Novy Urengoy, Russian Federation
You won’t believe where I am! Staying for free at the Siberian oil and gas giant Gazprom’s Hotel Yamburg. I enquired everywhere in Novy Urengoy after I’d arrived at 16:00 local time on the long 40 hour train ride from Perm, but I received the same answer everywhere: Yamburg is a ‘closed town’ and I’m not allowed to go there (Yamburg is on the Ob Gulf north of the Arctic Circle). The woman in charge of the Novy Urengoy train station ticket office was helpful in a stern way. She rang a friend of hers who spoke English as we stood outside while she had a smoke. I spoke to this stranger who translated what she’d been saying to me about getting permission from Gazprom to go to Yamburg. She scribbled a bunch of instructions on my note book and arranged with a taxi driver to take me to Gazprom office so I could ask for this permission document. Little did I know it would not be possible. On the way there I tried to ask taxi driver if there were hotels to stay in up in Yamburg. He thought I meant something else and drove me to the hotel called Hotel Yamburg. I laughed and got him to take me to Gazprom office as originally arranged, which was just nearby. There in the plush foyer the security guys didnt understand my purpose. And indeed they were perplexed at why I wanted to to go to Yamburg. And it was they who decided to take me across to Hotel Yamburg reception, which was just a walk to the building behind Gazprom office where I’d been with the taxi driver first. It was there that I met Nicolai and Aleksander (Sasha). So having failed to get permission from Gazprom office (Gazprom is Russia’s biggest oil and gas company with partial state ownership) and by chance ending up at the reception of Gazprom’s luxury Hotel Yamburg (4 Star – where Putin stays when here on state business) I found myself in the very good care of the Hotel Yamburg staff. They spoke English and were happy to do some research for me and their Gazprom Head of Security confirmed to them that I would not be able to go to Yamburg – it’s for Gazprom workers only with the correct papers. They were very apologetic and seemed interested in my purpose. It all seemed very strange & I was laughing with them as they tried to fathom why I would want to be a tourist in this industrialised landscape. I enquired about cheap hotels in town, as 7000 roubles to stay in Hotel Yamburg was too much for me, which they agreed. Then Natalia (Natasha) the lovely General Manager (GM) came out and said I was the very first tourist they have EVER seen in their hotel! They were all so pleased to see a tourist instead of their normal clientele (eg. big Gazprom bosses from Moscow, President Putin, and consortium investors from other countries) and so I said well that deserves a photo! While I was organising for someone to use my camera Natasha grabbed hers and there were a number of shots taken of me with thier happy staff. The reception boys, big friendly Aleksander and short serious (and friendly) Nicolai, said that the GM needed to see my documents, my last train ticket & my immigration registration to check that all was in order and if so they wanted to offer me a room for the night at a reduced rate since they were so pleased to have an actual tourist in their hotel. I had not registered with immigration yet in Russia as I hadn’t stayed more than seven days in the one place, so there was some talking on phone by them checking on processes I imagined. Then they told me I could stay for free in honour of being the first ever tourist at their hotel but we had to go straight away with my passport to immigration before they shut in 15 minutes. So Aleksander took me in his car (playing AC/DC on stereo) to immigration and this was sorted quickly – tomorrow they’ll give me my rego Aleksander said. And seeing as Novy Urengoy is also a restricted town I can only stay three days. It’s all to do with the Gazprom’s oil & gas development in the region. Back at hotel I got to my plush room & couldn’t believe how things turn out. Tomorrow I might try to fly to Salekhard (capital of this Western Siberian autonomous District – Yamal-Nenets) & go by cargo ship down the Ob River to the Gulf. Or even up river by cargo ship. And now they just called my room: the GM Natasha wants me to do a filmed interview for them tomorrow morning! More bends in my river to come!