The Hunt for Red October

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Russia  , Central Russia,
Monday, September 10, 2012

When we last spoke we were whizzing at high speed across the country taking in the Russian scenery escaping the madness that was St Petersburg. Given that St Petersburg did not really win our hearts we were more than a little concerned about our next 5 days in Moscow.  As we travelled across the country it was amazing how quickly the sprawling city disappeared and the land was filled with lakes, forests and small wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs.  I am not sure that I fancy spending a Russian winter in one of those, but they looked quite quaint in summer.

Our arrival in Moscow was a stark contrast to St Petersburg, the company that we had used to book our visas and train tickets had arranged for a car to collect us and deliver us to our hostel, so we were whisked through the mad rush hour traffic of Moscow in a smart black Mercedes and were delivered to the door of our hostel, awesome.  Once we were settled we decided to go and explore the city, first stop obviously has to be Red Square.  Little did we know that on the 8th September there had been a big military tattoo display in Red Square and the entire area was cordoned off with the seating from the display still being dismantled.  We literally could not believe our luck that we would come to Moscow and the most famous attraction is inaccessible, gutted.  But we persevered and trundled around the edge of the Square and made our way to St Basils Cathedral, the onion dome church that I always coloured in first when I got a colouring book as a kid.  Whilst it wasn't quite possible to get the picture postcard view from Red Square, it was still quite amazing to see for real.  Next was the Kremlin, the original heart of Moscow, now just an imposing wall containing some pretty special palaces and churches.  We didn’t go into the Kremlin, partly because the tickets were too expensive and partly because there are only so many churches that you can look at when you are going through cities at the speed we are! I wanted to go in to see the Diamond Fund which sounded awesome and is the home of the 189 carat Orlov diamond, but given that there was an entrance ticket to the Kremlin and then to the diamond fund it seemed a bit extravagant :o(  Instead we headed to the market stalls surrounding the Kremlin and had the absolute best time playing with the fur hats and sweet talking the stall holders to let us take photos.  The weather was very kind to us in Moscow and we were back in our summer gear and sun glasses, so it was quite a laugh wearing huge fur hats in 30 degree heat.  Whilst I was utterly in love with a white fur hat, the fact that it was Arctic Fox got the better of me and I left Moscow hatless (and a little concerned that I would regret having a conscience when I arrive in Siberia and Mongolia!).  The other novelty of the park outside the Kremlin was the abundance of people dressed up in large (homemade) furry animal costumes charging people to have their photo taken with them.  We were not really sure of the significance of Shrek, Sponge Bob, Spiderman or the various large rabbits and cats, but they looked hilarious and seemed to have no shortage of business.

As we had 5 days in Moscow, we had time to slow down and relax a little which was a nice treat.  Our hostel was amazing, we were more or less the only ones there for the first few days so we had the kitchen and bathroom to ourselves so would spend the morning drinking tea and planning our day in the comfort of what felt like our own flat.  There was even a washing machine so for the first time in a month we get to properly wash our clothes, machine washed knickers – Bliss!  The staff at the hostel were also amazing.  Every day they would ask our plans and would reappear with metro maps, google maps and a list of what to see and what to do to get to where we were going, they definitely made our day trips far more interesting that they would have been if we had been left to our own devices.

We did the obligatory hop-on-hop –off bus tour, which has only started running in Moscow this year and I suspect that it might be its last year. Having done a few hop-on-hop-off bus tours lately I thought that it was safe to assume that we would be driven around the main attractions and could hop-on and hop-off at the stops that we liked the look of.  Apparently the Moscow version of this tour should be called The "we drive in a circle slowly, pointing our attractions on the opposite side to what we are telling you and then we drop you where you started tour" Bus.  The main highlight for Tim and the low point for me, was finding myself with a camera and microphone thrust in my face with a strange man asking me to explain the difference between Moscow and London.  I tried to tell him that I really didn’t want to be filmed or answer his questions but he just kept the mic and camera thrust in my face.  Tim was very supportive and just put his earplugs back in and told me I was on my own.  The shame.  I subsequently managed to interrogate him and established he is from a Korean TV station and they are trying to encourage tourism to Moscow.  Here is hoping that footage never sees the light of day!  The only other interesting thing that we found by accident on the bus tour was a bridge with some strange metal trees which were covered in padlocks of every shape and size, but mainly red heart shaped ones.  The mystery of these locks was soon unmasked as two bridal parties arrived and the grooms were up on the best man’s shoulders attaching another lock to the tree.  It seems that September is wedding season in Russia as everywhere we have been there have been swarms of brides and grooms and their wedding parties with beer, champagne and generally very pimp limousines out boozing in the streets.  Later by sheer luck and absolutely no judgement we happened to find ourselves back at the Kremlin at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just before the hour and got to see the changing of the guards, which involved some pretty cool goose stepping.   

