From Russia, With Luck.
After events in Bruges meant I had to skip United’s first 2015 group game in Eindhoven I was determined to attend the next match, even if that meant negotiating the complexities involved in visiting Russia. The trip to Moscow would be the longest distance I’ve travelled to see United play; whilst the direct route over the Baltic sea is 1,602 miles, making it shorter than previous flights to Donetsk (1,768 m), Istanbul (1,698 m) and Athens (1,640 m), my flight was via Munich which brought the total to 1,911 miles. Before any of this could happen however, I had to attempt to get across the border of the world’s largest nation.
Having not travelled to Moscow for United’s last game in 2009 I’d never had to deal with applying for a visa; my only encounter had been in 2012 to enter Turkey, where the process was simply to hand over a tenner at the arrivals desk in exchange for a quick stamp in the passport. That won’t do for Putin. A Russian visa requires a number of items; as well as a formal “invitation” into the country, which I’ll come onto, there’s a very in depth application form which covers every aspect of personal details, any convictions, education, current and previous jobs. Whilst most of this can be answered fairly easily, they throw in a few more grinding questions (or commands) like ‘List all countries you have visited in the past ten years’. Easy for some… Before you can fully complete this application though, you need your invite. In essence this is a very formal document, a ‘tourist voucher’ which is granted by either a travel company or hotel, less straightforward when you book flights and accommodation independently or via AirBnB. After a few emails via Google Translate I eventually tracked down how I could obtain one for 500 Russian roubles, the rouble reasonably trading at around 100:1 at this point.
Once the Russians have deciphered that you’re probably not a foreign spy it’s just a case of handing over £88 quid and a set of fingerprints before they analyse the whole application and eventually grant the visa. This whole process had been made much easier by United, who arranged for the Russian embassy to visit Old Trafford to spare us all a trip to London. Unfortunately my tourist voucher (“invitation”) had not yet been sent through so I missed this handy session and instead had to visit London twice, to hand in my application and then back to collect the my passport which I picked up just over 12 hours before I flew. Always Russian.
Spoilt by so many simple trips to Western Europe in the past, there was little choice for Moscow. Fortunately though I did manage to find a direct-in-sorts flight from Mancheste on Lufthansa which included a quick changeover at Munich airport. I’d kept an eye on airline scanners for a week or so and seen the flight drop to as low as £212 but eventually purchased it at £247.
The journey started with a 7am flight to Munich which was around 90 minutes but with short delays either side due to thick fog in Germany. Looking through the mist during landing was a bit of a heart in mouth moment as the runway suddenly appeared from nowhere, fair play to the pilot for actually getting the plane down. After a quick changeover in and out of the same terminal we were back on the connecting Lufthansa flight to Moscow; this was only around two-thirds full with about 30 odd reds onboard.
We landed at around 4pm local time, making the journey from Manchester to Moscow (with changeover and delays) close to 7 hours. I tried to keep a close note of all the various travel times but my iPhone clock had decided we were 3 hours ahead of GMT whilst it was actually just 2, this caused me confusion all week – or at least made me to have to double check everything. There was dozens of taxi drivers swarming around at the arrivals gate of Domodedovo airport, which was 40km outside of the centre of Moscow. As I wasn’t too pressed for time I instead opted for the shuttle bus to the nearest metro stop. There were loads of these queued up outside the terminal and the 100 roubles trip was just short of half an hour, dropping us off at a metro station 10 stops from the centre. Hearing some of the stories from reds who got taxis straight from the airport, the bus/metro option was cheaper, quicker and probably much less hassle.
The metro itself was particularly impressive, something I’d strangely heard a lot about prior to travelling. Whilst it’d been described as pretty complex I was only travelling on one line so didn’t have to decipher too much of the map. The 10 stops took just over half an hour again and for just 50 roubles. So, transfer from the airport to pretty much my hotel was just 150 roubles in total, which I repeated for the journey back 2 days later. Much better than what sounded like anything from 2k to 5k on a taxi one way! The metro really was worth the chatter though, with each station we passed through decorated with different marble effect as well as being tidy and a regular service. Pissed all over the London Underground or Manchester Metrolink for sure. My quick pictures probably don’t do it justice – it’s certainly worth a google search.
Due to the requirements of the visa and tourist voucher there was a need for hotel which had a license to provide one, (un)fortunately this meant missing out on the £7 per night hostels and £20 AirBnB rooms. There were however plenty of reasonably priced hotels on offer in the centre of Moscow and I settled on one for £30 per night for a single room.
Moscow is a massive place; the roads and pavements are wide, the buildings are all grand and the metro systems is vast. Thankfully I navigated it all quite well and managed to find my hotel, a handy 5 minute walk from Red Square. I was at the Matreshka hotel which worked out pretty reasonable and was worth the extra tenner a night, with a free cooked breakfast each morning (and wifi) it was a good choice all round.
