St.Basil's Cathedral (and somehow, guessing you all already knew that)
Red Square and the former GUM Department Store
I’ve long been of the opinion that Moscow is one of those cites which everybody should experience at least once, and nothing that I saw, did or occurred on ths trp changed that view in the slightest. It is an amazing place whch somehow still feels like it has all the mystery and intrigue attached to it, whch would have been in evidence in days gone by.
Its defntely deserving of a good few days / week, and of return visits, and whilst I spent 4 nights in the city I could happily have spent a couple of weeks more.
Entrance to Red Square
My first stop after finding the hostel was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour down by the river. It is more or less pure white in colour, on a large scale and with a stunningly ornate interior. But by far the most amazing part of the whole cathedral is that it was only built in 1997 – 8 years ago. Stalin had pulled the original down in the 30’s in order to use the prime rver front location to built a huge Soviet Peoples Palace, planned as the largest bulding n the world and with a 100m high Lenin statue on top. But the experts then concluded that the rive bank site wouldn’t hold anywhere near as much weight as the proposed building, so the site was abandoned. After a long wait, the worlds largest (and by all accounts, best) swimming pool was built on the site. In the 90’s, Yeltsin decided to rebuild the church as a sign of new Russian tolerance and prosperity and the Cathedral was rebuilt from scratch in just 4 years. Whether the huge cost was worth it (in honesty, the money could probably have been better spent elsewhere or on social reforms) is debatable, but the achievement and workmanship – it’s heart warming to see that humans can still build such stunning monuments and decorations, and at such a speed as well – are amazing.
The rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
In the time I was there, I played tourist more than I had virtually anywhere else so far. Normally apart from taking in some of the absolute must see sights, I like to enjoy places at my own pace and get off the beaten track. Just walking and seeing what happens, what I see and where I end up, but in Moscow I was almost scarily standard in terms of what I did.
The new National Museum, on Moscows Red Square
Chris, Christian, Me, Daan and Claire in Red Square in fronmt of the National Museum
Obviously I spent a large chunk of a full day at the Kremlin [probably best not to do it after along night out] in the company of 3 former English teachers in Korean, Daan (Dutchman), Chris (a girl from the peoples republic of Seattle) and an English girl Clare, plus another Dutchman, Christian, on his way via China to India. The Kremlin is a slightly odd place and probably more impressive from the outside than inside where there are concrete buildings (now home of the Moscow Kremlin Ballet) and large chunks including offices which were unavailable to the public due to it still being a working fort. Despite that, there was still some decent gardens and 5 churches/cathedrals to visit – oddly they all lacked anywhere really for the congregation to gather, even allowing for the fact that they would be used mainly by people within the Kremlin rather than all comers - as well as the worlds largest caliber cannon (never fired) and the Tsar Bell (largest bell ever built) with a large chunk separate which had broken off during a tenth century fire. I missed the armoury, the most impressive part, as allof the tickets had been bought by touts (tourists only allowed to enter with a guide) and I wasn’t prepared to pay their over optimistic asking price. And stood bemused at the Tomb of the unknown solder watching a soldier who can only be described as a “Imperal Sweat Swobber and Crotch straightener” appear with strange regularity to swob the sweat and adjuct the crotches of the guards on duty, which was most odd.
Cathedrals inside the Kremlin
Things to do in the Kremlin #1, according to Daan - Sleep. Claire and Chris pose on the worlds largest Bell in the Kremlin.
In the other days, I wandered around the Pushkin Art Gallery (impressive works, although a relatively small gallery, especially the day after visiting the Hermitage), took a tour around some of the Metro stations (many of which are wonderfully ornate and colourful – like parts of the Stockholm T-Bana - and unlike the dour dungeons that most metro/underground systems are) and wandered aimlessly around Red Square. In one day, in the company of Christian, we took in the former G.U.M store, went into St. Basil’s (bizarre from the inside is the only way to describe it – there is nothing even vaguely resembling a place to worship or central room, and it’s visbly not as interesting as you expect, being just a combination of narrow brick passages and rooms), down Al-urbat, past the Viking ship (ignoring statues of Thor and Odin near the entrance, the least like a claimed Viking ship i think i have seen – more of a Chinese Junk in style) along the river to the Novodevichy Convent and cemetery, past the Luzhniki and through Gorky park past the Peter the Great boat statue, before catching up with a Danish guy Jacob and taking n the evening atmosphere around the Kremlin wth the brass bands playing and people enjoying the streams and waterfalls, whilst waiting for it to get dark and St. Basil’s and the Kremlin to light up. And on the following day – my last morning – the three of us went to pay our (free) respects to Lenin in his mausoleum (perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s still a small dead guy) and look at the soviet heroes graves along the Kremlin wall including Gagarin, and urm, Stalin, amongst many others.
