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14

Russia - Moscow
18th - 20th Dec

When I arrived in Moscow there was a taxi waiting to take me to my hotel, once there, due to no sleep the previous night I was ready for a rest, but my guide rang to arrange the tour of the City and so we agreed to meet at 11am. However, shortly after 11am she called to say that she was at the wrong hotel and as she had another booking later in the afternoon we re-arranged for 10am the following day. Not wanting to waste the day I found out how to get to the city by tube and headed into Moscow.

I had been in the city several hours and was finding my way around. The Kremlin and Red Square were high on the list just to get my bearings; the visits were reserved for the day after as I had arranged a tour of them with the guide. I was also keen to see Lenin's mausoleum having read a biography about him some time ago, where bizzarely his body has been mummified since his death 1924.

Whilst walking through Red Square a large, bulky, typically Russian looking man stopped me and asked me a question, after I had made my apologies telling him that I didn't speak Russian, he smiled and walked on. As he did so a large bundle of folded American dollars maybe 2 inches thick, fell from his pocket and landed just in front of me. I called out to him but not hearing me he walked on. As I reached to pick up the money a guy appeared from nowhere picked up the bundle and put it in his jacket pocket and told me to be quite. As I called out again to the man who had dropped the cash this second man he offered me half stay quite, but when I refused he grabbed me stopping me from passing him to get to the man. Shortly afterwards the large man returned accusing one or both of us of taking his money. The second guy again told me to be quite and say nothing. The second slimmer guy, to prove his innocence volunteered his wallet and showed the large guy the contents. Then turning to me and by now holding my arm, the owner of the money demanded to see my wallet, when I refused he started to call for the police. I may have only been in Russia for a few days but I knew the last thing I wanted to do was to get involved with the police, but there was no way I was getting my wallet out. Thoughts rushed through my mind, how could I get myself out of this; if I ran the big guy thinking me guilty, would chase me and the second would be away with money. Try explaining that one to the russian police and also that the two of us weren't friends. My mind continued to race, then somehow it dawned on me that it was just a scam. These two were partners and the minute my wallet appeared they would both have been off and maybe I would have taken a knock in the process. I shouted at them that they were friends and that it was just a scam, I got little reaction but more significantly no denial, then as I continued now with more conviction, the big guy still holding my arm for a split second looked unsure of what to do giving me chance to free my arm and walk off briskly. Without looking back I headed for the nearest crowd and then a busy shopping center. Several days later when reading a guide book it described a similar dollar scam but with just one person.......so it is obviously a common con trick. But it was a very close call.

I paced through Moscow, reflecting on the incident. It was very polished, it happened so fast, giving me no time to think, psychologically they placed me between the two of them. It was only at the last minute that I realised what was going on, and even now because it was so quick I can't be sure at what point I knew. Maybe only when there was a slight hesitation after accusing them was I sure. So I counted my blessings that it dawned on me in time and that I got away unscathed. I need to keep on my guard; this is a good reminder. This event was to become relevant again within the week.

I was conscious I had not eaten and as I had been on move for 4-5 hours I decided to call into a quiet, modern bar/restaurant. I found a quite corner in an empty area and sat quietly with the intention of getting my map and guide book to locate a decent, possibly Indian restaurant, where I might get some good vegan food. I ordered a beer but before I had chance to open my book a large Russian man came and introduced himself and asked could he join me. Having just narrowly escaped a mugging I was naturally suspicious of his motives and not overly keen on the idea of an uninvited guest. He was called Vladimir, extremely persuasive and a force to be reckoned with. Shortly after, a friend of his arrived called Artur, who was an artist. All I could think of was the two guys in Red Square just a couple of hours earlier, wondering what these two men wanted from me. Artur had a folder with him filled with some of his artwork, when he showed me this and as the conversation developed and by the very nature of it, I relaxed a little but not totally. Vladimir then gave me my first introduction to Russian vodka and all the customs and rituals that surround it. To name just a few, it must be drunk down in one and certainly must never be sipped as this is considered rude; it is customary to toast with every shot, the more original, witty and elaborate the better; after drinking one must close ones eyes and breath out slowly before taking a bite out of the nibbles that are always served with it. The exaggerated slamming down of the empty glass always goes down well, but the most deadly custom of all must be that once opened the bottle must be finished.

We talked for a couple of hours before Artur departed. Vladimir then took me for a tour of the city and showed me around some of the finer establishments before ordering a taxi and taking me to a nightclub.

Later we went back to Arturs' house and we spent the night there. Having no idea what time I slept, but having a very deep vodka induced rest, I awoke in the early afternoon about 3.5 hours after I should have met my guide for the guided tour. We stayed there for the rest of the day; the whole family were warm, loving and generous. Before I left, despite putting me up for the evening, feeding and watering me, they presented me with a couple of gifts and told me I must return to Moscow and stay with them whenever I wished. Unfortunately I felt quite awkward as I had nothing I could give them in return. I wanted to leave my clothes for Alexandria their son, as I no longer needed them and it seemed such a waste, but Vladimir told me not to as I may need them again that evening. The truth is though that even if relatively speaking people like Artur and his family have very little, they don't give to receive, they give because they want to.

So whilst I never actually got to do my guided tour of Moscow with the guide, during my time there I spent most of it with local Russians and never actually got around to doing the tourist trek. So the few photos I took where those restricted to my walk around that first afternoon when my tour should have originally taken place. But my visit was far from spoilt by this, it was in fact enhanced, I saw a side of Moscow and Russian life that I would otherwise never have experienced.

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