24-29 January 2011
Moscow really impressed me. I had expected a much older, decrepit, Lada filled, Soviet-town, but in some ways Moscow is a very Western city. There’s an incredible metro system; tons of Western brands and shops and money talks. It confuses your brain. It’s full of contradictions. You look at the Cyrillic street names and metro stations and feel complete lost. But then you stay in a Radisson hotel, go out for an Italian meal and drink a German beer.I also learned about the enigma that is Russia. It’s a hard place to sum up in a nice stereotype. It’s not one homogenous country – there are nearly 150 million people, stretched out over 9 time zones (that’s more than Dublin to Los Angeles)! One in five people is not of Russian descent, but from one of the many ethnicities including the various Caucasian and Asian peoples. You can see the melting pot of cultures in the food – we had some good Georgian food one night with red wine from Azerbaijan (not recommended).The PeopleLada’s alive and well
Muscovites were in general friendly, although it really does vary. You get very grumpy taxi drivers and waitresses who never smile but on the other hand there was a really friendly guy in the coffee shop at work. The Aeroflot crew were particularly emotionless on the flight from Amsterdam. Maybe that’s because they’re forced to eat the food every day – it was gross.
Given the cold weather, Muscovites do have serious winter fashion style. I saw furry hats the size of mad afro’s, crazy fur jackets, fur lined welly boots and even lots of men in Ugg boots. I couldn’t quite figure that last one, no matter how I tossed it around in my head. But in fairness Russians do have a taste in footwear and headgear J
Transport: Taxis & Metro
Dublin had a bad reputation for taxis up to 10 years ago, but it looks like Moscow now has inherited that title. In most major cities you have no problem picking up a taxi. In Moscow you have to pre-book the taxi and even then it may not show up on time. Getting from the hotel to the office involved allowing enough buffer time in case the taxi was late or got stuck in traffic (which can be bad) or even got lost.
So we preferred taking the metro, which is one of the wonders of Moscow. Stalin wasn’t great at many things (other than being a terrorising, cold blooded dictator), but he did invest in building a superb Metro network. There are over 180 stations and trains come every 2 minutes. You never feel like you’re waiting. The avant garde and art deco design of the stations makes you feel like you’re in a gallery rather than a functional station. The metro must also keep unemployment near zero – there are people idly employed doing all sorts of jobs – including someone at the bottom of each metro who has 2 old phones in their little hut and seem to be there to ring in case the escalator breaks down.
You could say Russia is still a police state and given by the number of police on the streets and in the metro, it could be true. You can’t walk for 5 minutes without usually seeing 2 harmless looking young guys in heavy winter coats plodding along. So you definitely feel safe by their omnipresence but even still you’re wondering are they on the take.
Saturday morning was tourist day for me. I only had 4 hours so did a walk about the centre, taking in Lubyanka (former headquarters of the KGB and known for its torture rooms and prison); the Old English Court; Red Square; Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Kremlin. The Lubyanka looked a fairly intimidating building and no doubt all sorts of horrors occurred behind its walls. I did a loop around that area, arriving in Red Square. It was freezing at this stage, at least -6C, so taking out a camera for photos left my fingers screaming for heat. One of the most impressive churches, St Basil’s Cathedral, stands at the end of the square, overlooking the river. The coloured turrets really are iconic. The square is huge and surrounded by the Kremlin and a major department store, GUM.
A tacky looking ice rink was plonked right in the middle. Right beside Lenin’s Mausoleum in fact. Not sure if he’d approve such capitalism. I missed out on seeing Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi in 2009, so wanted to see his embalmed comrade. No cameras or phones allowed. No laughing, so I put on my most sombre face and walked down the black marble steps. There were motionless guards everywhere and you had to keep walking without stopping. So you glance at this old rubbery looking man in a glass box, trying to see if he’ll move. But no, and then you’re spat out in the winter chill within 60 seconds. Over in a flash. Worth it though. Such an important figure in Russia and world history. His comrade Stalin was also buried with other leaders in the walls of the Kremlin behind him.
The Kremlin is a huge walled fortress in the city centre, situated on a high point overlooking the Moscow river. It contains many important Orthodox Cathedrals as well as the residence of President Medvedev, the Armoury Museum, the Senate Palace and the State Kremlin Palace. Quite a lot to squeeze in. The grave of the unknown soldier is located outside. The soldiers guarding the tomb stand motionless in freezing cold without blinking. Mad but at least I found out they change the guard every hour in winter. Otherwise they’d be frozen to the spot. The Cathedrals in the Kremlin are amazing as they’re all decorated with frescos and have lots of tombs in them. One thing about Orthodox Churches – there are no seats. Everyone stands. Weird. Hope mass isn’t long. Second interesting thing: Orthodox priests like a good hairy beard.
There are some interesting relics in the Kremlin. Like this huge Tsar cannon which weighs 40 tons, but was never fired in battle. There’s also the Tsar Bell which weighs 200 tonnes and again was never rang.
So would I recommend Moscow as a tourist destination? Definitely, but a few things to consider. You need a tourist visa and need to apply in advance to the Embassy in Dublin. You need an official invite from your hotel in Moscow and then fill out all these forms, get a postal order (remember those?) to make payment and arrive in leafy Rathgar to get processed. This is an interesting experience in itself. You’ve this tiny little office which opens at 9am and has a mix of Irish and Russians looking for visas for themselves, adopted kids, etc. The queue is disorderly and service a bit random. The helpful guy behind the desk was more worried one day about affixing his calendar to the wall behind. He even asked us all “is it visible?”
Flights were surprisingly cheap – about €300 although you do need to connect through London, Paris or Amsterdam for example. We’d only 40mins connection time in Amsterdam but luckily made it. Dicey if you’re delayed. Passport control in Moscow was surprisingly quick, no delays.