Statue of Peter the great with Christian and Jacob, near Red Square
As I was in Russia, obviously I had to play some chess. Suffice to say that my skills were a tad rusty, and I lost several times, before somehow snatching a stalemate from the jaws of victory against the best player in the hostel. Doh! On a couple of the nights we also wandered out to see what the delights of Moscow night life had to offer. The first night, Daan, Chris, Christian and I went to find something to eat (a proper Mongolian wok buffet, great stuff) before wandering in search of a place which Daan remembered from a visit several years previously. In an astonishing break with tradition (yes, I know I’ve stolen that as well, but I can’t thnk what else to write), we even actually found it. It swiftly turned into a fairly decent club. An oddly high number of people in there were wearing sunglasses whch added a slightly odd twist. After a couple of drinks, I even did something utterly uncharacteristic and got conned into dancing. Some of you will probably remember with dread or hilarity – depending upon the night in question, and also if it was one of the hospital nights - the few occasions that I have attempted this before and know that it is rarely a good idea. I’m happy to say that no bones were broken, and I even spent a good hour or so dancing with a really stunning local girl, who spoke no English, but oddly, some Swedish and ignoring the irritating habt she had of going for the pocket with my (very small supply of) money in it at every opportunity, we had a great time.
In true Moscow style, we hailed a random car on the street to get home, and although not overly expensive (gbp1 each), we were almost certainly conned. At virtually the same time as we returned back, another small group returned, including Claire (Chris and Daan’s traveling companion) and an Indian-Ozzie, Ken. Whilst the rest of their group entered, they hung outside, and t soon became apparent why. Between 1 and 8am, entrance is only by showing a entry card to the hotel (hostel is a floor in the hotel) guard, and ID so that he can check that you are supposed to be there. And Ken didn’t have his. And to make matters worse, he hadn’t on the previous night, and the (same) guard was now seriously p1ssed off wth him, and refusing entry without an entrance card, and checking dates and passports with great care to ensure that we didn’t manage to smuggle him in.
We grabbed a beer from the kiosk across the road whilst pondering the next move. Several stunningly intelligent ideas were considered (storming the guard, breaking into the guard’s car – don’t ask - somebody going in and attaching a card to a rock and throwing it down, somebody going to Kens room to hunt through all of his stuff to find the card, waiting all together until 8am, or simply letting Ken rot outside alone, and they were amongst the most rational plans) before action occurred. And so it was that we lifted Ken onto the parapet above the entrance for him to try and break into the first floor. For some reason it seemed like a good idea to some at the time. Unfortunately the first floor was locked, so he obviously started climbing up the balconies to the second floor, which was also locked. At approximately this point, the flaws in the plan were discovered, and not helped by the hostel being on the tenth floor, the plan was sadly abandoned… A while later, a couple of us finally got inside to go look for some help or his card, and after with his passport and surprisingly easy persuasion of the sleeping duty girl, got a note for the guard and we all trooped in.
Ways to get into Moscows Travellers Guest House at night without an entry card. #3. Scale the building
As is the way with hostels, there is always a large turnover of people, and following night, a different crowd – baring the ever present Ken – headed out. It was a fairly big group (11 or 12) of about 9 different nationalities, only a single female, and with only 1 person knowing where we were going (Propaganda, from the guide book, and a place with notoriously harsh ‘face control’ – a more Russian phenomenon where instead of refusing entry due to jeans or trainers, for example, if they just didn’t like your face, you stood no chance) but not exactly where it was. As is the way with large groups, trouble occurred straight away when the rest of us somehow managed to loose the Dutch guy with the guide book on the way to the Metro.
