Eastern Europe

Aeroflot, Camel Toes and Pantyhose…

….and sexually frustrated middle-aged women. These are some of the things I remember about Russia.

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I wonder how Aeroflot, Russia’s international carrier, are allowed to fly. The plane I board at London’s Heathrow is bound for St Petersburgh. It’s basic and old; my seat is barely bolted to the floor and resembles something that was picked up at the garbage tip. There is no entertainment, nothing. The plane is full of badly dressed individuals and I feel as though I am on the set of a B-grade movie.

A woman in her fifties sporting a hairdo like my mother’s from the 1970s is making her way up the aisle pushing a cart that looks like it belongs in an old hospital. Her unsmiling lips are coated in hot pink lipstick, and she’s serving nothing but vodka and tomato juice. Welcome to Russia!

I spend the three-hour flight scribbling in my journal, catching up on the last few hectic days. The guy next to me could be working for the KGB. He keeps watching me, and just before landing he asks me whether I am a journalist because I have written six pages. He ends up being a mathematician, working at Loughborough University in the UK, on his way back home to visit his wife and son. Phew!

At least he hasn’t yelled at me! For the next month I am yelled out, dismissed, ignored, and patronised. I am terrified of my lukewarm hosts. Actually I am not yelled at in St Petersburgh. Perhaps it’s because the sun is shining, the place is in party mode celebrating its 300th birthday, or is everyone pissed?

There doesn’t seem to be any laws about drinking. Fourteen-year-old teenagers wander the streets with beer in hand. It’s about 9am and I watch a guy with a briefcase, obviously on his way to work, skull a Bacardi Breezer and wipe the sweat from his brow.

The Russian girls all seem to be very tall, and slim. They have a fetish for skintight trousers and its’ here that I see more camel toes than my four month stint in the United Arab Emirates. They dress the same as the Russian hookers that hang around the unsavoury hotels in Dubai. Maybe this is their idea of fashion, and the hookers in Dubai were not hookers at all? Flesh coloured pantyhose, mini-skirts, stilettos, bad hair colour, mismatched clothing. I can’t bear it! I feel underdressed in my travel attire.

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Do they hate tourists? Or are they not used to tourists independently travelling? Perhaps they are just rude! Moscow is tough as nails. You have to compete with the gypsy kids begging for money in the train stations to gain anyone’s attention. I stand with mouth agape and guidebook in hand, obviously not looking like a dirty five year old with gold teeth trying to steal and beg from passersby, but totally ignored. I feel helpless and lost in the labyrinth of the underground.

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Every train station ticket seller is coiffed with bleach blonde hair and hot pink lipstick, and they are as dismissive and unhelpful as the last. A university student working at the youth hostel in Moscow had been yelled at all day by the female Gestapo in charge of the hotel building that rented out a few floors to the hostel. I asked her why there are so many unfriendly older women in the workforce. She said “twenty years ago a lot of Russian men were alcoholics and those that didn’t die from it, were divorced. Hence the angry sexually frustrated divorced women!”

I take several trains across Russia from St Petersburg through to Mongolia and finally Beijing in China. I had read about the Providnitsas (the stewardesses). They run their allocated train carriage like a military camp and instill a fear that keeps you on edge and your mouth shut from any complaints about the stinking toilet. They must have an eyesight problem as they act like I don’t exist and vacuum over the top of my feet.

I am lucky to meet one warm and friendly Providnitsa. She reminds me of my granny. She beams her gold toothy grin and chatters to me in Russian like I understand her, making signs for me to lock my compartment door during the night so no one enters whilst I am sleeping. I am sad to see her absent when I wake the next morning.

Russia – Central Asian Adventure: 2003


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