Moscow Travel Journey
- Submitted by: Paul Bakker
- Submission Date: 11th Feb 2005
(The third instalment in a series of travelogues, based on a trip to Europe in Spring 1990. The first two were on and Poland and Czechoslovakia. Comments, questions, abuse, etc are welcome at email@example.com)
The Aeroflot jet whined noisily as we made the final descent into Moscow airport. I felt sick: 22 hours in an Ilyushin 62 with no music, movies, or sleep. The pilots seemed to have a perverse habit of turning the engines off & on in mid-flight, leading to undulating descents and ascents that play havoc with your inner ear. Ouch.
From the air, the area around Moscow looked very green and even wild. Thousands of ramshackle Dacha's (summer houses) could be seen from the jet. It was all just as I expected. I was feeling pretty exhilarated as we taxied into the orange and grey terminal of Shevteshenko airport. I've wanted to visit Russia for a long time, and in preparation for this trip I had done lots of reading. I learnt Russian pleasantries from a phrasebook, memorized the Cyrillic alphabet, and read Dostoyevski and Tolstoy novels to get a feel for the place and the people. And of course I carried Lonely Planet's 'Eastern Europe on a Shoestring', an excellent guide book.
Actually Russia was just a stopover for myself and Betty (not her real name) on our way to a rented-car trip around Europe. We would only be spending 3 days in Moscow (the maximum allowed) at $US160 a night, but I relished this part of the trip as much as any other. We intended to make the most out of the 3 days and this was a good start: we shuffled into the terminal at 6:30 AM.
The airport was quite modern and glassy, with a plush Duty Free shop and lots of chrome and mirrors. Police and guards abounded. We joined the Customs line. The Customs officials seemed very relaxed, and it was more than two hours before we were processed. Betty was getting rather agitated, but I actually derived some kind of perverse pleasure out of it. Welcome to Russia! In Australia, the crowd would have gotten ugly after just 20 minutes of queueing, but here the Russians waiting with us just stared blankly. We had to declare all our money and valuables, to make sure we couldn't do any black-marketeering. I had earlier pressed $US50 inside the lining of my shoes for precisely that purpose.
After customs we were met by an Intourist rep who spoke only Russian. He helped us into a black Volga (a 60's looking sedan) and drove us to Hotel Belgrad, a good 50 minutes away. My initial impression of Moscow was: dusty, brown, dilapidated, chaotic, wide streets, unbelievably big. The city has a population of 9 million, more than half that of the whole of Australia. Although fatigue was starting to set in, the frightening flow of the traffic kept us alert. Little Lada's hurtled dangerously from side to side of the wide boulevardes, ignoring painted lanes and other driver's intentions. As I had read, no cars carried windscreen wiper blades; these hard-to-get items are stored safely in the glovebox and are only fitted when it starts to rain.
The Hotel Belgrad was a large cement shoebox in the classic communist style. The driver helped us with our bags and then took off without badgering us for a tip; a refreshing change from Singapore! We checked into a basic oblong room and fell asleep, out of necessity rather than desire.
Three hours later we reveilled and checked out the map. Belgrad seemed to be within walking distance of the Kremlin. It was hard to tell how far it was, and I was still a wee bit tired, so we left the video camera behind. Outside the hotel we got our bearings, and headed off in the general direction of Red Square. It was a bit difficult to be sure with the street signs totally in Cyrillic, but then again, so was the map! Immediately I sensed we were being followed. Looking in a shop window as we walked, I noticed 3 spotty youths behind us who had been hanging around in front of the hotel. K.G.B? C.I.A? G.A.Y? As we stopped to check the map again, I whispered my suspicions to Betty. She turned to look at them, they hesitated, and then marched right up.
'Are you American?'
'No!' (this didn't seem to faze them)
'You want to change dollars?'
They offered an exchange rate of 12:1, which was double the official rate. I accepted without attempting to bargain. We walked on for a while as I counted out $30 and they counted out the 360 roubles. We exchanged the money under a hastily opened map. Then they were gone. It was a minor thrill, but thereafter we just changed money at official institutions. Everything is cheap at 6:1 anyway.
We walked along the Kalinin Prospekt eastwards towards the centre of town. It's a lifeless, large scale, wind-swept boulevard that was designed, in a centralized-planning-committee kind of way, to be Moscow's main shopping street. There were indeed lots of shops and lots of people inside them. We ventured into a supermarket and saw hordes of women milling around, looking for something to buy. I took a photo of a pile of rancid sausages. A couple of queues formed, but we couldn't work out what for. We saw lots of Russian fur hats for sale (it was Spring) and fake leather Lenin caps.
