Before the World Cup started there were some doubts over how fans would navigate the sheer size of Russia and its 12-stadium venues, not to mention getting around each host city itself. After spending 10 days in Moscow, I can confirm these to be undue concerns.
I took a four-hour express, seated train ride to St Petersburg; then an eight-hour overnight train with sleeping cabins back to Moscow. It’s free-of-charge for registered fans and accredited journalists, but they didn’t stint on making the trains clean, comfortable and well-stocked with amenities.
Russia and Egypt fans joined me en route to St Petersburg to watch their teams square off, but there was no trouble; no drunken fans cutting themselves on carriage doors or confronting policemen. And it was the same for the trip back, except for a half-naked, hungover Russian man stumbling about harmlessly wishing bemused passengers a good morning.
Some will wonder if all of this, all of Russia’s near-flawless hosting so far is just an elaborate, artificial show staged for all to see; the World Cup just a giant theme park for foreign tourists to party in while it lasts.
But for Moscow at least, the visiting crowds are getting a taste of the real deal, said some Muscovites I encountered, such as 50-year-old businesswoman Mardashkina.
“Everything you see, is what it is. Moscow has always been like this,” she insisted. “Like our Metro. Tourists have been saying good things about it for some time already.”
Her city’s 83-year-old rail system is indeed something to crow about. Every day, the trains carry nine million commuters - more during this period - throughout about 200 gorgeous, intricately-designed underground stations accessed by escalators which run as deep as two minutes in either direction.
Services arrive regularly and come peak hour, there is hardly any break in between. A large digital clock at each end records waiting times for quality control and further review. Though free for fans and media during the World Cup, locals tell me every ride, never mind the distance, costs the same - less than S$1.
To top it off, the trains have TVs in each carriage broadcasting World Cup matches for free.
PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE
So imagine my confusion when I came across an article in a Hong Kong English-language agency headlined: “Maddening Moscow Metro driving football fans to despair in Russia”. The writer complains about signage in Cyrillic alphabet and the absence of multilingual volunteers.
Perhaps if he approached the numerous patrolling police officers or even regular train staff he would realise that they could speak and give directions in basic English, with a smile. Or perhaps he didn’t realise he could just download the Google Translate app, which is capable of deciphering images snapped by phone.
I guess people tend to form opinions too hastily. Such as some of my fellow Singaporeans, in their reactions to a Channel NewsAsia Facebook post on my experience with S$75 laksa in Moscow.
“Crazy ... go to Russia, try good Russian food ! Be more adventurous ... what for try Singapore food in Russia !!” said one comment.
“Totally agree, do you party with Singapore girl or Russia girl in Russia @#$$#@&,” read another.
Thankfully there were voices of reason correctly pointing out that I am probably having a lot of Russian food as well. Even if it took a lot of laughing and egging from different strangers at different times and different places for me to finally concede and mix sour cream into my Borscht soup.
I’ve already talked about the people of Moscow and how they’ve proved Russian stereotypes wrong, yet on my last day in this city, the thought still lingers.
It probably has something to do with an enduring image of at least five people, a mix of teenage and middle-aged men and women, standing up at the same time to offer one elderly woman a seat on the train. There were no posters instructing them to do so.