Travel: Goodbye luxury, hello reality: An odd little book persuades Amanda Mitchison to become an 'active tourist' and discover the real Moscow

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The Independent Culture
THE Alternative Moscow guide, published by the Institute for Social Inventions, is a thin green booklet of boundless ingenuity and rightmindedness. Its aim is to put tourists in touch with Russian people and make them contribute something to the host country. As the guide points out, if you stay with a Russian family, 'Not only do you get a more direct experience of Moscow life, but individual Muscovites earn useful money'.

Chapter One, entitled 'Transforming Tourists into Activists', encourages the reader to contact its list of charities in Moscow needing free legal advice, or supplies of fax paper or other errands in Britain. For the remaining 38 pages, similar exhortations continue: try the city's public transport - 'still excellent and an interesting experience'; watch a criminal court at work; get your arthritis treated with bee therapy or by hugging poplar trees; visit Dzherzhinsky Park and spot the retired astronauts wandering between the flower beds; try eating in a working man's cafe. But above all, live with the Russians. This is what I did.

Avoiding the guide's more exhausting accommodation options - a family of innovative Moscow film-makers, or a rumoured stationary carriage at platform 4 of the Belorussia Station - I settled for a flat found through 'Russkies' - a small, extremely friendly company in Sheffield which fixes up places to stay in Moscow, and also deals with flights and visas.

At Moscow airport I was met by the Russkies' representative, Sergei, wearing a badge saying 'Sheffield my kind of city' and carrying a bunch of carnations and a bottle of champagne. Usually Sergei sizes up the clients on the drive from the airport into town, and then decides which of his friends or acquaintances to lodge them with.

But on this occasion the company was going to try out someone new - I was to stay with Tatania, an unemployed hairdresser and a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. Tatania shared a flat on the top floor of a tenement in central Moscow with at least five, possibly six women who shuffled around the house in dressing-gowns and slippers for much of the day. The flat also housed a long-haired white cat who lived in the hall, and Tatania's dog - an enormous, sharp-nosed creature whose fiery blood and bad breath had been muted by a diet of porridge.

Tatania, a friendly, crumpled blonde in her mid-thirties, ushered me through the cat- smelling outer area of the flat and through a padded door into her inner doggy sanctuary of two rooms, piled high with bookcases, electronic equipment, cleverly balanced shelves containing candlesticks, shells, paintbrushes, icons, figurines and small bowls of crumbled biscuit. I was to sleep in Tatania's brother's bedroom, which had a washing line across the middle of the room and the light switch hidden behind a cupboard.

Tatania initiated me into the secrets of the gas water heater in the kitchen, and showed me how to squeeze my arm and most of my body behind the cupboard to switch on the light. Then she sat me in front of the television, opened the champagne and produced supper: one soft sliced cucumber, a thoroughly nasty plate of parboiled and subsequently fried spaghetti accompanied by a slice of improbably pink tinned meat.

Tatania spoke no English, and I no Russian. Our phrase books reflected the obtuseness characteristic of our respective nations. The Berlitz Russian for Travellers ('Is it usually as warm as this? Do you think it's going to rain tomorrow? Are you free this evening? Leave me alone please . . .') soon had to be abandoned. Tatania's Let's Be Friends ('A white dove flying over Earth, a jewel on the vast universe. Ocean waves washing up onto a sandy shore, the clouds moving swiftly against a deep blue sky. These are all examples of how I envision peace') was arguably worse. Instead we turned to Sergei's champagne, which neutralised the tinned meat and created a pleasant pink funk of bonhomie. Tatania led a very active social life, and normally entertained friends until the early hours of the morning. I soon discovered two great advantage to these late nights. Firstly, even if you did go to bed you wouldn't sleep - the flat was infested with mosquitoes, which bred in the marshier areas of the bathroom. So the sound of people giggling, or stumbling on the carpet, or gaily slapping each other, provided a welcome distraction from scratching.