We pressed on and were soon approaching Red Square (actually, it's kind of dark grey). If you approach from the west, you walk up a slight incline and can see the kaleidoscopic onion bulbs of St Basil's pop up over the horizon one by one. To see something this famous in real life always gives a shock of deja-vu, and the effect was doubled by the beauty of the church. Ivan the Terrible had it built in the 16th Century. According to legend, when it was completed he asked the architects if they thought they were capable of an even greater masterpiece. Anticipating a new commission, they answered yes, and he promptly ripped their eyes out. Never shortchange a Czar.
The principal sights of Moscow are organized compactly around Red Square - you can capture them all in the one photo! The Kremlin stands to one side, a large walled fortress ('kremlin' = 'fortress') filled with ancient churches and government buildings. In front of the Kremlin stands Lenin's Mausoleum, a low red-marble building with two guards ever watchful out the front. Across from that is 'the world's largest department store' (GUM), and then at the far end St Basil's Church. The square is almost always crawling with tourists, but about 95% of these are Soviets.
On the day we visited, Lenin was out and the tomb was closed. The guards were nevertheless still there, so we joined the crowd to watch the changing of the guard. The new guards emerge exactly in time to the chimes of the bell tower and then break unto a sprightly goosestep. This is one of the few visible rem(a)inders of the Soviet-German alliance of 1939 (besides the Baltic Republics, that is). The old and new guards swap positions in an impressive now-you-see-it-now-you-don't routine that takes about 5 seconds. It would even put the Germans to shame.
We then walked down to Hotel Rossiya, a concrete monolith that skulks behind St. Basil's. It's a good place to get an aerial shot of Red Square. Downstairs they have a Beriozka (foreign currency) shop. Only foreigners (and bigwigs) are permitted entry; the guards' usual criterion is how well you are dressed. The shop was well stocked with German and American goods I only know of from adverts: Hershey Bars, Twinkies, Budweiser beer. Souvenirs were very pricey.
Next up was a visit to GUM, the department store. Actually it was a 3x3xN matrix of little shops, where N -> infinity. It was very busy and most things weren't worth buying. You could pay in roubles, which made everything ridiculously cheap for us. Betty bought one of those recursive wooden Matrioshka dolls for about $7. They can cost up to 50 bucks in the West.
By this time fatigue was setting in nicely. We both had, for some reason, very sore feet and legs after the long flight (I forgot to make 'fists with my feet' on the carpet at the airport). We made our way to the far side of Red Square and tried to get a taxi. Things looked grim. At the taxi rank was a large crowd of Muscovites, who were craning their collective necks in every direction, searching for elusive cabs. Every now and then one would appear and cruise slowly by, as would-be patrons rushed out from the kerb and (presumably) shouted out their destination. The cab driver usually shrugged or shook his head, and often ended up driving away without picking anyone up!
We both groaned. A man with a thick moustache approached us and asked us if we wahnted a taksi. He pointed at the crowd and smirked, and then motioned to his taxi parked by the kerb. $US4 it would cost us... I grumbled for a few seconds but then gave in. That's outrageously expensive for Moscow (as I found out later) but of course it's nothing to a Westerner, and they know it. On the ride back he spouted his opinions on Gorbachev ('Always talking, no doing') and Boris Yeltsin (he gave a big thumbs up). On the dashboard of his cab he had tiny American and Russian flags intertwined.
Back at the hotel I booked an international call to my brother in Holland. After an hour of waiting it came through; he expressed amazement that I was able to ring out of Russia at all! He had never had any luck doing so on his two trips here. Betty also tried to book a call to Australia, but it just didn't happen.
That night we dined in the hotel restaurant. We had to stand at the door for a full twenty minutes before being allocated a table, even though the restaurant was half full and I had made a booking beforehand. (If you, dear reader, think you have a patient disposition, come to Moscow and give it a real test!). The food was great. We feasted on beer, hard boiled eggs and caviar, tasty thick brown bread, chicken kiev (Betty had 'chicken tabak'), and thick creamy ice cream for dessert. When the bill arrived I almost fell off my chair : 15 rubles ($US 2.50) total. Halfway through the meal some new arrivals were seated at our table, as is the custom in Eastern Europe. They turned out to be two aimiable Britons who had just completed the Trans-Siberian and were heading on to Leningrad that night. A band played some raucous folk music in the restaurant, and the Russian patrons clapped and sang along. 'twas a top evening. We retired early.
The hotel price included a buffet breakfast. Strange cold meats were laid out before us, as well as hard brown bread, boiled eggs, porridge, and 'kvass', a drink best described as 'liquid bread'. Betty decided to pass, and just sat there pining for her fruit juice and cornflakes. I tucked into the delicious old-fashioned porridge and slightly green eggs. The kvass was ok, but a bit strong for that hour of the morning. I was to radically revise my opinion of it before the day was out....
