Four days in Moscow

Submitted by mike on Tue, 05/17/2016 - 13:28
Sign for Red Square on the side of Gum


We're slightly intimidated.  We've arrived in Moscow at the main Beloruskaya train station and managed to catch the Metro.  We're now at Кизвская (Kievskaya) metro station trying to work out where the light blue line is and there's lots of people bustling about, knowing where they're going, whilst two dunderheaded n00bs stand in the middle of the concourse looking a tad disorientated.  We're hot and we've got luggage with us, and this doesn't make it any easier; and we can't work out which line's which and where the line we want is to.

Eventually we succeed and we make it to Смоленская (Smolenskaya); the metro station near to where we're staying.  We come out and as I often find with coming out of metro statios, we're totally disorientated.  Luckily a lady helps us and tells us a lot of information about distances and various trolley buses we can take, and Alex gets about half of this, and me absolutely none of it.  I nod and smile and say thank you in Russain, we continue on our way, but eventually find where we're staying after about another 15-20 minutes of faffing an walking.  

Where we're staying is great.  Another Airbnb flat.  This time it's on the sixth floor of an apartment block with a pretty great view across Moscow.  It's spacious and has all mod cons; except that quite a few of them are a bit broken!  The star commodity it has is a washing machine and we aim to make good use of this over the next few days.

Moscow skyline
View of the Moscow skyline from our Airbnb flat

So the next day we head out into Moscow.  No map as usual, so we head off in a quasi-random direction (South-Eastish, based on where the Sun is) and hope for the best.  After wadering for quite a while we find a point where you can hire a bike to ride (like Boris bikes; maybe they call them Vlad-Bikes here?) and this has a map.  We discover that we're across from Gorky Park, so decided to head there.  This takes us across a beautiful enclosed bridge over the river to the river.

Gorky Park is lovely, massive and there's lots to do here: a contemporary art museum, a theatre, a cinema, merry-go-rounds, and lots you can hire, such as skates, bikes, paddaloes, and even wheelchairs.  Inside the foyer of the contemporary art museum (called Garage) we find a map and we decide that we want to head in the direction of the kremlin and so do, but it's too far.  Moscow is big and the scale of the map doesn't reflect this.  So we catch a metro and then can't find the Kremlin - lots of sign-posts for tourists, but none to the Kremlin - so we head for something to eat in the Arbat, which is a relatively trendy, busy and vibrant area that, after all that walking and metroing, turns out to be not far at all from where we're staying.  Following lunch, which was delicious and good value, we hit a supermarket to buy some supplies.  I've heard Russia is expensive, and it may well be far away from Moscow, s but here everything's pretty reasonably priced and is usually cheaper than, at worst comparable with, the UK.  As in most places apart from the UK tobacco and alcohol is cheaper, especially ordinary vodka and local beer.

Shopping centre Moscow
View from the shopping centre where the Japanese restaurant was

The following day is Alex's birthday and we've booked a place to eat.  However, when we arrive we see that we needn't have bothered because the restaurant is virtually empty.  It's called 'Local; Comfort Food' and for this reason we imagine that we may be able to understand the menu; Alex can make out some of it and the dictionary is helpful though we realise it would take some time to decipher the whole thing. The waiter keeps approaching and Alex asks about vegetarian options.  He is apologetic and points out the few things that don't contain meat. The chef could make the broccoli soup without meat if she wishes!  When Alex decides she can't face watching me tuck into a burger and chips while she chomps down on a birthday lunch of grilled vegetables and lettuce, we decide to pay for the bottle of water we drank and leave. This and the fact that they only have a poor excuse for cider and Newcastle Brown ale to drink helps us make the decision to try the Japanese restaurant next door.  The food there is delicious and they even have a vegetarian menu and discounts for birthday girls and boys. Result!  The waitress is friendly too. 

The Moscow Metro system is stunning.  The stations are enormous and many lined with marble, some even having chandeliers hanging from the cieling, such as at our local Kievskaya Station.  The trains are bigger than in London and some of the lines are really deep, or at least they have enormously long escalators to get to them. 

We descend on the escalator into the depths of the Earth; we've been descending for over a minute and we've still some way to go.  As we descend, so other fellow travellers ascend, and I watch their faces rise as if on the exit conveyor of a production line producing human beings in a myriad of different shapes and sizes; finished products.  The walls are bare.  Plain cream paint.  No adverts to be seen, nothing to distract one from the experience of the rise nor the descent.  The central reservation that separates the down from the up escalator is finished in laminated wood and marble and every few seconds we pass a light fashioned in a Victorian gas light style, with a tall white column of light atop a brass cradle.  As we near the bottom we hear music.  It eminates from the speaker situated above a booth where an operative sits keeping an eye on things; at the controls; so that if someone had a problem, the escalator could be stopped and the issue dealt with.  It is reminiscent of a scene from one of Terry Gilliam's films; the combination of the steam-punk-esque decor, the myriad faces spewing forth from the ground, and the piped music.  But it has a certain majesty, and is quite beautiful in its own onyx-encrusted way.

