Travel in the former Soviet Union remains full of surprises. On an overnight train from Moscow to Kazan last week, I followed Foreign Office advice and chained my compartment from the inside. The robbers who reputedly stalk the corridors of every long-distance train in Russia were thus deterred.

We also eluded ambushes on the 14-hour journey - in which trains are forced to stop in the middle of nowhere and all passengers are systematically robbed. This is reputed to be a popular occupation in remote parts of the old empire.

Life deteriorated on arrival in Kazan. I had been told that the only sensible place to stay in the Tatarstan capital was in the Youth Hotel, built in the 1960s by the Young Communist League as a sort of work-experience project. Imagine a hotel constructed by a forced-labour team of scouts and guides, and you get some idea of the architectural inexactitudes.

The experience was heightened by the scattering of broken glass on the bedroom carpet, and the collection of cigarette ends which the previous occupant had wedged down the sink.

The most alarming aspect was the reception desk. Not every Russian hotel is blessed with a smiling receptionist, but guests at Kazan's Youth Hotel are greeted by pistol-brandishing guards (reformed Young Communists, perhaps?) in bullet-proof vests.

Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, firearms are de rigueur for hotel guests, according to Neil McGowan of One World Travel. He has just returned from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. "The main hotel has a big sign at reception saying, `Hand guns may be kept in rooms, but all semi-automatic weapons must be checked in."

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