We went down to the lobby to arrange a free bus tour and a walking tour of the Kremlin. They like to hit tourists hard here: $US 16 each for the Kremlin, payable in hard currency please. But who's going to quibble once they've come this far? We befriended an Argentinian and an Australian tourist who booked on the same tour. The hotel arranged a taxi for us and we went off to the pickup point together. Because the taxi was called by the hotel, the driver had to accept the official fare from us: 3 roubles ($US 0.50); this is THE best way to get around Moscow!
The pickup point for the tour was the Intourist Hotel on Gorky Street. We had about 30 minutes to kill, so I stood outside and filmed up and down the street while Betty chatted with the others. Half way through a long slow pan I felt a tickle in my nether regions... this could mean two things... I swooped the camera down and caught a small dark boy on film. He had his hand in my jeans pocket and was helping himself to some pocket lint. A gypsy! The Australian tourist came up and gave him some gum, and he took it silently. Soon a whole pack of them arrived. They swooped on the tour group as it left the hotel. They were everywhere, pulling on our clothes loudly demanding 'Goom!' or 'Dohlar!'. Someone even copped a punch in the face. The tour guide scattered them with a few choice words and then we all marched off towards the Kremlin.
The Kremlin is full of churches, curiosities, and history. The world's largest bell (which has a large crack and has never been rung), the world`s largest gauge cannon (which has never been fired), about 100 small cannons captured from Napoleon, and magnificent churches with gold plated domes.
Russian Orthodox churches are already strikingly ornate on the outside, with their tightly packed towers and golden domes, but the inside is even better. Intricate centuries-old mosaics cover every square inch of the walls, and the insides of the golden domes are decorated with heavenly scenes. In fact, the function of those domes is to represent heaven to the upward-gazing churchgoer. Sunlight falls in from various angles during the day and lights up different details within the dome. Beautiful. It matches anything I saw in the Vatican.
Of course, these particular churches were for the private use of the Czars, so no doubt they were inordinately ornate. The tour guide told us that the largest church was used by Napoleon as a horse stable during his brief holiday here.
Every now and then as we were gawking around a guard would blow his whistle and sinister black sedans would snake their way through the inner compound. I always looked up to see if I could spot Gorby or Chevy, but the black curtains were always drawn in the back seat.
After the Kremlin tour we had a complimentary bus ride around the city. We visited Novodevichy Convent, Lenin Hills, St Basil's, the monstrous university (it's all housed in one huge Gothic-style building), and the inevitable tourist shops. Betty had her photo taken with some jolly Russian soldiers, who contorted their faces into frowns as soon as I pointed a camera at them. Why do they always do this? It's bad for their image overseas.
That night we had a rare treat - dinner with a Russian family! My twin brother had met them when he was in Moscow two years before, and had maintained contact via letters and postcards. We didn't know what to expect, so Betty insisted we have dinner at the hotel first. In contrast to the first night, the food was disgusting. The chicken was old and greasy, and spouted up a fountain of oil when Betty dug her fork into it. Perhaps they were last night's leftovers. Bleh. Totally nauseated, we grabbed a cab to Voronzovskaya 30, in the south east of Moscow. This is supposed to be a good area, but the land around their apartment block was ugly dirt and scrub with liberal sprinklings of smelly garbage.
We took an unsteady elevator up 3 flights and knocked on the padded door. The door swung open, and we met Mascha, a teenage girl; Andrei, her boyfriend, who had just finished service as a ballet dancer (!) in the Red Army; Mascha's mother, an English teacher; and Mascha's father, the director of a boy's choir. Mascha and her Mum were the only ones who spoke English.
We were welcomed warmly and I think I even received a hug or two. After the usual preliminaries ('You look so much like your brother!') we brought out our Western gifts. Some good quality soap, shaving cream, Australian beer, Cosmopolitan Magazine, and some Pepsi. Apparently gift giving is an important ritual in the Russian culture. They ushered us inside to the dinner table.
Their flat was small and cluttered, but in a cosy kind of way. It only had 4 rooms, but each was jam-packed with bulging couches, decorations, shelves with knick knacks, tables, and chairs. It looked very homey, and a nice place to shelter from a cold winter. The lounge/dining room doubled as a bedroom. They had a large old-fashioned TV and, to my great surprise, a CD player! Was this your average Russian family?