Also, the late nights meant that Tatania didn't usually get up until two or three in the afternoon, so that one could creep out of the house in the morning before she tried to provide breakfast (fried potatoes, pickled cabbage, more tinned meat . . .). By careful timing, supper could also be missed, although on one occasion I arrived home late, only to be inveigled into a midnight feast of semolina.

ON THE first morning I embarked on the section of Alternative Moscow devoted to 'interesting' people. In theory you need to be quite brave to pick up the phone and call someone out of the blue. But it was easier than it seemed: I tried Joseph Goldin, described as a 'charming visionary entrepreneur. One of his failed schemes was called Megavision, which intended bringing converted SS20 missile transporters from the Urals to the English Channel, equipped with huge electronic screens to show film', was always out. So was Tania Kolodzei, an Utz-like character described in the guide as an impoverished art critic with an enormous private collection stacked on the floor of her tiny communal flat.

Most of the interesting people never answered or spoke not a word of English. They had certainly never heard of the Alternative Moscow guide, and some seemed utterly mystified: 'You want WHAT? Oh no I think you've made a mistake. We have never published a study about why Georgians live so long . . .'

Perhaps the Muscovites are naturally friendly, or perhaps the novelty value of foreigners in Russia is still relatively high, for the 'interesting people' were never rude. This came as a surprise. Imagine the fate of any Russian tourist using an equivalent guide in London: 'Hello, is that Kingsley Amis's home? I wonder if we could meet and have a chat about the English Novel while you show me round the National Portrait Gallery. I have brought some delightful enamel curios and postcards of my home town which I am sure you would be interested to see.'

I did finally make a successful call. Violetta Gorodinsky, bioenergy expert and bee therapist, has a factotum called Alexei who speaks English and was prepared to translate. I was to meet him two days hence at 10.30 in the morning at Prospekt Mira underground station, where the last carriage of the train, coming in a clockwise direction round the circle line, would arrive. This seemed a rather peculiar place for an appointment, but Moscow underground stations are pleasant to sit in and have many, many exits. It is therefore quite common to arrange to meet on the platform.

I had 48 hours to learn to master the underground. Alternative Moscow insists: 'The metro is very easy to use and a delight to the eye.' And indeed many of the stations are showpieces of their time - with sculptures, art deco light fittings, murals and so on. But the underground is not for the fainthearted: there are almost no maps inside and the stations, especially in the middle of town, are rarely labelled. Where two underground lines cross, the station will have two names, one for each line. Also, in the last two years, many of the names have been changed. So the equivalent of Oxford Circus in Moscow can have as many as six different names - a new name and an old one for each of the three lines entering the station. In addition, there are two stations on different lines with the same name. The secret is to carry an underground map and to keep asking the way.

I finally arrived at Violetta's pine cabin in a lush green suburb of Moscow, where the apartment blocks are made of brick and allegedly inhabited by offshoots of the Central Committee. Around the cabin was a wild garden with straggling rosebay and the beehives whose produce and whose hum Violetta considers so beneficial. She intends to build a special cabin fanned with air sucked directly from a hive. This would enable patients to breathe, sleep and live beeness without getting stung.

Violetta also does herbal remedies and 'non-contact massage', which meant patting the air above my head. Suddenly Violetta's right hand emitted a loud crackling sound like static. She giggled. 'That,' explained Alexei, 'is her famous trademark. She has just corrected your energy field.'

I asked about other therapies mentioned in the guide. What about the home birth expert Igor Charkovsky? Violetta replied that she had treated several children who had been damaged by his dunkings in icy ponds. And Dr Sytin who reads his patients special therapeutic texts and ties them up to electronic devices to measure their reactions? Violetta's eyes rolled skyward.

DR SYTIN had no telephone number listed in the guide and finding him entailed journeying out into the suburbs where fruit and vegetables were fresher than in the city centre, and the clothes of the inhabitants far shabbier. At first I suspected that Alternative Moscow had intentionally left out Dr Sytin's telephone number in order to encourage its readers to spend the sort of authentic, humbling afternoon - two metro changes, two buses, blisters - which I underwent.

