Sunday, 22 July 2007

A quick catch-up on the last three weeks

29th June – last flight?

By now you must have figured I have become very scared of flying. This is despite the fact that I estimate that I have easily done over 300 international flights since moving to Moscow in Spring 2004 and; in my lifetime? Easily over 1,000 (I was an ex-pat brat).

Anyway, something snapped when I took the afternoon AeroSvit from Kyiv to Moscow. We landed in the immediate prelude to a huge thunder storm. On landing the plane was wildly erratic and at less than 50 metres I would judge the engines roared and we did a go around. Having landed on the second attempt, and exiting the plane there was this huge downward gust of pressure – wind shear: the invisible plane killer.

Wind shear scares me silly out here: CIS airports almost never have, I’m told, wind shear radar on the ground and these twenty-five year old Boeings and the Soviet planes don’t have on-board wind shear detectors.

So, suddenly, dust and rubbish shot up into the end before a squal of blackness crossed across the runway. As we bussed into Terminal 1c you couldn't actually see terminal 2 – just straight across the runway – because visibility sank to nothing as a huge storm crack overhead and the heavens opened…

…and I have not been on a plane since. A whole month without flight (when I normally do three flights a week). I have to do something about this, because soon my bosses will notice…I recently asked my Chief of Staff to look into taking the Moscow-Budapest-Moscow train for a Board conference in September: madness! But might be kind of fun…there’s something sexy and glamorous about Eastern European train travel (well not if you’re not in first class, granted), which air travel these days can’t match (except on those long, epicurean and pampering transcontinental flights to the Middle East).

I have done three trips to Kyiv. Each by train. Train #1 out of Moscow (dep 23.20, arr. 08.30) and Train #2 out of Kyiv on the way back (dep. 20.17, arr. 06.39). I always book a twin-person carriage for myself and usually now take a small night-time picnic,

Customs and immigration out of Russia, in Souzemka, and Khoutir-Mikhailivskiy in Ukraine are a pain (the towns are 20 minutes apart and the Russian side is very slow, but at least they come on board to your carriage). They wake you up at around 1.00am back into Russia, but I get back to sleep afterwards; on the way in, the wake up is 4.00am (finishing around 5.00am) and so I watch dawn in Ukraine, not bothering to go back to sleep.

The Ukrainian side also now have PDAs (which is why they are faster than the Russians) so are able to do onboard registration on my entry (whereas the Russians have to alight from the train and call in my visa details for clearance).

6th July – weird things

I had been in Kyiv again (actually I have dropped by the office for a couple of days every week over the last month) and had a very interesting meeting with a future force in Ukrainian politics, now launching his own NGO: he’s a very high-powered local lawyer.

The Ambassador of a small Central European country and I share the same taste in whiskey…and bars. He’s become quite my regular drinking/talking global politics buddy. For some reason I think this very cool...

At 1.30am – waiting to enter Russia, I am awake on the train and a journalist friend calls from Doha, in Qatar. And we’re chatting – via satellites bouncing a signal Lord knows where – me being all George Smiley on my post-Soviet overnight train and yet, also, chatting to a mate at a party in the Middle East…

…who then worried me because he was heading out on a trip with Hezbollah into Southern Lebanon. Now this is a patch I know (and if you know Lebanon well, Hezbollah is all part of the scene) and I say: “Dude, down to Sidon, you’ll be fine, just stay north of Sidon” “er…” he replies, “I am going well South of Sidon”.

So we chat and I point out that while his employer might be an Arabic TV station, he’s a blonde English guy and the Hezbs in Southern Lebanon aren’t the diplomatic dandies in Beirut we know, but are ‘the real thing’ and might not welcome a Brit. That and the Israelis have been shooting at TV cars across the borderline (because sometimes Hezb pretends to be TV). So I was kind of worried for my friend…

We spoke a week later, he partying in Damascus – damn I love that City – and he clearly has some good war-stories: being shoved into a cell overnight with armed guards for instance: “but we got some great shots and broadcast live way farther South than the BBC or CNN would ever dare”…which is what passes for delivering understanding into global living rooms apparently.

8th July Spartak!

A one-night only special starring the Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta. There is a good piece about this on Russia Today (LOL – that’s a sentence hardly ever used!).

Acosta was quite extraordinary and, as I was chatting with a friend afterwards in post-performance dinner at café des Artistes, sitting outside, we agreed it was one of the highlights of the Bolshoi this season…and then Acosta comes to the restaurant with a small entourage. He’s charming and has excellent English (he’s danced with the English National and the Royal). He’ll be guest-starring with the Bolshoi this Summer at Covent Garden in London. Mug or steal yourself a ticket if you’ll be in town…

Tonight – 22nd July – I am going to the Close of Season Gala Concert, with all the leading Bolshoi Ballet stars. It should be a wonderful night…but then no Bolshoi until October 5th…

…I must travel abroad – the summer ballets put on at the country estates outside Moscow are very bourgeois and ‘chocolate box-y’.

Now then, how to get from Moscow to London, without flying, by train…

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