We somehow all regrouped a good 20-30mins later, and got the metro without incident. After 3 or 4 wrong turns and much backtracking, we even managed to find Propaganda. Which of course was the same place as we had gone the previous night, but whose name I hadn’t known. If i had, would have got there no trouble. It was later than the previous night, and face control and queuing was much more in evidence (the previous night and with the place mostly empty, we had seen 2 darker skinned – possibly Kazakh – refused entry, despite their valiant attempts at pretending to be Italian and Spanish tourists) we weren’t in overly high hopes. A not very mixed group of 12, including a couple of darker skinned people (ken being one) and 3 or 4 (again, including ken. Poor guy had been having a hard time!) who had been refused entry to a couple of other places a couple of nights before, but in a 2 cases had even got into the same places a night previously. It really does seem to be all about luck. We split into 3 strategically smaller groups, with the most likely to be stopped going first, and utterly astonishingly, all of us made it in without incident.
With not many of us in dancing mood, the majority hung around the bar or people watched from the balcony for a while, watching the attempts of an Irishman and East German in picking up some Russian girls. Both even got numbers, although neither spoke English (or German in the Germans case)… We stopped for a coffee and chill out in a bar next door before heading home in the daylight again. All 12 of us walked to the side of the road to hail some cars home and it was really funny to watch a road going from empty to about 10 cars screaming up to us from all angles desperate to take us home. We disappointed all but 3, and got home for less than the previous night. Amazingly despite Ken’s presence (he even had his card, but had ceremonially tore it up in the last bar, as he seemed to enjoy not getting in easily) the doorman – a different one – let us all in after only seeing the first persons card. It wasn’t quite as easy as that though, as both myself and the Irish guy Jonathan discovered that our rooms were locked (mine from the inside with the key left in the lock so my night key didn’t work) and we couldn’t get in. After knocking a bit, we gave in. We discovered the following morning that the Danish guy Jacob had cunningly left the key in my door in the name of security, whilst Jonathans room had been empty all night by people who had taken both keys with them. There was a spare floor space in one room which Jonathan took, whilst I borrowed a top mattress (thin one on top of the main one) and a blanket and went and slept on the balcony in the correct position to take in the early morning Moscow smog, traffic and railway noises. I had a great nights sleep, although on wakng discovered that in keeping up with my journey’s battle with mother nature, I had been shat on by 2 (or 1 very messy) birds…
Relaxing in bar after second night out at Propaganda
Moscow is an interesting city. Somewhere with the very rich and very poor, but not all that much in between. A large number of cars avoided problems of speeding and traffic rules by simply not having number plates, whilst every car is either a lada or a brand new BMW/Mercedes with blacked out windows. The occassonal lada with blackened windows adding variety. It’s also a place which can get very frustrating. I spend 4 days trying to contact a CSer, Nadi, I had been talking to and who had said she would love to spend some time showing me some of the more hidden parts of the city, but I never got through. I alternately got a fax, phone ringing off the hook or some message in Russain, and on the one occasion somebody did pick up, they either spoke no English or couldn’t hear me and hung up anyway. I also spent (wasted) an entire day looking for (a) my Visa company in order to get an intoduction letter for use in UVIR registrations down the line - who after much hunting, I discovered are based in an address which was demolished 5 years ago and (b) the offices that was supposed to have arranged my railway tickets (without commission). I never found any of their 3 offices to which I had the choice of visiting, and when I finally did find a 4th, they had no record of me and didn’t even sell internal rail tickets from that office!
Entrance to the Kremlin
Church on the fringes of Red Square
When I finally did sort some tickets for myself at the Railways office the following day, It was too close to departure for me to have any options at all, proving that I had been correct to try and sport tickets beforehand. My clever itinerary plan for the next few days was blown out of the water, with not a single night train to Kazan (baring an 2am arrival), or connection from there available within the time frame I required, and also no space on either of the direct trains - or Kirov connection - to get to Chelyabinsk. So with no other useful option, I got a ticket to (Y)Ekaterinburg, on the basis that it was East, the only Eastbound train with any space left on it and relatively close to Chel, so that I should be able to figure my onward movement from there. And even that train left over 12 hours earlier than I had planned, meaning I had to ditch my day trip to Sergi Posad, a town 90mns outside Moscow of which I had heard great things and been looking forward to seeing. On the plus point, my Platskartny ticket was absurdly cheap (900 roubles, or about 18gbp) for the 28 hour journey, and I discovered that some people in the hostel who were traveling Kupe on the same train to Ekat, had paid over 3000 roubles!
And so onto a train and in to Asia.