11 July 2011

Mummies and Drunk Russians [Moscow, Russia]

Tourist? ...What'? Moscow has NO idea. One of the most confusing Metro systems I have ever experienced, no metro maps, no city maps, no English ANYWHERE, no tourist office (I'm not kidding! The largest city in all of Europe has no tourist information office). While I enjoy the less touristed, more Eastern, some may call 'backwards' cities, Moscow is... extreme.

OK, now I have got that off my chest, lets get on with this post. I had an amazing time in Moscow, mainly due to my hosts - Lena and Dima... and their Scottish Terrier, Nita. They are really cool and friendly people (and dog), who I really enjoyed spending my time with. Whether hanging at home drinking 5L bottles of beer, exploring Moscow, relaxing at the park, or smoking shisha. They made a HUGE effort to spend time with me and show me the city. If it weren't for Lena and Dima, I think my view on Moscow would be a whole lot different.

My first job in Moscow was to apply for a Mongolian Visa. The Embassy is just off Arbat Street, a large pedestrian street in the center of Moscow. It is VERY touristy - full of souvenir shops and buskers... and strangely, a large number of guys trying to convince you to get a tattoo. I guess every big city has its weird 'thing'... Anyway, walking down the street, passing by Starbucks, Cinnabon, Carls Jr and Wendys, I wondered whether I was in Moscow or somewhere in the US! 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the west has well and truly moved in. But I was not complaining - it was the first Wendy's restaurant I had seen in about three years... I LOVE Wendy's! I applied for the visa without too much trouble, this time they wanted to be paid in USD, which caused a bit of dicking around but nothing major.

The next job was to finally purchase a new camera. My one broke back in Croatia and I had to buy/use a shitty point-and-shoot one. After a long wait, I finally got the report back from the repair company that it was not worth fixing. I was tempted to wait until I got to China to buy one for cheap, but with so much beauty passing by and no way to properly capture it, I just decided it wasn't worth the wait...

Right - Moscow. Obvious place to start; the Kremlin and Red Square. The Kremin has been the center of power in Russia since the 1500's. It is a large area surrounded by 25m high red brick walls - quite an imposing structure. Not to buck the trend, the Kremin is very expensive to get into. I just got the basic ticket which allowed me to wander around one small area (there are a large number of guards with all sorts of weapons standing around making sure you stay where you are meant to be), and look into the cathedrals. To enter the museums is even more expensive. Was it worth it? Probably not. I mean, it is kinda cool; the cathedrals are beautiful, but no more than the cathedrals outside the Kremlin walls. There is a massive cannon (the Tsar Cannon, weighing about 40 ton!) that is quite cool, and a huge bell (which is apparently the largest bell in the world), also pretty interesting. But that is about it. But I guess it is one of those things you have to do - you can't got to Moscow and not visit the Kremlin.

The Red Square is a huge open area along one side of the Kremlin. It contains St. Basil's Cathedral - you know, that famous one with the colourful domes... The one I mentioned in St Petersburg was actually based on this one (I think they did a better job in St Pete). Outside one of the gates there is a spot where you stand, throw a coin over your shoulder, and make a wish. In true (read: strange) Russian fashion, the coins just bounce on to the street, so there are one or two homeless people just standing there waiting for someone to throw a coin, then picking it up. OK, that story is not very interesting, but I thought it was pretty funny... In the center of the Red Square lies Lenin's huge granite tomb, which contains Lenin's embalmed body... Let me repeat that; the tomb contains Lenin's embalmed body. And you can go and see him. No joke. Lenin actually wanted to be buried with his mother, but Stalin was like "Hells no! We are going to preserve the body and put it on display". So to get into the tomb you first have to line up for about 90 minutes. You then have to line up again and check your bag (you literally cannot take anything in there). You then line up again to get in to the tomb, which is full of armed guards. Down a couple of flights of stairs and you enter a room with a large granite platform, on which sits Lenin's body, dressed perfectly in a dark suit. It is a VERY strange experience, his face (the only skin you can see) looks real, but kind of waxy. Like a Madame Tussauds model or something. The whole experience is just plain bizzare.

The centre of Moscow, like St Petersburg, is full of beautiful buildings. While they might not be quite as spectacular as St Pete, and you might not be surrounded by them everywhere you go, it is still pleasure just to wander the streets.

Lena and I visited the Sculpture Park which has a large number of monuments and statues (mainly Soviet) that have been removed from the city over the years. A huge number of Lenin, Stalin, Marx etc... There is also Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, who I wrote about here. My favourite was a MASSIVE metal Soviet Union monument - check out the photos. Though most entertaining was an old drunk guy who was wandering around the park. Keep in mind you have to pay to get in to this place (I was Russian for the day and got in for 1/3 the 'tourist' price ;))... So this guy got wasted in the middle of the day and decided it would be cool to go and see some old sculptures... Crazy Russians!

Moscow is quite famous for its metro system. It contains some of the deepest, as well as some of the most beautifully decorated stations in the world. It certainly lives up to the reputation - entering some of the stations feels like entering a fine banquet hall, with intricate decoration and paintings, pillars, statues and chandeliers. The escalators seem to stretch out forever below you. Unfortunately I did not get many photos, as most of the time I spent on the metro I was stressing balls about which direction train to get on, how to change lines, or how to get out of the building!

After spending about 10 days in the country, my Russian is slowly starting to improve. I have a better handle on the Cyrillic alphabet, can greet people, say thank you and goodbye, and even ask them to make the next right turn (thanks to Lena and Dima's GPS).

On my final day in Moscow I decided to book a few rail tickets. Problem - it turns out that trains across Russia are quite popular in summer and fill up rather fast. And of course I had left it to the last minute. So Lena and I spent a few hours on the net trying to find reasonably priced trains that fit my schedule. I got the very last spot on the 24+ hour train from Vladimir to Yekaterinburg, which was the upper bed right by the toilet... The worst bed in the carriage. While looking for trains from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk (the 2+ day journey) I found one for around 3,500 Ruble. Again, the last and most uncomfortable spot. I had a look at the surrounding days and everything was 6,000+ Ruble. When I went back to book the cheap one it it had gone!. I ended up getting a 6,000 Ruble ticket, second class with only 3 other people in the cabin. Even though it was almost twice the price, it may have been a blessing in disguise, as I can only imagine what two days in that uncomfortable bed would have done to me.

OK, a final few observations - you can buy anything you want in Moscow. Seriously. While there I witnessed someone (no names) purchase a doctors certificate to say they were sick and unable to attend an exam that occurred the previous day. Someone purchased fake hotel bookings in order to get a UK visitors visa. I also heard stories of paying off police officers for speeding, buying student ID's etc... Moscow contains some amazingly beautiful parks. Think large palaces, fountains, open green fields. The only problem is you have to battle either the insane traffic, or insane metro to get to any of them!... While Kiev may have the largest Soviet style apartment buildings, Moscow obliterates the competition with the sheer quantity. You can drive for hours in Moscow and be surrounded by these huge, towering apartment buildings. Want to know how to fit 17 million people into a relatively small space? Go and check out Moscow.

Now I head to Vladimir, one of the ancient capitals of Russia. From there I plan a day trip to Suzdal, one of the most impressive cities of the 'Golden Ring'. And from there... EAST!

1 comment:

  1. That is crazy that Lenin's body is on display! Beautiful architecture, it would be amazing to be able to see it all in person (but expensive!).

    I'm sorry to hear your camera broke! :( You take such lovely pictures, hope the replacement wasn't too pricey.

    Safe Journeys East, looking forward to following along when you get to your next adventure :).


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