MOSCOW - The comment was straight out of a James Bond movie.
I was at the Aeroflot counter at the Los Angeles International Airport, slightly giddy from having finally begun my long 16-hour trek to Moscow for the World Track & Field Championships. The tall, blonde Russian woman behind the counter asked me if I was excited to be going to Moscow.
"Yes, I certainly am," I responded enthusiastically.
Then she leaned toward me, her eyes sparkling, and said, "You should be. Russian women are very beautiful. Prepare your eyes for a treat."
Now, let it be said, I'm a happily married guy, who is not prone to staring at "other" women, but, still, the comment struck me. It seemed metaphorical somehow - Russia as a land of beauty, mysterious and intriguing, especially for an American.
I took it as a good piece of advice for a traveler. Prepare your eyes. Open your eyes. Find the beauty.
My trip was a "working vacation." I was going to Moscow to cover a number of homegrown Oregon and Oregon-based athletes who were competing in the World Championships. As a "freelance" reporter, I paid my own way and searched out newspapers willing to pay me for my articles. The search was fairly successful, as I wrote a daily column for the Statesman Journal, and articles for the Bend Bulletin and Pensacola (FL) News Journal. I also did Twitter and blogging for the Eugene Register Guard.
Over the nine days of the World Championships, I was working 16-18 hours a day at Luzhniki Stadium, in the Media Centre, and in my hotel room. Sightseeing was fairly limited for me, but I did have a few hours here and there to see some of the sights, and there were plenty of opportunities to interact with Muscovites during the course of my day.
My first impressions were not entirely positive. Stumbling groggily out of the airport with my luggage, in search of the media shuttle bus, it felt like I was in a blast furnace. Pulling my large suitcase, packed with warmer clothes, raincoat, and even long underwear, I groaned. Moscow may be very far north, but latitude is not everything, especially in summer, and I had packed too many warm clothes.
Next impression: Moscow is huge and the traffic is intense. All the way from Sheremetyevo Airport, one of three large airports that serves the city, the streets were clogged. Once we finally reached central Moscow, it was worse, far worse.
This is despite the fact that central Moscow is a grand city of sweeping boulevards, ten or twelve lanes across, which cut a giant swath past massive buildings, monuments and onion-domed palaces, churches and the bridges across the Moscow River.
Fighting fatigue, heat and the unfamiliar Cyrillian alphabet on all the signs, I struggled to comprehend why I was being taken to the Media Accreditation Center for "processing" while lugging my suitcase, computer, backpack, etc. The bus dropped all the journalists off near Luzhniki Stadium and left us to our own devices to find which building to enter. Down one long hallway, then another, up a long flight of stairs, cursing my heavy suitcase and backpack every step, before finding the room to get my media credential. Then another long walk to receive a "gift pack" and a third one to find a hotel shuttle. After another trip on the congested streets, I endured an hour wait in line at the hotel check-in counter, the line moving at a snail's pace for no apparent reason.
That was, in fact, the low point of my stay in Moscow. Once I had my credential, room, a meal, and a good night's sleep, everything improved.
Steve Ritchie in Moscow
While there was a shuttle bus from the media hotel to the stadium, Moscow traffic prompted me to look for other transportation options, and I quickly discovered that the Metro (subway) was fast, reliable and cheap. Built during the 1930's, Moscow's Metro is the second most-heavily used subway system in the world, carrying nine million passengers every weekday. The average wait for a train seemed to be no more than one or two minutes no matter the time of day.
The clean and well-lighted metro stations were a delight, almost like visiting a history museum, with huge murals depicting the workers who constructed the system and other Soviet-era scenes. Despite the occasional difficulty in determining which direction to go - Cyrillian alphabet again - the subway was a pleasure to use.
I had been warned not to use Moscow taxis, and I didn't. Judging from a few horror stories told by other media members, it was a good decision.
With 12 million people residing in Moscow proper, it is one of the world's largest cities, and its increasing wealth also make it one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. Even a small apartment can be beyond the means of an average person, and this leads to several million more people commuting into the city every day, adding to the congestion.
With all the publicity here about U.S. - Russian tension over Syria and Edward Snowden, I was wondering how Muscovites would react to Americans, but never sensed any negative reaction at all. Most people were friendly and curious. Young people, especially, went out of their way on several occasions to help me.
I also found Moscow to be probably the cleanest metropolis I have ever been to, and there seemed to be little street crime, as well. (Comforting to me since I was often returning to the hotel very late at night.) No sign of homeless people living on the streets. There was a constant military presence, however. In Moscow, the military seem to do many of the functions that would be performed by police or private security personnel here.
It was a little disconcerting, though, even with all the heavy security at the hotel, that there was a sizeable group of prostitutes in the hotel lobby and bar every night.
Red Square and the Kremlin were more impressive than I expected. Although I've seen countless photos and video clips of this sight, it is still rather breathtaking to see it in person, just like the magnificent state buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C.
|Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia during the 2013 IAAFWC
Luzhniki Stadium and the beautiful surrounding park and venues, the site of the 1980 Olympics, were also impressive. Refurbished for the Championships, the huge stadium was a great venue to watch the world's greatest track and field athletes compete. While the attendance was lower than expected for some of the sessions, the crowds were vocal and enthusiastic, particularly when Russian athletes were doing well.
One of the highlights of the competition came in the men's 100 meter final. A warm, humid evening gave way to a sudden rain and thunderstorm. Just as the world's best sprinter, Usain Bolt, hit the finish line, a massive bolt of lightning struck just above the stadium, creating one of the most stunning sports photos ever.
The athletes I went to cover also made headlines. Ashton Eaton, a UO grad who was raised in Bend, followed up on his Olympic victory and world record by winning the decathlon. Former Willamette University star Nick Symmonds captured his first world championship medal, taking second in the 800. Matthew Centrowitz, another former Duck, won silver in the 1500. English Gardner and Galen Rupp, national champs when at Oregon, placed fourth in the women's 100 and men's 10,000 respectively, and Gardner also won silver in the 4x100 relay.
The Russian women? While I can't say they are more beautiful than women elsewhere, I was fascinated to learn about - and observe - the melting pot that is modern Russia. The Russian Federation includes 185 distinct ethnic groups within its borders, and this ethnic diversity is obvious with any walk down the street in Moscow.
A treat for the eyes, for sure.