We settled down to the feast they laid before us. Pink, undercooked chicken, dark bread, kvass, pickle & beetroot salad. Mm-mmh! After the meal they cracked out the vodka, pouring it into tiny shot glasses. I'm not much of a drinker (and neither is Betty - she's never been drunk), but we didn't think we'd have too much trouble with these. Bring on the firewater! We each slammed one down and then quickly gulped kvass as a chaser to quell the burning sensation. After two I'd had enough, but our hosts were just getting started.
Russians seem to take pride in drinking foreigners under the table. Each drink is preceded by a long-winded toast, and then everyone is expected to chug-a-lug in appreciation. We discussed Gorbachev, and the Baltic States, which had just unilaterally declared independence. They confidently predicted that the tanks would be sent in, and nodded approvingly (and they were right). When asked what I thought of Gorbachev, I said that I considered him a great man, but he will probably end up destroying the Soviet Empire (and I was right). They nodded in silent agreement.
The rest of the evening is a blur. They presented me with a Red Army peaked cap and belt, and I paraded through the loungeroom mimicking any Russian phrase they threw at me. Betty got drunk for the first time in her life and threw up on her shoes. Someone played 'Streets of London' on the piano and we all sang along.... we drank toast after toast after toast, and the distinction between English and Russian seemed to fade... at one point I found myself in Mascha's bedroom; we were both laughing hysterically at her map of the USSR.
I barely remember being helped into a taxi and dragged to the hotel entrance. Once we got inside I threw up everywhere. We fell asleep at about 2am, drunk and miserable. What a night.
Woke up nauseous as hell. My usual trick to avoid hangovers is to stay up until I'm sober, but last night I was outta control. We struggled out of bed and met up with Mascha, who promised to show us around a bit of Moscow and find us some Soviet T-Shirts (which were a hot item in the West).
After travelling for ages on the metro we ended up at a suburban market full of crowds and open stalls. Was this the infamous 'Black' Market? There was a cornucopia of goods and the prices seemed a lot higher than in the downtown stores (there's a change from the West!) The T-Shirts were reasonably expensive, even though we were able to pay in roubles.
Next we sauntered down the road to the VDNKh, or the 'Exhibition of Economic Achievements of the Glorious Peoples of the Heroic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics' for short. It's a collection of triumphal arches, pompous fountains and heroic statues (with titles like 'Peasant Boy and Collective-Farm Girl') surrounding dour pavilions with flea-bitten exhibits. Most were closed. We had to sneak through a backdoor to see the Computer Exhibit, which consisted solely of two IBM clones displaying a spreadsheet. The keyboards weren't even in Cyrillic. What a disappointment. Mascha had warned us: 'Don't be surprised - Rossya is vaery backword'.
We had a bit of photo session around the fountains while Mascha told us about herself. She is very interested in Russian history, especially the life of the last czar, Nicholas I. She dreams of one day travelling abroad to the U.S. or Australia, to see how other people live. Her parents have already been to England, and came back deeply impressed. And no wonder; by Russian standards even the English live in fairytale surroundings. Although I was warned to expect poverty here, I was still shocked by the dirt and destitution. Even Eastern Europe looks wealthy in comparison to Moscow, which in turn is supposed to be the most affluent part of the Soviet Union. What must the rest be like? I felt sorry for Mascha.
Our pills began to wear off, and I could feel larger and larger waves of nausea starting to break over me. We said goodbye to Mascha and fled back to the hotel. Once there, we collapsed into bed feeling as sick as hell. I ended up sleeping the rest of the day and night. What a senseless waste of a good holiday........
Woke up late, so we missed breakfast. By this point, I hadn't kept anything down for 36 hours, but I felt surprisingly good. Perhaps it was the just the buzz of being here, in Moscow, 20000km from home at the start of a 10 week holiday. We dropped by Mascha's house again to receive some presents and eat a light breakfast. Then we bade them all farewell and took off to do some serious sightseeing. Five minutes later we were back because I'd left my camera behind. Before we were allowed to leave again, they insisted we all sit by the door for two minutes. This is apparently an old Russian custom; everyone must sit and reflect before someone starts on a long journey. Even their dog was forced onto his haunches.
We walked off down the street and descended by escalator into the Metro network. In a city of contrasts, the METPO is one of the most bizarre. Who would expect to find, beneath one of the world's most chaotic and mismanaged cities, the most impressive, efficient, and convenient mass transit system in the world? A train is guaranteed to arrive within 90 seconds, or you can ask for your money back. Not that you'd bother; at 15 kopecks (about US$0.01) for unlimited travel, it has to be one of the cheapest systems in the world too. And that's not all. Many metro stations have been fashioned into enthralling works of art. Some are done up like palaces, others are adorned with sculptures and impressive mosaics. But to me the most incredible thing about the metro is that it was built in the 30's, under communist direction. The fire must have still been in their bellies then, before the inertia and despondency inherent in the system set in. Oops, better not get too political here.