As we had the luxury of our own kitchen we had a trip to the local supermarket for some provisions.  Little did we know that a simple trip to the supermarket would be like a trip to a museum.  Our local supermarket happened to be Moscow’s first ever supermarket and its grandeur was astounding.  We are talking giant crystal chandeliers, guilt columns and cornicing, huge oil paintings and even the shelves were decorated with art deco iron work.  Needless to say I did the shopping and Tim stood around gawping at the ceiling taking photos.

Having successfully mastered the St Petersburg metro we were ready for Moscow and armed with our map of what stations had the best features (thanks again to the staff at the hostel) and off we set.  Immediately we were once again struck dumb and stood gormless looking at the signs in Cyrillic, there were no signs with a convenient colour or number of the metro just the end destination (we think) in Cyrillic, so after some trials and numerous errors we finally found our train and set off.  Like St Petersburg the Metro stations are huge, very clean and have some of the most extravagant light fittings ever seen underground, but Moscow metro went one better than St Petersburg and has many more arty features, the main attraction is a station that has a series of mosaics in the ceiling, but our favourite station featured bronze statues.  The original plan was to have these bronze statues standing proud lining the side of the platforms, however there was some issue when building the line and the ceilings were lower than anticipated so the sculptures had to be designed in seated or bent over positions to fit into the arches through to the platforms.  The strange hunched over positions made the statues even more interesting than if everything had gone to plan.  In the mix of sculptures was a man with a dog and the dogs nose was bright and shiny because everyone getting on and off the metro rubs his nose, presumably for luck.  We gave it a rub just in case.

Our next trip was to Gorky Park, some of you may remember the 80’s film set here, we went just because it had a cool name and with our usual set of maps and directions from the hostel we set off.  We walked what seemed like a hundred miles in the red hot sun as there is another park next door to Gorky Park that we were advised to visit, and we were so glad that we did.  It is called the Park of the Forgotten Statues and quite simply any statues that are not being used in the city are just plonked in this park.  There is every style, shape, design and size of sculpture, from a giant soviet hammer and sickle, to bronze figures, stone heads and even a wooden Pinocchio.  Such a simple idea but a perfect place to wander through and enjoy the sun.  Next was Gorky Park, all we knew about it is that it used to be an old soviet fairground but has recently been revamped.  The entrance was fairly easy to spot with a huge stone gate probably about four times the size of the Arch de Triumph and within were the most stunning manicured flower beds, fountains with benches and sunbeds all around to relax on.  All around people were cycling, roller blading, playing Ping-Pong, and even volleyball on the fake beaches.  Towards the end of the park there is model space shuttle which was a training replica of the real thing, which is now used to store the rental bikes and a huge pond full of pedalo’s and swans (seemingly not the best combination if you are a swan).  We sat back and relaxed and took in the sights and even treated ourselves to a proper Russian ice-cream, which tasted a bit like a giant milk pop, yum.

