Life in a queue (+ other stories in the big smoke)
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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The forests eventually thinned out and more dinky little villages that dot the landscape this side of the Ural Mountains came into view. Most of the hut houses are tiny and weighed down by half a foot of thick snow, but obviously the locals survive out here. With so much time on my hands I even began wondering if there's a relationship between the size of the house and the neighbourhood church. Anyway, we did eventually reach Moscow - a major destination in my travel plans and one with a fascinating history and a vibrant contemporary atmosphere. I did not expect what we got but was pleasantly surprised with our time here, although it did underline that Russia is a difficult place to travel in if you're on your own.
After a night's motionless rest in a predictably basic Moscow hotel, we ventured forth on the Metro with city guide Dimitry to the city centre. The architecture was the first thing that struck me as we emerged from the bowels of the earth - there remains a remarkable proportion of heritage buildings all around town when I would have expected more Soviet era buildings to have replaced them. Pleasant surprised by that - Soviet architecture is not known for its design aesthetics.
First stop was Red Square, the third largest square in the world and paved with cobblestones as far as the eye can see. Lenin's Mausoleum was open so the rest of the square was closed at the time, and the whole scene was uninspiring in the milky winter light. Following the crowd, we headed through the recently reconstructed central gates to join the queue to see Uncy Lenny.
Russian orthodox Christmas falls on the 7th of January due to their use of the Julian calendar and a national ten day holiday has been decreed for around this time, so there was a real carnival atmosphere in the area. Father Frost, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus, was out with an odd collection of friends including small monkeys dressed in winter clothes and a pair of enormous eagles that looked like they wanted to go postal, tear off their tethers and attack the surrounding crowd of slack-jawed gawkers. If they had it would have been more interesting waiting in the steadily lengthening queue; doubly so when we were told only ten metres from the front of the line that the mausoleum was now closed and we'd have to come back tomorrow. Grrr.
So now that Lenin's tomb was closed we could go walk on Red Square right? Wrong - some sort of emergency saw the Iberian gates locked and all other entrances barred. Ok, fair enough - let's go to the Kremlin then. Around we went to the tourist gate only to find out from a stony-faced guard that there is a series of children's performances there for the holiday period so we couldn't go in until 3pm, unless we went on an expensive official tour. Bloody kids, what have they done for us lately? So to kill some time we headed up to Arbut Street, a must see area of town known for its shopping, street artists and performers.
It was damn cold unfortunately so there was no musicians and barely an artist to be seen on the street. The 30 doll Matrioska set we saw in a window was certainly impressive but we weren't in the mood for shopping which left little else to do here this side of summer. Still, we dutifully headed back to the Kremlin area, past Tchaikovsky's Music College and through streets rich with architectural interest. Only to be told by a different guard that private visitors aren't allowed in until after Christmas. Boo.
Spirits dwindling from a succession of failures (certainly not the fault of Dimitri), thoughts turned to heading home and writing the day off. Still, we stuck with it, deciding to head out to Sparrow Hills which provide expansive views over the Moscow metropolis. With a single metro ride our fortunes changed and we spent late afternoon cruising over a ski area I'd never have thought would exist in central Moscow, as well as the extremely gothic State University - one of seven 'Stalin's Skyscrapers' which punctuate the city's skyline. It was a absorbing view of one of the largest cities in Europe - 10 million (officially, and probably a few million more unofficially) strong and all bustling around in a pre-Christmas dash below us.
Invigorated by the cold and a new-found sense of achievement, we beelined back to Red Square and was dazzled by the transformation. Red Square under lights is a sight to behold and everyone around seemed to match our upbeat mood. Most buildings were lit up for the festive season so we wandered the square and took in the Kremlin walls and the GUM department store - now a very flashy boutique shopping mall in a similar vein to Queen Victoria Building in Sydney. Nice.
Final stop was St Basil's cathedral, an awesome array of multi-coloured onion domes that house a maze of rooms ornately decorated with beautiful orthodox religious icons and tapestries.
These works of art are impressive in themselves, but I found the smaller details equally amazing, including the paintwork on the internal roofs and external walls and the imaginative designs used on archways in the maze itself. It was so disorienting that we almost walked straight out the other end, which would have seen us miss the other half of the complex. Oops.
We finished the day with a meal and beers in the rumpus room of the very hip FAQ restaurant. It had been a struggle but all is well that end's well, and pats on the back for all involved for hanging in there to the end.
Next entry -> More of Moscow
Great Brands of the World - Russia
Crapdogs is just one of those unfortunate brands that looks hilarious from the perspective of another language. Even more so when it's a chain of hotdog stands city-wide. Still, in spite of that they do a good crap, err, hot dog so if you see one around, don't be put off.
An honourable mention should also go to Nestle with their Men Only chocolate bar. While not a brand as such, I had to include this product name to show differences in culture that occur across the world. Even though we don't read cyrillic we can still get the message behind this remarkably chauvinist chocolate bar, especially from the small woman with handbag symbol on the back panel.
Apparently the Russian says something to the effect of "Too much chocolate and too many nuts for women. This product is for men only." Nice one Nestle!