From Russia with Rain

Trip Start Oct 01, 2002
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Trip End Aug 08, 2005


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Friday, July 1, 2005

We're back!!

Yes, after 5 months of settling back into a 'normal' life and coming to the conclusion that something is definitely missing we are back on the road again, well sort of ...
The European leg of the round the world flight ticket that we bought in Sydney needs to be used up (it's a hard life we know) and it has given us the chance to visit Moscow for five days. Despite all the problems of us not being able to make up our minds when we should go, then get a hotel, an invitation and a visa sorted we did finally get on the BA flight to Moscow on Wednesday 29th June.

Our schedule would allow us to arrive in Moscow, book into our hotel and casually make our way to the Bolshoi Theatre for the final performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, before the theatre closes for restoration until 2010. At least that was the plan but the flight was late and we arrived with very little time to get to the Bolshoi in time for the show. After manically trying to decipher the Russian Cyrillic alphabet and taking a chance on which train to catch into town, Sian being convinced we'd end up stranded somewhere in the Russian countryside, we found that it was rush hour and we had no choice but to dive into the metro with the crowds and find our way directly to the theatre, not easy when the Metro stations are in Cyrillic and the guidebook is in the English equivalent.....

When we did finally arrive where we thought we ought to be, we found ourselves on the wrong side of a very wide road separating us from the shelter of the theatre doors so we got absolutely soaked crossing the square to get to the theatre and finding the box office for our tickets (or not finding it more to the point). We were still with our bags as we didn't have time to get to the hotel first but we were on time and the music and performance were fantastic even if we did show ourselves up being drenched alongside Moscow's finest and then smiling apologetically at the baggage inspection point!! We both found ourselves really enjoying the ballet, even more than we thought we would, helped by the fantastic vantage point from our great seats.

Thankfully it had stopped raining by the time we left and we easily found our hotel, a massive communist era incredibly ugly concrete block right on the corner of Red Square, with our room having fabulous views over the city and the river. In fact the hotel really couldn't have been in a better location with views of the Kremlin, Red Sq and St Basil's. The next morning we were out exploring the old Communist GUM shopping mall on the edge of Red Square and the fabulous St Basil's Cathedral with it's brightly painted and gold leafed onion shaped domes, although the interior wasn't quite as spectacular but could it ever be?? Red Square was then closed off in typical inconvenient Russian style and thus we were just minutes late to be allowed in to see Lenin at his specially built mausoleum but we did see the changing of the goosestepping guards in front of the WWII memorial of the Unknown Soldier in the shadows of the vast red brick walls of the Kremlin.

Packing it all in on our first full day, we headed across the river to the Tretyakov Museum displaying loads of Russian art work, which was really good and surprisingly had English translations for most paintings. On our walk back we discovered that Moscow could surprise us with things we hadn't discovered anywhere else in the world. It certainly isn't the easiest city to get around on foot because the mad locals drive up on the pavements to avoid the massive rush hour queues and then get angry when you object to them almost running over your toes (no kidding). Then the massive multi lane highways run through the centre and bizarrly there are no crossings for miles so we had to walk sometimes 4 extra blocks just to cross the road!! Anyway, after a quick bite to eat at a 'Crapdogs' stand we wandered down Ulitsa Arbat, a supposed pedestrian old market street with artists and street performers that had unfortunately succumbed to the tourists with Russian Dolls everywhere. We didn't really get to see it properly as we dashed madly from doorway to doorway and ended up trapped in one shop as it chucked it down with rain whilst being chased around by an eager but very knowledgeable assistant. When we eventually got into the Metro we decided to do a tour of the stations (not because we were lost) but because Moscow is renowned for its very extravagant and richly decorated stations with spectacular chandeliers and mosaics built during the Communist era. The Metro system itself was quite impressive, really cheap (20p anywhere, anytime) and a train comes every two minutes guaranteed. We ended our exhausting day when we found a good restaurant for dinner - Western food unfortunately as pickled cabbage wouldn't be our first choice, before slowly wandering back to the hotel for the night.