For in Moscow the address is not enough. A street number can apply to three or four enormous apartment blocks. In search of Dr Sytin I wandered up and down a road in the suburbs for well over an hour. Now and then I would screw up the courage to ask directions. Slow-gaited women in ankle socks and Coronation Street overalls would knit their brows and gesture vaguely.

It turned out that Dr Sytin was not in his office, but one of his employees gave me an address in another suburb, over on the other side of Moscow. I bought a bag of cherries, sat down on a bench and took stock. Thanks to Alternative Moscow, I had visited some undoubtedly fascinating places: restaurants with fantastic decor and vile food, a Russian bath-house where you thrashed yourself senseless with birch leaves; Mayakovsky's flat with its huge slanting constructivist sculptures and silent, rheumy-eyed custodians.

But every suggestion in Alternative Moscow required an enormous amount of energy. The experimental air to it all, and the author's refrain 'Let me know how you get on' was unsettling. I longed for a little passive absorption or some dull monuments recommended by Fodor or the Blue Guide.

Living with a Russian family might be more real than a hotel, but was reality what holidays were about? The experience also raised as many questions as it answered. Why were Moscow front doors padded? Why did all Russians seem to keep dogs? And why the smaller the flat, the larger the dog? Why were the telephones green? Why did babushkas always seem to jump queues?

I was tired. I didn't want to spend another night in Tatania's flat overcome with self-pity and eating my way through the chocolates I had originally intended as presents. I longed for the soft towels of the Metropol hotel, the little bottles of shampoo, the room service. I needed someone to cheer me up, point out the quirks of Moscow, console me with vodka. It was clearly time to call Sergei.

Sergei and his partner Valera were hospitable, genial companions, much given to eating and drinking and telling terrible jokes. In their own right, they too merited listing in Alternative Moscow under the 'charming visionary entrepreneurs' category. From Sergei's tiny flat on the outskirts of Moscow they run a panoply of mini-businesses including a travel agency for mountaineers, a factory that makes wooden painted souvenirs, a business importing computers and another one manufacturing small electronic alarms to detect police speed-traps. (Their enthusiasm for this project seemed to have waned.)

For my last three days Sergei and Valera proved to be good, unconventional guides. They arranged a pot-holing expedition to the limestone caves of Tula, south of Moscow. Following Alternative Moscow's prescriptions, we also visited a court where, as the defence barrister inspected his nails and twirled his fountain pen, a young man with a crew cut received a two-year suspended sentence for stealing an umbrella.

With Sergei and Valera's help, Alternative Moscow suddenly became far more manageable. Together we attempted to locate Dr Sytin at the second address, which turned out to be a private clinic. Dr Sytin was not to be found but his faithful colleagues assured us that he wasn't a real qualified doctor anyway.

Valera also arranged a visit to the Eidos learning centre, run by Igor Yurievich Matyugin, a former army bobsleigh coach. The centre teaches people to walk on hot coals, memorise fantastic quantities of telephone numbers and, by writing with pencils strapped to all their fingers, to use different parts of their brain at the same time. While the Eidos representative talked, Valera translated and added his own comments about how, given enough vodka, he too could walk on hot coals.

On my last day, when Sergei and Valera came round to take me to the airport, I took one last look at Tatania's bedroom wall with the icons and the Jackson Pollock of squashed, bloody mosquitoes. I felt a surge of elation, no doubt partly caused by the agreeable prospect of a long, drunken lunch with my guides. Yet I also remembered a similar sensation two days before when, after scrabbling in the dank limestone caves of Tula, we had finally walked out into the sunlight.

'Alternative Moscow' is published by The Institute for Social Inventions, 20 Heber Road, London NW2 6AA, tel 081-208 2853. Price pounds 4.95 incl p & p. Russkies holidays in Moscow flats cost pounds 399 for seven nights, including flight, breakfast and evening meal. Visa pounds 15 extra, holiday insurance pounds 12. Contact Phil Russell or Andy Broom at Russkies, 236 Pslater Lane, Sheffield S11 8UT, tel 0742 583591.

(Photograph omitted)