Trip Start Jun 01, 2010
158Trip End Mar 11, 2011
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We leave the comfort of our train for the cold and wet platform of the Leningradsky train station and we have to find our transport to the Hotel. The Agent was not able to book something for us in time so we are on our own here. One of the many semi illegal cab drivers, or better man with minivan, approaches us to ask if we need a taxi. Against better judgment I say yes, and he shows us a ridiculous price for the ride, around 3000 roubles. We wave him off and say that we head out to get a Taxi with a meter. Then suddenly the price drops to 1500 roubles and he keeps persistent. Linda talks him down to 1100 roubles for the ride, this is still a lot, but cheaper than what the travel agent quoted. So with a sense of victory we accept and get into a small minivan. The driver talks a bit of English and is chatty, telling us about the usual Taxi driver topics such as traffic being a problem and apartments being expensive.
As we zig zag though the very busy Moscow traffic, cutting in and cutting off everything and everybody we end up in the neighborhood of our Hotel. Suddenly a police officer directs out driver to pull over, and so he did. From the Minivan with blinded windows we see how the driver has to wait outside in the rain by the side of a classic Russian Lada police car. After a few minutes the previous victim of the law officers gets out of the car and it's our driver's turn. We can see that he gets in the police car. We wait, wondering what is going on. A few minutes later he comes out, clearly upset and cursing silently in Russian. He explains something about roads being changed, and apparently he drove into a one way street. Mumbling and not happy at all he resumes the journey and five minutes later we arrive at our hotel for the coming days. We kind of felt sorry for the guy, as he tries to make a living in a crazy city. But on the other hand, he does so by taking tourists for a ride, most of the time.
Our Hotel looked like a proper one, thank god. We check in and get the key to our room quickly even it being far too early for check in, so we are happy. We move our luggage upstairs and to find a simple but sufficient hotel room. A TV with 16 Russian channels and BBC world. Wireless Internet for which they charge a small fortune, a clean and proper shower and two beds pushed together making a queen size resting place. First subject of order is a shower, and after that we go for a 'power nap' to sleep off the train journey. As it was still rainy and gray outside we decided to have our lunch at the Hotel eatery, called bbCafe. It was surprisingly good and turned out to be a place where the office workers from the neighborhood come and eat for lunch. The offices around us are mostly embassies, so the place filled up with smart dressed man and woman. After lunch we headed upstairs again as outside is still sad and wet.
For dinner we made plans to meat an ex colleague of Linda, Alexi. He is born and raised in Russia and he lives in the city. Our meeting point and eatery for the evening was Cafe Pushkin as recommended by Alexi. We did not read too many good reviews about the place. Besides this, all the place was ranked as the number one spot on tripadvisor and we learned that in generally this is not such a good omen. Therefore we did not have that high expectations for the place. One thing we did know for sure, is that the company would be good. We arrived a bit early as we walked quickly through the rainy evening, only stopping for a Russian treat, pancakes with chocolate. Similar to crepe with nutella, but then less than half the price that we paid in France, and ten times cheaper than Greenwich village, New York. Who said that Moscow is expensive, on the nutella crepe scale, it's by far the cheapest.
Arrived at Pushkin we were welcomed and asked for reservations. We did not have any so we had to wait at the bar for a bit. We seated at the nice bar at the ground level and observed the restaurant. You could see that this is indeed a place with a lot of history and judging from the amount of staff, with very good service. We ordered a drink, a lovely Hoegaarden for me and a cosmo for Linda and waited for a bit. The waiter came to us to tell us that they had a table for us on the 2nd floor. Quite a big deal as we learned later when Alexi arrived that this floor is usually reserved for the VIP people. A small iron cage elevator brought us up to the 2nd floor where we had a good time and learned about the live in Moscow. We got ourselves some classic Russian dishes, excellently prepared and presented. The food was good, the service was good, the only thing that is odd about the place is that they don't have a non smoking section, but then again it did not bother us that much. I would recommend Pushkin to anyone that would like to have a Russian culinary experience. As it is one of the few restaurants serving Russian food, and probably the best in Moscow in this genre.
After dinner we made our way back to the hotel, still wet and gloomy outside, but somehow we have a better feeling about Moscow. I hope tomorrow will be a bit better as we have scheduled a walk around the city with a guide.
The next day, when I opened the curtains and saw the same old gray skies. This place is getting to look like Holland, yek. Our guide is to pick us up around noon, so we make it down for breakfast and wait for a bit in the room.
Promptly at twelve o'clock a woman named Lena came to pick us up. We tried to call the agency and ask them for her to bring some umbrellas for us, but we were too late as she was already on her way. So we had to rely on our rain coats, and from the looks of it we would be needing them. The first encounter with Lana was a bit prickly as she could not understand our discomfort with the weather. We headed out to see the neighborhood.
