I‘m one of those people who occasionally enjoys his own company. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great evening with friends, or even better play time with my two girls, but for me sometimes there‘s real value to be had out of utter uninterrupted solace. Whether it is to plan a project or just to switch off and think of nothing at all – if you consider that thought for a moment, how many minutes a day do you think you have with absolutely zero noise of any kind? – those moments can be therapeutic for my mind.
For example, attending a football match. You can often meet like-minded people in the terraces, but you can just as easily be stuck next to an utter bore who thinks for some strange reason you would be fascinated to listen to whatever drivel he spews forth for two hours. From time to time I find it easier to go it alone and take in all the sights and sounds by myself.
I’ll give you the perfect example: when I arrived in Italy for a year of *cough* hard study, my first weekend was looking very empty as the induction week at the university was on Monday and I had all day on Sunday to kill. Naturally I had researched the delightful town of Ferrara before I came, and knew the address of the stadium where the local side Società Polisportivo Ars et Labor, or SPAL for short, played.
Now I could have waited till the next home game, by when I would surely have met someone else with a passing interest in the game, but for the first impression I wanted complete concentration and freedom to explore what my senses could offer. As it turned out, there on the pitch was none other than Paolo Di Canio playing for a now-defunct fourth tier club from Rome, but had I not been on my own I would almost certainly not have leaned to the obese chain smoker to my right and asked if it was really him. Like most neutrals, I loved Di Canio when he was in England, and here was confirmation that I was watching him live for the first and almost certainly last time.
At the end of the match as I was making my way down the stands the entire crowd of 3,000 began turning towards me and cheering. A nice touch perhaps, but a little odd considering not one of them knew me. The large chap explained it was in fact for the flash git behind me – who also happened to be the club’s striker who had been injured but had chosen to watch the match with the hardcore fans and not in an corporate box. Again, I’d never have known that if I’d gone to the game with someone else.
A few months later I got separated from my travelling companion on a mammoth away trip to Torino and Tuscany in Milan train station, but as a result ended up dining al fresco with the agent who discovered Cristiano Ronaldo for Fiorentina long before Manchester United, his friend and a gorgeous 18-year-old Italian girl in a Tuscan village before being offered VIP seats to watch SPAL. That’s a whole other story though that I will tell you another time, but another perfect justification of going solo.
Russian Road Trip
What’s all this about watching football got to do with with motorways I hear you ask? Well, other than the most dedicated fans of clubs based at far ends of England, not many people would have done what I did last week, twice, which directly involved both. My home is in Tyumen where there is a second tier club side who I follow regularly, but the nearest Premier League side, Ural Sverdlovskaya Oblast, is based in Ekaterinburg which is, if you believe local people, ‘just next door’. Ahem. By next door they mean 340 kilometres and about five hours drive away.
I cover Russian football for two brilliant websites – Russian Football News and Futbolgrad – and have managed to wangle a press pass for Ural, so last Monday I decided to travel by car. Back in August, I had gone for the first time by train, but the only affordable cabin was the horrendously cramped ‘platzkart’ in which my feet came over the end of the bunk by about a foot. The timetable was not exactly convenient, and it cost me about 4,000 rubles (only about £40 in today’s money) for the return journey. A mite over a full tank of petrol however, which sets me back about 1,400 rubles, would get me there and back conveniently with plenty of leg space, my own choice of music volume and, crucially, private time to myself.
With kickoff at a comfortable 4.30pm, I decided to set off after breakfast to give plenty of time to negotiate the city of Ekaterinburg itself. Home to around two million people, this city will be the easternmost venue for the 2018 World Cup lying on the border between Europe and Asia, and had a starring role in 20th century history as the place where the last Romanovs were executed in 1917. It is also, however, famous for having some of the worst roads within a city known to man.
There is a saying here that goes something like this: “There are two main problems in Russia; idiots, and roads. One caused the other.” The classic chicken and egg. Tyumen actually has the best roads in Russia, according to Tyumen residents. My father-in-law works as a senior road engineer and assures me this is true, and he’s not a man prone to spinning large tales, but for six years I had thought this must be a slightly exaggerated claim. The thing is, in all my time here I had never ventured on roads beyond 30 kilometres from my city, so I couldn’t offer much of an informed opinion on this matter.
