Writer, traveler, maker


Travel updates and occasional commentary

GSP 6: Moscow, by way of the World Cup (a geography lesson)

The headlines before this trip began did not augur well for a possible stop in Russia, as that country and mine traded diplomatic punishments. Then I learned that I didn’t just need a visa, I needed a Russian to sponsor my visa. The prospects of a stop there seemed more distant yet.

But two weeks before I’d hoped to visit Moscow — and just as I’d started researching a delayed trip — I got an unexpected travel tip. Foreign citizens who purchased World Cup tickets did not need to get a visa; instead they issued you a “fan ID” that gave entry into the country.

It was June 11, days before the multi-week Olympics of soccer began. Could one even still get a ticket? That night, I googled the FIFA site and joined an electronic queue that took almost an hour. (Other fans had told me they waited closer to two hours.)

When at last my turn came up, I found not only tickets still for sale, but even some tickets in the lowest price tier. And they had some for the week I planned to visit.

After a few failed attempts, I at last secured a ticket for the June 24 match pitting Senegal against Japan. Best of all, it cost $55 less than an actual visa would have.

Alas, the ticket-confirmation email supposedly needed to get the fan ID didn’t prove as straight forward. After multiple anxious days without an email, I finally called the ticket center and learned I didn’t really need it to get the fan ID (despite all instructions to the contrary).

Paper fan ID in hand, I bought a night train ticket from Kyiv a week later and hoped I would not face any border unpleasantness.

The first surprise occurred on the train platform, when the PDF ticket on my phone failed to suffice for entry to the train. The next thing I knew, a man in t-shirt and shorts (who apparently worked for the railway) had taken my phone and headed up the stairs next to the platform.

I reacted as you might expect. The uniformed train employee who’d found Mr. Casual spoke little English, but a family standing nearby helped me out. The husband explained that the man with my phone had gone to get the needed paper ticket.

“But he’ll need my fingerprint,” I said, still alarmed.

This apparently did not matter. Either he cracked my phone’s security or the presence of the device proved my claim of a ticket, for he returned a few minutes later with the necessary paper.

When the border crossing came, I faced multiple conversations with Russian soldiers, at least one of whom had a dog. Each time, they asked me what day’s game I had a ticket for and which countries were competing. A fellow passenger awakened from his efforts to sleep had to translate my English country names to Russian each time.

No one asked about the venue, though — the one detail I would not have remembered, and could not confirm, since I still did not have a ticket confirmation email. At last, I had all the required passport stamps and they let us return to sleep.

The next morning, I groggily dragged my bags from the train, found the nearest Moscow metro station and connected with the local pastor who’d helped me find housing.

As soon I’d settled into my “home” for the week, I set off to pick up my ticket and the laminated fan ID I’d need to enter the stadium.

Everything seemed off to a good start until Saturday night, when my host and I began to discuss the schedule for Sunday. “Church starts at three o’clock,” she said.

“Oh! My game starts at six.” And I had hoped to use the time after service to start making connections for interviews.

When she asked which stadium it was in, I had to find the ticket. Something “Ekaterinburg.”

“Hm, that’s a city in Siberia,” she said. “But maybe there’s a stadium here I don’t know about.” (My host was an American teacher who’d been in Moscow less than a year.)

Returning to my papers, I dug out the World Cup booklet a friendly FIFA guide at one of the many info booths had given me. Unfortunately they’d only had French copies left.

Between homonyms, guesswork and looking at the map, we eventually concluded my game was in Siberia. A 24-hour drive away.

And that is how I ended up spending Sunday night not at the World Cup, but having dinner with a lovely interfaith group of women from Moscow … which turned out to be just one of many World Cup venues. Who knew?

The rest of the week, I mostly focused on interviews and errands such as grocery shopping (I cooked most of my meals), but I did manage to see the Kremlin’s famous sights, and visit Moscow’s version of Central Park.

Though Gorky Park may not have the mostly musical name, I found it a lovely, spacious green zone that included a duck pond with boat rental, a wading pool for kids and the modern art museum that drew me there: Garage.

In the end, my fears of Russia proved unfounded — and so much so, it’s now embarrassing to admit them. Rather than diffidence or coolness from the Russians I met, the Christians I spoke to extended incredible welcome, several of them showing enthusiastic support for my research.

Country snapshot

  • Subway pass: About $13 for the week; $.87 for a single ride
  • Beer: $.78 to $.96 in the grocery store; $4.31 in a restaurant
  • Water: Drinkable via charcoal-filter pitcher
  • Recycling: None that I recall