Our next random adventure was to find a Submarine; we located the metro station, which was one stop before the end of line 7 and set off.  Again using a mixture of luck and judgement to navigate the metro we were on our way.  Out of the city and a little out of our comfort zone we were looking a lot braver than we were feeling strolling as if we knew where we were going and hoping for the best.  By some miracle we were going the right way and before we knew it we could see a submarine on the horizon.  Given our luck with boat visits this trip I didn’t hold out much luck that we would make it onto the submarine but it seems our luck was changing (maybe it was the Metro dogs nose) we made it to the ticket office and 500 roubles later we were headed to the entrance.  There was some discussion between the security guard and the tour guide and within minutes we were presented with an English transcript of the tour, brilliant!  The submarine was huge; although how 70+ people lived on it I am not sure.  After a tour of the torpedo’s the cockpit, the living quarters, engine rooms and a climb through a port hole we finally succeeding in our first tour of a boat.

 Our hostel advertised its own driving tour of Moscow by Night. So we thought it was only right to give it a go.  Our Russian host Ilya, ushered us along with two other guests at the hostel into his car, Steve from Beijing and Emre from Turkey.  Needless to say the language barriers in this car lead to it being the funniest part of our stay in Moscow.  Steve had seemingly walked the entire city and at every location declared “I have been here” whilst Emre seemed intent on finding a party for the night and a boat trip to take so at every location asked if the boat left from there, even in locations where the Mockba River was nowhere to be seen.  Next we are pulled over by the police as Ilya as missed a sign or a light and we are sat in the car whilst he is off handing over all his documents.  The highlight of the tour was arriving at the Moscow University campus where there is a view of the whole city and seemingly on a warm Friday night the whole city congregates here, along with every bikers in Moscow, there were break-dancers, lovers, students and tourists all just watching the world go by.  The hilarity of the tour reached a new high when Tim asked Ilya if the Submarine in the film Red October had been named after the Moscow Chocolate Factory.  The explanation was just too much so Ilya drove us to the Red October Factory which is now full of trendy bars and restaurants just to prove it was not a submarine.  By this point Steve was asleep and Emre was getting more concerned about his party for the evening.  Needless to say we were all back at the hostel with our slippers on drinking tea by midnight.  We saw Emre the next day and he had still not found his boat tour.

On our last day in Moscow we discovered that there were going to be some protests which started at the end of our street.  The staff at the hostel didn’t seem to concerned, but my concern was a little raised when I read about the protests on Sky News.  We headed to our Metro line and were greeted with lines of police and Russian trucks, we stood for a while behind the safety of the Metro wall watching the protesters congregate with flags, balloons, ribbons and flyers and sought a hasty retreat to the Metro before it all got too busy.  All quite exciting to see and experience, but also quite nerve-racking when you are faced with hoards of armed police.   We decided we needed to escape the madness and experience some Soviet history so where better than Bunker 42, the only declassified bunker in Moscow, 60 meters underground at the same level as the Metro system.  17 flights of stairs later and we are in, the best part of this tour is that they leave you in a room filled with guns, gas masks, Officers hats and coats and tell you to just play and take photos, this could possibly be the best tour ever.  As we worked our way through the bunker system there was a fully fitted out restaurant and nightclub used for special events and another in the process of being fitting out.  After experiencing a fake nuclear attack we watched a film about the cold war and explored the tunnels as the metro line roared alongside us, reminding us just how deep underground we were.  As tempting as it was to walk the 17 floors back to the surface we chose the lift and safely made it back above ground.

Back at the hostel and we are packed and ready to head to the train station to get on the Transiberian Express. The whole purpose of the journey so far has been to get on this train so it was a mixture of relief, nerves and excitement that we finally made it here.  The thought of 5 days on a train at this point was very welcome as all the walking around the various cities had tired us out and Tim’s peg legs were on the brink of collapse.  So armed with a shopping bag of pot noodles, cupa soups, tea, coffee, hot chocolate and a very good selection of crisps, chocolate and even some lulu cakes, we were ready.  There was not a chance that we would go hungry on this train.

Our departure was 11:45pm, so at 10:45pm our platform was announced and we left the safety and comfort of the big city for the first leg of our journey.  Moscow to Irkutsk (Siberia), 5185km going through 5 time zones.

Farewell Moscow, it has been brilliant, we hunted Red October, wore fur hats and even managed to machine wash our knickers, what more could we have wanted.  

P.s Sorry the Photo's are out of order!

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