It’s been a good year for me for travel and adventure. I’ve visited a former warzone, been stranded in the Siberian mountains after dark, wandered through the capital of the world’s most closed country, and witnessed the start of a mass protest movement against Vladimir Putin’s rule.
I visited Chechnya in March, boarding a rickety Tupolev plane from a small Moscow airport with almost non-existent security and passenger screening. The flight there was pretty rough too, but the discomfort was worth the sight of the snow-capped Caucasus mountains rising up beneath me as we approached Grozny.
I was in town to cover what was one of the very strangest sporting events of the year – an exhibition football match between a host of Brazilian World Cup winners and a side made up of Chechen officials, Dutch football legend Ruud Gullit (who was in the middle of a brief stint as Terek Grozny manager), and the Chechen leader and former militant Ramzan Kadyrov.
While Grozny was almost completely destroyed in two wars between separatists and Russian federal troops in the 1990s and early 2000s, today it has been entirely rebuilt, with a number of cozy cafes on the central Putin Avenue. It was here I got my first taste of Chechen pizza. It wasn’t bad.
Later on, I joined thousands of Chechens and dozens of journalists at the stadium for the match, which Kadyrov’s team lost, despite the Chechen leader managing to score a couple of extremely soft goals. A few months later, when his team took on another all-star-side side featuring Diego Maradona, they were victorious. Rumors that Chechen officials had “joked” that the stars would have problems leaving Grozny if they won were never confirmed.
A couple of months later, I found myself in more mountains, but these ones in south Siberia. I was on a travel assignment in the area and had taken a slow bus up the road to the small town of Sheregesh, not so far from the ski resort of the same name. Although it was getting dark when a bus dropped me off in the town, I decided to walk to the ski resort. It was, I recalled from a previous trip, just a short stroll.
But it wasn’t. Some 45 minutes I was still walking, the darkness and fog now wrapped around me. I passed a few buildings, but they seemed unoccupied. It was off-season after all. I pressed on and eventually came to a hotel. But it was closed. The owners had, though, thoughtfully left a contact telephone number. I whipped out my phone – soon I would be in the warmth, supping tea and maybe some soup.
My phone batteries were dead.
I wandered, forlorn, back onto the path. The freezing fog was even thicker.
How did I get out of this pickle? Well, you’ll have to read my earlier column to find out.
This autumn, I did some more wandering in the dark – in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.
I’d spent some two months trying to get a visa to visit and was still astonished to find myself in the country when my colleague and I were driven to our hotel in the centre of Pyongyang by our guides/minders.
I was even more surprised when Comrade Lee said we could walk around town unaccompanied. I had never heard of foreigners being allowed to leave their hotels without their guides. I still haven’t – and I’ve made fairly extensive inquiries.
“Just don’t go too far,” he said.
So that’s how I found myself strolling around the capital of the Asian branch of George Bush’s axis of evil. As the only foreigners on the streets, we were pretty much the focus of attention. But it was a strange kind of attention – no one made eye contact and no one approached us for a chat.
I got to know my section of Pyongyang pretty well over the next few days. I could still find my way from the Koryo hotel to the weird cultural centre that didn’t seem to be open now. But I doubt I’ll ever be going back. Apparently, the North Korean people were “deeply offended” by my reports.
There’s a glimmer of hope though. I reported on a mourning ceremony for Kim Jong-il at the North Korean embassy here in Moscow recently – and no one seemed particularly upset by my presence.
My last major piece of journalistic excitement was right on my doorstep and began on December 5, the day after the parliamentary polls that somehow saw Putin’s party retain its parliamentary majority. A miracle indeed, especially as no one seemed to have even heard of anyone who was considering a vote for his United Russia. Or “The Party of Swindlers and Thieves” as it is more commonly know here now.
I attended an unauthorized rally on December 6 and watched as cops beat down protesters and dragged them off to vans. Some 1,000 people were jailed, police said, in the initial wave of protests across Russia.
The cops were a lot better behaved at he next Moscow rally, an authorized affair that drew some 50,000 people.
