Former USSR | Russian Federation | Moscow – Madness
The overnight train got in from Petersburg about 6.30AM. I hadnt got overmuch sleep, but after a few cups of sickly coffee, I was ready to take on the metro. Theres 9 lines and more than 150 stations, so sometimes it gets complicated. But I worked it out and was soon giving my teeth a quick scrub at the Travellers Guest House. Then I hit the Kremlin.
It wasnt as fantabulous as Id hoped. The towers of the surrounding walls seemed to be made of lego with their cute little turrets on top. But the guards on patrol were real enough. I was surprised to see so many churches inside. Id always thought of the Kremlin as a dark heart of evil. But with all the golden domes glinting in the sunlight, and herds of Japanese and Americans following little flags around, it didnt look too scary.
Lonely Planet told me to appreciate the 15th century icons inside the churches. I tried and failed. I was too tired to face the Armoury with its numbingly opulent collection of treasures. Seeing inside the government buildings would have been more interesting, but they were strictly off limits. I lay down on the grass instead. A policeman with nothing better to do blew his whistle at me. I left the Kremlin.
Just walking onto Red Square was a thrill. The multi-domed, multi-coloured St. Basils Cathedral came slowly into view, all shrouded in scaffolding. Still, just strolling the cobbles, soaking up the history, was pretty damn cool. I called on Lenin in his tomb. Everyone lines up and shuffles around his open coffin without stopping. He looked very waxy. I was tempted to stroke his moustache, but the silent guards looked very stern. Outside a friendlier guard asked me for my papers, which luckily were in order. That was a close one.
I walked the streets. Moscow is massive, and its very difficult to find your way around at first. The buildings are all thrown on top of each other. Theres a faded 16th century Orthodox church, next door to a MacDonalds, next door to a 16 storey glass and concrete skyscraper, next to a strip joint. And so on. It seems the wind of change lifted everything up and dropped it all at random. Theres a seedy gambling den opposite the State Duma. For a while I was kindof appalled. The whole city seemed awfully ugly. But it grew on me.
In the few days I had I zipped around on the metro trying to see as much as I could. I strolled in Gorky Park. I checked out the Cosmonautics Museum, which would have looked just like a 60s Star Trek set only Yuri Gagarin looks more like Adam West than Captain Kirk. I saw the White House where Yeltsin climbed onto the tank. I visited the All-Russia Exhibition Centre which was built with loads of fake white pillars and gold fountains in the 60s to house the wonderful products of the Soviet economy, but which now sells cheap camcorders and razor blades and of course beer. Its as flashy as a fake rolex on a hairy Greeks wrist.
Then there was the Borodino Panorama, a big circular room with the Russians fighting Napoleon in 1812 all over the walls. And the obligatory WWII museum, with the vivid colours, shameless propoganda and bloody details that Ive come to know and love about Russian Great Patriotic War museums. I wasnt stuck for something to do.
I went to Komsomolskaya Ploschad for a dose of reality. This busy square is home to 3 train stations, which pour out weary travellers from Siberia and central Asia. Its quite a different crowd to Red Square. Octagenarian Americans would most likely get eaten alive. I kept my hand on my wallet and my eye out. But it was great just to look around. The three stations showcase the best in classical, art nouveau and plasticky gaudy styles of architecture. Theres a twenty-six storey Gotham city style hotel perched on one corner. The people are pretty bizarre too. Thousands of them thronged and bustled. They were from all corners of the biggest country in the world, but most of them belonged to the dirty, colourful and shifty looking ethnic group, which seems to be in the majority in Russia.
But being a tourist, I soon had my fill of real Russian life, and got back to the touristy bits with their touristy prices. Moscow is much more expensive than Petersburg. Its easily the costliest place I visited. Your average Ivan and Ivana Russian are completely absent from the centre of town, unless theyre working or pan-handling. Id gotten so used to good food for cheap that shelling out nine euros on an ok lasagne and a beer was painful. All the Russian themed restaurants were out of my league. I considered buying food and bringing it back to the hostel to cook, but pulled myself together pretty quick.
As I got more used to the city, and began to find my way around, I did see a little more of Old Moscow. But not overmuch. It looks like the whole place has grown out of control. Aesthetic considerations dont count for much. Moscow is no conventional beauty like Ljubljana or Winona Ryder. Its more like Courtney Love: not blessed with too much natural beauty, badly dressed, over accessorised, loud, pushy, but still with that certain something. Ive only left, but Id do Moscow again tomorrow if I got the chance.