Nearly half of the ‘things to see’ in Moscow are situated around Red Square so it made for convenient sightseeing. I checked it all out both in the evening and during the day to get a few different views of St Basil’s cathedral and the Kremlin. I also took a 15-20 minute walk along the Moskva river, which split the city, to go and see the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, taking in more views of the Kremlin on the way. The huge and busy roads did become a problem as I had to walk over a mile down the river before there was an underpass to cross at. Like America the police seemed to be pretty on top of jaywalkers.
Red Square is very open so didn’t feel too packed with tourists, there were surprisingly few swag sellers too though the heavy police presence was possibly a deterrent. There also seemed very few eating or drinking places around the square, strange considering it’s such a big tourist attraction; the majority of streets running off it were high end retail so I didn’t hang around. Despite being only a couple of degrees in the day for the duration of the trip, the weather was pretty crisp and the sun was out. This made for some pretty glorious blue skies.
The local Russians Reds had a bar a few metro stops down from Red Square, and so a lot of United fans congregated there for a few drinks before the match. It was fairly reasonable at around 250 roubles a pint. This was around the average price of a pint in the central parts of the city; I’d paid just 130 roubles for a beer at my hotel bar (a 5.3% Siberian Crown). The local food was as standard in Eastern Europe, mostly sausage or meats with that lovely sauerkraut, and mains coming in at around 500 roubles.
There match was taking place at Moscow’s Arena Khimki located 20km from the centre and home to both CSKA and Dynamo Moscow. There seems to be a fair bit of movement between the Moscow clubs stadia; local club Khimki actually moved out of the ground with the two larger clubs moving in due to other stadium development across the city. Meanwhile the Luzhniki stadium, which hosted the triumph of the 2008 final, was due for redevelopment for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.
Heading that far out of city on the metro didn’t sound too fun, but thankfully there were a few options by coach. United’s Russian airline partners, Aeroflot, put on 6 free coaches – finally a sponsor actually doing something useful for match going fans! Whilst the Russian Reds had sorted another 8, with seats for 500 roubles. Given these set off 90 mins later than Aeroflots they proved pretty popular and I couldn’t guarantee a seat so I opted for the earlier ones. I had to dash through the metro and around Red Square (which was inconveniently shut at the time) as I was cutting it fine, but just about made it before they left. The coach I jumped on was only half full so it seemed most who’d booked on had done so as a back up. The 20km journey actually ended up taking over 90 mins due to some major traffic but we still ended up in the ground at 8.15pm local time (with the game not due to kick off until 9.45). It was absolutely freezing in the ground though, it dropped to around -2 by the time the game had finished and my multiple layers weren’t quite enough.
The game and results itself was as expected for a trip to this part of Europe; apparently we’d won just away just once against Russian opposition (on our last visit in 2009). Both goals, and most of the action, took place down at our end of the ground. No one had any idea how we’d conceded a penalty and De Gea was unlucky to let it in after initially making a great save. Thankfully Martial got us the draw with a pinpoint header in the bottom corner.
The ground only held 18,500 fans, with 800 United, and CSKA didn’t seem quite as hostile as other places we’ve visited across Europe. Each of the ends behind the goals did make a bit of noise throughout with one group of 100-odd opting to go skins for the last 15 mins, the crazy bastards. The stand opposite us also unveiled a questionable tifo just before kick-off referencing The Exorcist, presumably in reference to us being the red devils, or maybe as it’s soon Halloween, who knows. Given it was beyond freezing the decision to keep us in the ground for just 25 minutes after full time was well appreciated, we’d been warned that it could be much longer and it certainly has been in the past.
The coaches were a little quicker (and busier) on the way back, taking around an hour before dropping us off just next to Red Square at about 1am. The Russian Reds bar stayed open until about 6am from the sound of things but the cold weather and long day meant I didn’t need too many beers before I was done in and ready for my hotel bed.
The journey home was relatively straightforward as I opted to take the same route to the airport. I try and take in as much local culture and cuisine as I can on trips to Europe, but I couldn’t help but stop at the MacDonalds on the way to the airport to use up my spare roubles; a Big Mac for around a quid was well worth it. The plane back to Munich from Moscow was even quieter than on the way, maybe only half full, with some reds opting to stay out in Moscow a little longer whilst others flew from the cities other 2 airports. After a 3 hour stopover in Munich we finally touched down in Manchester at 11pm.
Moscow was a fascinating city, both grand and vast but also compact, with so much seeming to be in the tight city centre. I had expected a bit more hostility, if not from the police and heavy military presence then from the CSKA or other local fans around matchday, but the whole trip was pretty incident free. United managed to come away with a point though, leaving us in need of a few home wins to guarantee progress to the knock out rounds after Christmas. Next stop – Wolfsburg, Germany.
Total travel costs: £250
Visa costs: £88 (not inc. 2 trips to London)
Miles travelled: 3,872
Accommodation: £30/night (single room)
Match ticket: 1,800 RUB (£18.50)
Average cost of pint: 240 RUB (£2.40)
United Allocation: 800
Result: CSKA Moscow 1: United 1
Match played 21/10/15