Even more people turned up for a December 24 rally, one that even saw anti-Putin sentiments aired by state television. But not me. I was at home eating Christmas food. I’ve had a lot of adventure this year, and I felt I deserved a break from excitement.
Stay tuned for more ripping adventure stories in 2012!
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).
Deeper Than Oil: The Skoptsy and striking off the serpent
Deeper Than Oil: Moscow protest fatigue
Deeper Than Oil: I’d have broken the habit of a lifetime for United Russia
Deeper Than Oil: Why I’m still glad Russia got the World Cup
Deeper Than Oil: No, not the road to Nowhere
Deeper Than Oil: The shaman who predicted Putin’s return
Deeper Than Oil: A Minority Of One?
Deeper Than Oil: Good cop, bad Satanist
Deeper Than Oil: Souvenir shopping in Pyongyang
Deeper Than Oil: An evening stroll in North Korea
Deeper Than Oil: The Doctor Talks Of Magic
Deeper Than Oil: FC Russian Cops
Deeper Than Oil: How to annoy people and get paid for doing it
Deeper Than Oil: The Arbat – home to snowmen, sometimes
Deeper Than Oil: The Soviet equivalent of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl tragedy
Deeper Than Oil: Beslan – an inconvenient anniversary
Deeper Than Oil: Eto’o and the most bizarre transfer ever
Deeper Than Oil: A Fun Soviet Place
Deeper Than Oil: Children of the Coup
Deeper Than Oil: All quiet on the August Front
Deeper Than Oil: Russia’s reaction to the UK riots
Deeper Than Oil: What made Russia sick?
Deeper Than Oil: Rasputin’s heirs
Deeper Than Oil: Murdoch and son, Russia and soup
Deeper Than Oil: Calm down, that’s just your wife’s head in the box!
Deeper Than Oil: The Real News Gets Odd
Deeper Than Oil: More smog anyone?
Deeper Than Oil: Russian football slips up on another banana skin
Deeper Than Oil: Does Russia Exist?
Deeper Than Oil: The smell of freedom
Deeper Than Oil: The driest place in Russia
Deeper Than Oil: Some thoughts on Batman and friends
Deeper Than Oil: Altai Bloodsuckers
Deeper Than Oil: Tolerance and Gopniks in Siberia
Deeper Than Oil: Eurovision Song Contest through the eyes of cops
Deeper Than Oil: The Cursed Team?
Deeper Than Oil: The day I met Drugg
Deeper Than Oil: Hushed hellos and no horror films
Deeper Than Oil: The Resurrection of Lenin
Deeper Than Oil: Satan denies rift with God over Earth policy
Deeper Than Oil: The Final Resting Places of Russia’s Flatheads
Deeper Than Oil: Chechen pizza on Putin Avenue
Deeper Than Oil: From perestroika punk to Putin pap
Deeper Than Oil: Can Russian cops kick the habit of killing folk?
Deeper Than Oil: A talk with Dmitry Medvedev
Deeper Than Oil: The eXile - Equal-Opportunity Haters
Deeper Than Oil: Russia Decoded Through Football
Deeper Than Oil: Sh*talin, Lenin’s kittens and Soviet fishcake heroes
Deeper Than Oil: Moscow terminal tramps (bums)
Deeper Than Oil: Nostalgia For Moscow Cop Banter
Deeper Than Oil: Occult Health Solutions in Central Russia
Deeper Than Oil: Hell is an airport
Deeper Than Oil: The winter of juxtaposition
Deeper Than Oil: Satanic Cucumbers Near Moscow
Deeper Than Oil: Christmas Presents in Narnia (Russia)
Deeper Than Oil: One nation under a spell
Deeper Than Oil: World War Three has already begun
Deeper Than Oil: An ode to Russia! or My neighbor Viktor
Deeper Than Oil: Chechen Champions
Deeper Than Oil: Yanka – The Tale of a Siberian Punk
Deeper Than Oil: Very Big in Russia
Deeper Than Oil: Magical Services
Deeper Than Oil: Afternoon tea with a Soviet psychic