 sliproads in Glasgow as people seemed to have done here). Our second impression as we neared the centre was: oh god, I’ll NEVER complain about the traffic in Britain ever again.

I’d never seen anything like it before. Just a huge mass of cars, seemingly never-ending… about 5 lanes were marked out on the road but people acted as if there were at least two more than that. At the front of the queue, a few cars were managing to trickle through the traffic lights on each cycle, that is if the junction wasn’t completely blocked by cars turning across the other way and not having anywhere to go, which it usually was, in which case everyone just leaned on their horns and tried to barge into any little gap they could see, causing the other mass of car drivers to lean on their horns as well. Amazingly considering the number of near-misses, we didn’t see any actual accidents and the cars mostly didn’t look particularly dented. I guess you must get used to that style of driving after a while, though I’m not sure I’d ever want to. It took a full two hours to get from the airport to our hotel, much longer than we’d expected.

The hotel was worth seeing though.

Moscow Hilton, in one of the Seven Sisters of Moscow. From the outside it was certainly the grandest looking hotel I’ve ever stayed in.

Inside was pretty nice as well.

My room was quite small but very comfortable.

I soon managed to flood the bathroom by doing exactly the same thing that resulted in me flooding a hotel bathroom last time I was abroad with work… namely, putting the shower on to warm up and then leaving it unattended for a few minutes and coming back to find it had escaped from its cubicle. Oops. Lucky they left so many nice absorbent fluffy towels in there.

After a meal and a few drinks downstairs, we were all ready for bed. I felt thirsty as it was quite warm in the room so, remembering the warnings not to drink the tap water, I raided the mini-bar. The bottled water in there was 420 Roubles for a litre (about £8!!!). Oh well. I was way too tired to go and find anywhere cheaper and anyway, work finance department probably won’t notice what it is on the receipt. As long as I don’t draw their attention to it by doing something stupid like mentioning it in a public blog p… ah, too late :(.