One of the books they say you should read on the Trans Siberian is War and Peace. We won’t be doing this however it seems we have written something nearly as long while on the train. Stand by for epic write up of Moscow. The first half was penned by Vicki, the second by Rich.
Moscow started with a wet transfer from the station to our hotel in the south of the city. The hotel is right next to the subway so we could quickly head off to begin our sightseeing. With a tour of the city scheduled for the next day we didn’t want to hit the big sights straight off. We decided on exploring the theatre district however couldn’t resist a trip to Red Square first. The really iconic Moscow sights can all be seen from here, St Basil’s Cathedral, the Historic State Museum, the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb.
Since we had an early start to get the train from St Petersburg were were soon ready for lunch. Next to red square is the Gum shopping arcade. This became our Moscow lunch location after we discovered the self service restaurant inside. They had all sorts of different food available that was good value and easy to select. This little gem kept us out of the fast food restaurants at least.
Despite the fact that it was still raining quite heavily, we bravely soldiered on through the sightseeing in the afternoon, with a walk around the Theatre District, bumping into a statue of Chekov on the way.
About 4pm, we were wet and cold, and fed up of trying to avoid puddles so called an end to the days sightseeing, and headed back to check in to the hotel. Having had an early lunch, snacks were required to see us through till dinner, and so having deposited our bags in our room we nipped out to find a shop near the hotel. At first we struggled to find a supermarket, but what we did find was an arcade full to the brim with little shoe shops – not just one or two, but about 50 all in the same place. Given that one of my pairs of shoes had fallen apart in St Petersburg, I thought this would be a great time to replace them with another cheap pair– I was mistaken. The cheapest shoes were about £50 – and these weren’t even designer shoes! Fearing I might be about to blow our travel budget on shoes, Rich hastily guided me out of there, and after stocking up with beer and Pringles, we retired to the room to watch a film and wait for the rain to subside.
Which it didn’t. By the time we headed out for dinner, the rain was at least as heavy, if not heavier than before. We has used the guidebook to find a restaurant for dinner, but the trouble with using a guide book updated in 2007 is that 6 years is a long time to expect things to stay the same! We weren’t able to find that restaurant, instead opting for a log cabin style place, with an indoor stream and woodland decoration. However dubious the decoration, the Georgian food they served was delicious, and we are now trying to seek out Georgian food in our next few stops.
Day 2 in Moscow didn’t get off to the best start – the guide who had been booked to give us a half day tour didn’t show up. By the time we had contacted the company and re-arranged the tour for the afternoon, it was already late in the morning. Never the less, we donned waterproofs (again) and headed out to explore the south area of the city. We came across lots of pretty churches in various states of disrepair and finally ended up across the river from Red Square. We had arranged to meet the guide on the opposite side of Red Square, and so naively thought that we would cross a bridge and walk across the square to meet him. This was a key example of one of Moscow’s failings as a city – it is just not designed for people to walk around. There are major 5+ lane roads through the centre, and to find a crossing point you may have to walk 300 metres up the road from where you want to be. There is also a lot of building work happening, which results in pavements being closed, forcing you out into the traffic – definitely less than ideal, which is why I suppose everyone drives – it is just easier!
Despite the best efforts of the Moscow traffic planners, we made it to the rendez-vous point with our guide in good time. However, after waiting 15 minutes, the guide himself had still not turned up. I was getting distinctly grumpy at this point – after all, what is the point of paying for a guided tour if the guide doesn’t show up? It turns out that he had been waiting downstairs in the Metro station, which is apparently what Russians do, as opposed to waiting outside the station, which is what Londoners do.
And so after brief discussions about what to do, we set off in the direction of Red Square. As already mentioned, Alex (our guide) was a Stalinist, new-monarchist, deeply religious man, whose views on certain aspects of life were certainly different to our (“Stalin only killed 600,000 people, America killed more in Vietnam, and so therefore Stalin wasn’t a bad man”). However, he was amazingly knowledgeable, and gave us lots of information about the history of Moscow.