There were a lot of interesting things along the way. The unfortunately decaying classic Russian estates from the Tsar times, build in U shapes along the streets. The Russian orthodox churches. The Moscow conservatory and the Bolshoi theater. We even saw a group of buildings that was moved back a couple of dozen of meters to widen a road. And of course the red square. Lana opened up a bit and was telling us the history and her personal experiences of Moscow. She was basically raised up in the national history museum, and she was very passionate about the rich history of Music and Theater. It was very interesting to see how her opinion on historic events differed 180 degrees from the ones of the guide we had in St Petersburg. The age difference of around 25 years was clearly noticeable as Lana was obviously a lot more conservative.
During our walk we got to see some excellent examples of Moscovite traffic chaos. We were nearly victim of a car that made his way over the sidewalk, which is by the way used as public parking areas. Not just a wheel on or two, but the whole car would promptly be parked on pedestrian territory. The Moscovites don't even raise an eyebrow when this happens. Except for us tourists as we immediately take out the camera to record this exceptional behavior. This is a perfect display of Moscow freedoms turned into chaos and in my opinion captures what Moscow is in one frame.
After our tour we were left on our own to explore the city. It finally dried up a bit and there was even a hint of the existence of the sun behind the gray cover. Our first point of interest was food, and we were determined to get some authentic Russian cuisine, by which we mean Sushi. This was not difficult to find at all, as you will find a Japanese restaurant on just about every corner in the city.
After lunch we headed back to the red square as we did not spend much time there. With the weather clearing up a bit, it should be great for some pictures. I found the red square an inspiring place. It houses the three pillars of power in Russia. At one side you see the big red brick wall of the Kremlin fortress - the symbol of government, the source of all control. Not that the government is seated there, but still. Across from the temple of control you see the temple of commerce, the Gum stores. Here you find the real controlling power of the economy, the capitalist businesses like Gucci, Louis Vuiton, Sony and others in the likes of those. And in the middle of these two you will see the onion heads of the St Basils Cathedral, the symbol of the Russian Orthodox church, which is slowly loosing its grip over the people as they become more and more 'westernized'. We snapped photos from every possible corner and walked up to the bridge over the Moscow river. From here we had a great view of the Kremlin towers from the water side. After a bit we headed back to our hotel as our time in Moscow was running out. I'd love to see this city in spring when the sun is out and the skies turn blue. But I do think that this gray and sober days in Moscow show us the city as it is for eighty percent of the time.
On our way back we stopped at the Gum stores to get some supplies for in the train. Lena pointed out an old supermarket in the store. This supermarket has been there since the Soviet days and to her saying, every government store in Russia had a similar look to it. Marble counters, granite floors and groceries displayed in bookshelves, spreading the limited supply over as much space as possible to give it a full look. In the past these were mostly canned foods, but now it's a bit different. They now sell everything you can imagine, from Dutch cheeses to Canadian salmon, Australian lamb, or Japanese noodles. With the arrival of luxury goods from around the world, the prices changed accordingly. We had to pay around 4 euros for a cup noodle from Japan. But in the end this would be well worth it.
Back at the hotel we got our bags and waited for a short bit. Soon our driver arrived to take us to the station, all arranged by the people in Beijing. He had to come a bit early as the day before they had four hour traffic jams in the city. Four hours to drive as much as 20 kilometers, walking would be faster. We loaded up the car and the driver struggled through the Moscow traffic. It was not as bad as expected because we arrived at the station an hour early, so we had to wait for our train to arrive. We met an older Australian couple at the Station that was seated in the same carriage as us, number seven. Their names were Jane and Don, and they were pensioned fish farmers and smokers. A very friendly couple traveling from Europe to Vietnam, mostly by train. We did some last minute supply shopping at the station, water, a couple of beers, some crisps, some cookies and juice. This would help us through the first day of the four day journey. We have no idea what to expect so we try to prepare for everything.
Our train arrived after a 30 minute wait, and we boarded our home for the coming days. Train number 2, carriage 7 compartment 15/16. We managed to fit our luggage in the compartment and made ourselves comfortable. It was exactly nine thirty-five when the train got into motion and the first stop will be three hours later at Vladimir pass. There were about 29 stops, 4 days and 5135 kilometers between us and Irkutsk. At our first stop we got out of the train for a few minutes. On the platform people were selling all sorts of home made food and drinks.
As we made our beds on the train, it was way past midnight. We already lost one hour to the timezone changes and we would loose five on this trip alone. On the train, the schedule is Moscow time, but we try to adjust to local time as we don't want to be completely wrecked and 'train-lagged' when we arrive at Irkutsk.