Band playing in Patriarch's Pond Moscow
Band playing in Patriarch's Pond, Moscow

In the evening we head to Patriarch's Pond (Патриаршие пруды), catching a trolley-bus.  Patriarch's Pond is highly venerated for being the place where Mikhail Bulgakov's brilliant, cult novel, The Master and Margarita, begins; in fact there is a museum dedicated to Bulgakov on the East side.  When we arrive the place is busy with Moscovites enjoying the evening air; Russians like to promenade much like the Spanish do and the evenings are a time to meet up rather than to stay in and watch TV (except for Russia Today I've no idea what Russian TV is like though).  There are several things happening.  Firstly the place is dotted with book shelves full of books; you can browse through the eclectic mix on the shelves for a book you'd like to read; they are for sale.  Secondly there's a stage erected and people are sat on chairs watching two guys who seem to be talking about the main man himself; Bulgakov that is.  I don't have a clue what they're saying really, but we stand and listen anyway until it is obvious from the tone of their voices, and all the спасибо's, that the show is coming to an end.  

We set off to walk around the pond.  It's a fairly big square pond surrounded on all sides by tree-lined promenades.  A solitary swan is splashing around.  When we return to where we started, we see that what looks like a jazz band is getting ready to perform, so we sit on some chairs to watch.  The band is excellent - drums, double-bass, keyboard and four trombones - and play a mix of tunes from Russia, Europe and America in various styles.  They've hooked up with a local Lindy-Hop/Swing crew and these guys perform their routines, or improvisations, in the ground between band and audience.  It's fun to watch for a while; some of them are pretty good.  But some time later they begin to get a little bit annoying and they distract us from being able to watch the band performing.  It makes me smile to see the lindyhoppers bowing away when the band finishes a tune.  Who do they think the applause is for?  Perhaps it's just me and the applause is for everybody involved; as I guess it should be.

Alex in Gum
Alex in Gum

Our final full day here and we go off in search of Red Square (Кра́сная пло́щадь).  The square separates the Kremlin, where the President lives, from the merchant's quarter or Kitai-Gorod (Китай город) and Saint Basil's Cathedral (The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed).  Our problem is that we can't find it!  Yes I know; we're a bit clueless!  We've only got a relatively crappy free tourist map and we've got no Lonely Planet guide or the such like.  But we head to the Kitai-Gorod train station come up to street level and look at the sign post, which has about eight signs to monuments pointing in all the directions of the compass, but nothing for Red Square, the Kremlin or Saint Basil's!  Perhaps they're trying to keep it a secret?  We're flummoxed.  But in the end we work it out and come upon Saint Basil's.  It looks like it's made of candy, like a gingerbread house; I'm sure it was an influence of the Modernists such as Gaudí.  We then find Red Square, where they're erecting a big stage.  It's teeming with tourists and for the first time you see a multitude of ethnicities; in the places we've been thus far it's been largely Russian.  We choose not to enter Saint Basil's because it's actually a museum and there's lots of tourists queuing up, and opt rather for visiting the Гум (Gum), which is a department store cum shopping arcade.  The security guard stops us on the way in.  "Here we go", I think.  But no; he wants to know if we have any foreign coins.  I have some Euros and show him.  He picks one of each different coin I have, not just the highest value coins, and is very pleased about it.  It seems like a bribe, but he's obviously just a keen numismatist.  Anyway Gum is spectacular, and posh.  There's all your top brands here with multiple shops under one roof.  We have lunch there.  A little more expensive than other places we've been, but not OTT; the Borshch was very good.

Nightime in Moscow
Nightime in the hi-rise district, Moscow

And now we're on our last day in Moscow, tidying up the flat and buying some provisions for the train.  As it's five nights and five days, we need to plan.  There's generally hot water freely available on the train, so amongst other things we've bought some porridge.  Also apparently there'll be people selling food and provisions at the platforms along the way.  We catch it at 23.45 tonight on the other side of town and we have to vacate here at 19.30, so we've some time to kill.  Probably we'll try out yet another shopping centre and grab a bite to eat.  I'm not anticipating Wifi along the way (but who knows; this is 2016 after all) so until we get to Ulaan Baatar on the 22nd it's до свидания from us!