Given that the rain was now torrential, we opted for a tour of some of the metro stations. In the UK, this would be considered an odd thing to do, but in Moscow, the Metro stations are a sight in their own right. They are elaborately decorated with mosaics, lots of marble, and brass statues depicting various scenes in Russian history, as well as Russian constitutional ideals. My favourite was the station with the statue of the man and his dog – everyone rubs the dog’s nose for good luck as they pass, and this dog now has a really shiny nose. (Alex: “This is superstition. Superstition is sin. Don’t do it”, Us: “Ok…”)
Alex also gave us some recommendations for dinner, but as it was only 5.30pm, we declined and went to a bar instead. We had intended to move on for dinner later, but as it was still raining, we just ended up having food in the bar – slightly worryingly, the drinks bill was double the food bill!
Day 3 (Rich writing now)
We woke up to find it had stopped raining. This was fabulous news. We headed for the centre to see the dead dude mentioned in our last post. It seems this confused a few people who were wondering who this dude was. Of course it is Lenin who lies in a tomb in the middle of red square and people can visit, filing past him to pay their respects. These days very few Russians visit whereas in the past a visit was a big thing to people. Now it is mainly tourists who go out of a sense of curiosity.
The visit was quite strange as you walk around the maze like tomb. Along the way are very young but solemn looking guards. You then come to a chamber where Lenin lies in his box. Having been dead for around 90 years he is in remarkably good condition. He looks quite wax-like leading to some debate over whether it is really him still or if he has been replaced. Overall the experience was quite weird. Having seen this I think they should close off the old chap and let him rest in peace as I have since read it was never his desire to be put on display in this way and he just wanted a normal burial.
Continuing to tick off major Moscow sites, the next stop was the Kremlin. This was much bigger than we expected – there are 3 cathedrals in the complex plus other palaces, museums and conference venues. It was a nice area to walk around, although slightly spoiled by the herds of coach parties trekking with single minded focus from one site to the next. We also bumped into our guide Alex again, but as he was guiding some others people round a church we didn’t stop to chat.
The security is very visible in the Kremlin, as you would expect being the location of the government, and where president Putin has his residence. However, this doesn’t just extend to restricting access to certain areas, it also results in whistles being blown if you cross a the practically deserted roads outside of a designated crossing point. Many tourists were victims of frantic whistling but fortunately we remained their good books.
Our last big sight was St Basil’s cathedral. Although we had already seen this a number of times we took the opportunity to go inside. The cathedral is made up of 9 separate chruches around a central space. A quartet singing hymns resonated around the different chambers as we wandered though.
Having had our fill of sights for the day we decided it was time for a run. The biggest park in central Moscow is Gorky park and actually a sight in itself. We did a leisurely 4.5 miles between two metro stations taking in a large portion of the park. We found a space shuttle on our route and managed to avoid a short rain shower by taking strategic cover in the woods.
We escaped a football crowd around our hotel for the evening by heading the the north of the city for Georgian food. We had been promised by Trip Advisor that while they didn’t speak English or have an English menu the staff were very helpful. I had been looking forward to muddling through with the help of pictures however it turns out they do now have the English menu. This allowed us to acquire some delicious dumplings, Georgian bread, chicken in walnut sauce and dolma. For me this was the best meal so far in the trip and we will be looking out for more Georgian food in the rest of Russia.
With a morning free before our transfer we decided to head out of town to a park called Kolomenskoye. This is the site of one of the earliest Moscow settlements where you can now find a number of churches and other historic buildings such as one of Peter the Great’s log cabins (we had already seen another in St Petersburg). With the rain holding off again we had a very pleasant walk through the park. At one point we found ourselves in an orchard where many people were picking and collecting fallen apples. It was a lovely place to spend a morning making a huge contrast to the urban throng elsewhere in Moscow.
Moscow is a vast sprawling city that we could easily have spent more time exploring. There were some areas we didn’t visit but wanted to and many museums we didn’t go into. Also due to the bad weather we missed out on seeing the sights by night. Another trip to Moscow some time in the future will no doubt be required.