WHEELCHAIRS IN RED SQUARE
Man Utd v Chelsea, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow Russia 21/05/08 22.45 (Local time)
My day started at 1 am as I was picked up by my carer (Perry) for the 40 minute journey from my home to Gatwick airport. I am an experienced wheelchair using air traveler and have long since accepted that wheelchairs and airplanes are not compatible at all. As a disabled passenger you have to just accept that fact and put up with the inconvenience and the inferiority feelings that come with being unable to walk a single step.
Anyway, we were parked up and in the airport at 2 am. Four thousand Chelsea fans on a daytrip made for a few queues but with staggered flight times we were checked-in, had bought our rubles and gone through security by 3am.
We were on the 2nd supporters’ flight. There were about 10 from Gatwick [each with about 240 on board] and there were also flights from Luton and Stanstead. Our Itinery had stated we would take to the sky at 4.15 but our flight was delayed for about an hour as we all sat and waited at the departure gate.
So at about 4.45 Perry wheeled me to the door of the plane. I was lifted out of my wheelchair and into a narrow aisle chair by airport special assistance staff then when adjacent to my allocated row I was again lifted from aisle chair to aircraft seat. I am usually first on and last off and so long as you have given the airline sufficient notice that you will need assistance (about 48 hours) all the equipment and staff are ready to help.
So I was soon off for the first time to the Russian capital and Vnukovo airport. The flight was just over four hours and the Russian ‘special assistance staff’ were quickly on hand to lift me back into my wheelchair. However, they are not nearly as well trained (or health & safety conscious) as our English counterparts and as the two of them grabbed under one of my shoulders each my legs were dragged across the plane and became caught under the seats. The ambi-lift (vehicle used to drive to plane door and raise and lower wheelchairs into and out of planes when there is no walkway) was fairly quickly in position and ran smoothly.
Me and Perry were then quickly taken through the airport (separately to the other fans), our passports, match tickets (visas), and immigration cards were inspected, our names and ages were noted by an official in a separate room and we were shown to a smaller room to wait. After about 10 minutes the airport officials were happy that we were who said we were and we were rushed through the airport and shown to a public bus which had ramped access and a host of able bodied fans already in it and waiting to go.
This shuttle bus took us to a central bus station in Moscow, about half an hour from Red Square and about half an hour from the stadium. We got off this bus and onto another (also with ramped access). After sitting on it for 20 minutes without it moving or anyone else getting on we managed to negotiate with an English speaking Russian Official the opportunity to be driven on a tour around the City. Unfortunately the bus driver did not speak a word of English but he did his best to show us all the sights and explain what they were. We saw the Kremlin from a distance, Red Square and also crossed the Moscova river several times. The City is totally inaccessible (no dropped curbs, no disabled toilets, no ramps into shops) and although I found it disappointing not to sample it on my own wheels, for this reason and in hindsight, it was for the best that we got to see it from the comfort of a bus.
After this tour of about an hour we were driven to the Chelsea fans zone. It was about 3 pm (Russian time) and we were looking forward to seeing what this had to offer. However, I was extremely disappointed when I realized it was nothing more than a stage with a few food stalls and football souvenir stores around the edge. It suddenly dawned on me that spending seven hours here was going to be extremely difficult (it was a 22.45 ko Russian time). To make matters worse, the disabled had been given no consideration here what-so-ever. There was a huge arc of about 50 porta-loos but not one was for the disabled. The rain was falling and there was not one shelter we could use. It was all out-door. I was extremely tired and yet there was not even a table I could rest my head on to get some much needed sleep. These seven hours were amongst the longest of my life. No alcohol was on sale as drinking and smoking on the streets is a criminal offence in Moscow.
In total contrast however, the Luzhniki Stadium was very good. NADS (the National Association of disabled Supporters) had been working closely with UEFA on behalf of the participating clubs disabled fans to ensure improved facilities and services following those experienced at the Athens final and by England fans in Moscow last year. The Russian authorities and UEFA ensured a number of significant structural changes to the stadium and I can honestly say that (in the Chelsea half of the stadium at least) these were excellent. There were disabled toilets inside the stadium (I needed one as I hadn’t been to toilet for 17 hours) and there were 2 very large, raised wheelchair platforms with great sightlines from what would have been rows 7 or 8. Each club had been given 50 wheelchair tickets.
