The approach into Sheremetyevo International Airport held for me no surprises. Looking through the window of the Finnair jetliner at the approaching landscape below, being subjected to a cold mid-autumn day, revealed a bleakness and a drabness which in some ways was what I was expecting. The birch trees were bare and remnants of a light early snowfall lay on dark muddied ground. Maybe I had watched too many black and white Soviet-era documentaries or old newsreels.
The terminal buildings looked decidedly dated and the realisation that I was now in post-communist Russia suddenly struck me. The immensity of the country’s geography and its turbulent and tortured history caused me to hesitate momentarily before emerging from the plane.
It wasn’t long though before my mind was preoccupied negotiating the familiar customs’ queues and I was soon busying myself collecting luggage and ingesting my new surroundings.
I noticed there was no rail link to the city and my options it seemed were limited to the gaggle of competing tax drivers jostling expectantly around the customs’ exit doors.
Shrugging off the exorbitant offers for a ride into Moscow I pushed through the shuffling mob in search of the prospect of securing accommodation. I settled on a week at the Hotel Ukraina; a tall, neoclassical, Stalinist building (one of the “seven sisters”) which, from the pictures presented to me, appeared quite intriguing with a distinctly gothic bent, while still offering reasonably priced lodgings not too distant from the Kremlin.
After spending some more time in the terminal building gathering information I slowly came to the realisation that the only realistic prospect for transportation to my hotel was committing to the fares being offered by the taxi drivers so I was soon bustled into the back of a dirty cream-coloured Volga automobile and whisked along expansive but congested motorways to be deposited politely outside my designated hotel on Kuluzovsky Prospect.
Towering 198m (650ft) gloomily above me the Hotel Ukraina was more imposing and intimidating than the pictures at the airport could have ever portrayed, and the entrance doors, so huge that one felt more like an ant entering an oversized anthill. I wondered if this could have been a deliberate belittling tactic used by Stalin.
The interior of the hotel, however, could not have been more of a contrast, with a large and spacious lobby; brightly lit with magnificently high ceilings and an ensemble of small shops, restaurants and bars.
I found my room to be on the sixth level with expansive views across a sullen Moscow River towards the Russian White House standing imposingly on the Krasnopresnenskaya embankment where, the then, President Boris Yeltsan famously stood on a tank to defy the August coup of 1991. In keeping with the rest of the hotel my room was large and comfortable with elegant furnishings and a wonderfully stained timber floor.
After a few moments to relax and compose myself I rummaged through my documents and found the piece of paper upon which I had written the phone number for Angelika’s Moscow office. I picked up the phone and dialled taking a deep breath as I listened to the ring tone, quite unsure as to what the outcome of the phone conversation would be.
A man identifying himself as Sergei (named changed to protect identity) answered the phone and upon learning of my location was as surprised as I was apprehensive. The whole purpose of the website was to eliminate the need for unsolicited visitors. He was clearly not accustomed to such an antic of someone “just showing up”, but he graciously welcomed me to Russia in excellent English and, without hesitation, accepted my proposal that I come to his office the following day to observe their catalogue and place some invitation requests. He offered to meet me outside his local subway station which I was able to locate on my English translation metro map and cheerfully pointed out that, as I was located near the Kievskaya station I was on the same metro line (blue line) as him, so I shouldn’t have any problems.
Replacing the handset I relaxed back in the chair and released a pent up lungful of air. It all seemed too easy. Soon, it seemed, I would be graced by the presence of the glamorous ladies I had observed and noted on my computer screen in far off Iraq. The prospect began to thrill me enormously and buoyed by my perceived success and warmed by Sergei’s unexpected display of hospitality I found there to be nothing more to do but explore the immense lobby below.