Our first (above-ground) stop was Dzherzhinsky Square, site of KGB Headquarters. When we passed this building previously on a bus tour, the guide sardonically noted that this was the Moscow landmark Westerners were most interested in. And I was too. I whipped out the video camera and filmed the square in front of the building, and all around the sides, trying to goad some reaction out of the KGB'ers ensconsced inside. No luck. Then suddenly...a huddled figure approached us. It was a babushka (I think) and she seemed to be asking us directions in Russian. I sent her packing with a polite 'Nye Russki'. It was nice to be mistaken for a Russian for once; the younger generation sure don't have any trouble picking you in a crowd.
We then walked back down to Red Square to do some time in a queue and glimpse Lenin. Unfortunately, it just happened to be his 120th birthday, and out the front of his tomb there snaked the most enormous line I have ever seen. Even on their day off, Russians like to queue.... While we stood there deciding whether we were going to join the line or not (it looked like a good 3-hour wait), some buses unloaded and it doubled in size. My resolve crumbled. We headed back to the metro.
A short ride later we were in Pushkin Square, named after the author the Russians regard as `their' Shakespeare. There we encountered the second biggest line I have ever seen - the queue in front of McDonalds. I was content to just stand there and take photo's, but Betty insisted we join the queue to get some 'real food'. We shuffled onto the end of the line, which was growing alarmingly. Within minutes we were approached by a kid and offered a place near the front of the line for 16 roubles. No thanks... I didn't want to be the Ugly Westerner pushing in with a large wad of roubles. We'll do the Russian thing and just wait patiently. Presently 3 young lads approached us and struck up a conversation. They looked very American with their sporty sneakers and baseball caps, and just like Americans their English was pretty bad. After the usual formalities ('Are you American?' 'No!') they got down to business: they promised to get us anything from McDonalds within 5 minutes, if we paid them US$1 per ordered item. Betty shouted 'Yes!!!' before I had a chance to negotiate. Ah well, we were getting pretty hungry by then. Within 3 minutes the boys were back with the goods and we ate with gusto. A Big Mac never tasted so good. It was almost identical to the ones back home; the milkshakes were definitely creamier.
Big Macs actually cost 4 roubles inside, which is quite expensive by local standards... but not expensive enough. The line tripled in size while we chatted and exchanged addresses. I would estimate at least a 3 hour wait was in store for those who had just joined. I wondered how many people were there to make money out of selling their place in the queue, or by reselling hamburgers.
Out final destination for the day was Kolomenskoye Reserve, a large leafy parkland in outer Moscow filled with churches and traditional wooden huts. The place had an amazing atmosphere. It was full of locals dressed in traditional costumes, singing and dancing in the warm sunshine. It was great to spend some time away from the city. We stretched out on the grass and watched the dancing. Bliss.
We ended up staying a bit too long and had to race back to the hotel. Along the way we tried to dump the excess roubles by buying souvenirs like dolls, Lenin caps, etc. The problem was, they were so cheap we couldn't spend the money fast enough! It's illegal to export roubles, and I didn't want any trouble at customs. Back at the hotel the black Intourist car was already waiting for us; we hoisted the bags in the back and took off. On the drive back I spotted the enormous tank-traps at Khimki, which are there to demonstrate just how close the Germans got to Moscow in WWII. Just 20 kilometres further, and the Kremlin's churches would have been destroyed forever.
Moscow is great. It is easily the most interesting city I have ever seen, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone looking for something different. For me, the alien landscape (no advertising, red banners, Orthodox churches, huge communist squares and buildings) was the main attraction. There is a food shortage, but Western tourists aren't really affected as Beriozka shops and international hotels are always well stocked. And always will be.. they're desperate for foreign currency, y'see. As for the quality of the food, well, it's a convenient time to go on a diet.
Before visiting Moscow it might be advisable to learn some basic Russian phrases (like da, nyet, pazhulsta, spasiba, zdrasvuytje, dasvidanya, nye russki, kharashov, gdye tooalyet; yes, no, please, thankyou, hello, goodbye, don't-speak-Russian, ok, where's the toilet) to get by with the vast majority of Russians who speak no English. I only encountered a few who could speak German. It is also very important that you learn the Cyrillic alphabet; this only takes about a day. Once you know it, many signs and placenames become instantly intelligible. It's especially handy when you're travelling by Metro!
Also by this author:
Czech Republic 1990
Cairns, Australia, 1991
North Korea 1995