On speaking to some of the other disabled Chelsea fans that had made the trip, the hotels that had been advertised as ‘disabled friendly’ proved to be anything but and caused serious problems for those that stayed there. I was quite glad I had foreseen this and decided to on a daytrip.
Immediately after the game we were told to just follow the crowd to the bus station where busses would be waiting to shuttle us back to the airport. So that’s what we did. I’d gone straight to the toilet after the game so when we exited the Stadium (out of a different exit to everyone else) at what I had assumed was about the same time as everyone else, like lemmings, we just followed the crowd with the extra hassle of Perry having to negotiate all the curbs. We eventually got to a building in which there were 3 steep long escalators in front of us. I told Perry there was no way we could manage that.
As we turned to go out and re-think the situation a Russian policeman grabbed my chair and pushed me onto the escalator. He was just trying to be helpful I know but I was sure we would now need to go up another somewhere else. He turned me round, held my chair securely and we went down the escalator backwards. At the bottom everyone was getting on tube-trains. This was Moscow’s famous Metro system. Perry and I both assumed this was the quickest way to the bus station so we just got on the next tube (level access entry, only a small gap between train and platform). However, as the tube set off we began talking to the other Chelsea fans only to find out that they were not going back to the bus station at all but to their hotels. It suddenly dawned on both of us that we were hopelessly lost on Moscow’s Metro at 2.30 am and if we ever returned to the airport, we would miss our flight anyway.
Anyway we got off at the next stop and back on another tube heading back in the opposite direction. The tubes run every few minutes. We did our best to read the metro map and worked out which stop we needed. Thankfully we picked the right one and were soon confronted with the upward escalator. We had no choice but to go up but the policemen just looked on and didn’t help, even they knew it was too much of a risk. Perry took the weight and my chair tilted back as the steps formed. I asked Perry if he was OK and he said ‘not really’. As we progressed up the escalator my chair tilted back more and more. I could sense Perry was struggling to hold my chair.
After the longest 40 seconds of my life we got to the top and Perry showed me the bruises on his hands that had appeared due to the pressure he had put on the handles trying to stop my chair from tipping over.
There was an official looking woman at the top who could see the stress, worry but relief on our faces. Thankfully she could speak a little English and we did our best to explain our predicament. She told us to follow her as she knew where the coaches were. So we did, only to then realize that these were the Man Utd coaches. They were inaccessible as all Man Utd’s disabled fans had traveled together and so no disabled Man Utd fans would need them. On top of that, they were going to a different airport anyway!
I was panicking as Perry tried to explain to a very helpful chap where we had to go. This chap calmly spoke on his mobile phone to someone and before long an accessible bus arrived to take us to the Chelsea bus station. From there we just joined all the other buses going back to our airport. I’ve since found out that most Chelsea fans were kept behind for half an hour after the match ended which explains why there were still so many around.
Chelsea had agreed with ThomasCook (Chelsea’s official travel partner) that all fans could board the planes on a ‘free for all’ basis. This meant effectively you took your place in the queue and boarded whichever plane was available. With four thousand Chelsea fans in the airport and all trying to get back home as soon as they could, this had to be the easiest way. However, for a wheelchair user who needs assistance to board the plane this is not ideal. How do I request official assistance? How would they know what plane to get the isle chair to? How do I join a queue with hundreds of fans all pushing & shoving?. I guess you could say that I just left this to Perry and shut my eyes!
Perry managed to edge me towards the front 30 or so people. The officials could now see the problem. Perry went right up the front to explain that there was a wheelchair in the queue. I was called through in front of the last boarders and was amongst the last 10 people to board the flight. The people I was in the queue with had to join another queue for another flight. I did feel slightly guilty but using a wheelchair causes a multitude of frustrations and irritations and so on this one occasion it actually helped me and so the feeling of guilt didn’t last long!
Perry wheeled me along the walkway to the door of the plane. I was taken into the plane in my chair and Perry then lifted me out of my wheelchair and into row one of the plane which had been vacated for me. Who needs aisle chairs and assistance teams?
Back at Gatwick, the passengers on my flight had to wait half an hour to disembark after the plane came to a halt as there was no busses to ferry them back to the terminal and I had to wait for a further half an hour for the ambi lift.
I got back home at 9.30 Thursday morning. The trip had been exhausting (more so for Perry) and in way of a conclusion I would say if you speak no Russian and use a wheelchair for mobility then you should consider Moscow a no-go.
Prices: Thomas Cook daytrip including match ticket £817.00 x 2
2 days short term car parking at Gatwick £41.60