MOSCOW: "Stereotype-shattering", "stunningly warm" -- a trip to Russia for the FIFA World Cup was largely a "pleasant surprise" for those touching down from the west but for thousands of tourists from a country which didn't even have a team of its own to cheer for, it was "usual warmth".
"I am from India," that's all one need say to unlatch the Russian warmth, which has now bowled over the world at large after years of scepticism based on the mystique of Soviet era.
From wide smiles to generous discounts, nostalgic Russians, who still aren't over their love for Raj Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty, go an extra mile when they hear an Indian voice calling out for directions, shopping or mere chit-chat.
"I love India, the food, the people, the movies, the colours. Discount for them always," said a shopkeeper selling traditional Matryoshka dolls, which are among the most prominent symbols of Russian culture.
"Russian people have a special affection for India. They are always extended extra warmth," added a tour guide, who has had a busier-than-usual one-month thanks to the huge influx of fans for the World Cup.
The tourist flow from India rose by a conservative estimate of 20 to 30 per cent for the FIFA World Cup, according to prominent travel agencies. Russian news agency Sputnik pegged the hike in ticket bookings by Indians at an audacious 400 per cent based on feedback from a travel agency.
This, despite the fact that India does not have a team of its own at the World Cup and is unlikely to have one for some time to come.
"Russia is always a welcoming place for Indians. The westerners are now realising how warm the Russian people are but for us Indians, we know it for a long time. It's always great to be here whether there is a World Cup or not," said one Indian tourist, who is here to catch the extravaganza that gets over this Sunday but is also a frequent traveller to the Russian capital for business dealings.
Moscow alone has been paid a visit by over three million global tourists, according to the historic city's head of Department of Sport and Tourism, Nikolay Gulyaev.
The Indians, however, don't figure among the top-five in numbers this summer which are dominated by German, Dutch and French nationals.
"But there is no denying that they (Indians) have the pride of place in Russian hearts. You can link it to Bollywood or the Soviet era close political ties, but it is special," said a tour operator here.
Among the Indian celebrities, mega-star Amitabh Bachchan was there in St Petersburg to catch the first semifinal between France and Belgium and his lesser-seen and known Bollywood colleague Fardeen Khan was among the over 78,000 who filled in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow for the second semifinal between Croatia and England.
They were among the thousands who descended to catch the 'greatest show on earth' where India's on-field presence is at best a pipedream right now.
"But Moscow ended up offering so much more than just football. The sites, the history, the food and of course the affection is unforgettable. I'll be back to explore more," said an Indian tourist, draped in a tri-colour, as he headed in to watch England lose to Croatia in the historic second semifinal at the Luzhniki.