The letdown

Trip Start Jul 11, 2005
Trip End Apr 04, 2006

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Flag of Russian Federation  ,
Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Russians have a lot at stake, and the power of Moscow pride should never be underestimated

- Bob Schaffer

Moscow, Russia
Prague time +2hrs
Days to get to Prague - 10

Making time
We said goodbye to the long train trips (for now at least) and arrived in Moscow only 8 days (7 nights) after crossing the Russian/Mongolian boarder some 5,500 km away. That's a long way to go in such a short time folks and for sheer overland-distance-travelled-in-the-least-amount-of-time it beats my 10 day drive across the US in August 2003. Of the 7 nights that have passed since entering Russia we have spent all but 3 sleeping on trains. That statistic goes some way to explaining how we got here as quick as we did, but without feeling like we saw little of Russia (which we don't). Plus it wasn't bad for the budget either. But now we were finally here in Moscow and back in Europe proper having crossed the Asia/Europe boarder shortly after leaving Yekaterinburg.

Moscow is, of course, the Russian capital. It first became the central power in Russia in 1430 under Ivan III (Ivan the Great). It remained the capital until 1712 when Peter the Great moved it to the newly created St. Petersburg (our next stop). It finally reverted back to the capital, this time the capital of the USSR, in 1918 following the success of the, Lenin led, 1917 Communist Revolution. It has been the center of world communism ever since. The city gets its name from the river the flows through it and not surprisingly it is the political, economic, financial, educational, and transportation center of the biggest country in the world. That I did know. But I was surprised to learn that, with 10.2 million inhabitants, it is also the biggest and most populous city in Europe (I would have guessed Paris but hey, what do I know?). And at 800 roubles ($30) for a dorm room, in the Travellers Guesthouse, it didn't take me long to discover it's also the most expensive.

The Good, the Bad and the snow
For me Moscow was a mixed bag and we crammed a lot into our two and a bit days.

Our first evening and afternoon, after getting off the train from Yekaterinburg, was spent in the company of Amir, a Swiss guy who was sharing a room with us in the guesthouse. We went out for dinner the first evening, and after eventually deciding on a place to eat it turned out to be, surprise surprise, a karaoke bar in disguise. There we managed to get nicely frazzled thanks to a cheap bottle of vodka we had with our dinner of steak & Russian dumplings. It was another momentous occasion for the Henkster and I - our first time drinking vodka since we got to Russia (and Mongolia for that matter). With no one to advise us differently it seemed like the right thing to do and at 350 roubles for the bottle of 12 shots it worked out reasonable when split amongst the 3 of us. The night was rounded off by a brief, 300 rouble, stop in one of the massive dance clubs Moscow is famous for, Fabrique, and a rejection at another club follwing our 'dismissal' from the aforementioned Fabriqe. No doubt that was for our own good. So within a few hours of getting into town we had blown a huge hole in our pockets, gotten pissed on vodka and sampled the famous Moscow club scene, complete with bonehead bouncers. Not bad.

The only downside was the hangover we (I) suffered as a result the following day, our first full day in the city. I had planned on going into tourist overdrive but it didn't quite work out like that. I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not as young as I used to be. Regardless, we still managed to see some of the main sights including for me what seeing Moscow was to be all about; Red Square and its surrounds. Now bare with me here folks but when you think of Moscow you think of Red Square, right? And who hasn't seen the Communist Cold War footage of the Red Army marching through what looked to be a square of endless expanse. Well, it isn't like that at all. It's quite small. Smaller than I expected. But that's not to say there isn't anything to see. Nope. There are the imposing redbrick walls of the Kremlin, the GUM department store, St. Basil's Cathedral and, right in the middle of the square, Lenin's mausoleum. All are impressive, world famous attractions. But I still couldn't get over the compactness of it all. Maybe this is why the whole experience felt like a bit of a letdown. Maybe I was expecting too much and my own expectations just didn't live up to the reality.

