Moscow chokes in the smog, but tourists unfazed

8th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Wearing an African brimless cap and clutching beads, Abdulaye Bass stands on a Moscow street corner as people around him go about their business with their faces covered by medical masks.

After a few minutes Bass takes out his own gauze mask and pulls it over his nose and mouth to protect himself from the acrid smoke that has choked the city for two weeks.

"It's hard to breathe," he said. "I am not feeling well."

It is also as hot as his native tropical nation of Senegal, said Bass, vowing to get his family away from Russia's worst smog in living memory.

"This does not happen at home," Bass told AFP grimly. "I will take the children and will go out of the city, far away from Moscow."

In a store nearby, gauze masks are flying off the shelves, said cashier Olga Chernova. "Our customers are saying that pharmacies sold out of them already," Chernova told AFP.

The smoke from wildfires and burning peat bogs in central Russia, amid the country's worst heatwave in decades, is seeping into apartments, offices, stores and even underground into the Moscow metro.

State air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring says carbon monoxide levels in the capital were 3.1 times higher than acceptable levels on Sunday afternoon.

The day earlier they had been 6.6 times worse. The service urged Russians to stay indoors, avoid opening windows and wear multilayer medical masks when they venture outside.

Russian apartment buildings, especially those built under Soviets, are normally built to withstand cold and most are ill-equipped for heat and lack modern air conditioning systems.

While Muscovites flee the city in droves to escape the heat and pollution, tourists seem unfazed. Asian and European visitors were out and about the city Sunday, albeit sporting protective white and blue masks.

It was business as usual near Red Square where vendors hawked T-shirts and souvenirs and men wearing fur hats and old Russian brocade caftans invited tourists to take a picture with them.

"It's not as bad as we expected," said British tourist Steven Adamson on Red Square, where Saint Basil's Cathedral stood shrouded in a grey, smokey haze.

"But it's a bit strange walking around the city," he said, noting the half-empty streets.

He and fellow Briton Eloise Anson decided to go ahead with their two-day trip to Moscow despite hearing about the problems, but were disappointed when a football match they planned to attend was cancelled because of the smog.

"So we are going to the circus now. It's inside," said Adamson.

Russia moved a friendly match with Bulgaria to Saint Petersburg, fearing for the health of the players; Spartak Moscow's home clash with Zenit St Petersburg and the Moscow derby between Dynamo and CSKA were cancelled.

Poor visibility also caused chaos at Moscow's main airports where flights were delayed.

Domodedovo airport in the south of the city sent out requests to aviation companies to staff flight crews with pilots capable of flying in zero visibility conditions.

"We are located at the very epicentre of wildfires," Domodedovo spokeswoman Elena Galanova told AFP. "We're asking them to take complicated meteorological conditions into account."

Many Muscovites laid the blame for the smog squarely at the door of the government.

Anastasia Elisyonkova, a risk manager at one of Russia's top banks, accused authorities of not doing enough to protect Russia from what many experts call an environmental catastrophe.

"I hate this country and this government. I simply hate them," she said.

© 2010 AFP

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