In a previous post I likened drivers here to Playstation gamers, always trying to ‘beat’ the next car; whether they all play Gran Turismo or Crazy Taxi in their heads is anyone’s guess, suffice to say most are clinically mad. Out in the countryside, however, there is a strange camaraderie that exists between drivers that is conspicuous by its absence in the city. To help each other avoid being caught out for edging over the speed limit, cars will flash their headlights twice to warn oncoming traffic of an imminent police car on duty that they have just passed. It was oddly heartwarming that utter strangers, and let’s be honest, probably idiotic drivers, would be so thoughtful, and I gladly returned the favour to others later on.
The road to Ekaterinburg was, I had been assured, much improved and was free of the road rage that develops naturally on city roads. The route was simple; one motorway, no turnings, all the way. In the early morning once the initial stage of the journey has been cleared, it is quite quite a pleasant experience. The sun is behind you as you drive west, bathing the wide fields of snow with a light sparkle, and there is precious little traffic to disrupt you. There are a handful of villages to negotiate in the first 60-70 km, mostly relatively calm and drab, but for the majority of the way it is simple and you can delve into your mind to relax. That personal headspace that is so rare today.
The speed limit for these roads is officially 90 kph, which is not especially fast when you think about it, but there is is a good reason for this: nobody seems to know, or at least respect, this fact. As is so often the case in my experience when asking Russian people questions, multiple answers arose when I enquired to confirm the legal limit. “I think about 115,” said Sergey, my friendly attendant at the petrol station. “Or maybe 105… no wait, it’s between 90 and 110!” Great, that really helps I thought. If there’s one thing of don’t want to do, it’s get on the wrong side of the transport police with limited language skills and an even more limited wallet. Before you ask, yes I have bribed a policeman before…
I knew there would be plenty of policemen stationed along the motorway as it was a public holiday and lots of people would be expected to drive the same route as me. In total I passed 11 policemen over the entire 700 km round trip, and got stopped once – 2 km from home. I hadn’t done anything wrong at all – it was just a routine document check – but it didn’t instill me with confidence.
Once I got settled in though, the road was simple enough, and as I trailed an HGV to help keep my speed in check, I drank in the beauty of the snow-capped fir and birch trees lining my way. Some idiots aside who flew past at 130 kph, it gave me time to contemplate the sheer vastness of Russia. Here I was barely crossing a fingernail’s width on the map, and yet it was about to be the longest road journey I’d ever taken. People often ask me why on earth I came to Russia, and why I stayed once I got here, and I realised that moments like this were one of the reasons. Nobody else for miles around, with scenery to adorn Christmas cards – lovely.
Then Ekaterinburg happened. My word, those are the biggest potholes I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been on a truck journey into the Amazon on mud tracks that were barely passable. Small children could have hidden comfortably in them. And worst of all, despite the snow having either completely melted or been cleared away (I think the former is much more likely), there were almost no road markings at all, which locals took to be an invitation to make up their own lanes and rules.
I don’t want people to get the wrong impression about the city; I have only seen the route from the motorway to the northwest of the cenre where the SKB Bank Arena is, but the buildings and general environment were decidedly dog-eared. On a future trip I will endeavour to discover more about the history and architecture of Ekaterinburg, but this was not the time: Dinamo Moscow awaited. Google Maps guided me to the stadium, and after a much needed stretch of the legs I enjoyed a tense match that finished 1-1, even getting an exclusive interview with goalscorer Gerson Acevedo.
After filing my feature on the match, the journey back began at about 9pm in the pitch black; the sunshine and adventure of the morning was one thing, but the dead of Siberian night is another entirely. I repeated my tactic of tailing a truck, which was vital to avoid being caught out by the tricky changes in direction that the motorway took. A complete lack of markings to indicate the edge of the road would have been a bit hairy were it not for those two wonderful red tail lights guiding the way. Unfortunately, they began to swerve a bit too far over to the hard shoulder after a while, lurching back onto the road just in time – the driver was clearly falling asleep. Deciding that it was far safer to get past than wait behind him, I carefully waited for a rare patch of street lighting to overtake before painstakingly edging my way home.
At 2am, with the help of an opened window to keep me alert, I finally arrived back home 20 hours after waking up. To say it had taken the energy out of me is an understatement; rarely had my bed felt so welcoming. My journey had been far from spectacular – one writing colleague undertook a 15 hour, 1,400 km overnight slog from Moscow to Krasnodar in the south two day before – but in my own way I felt like I’d achieved something. So what was the first thing I thought of when I woke up? Let’s do it all again of course…