As for Lenin, the father of Russian communism. Well, today he's Red Squares number one resident and has been since his death in 1924. There have been rumblings for a while that there is no place for the Lenin mausoleum, and all it stands for, in the new Russia. So much so that Boris Yeltsin, the first post-USSR president of the Russian Federation, intended to close the tomb and bury Lenin next to his mother in St. Petersburg where, apparently, he wished to spend eternity. Need less to say, Yeltsin didn't achieve this while he was in power and it looks like Lenin isn't going anywhere soon. And good thing to because I wouldn't have been able to compare this mausoleum with those of the other Marxists heavy hitters I've had the fortune to visit in recent years; Mao Zedong in Beijing and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. Lenin's mausoleum provided the inspiration for both of those mausoleums, violating both Mao and Uncle Ho's desire to be cremated. Sensing a trend here, are we? Anyway, with the three Marxists now embalmed it's a tough call as to who looks more wax like. Thanks to my experiences in Beijing and Hanoi the procedure for paying ones respects to Lenin was a familiar one; pay a ludicrous fee to have someone 'look after' your bag, join a sombre line of other pilgrims/sightseers/mourners and follow, without stopping, a well worn path that brings you in one entrance of the mausoleum, past the chamber with the man himself on display (draped in communist red velvet) and finally out another entrance on the far side. All over quicker than you can mutter under your breath "he sure looks waxy". The added bonus of the Lenin mausoleum however was that the exit brings you out at a closed off section at the base of the Kremlin walls where other greats of Russia's past, political and non-political, are buried. You still have to keep moving as you peruse the granite delights on display here but if you concentrate hard enough you will recognise the final resting places of other famous USSR leaders such as Brezhnev and, of course, Joseph Stalin. Leader during World War II this dude, believe it or not, had Lenin's brain removed in a fanciful attempt to study the 'pure communist' brain. Umm. I guess having gone through that I'll cut Lenin some slack for looking a tad false. Finally, and for good measure, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space is also buried here. Shouldn't his ashes have been vaulted into space?

It always comes back to Red Square
Right. Enough about Red Square, Lenin & the boys. What else did we get up to? Well, as always, check out the accompanying photographs for full coverage of 'Dave & Henk do Moscow'. What if you couldn't be bothered? There are, after all, 24 photos with descriptions and while I'd love you to take a look I realise I might have already lost some of you and the rest who are still here probably couldn't care less how many photos I've uploaded? Well then here, for you lazy types, is a quick synopsis of what some of the photos show.. -
.. stood on a bridge over the Moscow river to get some pictures and nearly froze to death, went searching for a Pushkin statue, looked at a few Russian Orthodox churches on ul Varvarka, went to Sparrow Hills for a view of the city, toured the tourist-accessible parts of the Kremlin (com'on, you gotta see the photos for that), rode the metro to see some of the impressive stations, went to the Lubyanka area to see the old KGB stomping ground and had a look at the redevelopment of the Bolshoi theatre.

But given all that we always seemed to begin and end our day in or around Red Square where, even today, the Cold War still hangs in the air. We had managed to avoid the interests of the Russian militsya (police) up to now... probably because we spent most of the time on trains? But in Moscow, and especially around Red Square, it's a given that tourists will be approached by the police, normally for the usual document checks. Their hope is that your documents are out of order thus allowing them to fine you some arbitrary fee which goes someway to complement their meagre salary. Or so the story goes. Anyway, the two encounters we had with the militsya occurred in the vicinity of the square. Having taken close-up night time pictures of the walls of the Kremlin I was approached by some Russian, or fellow tourist, that I believed genuinely curious to see what I was capturing on my camera. An easy assumption to make; he looked just like a tourist himself. He requested I show him my results and upon seeing the walls of the Kremlin on my camera screen he turned away and muttered into a mic attached to the underside of his coat lapel. Afraid of me stealing some state secrets, are we? The second encounter was of the classic document check type. This encounter, just outside the State Historical Museum at the squares north gate, saw two officers wander over to us and mutter the word

"passport!", to which I said,

"Game on Henk".

Tales of this sort of encounter abound in Moscow so we had ready a photocopy of our Russian visa page showing the necessary visa registration details (a nice lady in Irkutsk train station was good enough to photocopy them for us soon after we arrived in the country and had our visa registered, something every visitor to the country is required to do). Although it was a photocopy it showed all that was required and that all was aboveboard. They didn't seem to like receiving a piece of paper however and responded with another gruff "passport!" We stubbornly (or is that stupidely?) shook our heads and pointed at the pages they had in their hands. I guess they then came to the realization that we weren't worth the hastle so after a brief conversion to each other in Russian they waved us on our way. And we were gone. Gone back to the guesthouse to prepare for the trip to St. Petersburg and for Henk to say his final goodbyes to Elena, a saucy Russian who manned the guesthouse desk and who Henk had taken a shine to over the previous few days. That boy I tell ya.
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