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Goodbye Europe, Hello Asia (or, if Teeth had Skin…)

Chris in Red Square
Chris looking concerned as he leaves Red Square

The long ball from the centre of defence to midfield went straight to feet. We landed safely in Tashkent, though it was touch and go to say the least – the ball could easily have been intercepted, and we would have been left wide open at the back. Let me explain…

Despite the hassles encountered here, we have fond memories of Moscow.

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After our photo-shoot in Red Square, we headed off to meet Kevin O’Flynn from the Moscow Times, who will be writing (has already written?) the story about us. We explained ourselves and our trip to him as we ate lunch and later as we packed. Multi-tasking is everything when you travel as quickly as we are…

Finally, we managed to bundle ourselves into a cab – an ancient Volga with serious steering problems – and headed for Domodedovo Airport, which, we had been doubly assured, was to the west of Moscow. To our surprise and considerable concern, the friendly cabbie immediately headed off in the opposite direction, nodding enthusiastically whenever we questioned where we were going.

We had understood that the ride should take forty minutes or so, but an hour later we were still hurtling (in a roughly straight line) down the motorway through the Russian countryside… surges of panic gripped me as I contemplated arriving too late to catch the plane. Fortunately our cabbie knew better than we did, grinned widely as I tried to explain ‘5.20pm’ to him, and eventually we arrived at the airport half an hour before take off.

With a sigh of relief, we checked our bags in at the Domodedovo Airlines desk – only slightly perturbed by the syllable ‘ded’ in the name of an airline, and proceeded to customs… where things began to get really fraught. Phil, it seemed, had left his customs declaration form in his luggage, which at that moment was making its way to the aircraft without him. Thinking quickly, he left to fill in one of the many forms which littered the departures lounge.

Meanwhile, I, thinking to myself with a smug grin how organised I had been in keeping my declaration form with me, handed over my documents to a sour-looking official.

“How many dollars hugh have?”, he asked in a deadpan voice.

“Nine hundred” I replied, truthfully. Big mistake.

“But form say hugh have one hundred pounds angliski.”


“So hugh can take only one hundred pounds with you.” A triumphant smirk began to creep across his face as a look of horror crept across mine. I had been to the cash machine in Moscow to prepare myself for the next leg of the journey in Uzbekistan.

“Er, um,” I replied, truthfully.

“Show me dollars,” he demanded

I flicked through the bundle of cash in front of him, wondering what I was going to do. If I questioned him or his authority, I would never get on that plane, so I tried another tack.

“The form says 700 pounds, not 100,” I lied, noticing that another official had ringed the figure in heavy ink. “Nine hundred dollars is less than seven hundred pounds.”

“Ok,” he said, handing back my forms and waving me on. I was about to to run to passport control, but at that moment Phil turned up with his newly minted form.

“Nyet. Entry Declaration Form, spasibo.” He began to grin again.

We looked at one another. This was going to be tricky. Phil started to explain the situation to the customs man, who showed not the slightest glimmer of interest in his story. As Phil began to raise his voice, a small crowd gathered around us, and this seemed enough to draw the attention of some airline officials, one of whom came over as if to help.

“You,” she said, pointing to me, “go through to passport control. You,” looking at Phil, “where is your form?”

“In my luggage,” he explained again.

“Then we have to get your bags off the plane and get the form. Come with me.”

“But…” Phil began to protest.

“Do you want to get on that plane?” she shouted.

“Er, yes,” he said, a little sheepishly.

“Then come with me,” she said more calmly, grabbing Phil by the arm.

He shot me a glance and we instantly understood that our journey now rested the hands of fate, or Russian bureaucracy, or both. I signalled to him that I’d see him on the plane, not feeling at all sure that that’s what would happen. I made my way to passport control, utterly unconcerned when they too started questioning my paperwork. Seemed that my arrival by train from Berlin was somehow beyond the limits of their understanding, until I started making ‘peeshti-kuff’ noises and reeled of the names of the cities I noticed on the way in to Russia. That seemed to convince them, and I was let through to the departures lounge.

Nervously, I made my way to the bus that was to to take me to the plane. The bus was empty save for a driver languishing in the front seat with a cigarette in one hand, and a magazine in the other, separated form me by a glass screen. I had no-one to speak to or ask what had happened to Phil, no-one to ease my anxiety, so I sent a last txt message ot Rachel in London, letting her know what had happened. If the worst came to the worst, I figured, at least someone would know.

After what seemed like an eternity, I woke from my internal musings to see a joyous but trembling Phil leaping onto the bus, punching the air in delight. My jaw hit the floor of the bus. He’d made it – somehow – thanks to an anonymous official who had simply walked with him through to passort control. Even as I write, I can hardly believe we’re here in Tashkent together.

Whoever you are, Mr Official, we both thank you from the bottom of our fragile, bruised hearts.

Written by on Friday, April 12th, 2002

10 comments on this post

  1. Flying to Tashkent? What about the interminable train journeys? I thought you were going to keep the ball on the deck. If God had wanted football to be played in the air, he’d have put grass in the sky (can’t remember who said that – Big Ron or Cloughie, I think).

    Anyway, keep up the good work and let’s have more pictures. I’d like to see some ladies playing football, if you can manage that. Or perhaps some wildlife.

  2. Dave: check out a previous post called “Kicking Off” for soul-searching about the need to fly to Tashkent so that the trip could actually happen.

    It’s not something we’re pround of, and perhaps the hassles we received were some kind of payback for flying, but I reckon we deserve one ringer on the trip. We know we’re cheating, and we’re sorry… if I had the email address of the Uzbek ambassador I’d post it here for you to pass your complaints to.

  3. What did i tell you about always leading with the fists? It’s all these Ruskies ‘ll repond to. Good luck boys,,what with Becham’s poorly foot and a growing list of injury problems you’re becoming our only hope. The nation expects…

  4. Sorry boys for bringing up the soul-searching again. My fault for not keeping up with the play…

  5. Fellas, again, sorry about your bad experience, as our customs agents are notorious for being huge asses. However, let it be a good lesson for everyone who still wants to come to Russia – do not lose your Entry Customs Declaration, as there will be hell to pay on your way back!

  6. I saw your story on the Moscow Times website. What a wonderful task you guys are doing. Although football is not that popular in my country, I love to watch and play. Good Luck and Best Wishes.

    Jeff in Oregon, USA

  7. Are all the buildings that small in Russia? I expect it’s the cold.

  8. Tim: I think you’ve got it wrong… it’s my head that’s grown out of all proportion to my surroundings ;-)

    Mike: I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. We both really enjoyed our time in Russia… what we can remember of it, given the propensity of Muscovites to feed us with alcohol.

    Even the bureaucratic hassles seemed somehow quaint and unthreatening… more like a vital part of the tourist experience. What, after all, would a visit to Moscow be, if it didn’t include at least one run-in with the law? And needless to say, it in no way compares to my visit in 1979…

  9. Did you try to show ATM receipt for the money you have withdrawn?

    By the way, you can withdraw money from ATM (with 4 % commission) or use Travellers checks in Tashkent.

  10. Hi Galia – no, we didn’t really approach the situation with much clear-headedness… were too tired and scared to keep our heads. Still, all’s well, and all that.

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