This wasn’t my first trip to Moscow, having been here twice in 2008 on the trip to Siberia for the eclipse with Pascal. As such for me this was more of a ‘I can’t come back to Russia without seeing Moscow’ trip, as well as an excuse to get out of Saint Petersburg for the weekend while waiting on my blasted Kazakhstan visa.
Moscow is 860 years old, and full of reminders of its imperial and Soviet past. For me it’s always conjured up images of Red Square and the Kremlin, of James Bond movies and Soviet troops marching by. And that’s totally all it is.
No really, in the 20 years since the end of the Soviet regime, Moscow has changed a lot. Whether for the better for tourists is debateable – sure, it’s more accessible and arguably safer, but now McDonalds is all over the place, Starbucks appears twice on the famous Arbat street, and the prices are higher than almost any other European city. Fortunately, however, the sights haven’t been altered, and you can stroll happily around Red Square and get a shot in front of St Basil’s Cathedral without any hassle (unless there’s a pre-Olympics parade on and you have to bribe your way in as we may or may not have needed to do in 2008). The Kremlin has a steady stream of tourists going in and out, and even “President Putin” is on stand-by to greet the many visitors outside the Russian History Museum. And of course since the Kremlin gets blown up in the next Mission Impossible film (oops, sorry, spoilers), it was best to see it again now 😉
I started walking from the hostel thinking I’d go to a metro station, but ended up walking all the way to the Red Square. It was mostly downhill when hilly, and you get to see a lot more of Moscow this way. I walked past a street with Moscow’s first international food festival – which was unbelievably tempting, but I decided I could get international food, well, obviously – in other countries, and I should press onwards towards Red Square.
To change things up a bit, I decided to do something we didn’t do last time – actually go into St Basil’s Cathedral. I’m not sure why we didn’t, but to be fair, it’s not the most interesting inside – the exterior is more impressive. Built in 1555-61, it now contains a museum within. The initial downstairs chamber is impressive, with colour everywhere and all sorts of mosaics, and then you follow what used to be a secret staircase up into the actual cathedral, made up of several mini chapels. Each one is different, some very basic, others with interesting ceilings or the occasional painting, but otherwise fairly sparse. I thought it was worth it though, for completeness.
Alongside the Red Square is a large shopping center – ‘Gum’ (although when you only partially know Cyrillic it looks like ‘Gym’, and as such I kept hearing Homer Simpson quoting ‘What’s a Gym?’ in my head). I went inside, and it’s quite spectacular inside, with ‘trees’ blossoming downstairs, and brand after brand stores everywhere. There’s something almost amusing about essentially pure capitalism in a building right on Red Square.
As an aside, Red Square – some believe the name is just from Communism, or the red buildings around the square, especially since the cobbles that make up the square are black and not red, but apparently the name comes from another gloss of the Russian word “krasnaya” meaning “beautiful” – originally applied to St Basil’s Cathedral, and then to the whole square.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the center, and heading downstairs in a mall built almost under the Kremlin – five stories down! I was after their food court in the hope I could get some local food cheaply, but while I did manage some local fast food, it wasn’t great, and in hindsight I’d have been better off at the McDonalds upstairs. I was still feeling the effects of my cold that started the previous week and my feet were killing me from the walking, so I headed to the nearest metro eventually, keeping an eye out for naff-naffs. Three years before we decided – well maybe I did, that out of all the little random food shops that sell crazy foodstuffs in the metro stations, ‘haff-haffs’ were the best, until we corrected ourselves as ‘H’ in Cyrillic is pronounced ‘N’. As such I’ve been keeping an eye out for them since entering Cyrillic-land. No such luck. I’ve just googled it and as far as I can find, the only thing related to that is a clothing brand. I’m now worried we maybe just saw an advert under the food, and they’ll be lost forever…
Back at the hostel I really wasn’t feeling too great, and despite some people starting to make a night of it, I headed to bed.
Next day, I caught the metro to the station to buy my return ticket. With much difficulty I explained that I was after cheap tickets, ideally seating, and the woman seemed to be struggling although determined to meet my hopes. Seeing disappointment when she mentioned the price (it was double what I’d paid initially) she hunted more, ad nd then lit up – if I was prepared to go to a different station to leave, she could sell me cheap seat tickets again. I had no problem with that, I still had to return to the hostel to get my stuff in the evening.
Ticket sorted, I headed out on the metro to Smolenskaya station, the closest stop to where we stayed last time – on the insanely touristy Arbat street. But first, the metro. With no zones, each journey costing 28 Rubels (55p), regular trains and being absoultely spotless, it’s something to behold. Like Saint Petersburg, it’s deep down, has music playing in some stations, and has chandeliers, art and statues in various stations, with wide platforms and spacious halls. Last time I found it really difficult to get around, with us needing to check with the staff quite often, but perhaps that was just inexperience and worry about the Cyrillic, as this time I easily found my way around, and popped out at Smolenskaya, recognising the street immediately.
Walking down from the station to Arbat street, you pass what is still the only walk-through McDonald’s I’ve seen in my life, and like last time it had a policeman outside. Turning left, I was once again on Old Arbat Street. A random hodge-podge of tourist cafes, souvenir shops and several street vendors, it looked nicer this time – last time they were doing a lot of construction and renovation on the street.
Walking through this, I followed my way around and down a few more blocks, until I reached the river on the far side of the Kremlin from Red Square. Wanting to do the walk along the wall, if only at river-height, I continued along this way – a nice walk with the sun starting to come out a bit, until eventually you turn the corner and are presented again with a promenade up to Red Square (and I was presented with a hideously gigantic Transformers 3 billboard to the right).
I crossed under the street and headed to the hostel where Danny had stayed. It was a few blocks away but once again it was nice to walk down different streets and in each under-road passage it gave me more opportunity to look for naff-naffs. Finally after following the directions past a couple of churches, getting very lost as the directions weren’t quite right and I didn’t have Moscow maps on my phone, I finally located it. Unfortunately the staff who knew about Danny’s expected package that I was going to pick-up informed me that it still hadn’t arrived. He’d just have to hope no malaria-infested mosquitos bit him in Kyrgyzstan…
I headed back to the nearest metro, and back up to the hostel to get my stuff, before spending an hour in a coffee shop getting some grub, before heading to the station for my train back to Saint Petersburg.
The train ride was actually platzkart this time, and as such I probably got a better sleep, but really I was more concerned with how my visa would turn out. I arrived back into Saint Petersburg early morning, and headed towards Apple Hostel to dump my stuff, and wait for the consulate to open…..
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