Getting tickets to see the Kremlin proved to be a bit of nightmare the next day as it is far from easy or efficient running from one office to the next but as Putin sped past us in his limosine motorcade (well we think it was him!) we entered the Kremlin Armoury filled with the most spectacular treasures from Russian history and probably the richest collection we have seen anywhere. The display was really quite incredible with jewels, gold and silverware of unimaginable size and intricacy. Sian was particularly taken by the Faberge eggs one of which opened to reveal a solid gold trans-siberian train complete with a ruby headlamp! It was raining heavily again when we left the Armoury and running from one spectacular Kremlin Cathedral to another wasn't ideal but we made sure we saw them all, and there are quite a few. All of the cathedrals are extremely ornate inside and were topped with numerous shining gold domes. The interior of the Cathedral of Annunciation was decorated with floor to ceiling frescoes and the Cathedral of the Archangel had rows of tombs of past Tsars lining the walls. Again the interior was very ornate and opulent with abundant silverwork and brightly painted frescoes and a choir sang demonstrating the almost eerie acoustics of the cathedral building. By the time we dashed to the Cathedral of the Assumption we were a bit 'cathedraled out' but it was still impressive and when the sun shone briefly we crossed over to the Ivan the Great Bell Tower where a massive 202 tonne bell sits outside having had an 11 tonne chunk splinter off during forging when a drop of water fell on it. Having seen just about enough, we wandered to the grand gate, via a couple of museums, to exit the walled compound and grab something to eat. The thing with Moscow though is that it's really quite difficult to find a decent snack. The only options are fancy, expensive restaurants or dire fast food outlets with nothing in between unless you want to live on ice cream! We gave up and decided to wander as it wasn't raining for a change. We walked up to the Bolshoi theatre again to get a photo of it in daylight before walking up to the infamous Lubyanka Square where the feared KGB was headquartered. We eventually found a Russian Cafe and enjoyed a point and pick (we haven't a clue what it was) bite to eat whilst the rain poured....again.

By Saturday the weather had improved a little and we decided to explore a little further afield so we headed off to Izymaylovsky Park Market, a massive weekend market where all the locals go to buy clothes and electrical goods and where a whole host of traders gather from Russia and surrounding countries to sell crafts, carpets, antiques, etc. We arrived quite early and were quite disappointed to find that unless you wanted a pink lace blouse or a DVD copy in Russian, there wasn't much to see. As we started to leave we discovered the craft and antique area we had been looking for, it turned out we had been too early and it hadn't opened when we first arrived. There wasn't much to see except for Russian dolls in varying sizes and quality until we found the antique stalls which were pretty fascinating. Even Kev enjoyed the wander looking at old Soviet era medals and badges alongside Victorian jewellery. Still we dragged ourselves away without buying anymore stuff we don't need! Our next stop was Konsomlomskaya Square a place where East apparently meets West at the junction of 3 railroads linking Europe with Asia, we expected to find a wealth of cultural mix as had been descibed but instead there was nothing to see or experience and we headed off on the metro to the Sculpture Park. This is where all the fallen monuments of past leaders now rest after they were removed from places around Moscow. It was a bit strange seeing them enclosed in a small area surrounded by a wire fence, in some sort of prison almost. Some had been vandalised others had paint thrown at them, whatever they obviously provoked some strong emotions in times gone by.

We wandered along the river to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, a fantastic gallery holding all manner of paintings by famous artists such as Renoir, Matisse and Van Gogh. In fact many of it's treasures are a well kept secret which are unveiled in special exhibitions every few years revealing vast collections long thought to be lost forever. It kept us amused for a while until we headed back to Red Square to see the start of Moscow's Live 8 concert. Nobody had known about a concert there until 2 days before it happened and the idea of Live 8 was lost on the masses and performers who refused to play for free. The whole thing only went ahead for political reasons, Russia couldn't be seen as the only G8 leader without a concert. There were even reports of government workers being forced to attend to boost the numbers, even so the crowd was pretty small. Still, we have to admit, it had to be one of the best settings for any concert and as the sun went down the music started beneath the huge red walls of the Kremlin with St Basil's and Red Square creating a spectacular back drop. We headed into the crowd and enjoyed some of the Russian bands before we headed for the comfort of the hotel from where we watched the headlining band, The Pet Shop Boys! It was a bit surreal and we have to admit to humming along a bit and we were highly amused by the crowd's ecstatic reaction to their hit 'Go West'. Again, hotel views don't come much better.

Our final day arrived all too soon and we only had one thing left to do, visit Lenin's mausoleum. So with a Kiwi couple we met in the queue we saw the wax like figure of Lenin's body held there in reverence which went against what he'd ever wanted. Behind the mausoleum, against the Kremlin walls are the graves of some finer figures including Yuri Gagarin. And so that brings us to the end of our short trip to Moscow, we arrived back in Aberdeen on Sunday 3rd July but we're only back long enough to prepare for our next trip, back to Asia.

We'll keep you posted!

K & S.
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