The following 3 posts come courtesy of a wireless link at Cologne station, Germany

  • Date and Time: Tuesday 11th September, 2007. 6.10pm
  • Location: Sweet Moscow Hostel, Moscow
  • Checking in to the Sweet Moscow Hostel I was almost surprised that there was no-one there that I knew. Ok so there was the girl with the siblings who lived just up the road from my Sheffield accommodation, and a Japanese guy – but that didn’t really count.

    However, the lack of small-worldness didn’t last for long: the following day, whilst chatting with the lady behind the counter at the Belarus embassy (possibly the nicest smiliest civil servant you’ve ever met, who started to laugh everytime she saw me due to our communication problems), who should appear beside me but Tom, as in Tom from the hostel on the lake Baikal island, and Tom from the Irkutsk hostel. That wasn’t the last I’d see of him either – I bumped into him walking round the Kremlin a few hours later, and then of course once more at the embassy at visa pick-up time.

    A cloudy day at the Kremlin

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    His wasn’t the only familiar face I saw that day. Whilst watching the most extraordinary domestic ever to be played out in Red Square (a Chinese couple in their early forties yelling at each other like angry Tyrannosaurus Rex’s – they drew more of a crowd than Lenin’s tomb!), who should tap me on the shoulder but Darren and his wife Kylie – I’d shared a room with them in a hostel over 4000km to the East of here. They gave me an update on the dried curd that I had inadvertently left in the shared kitchen, telling me that they had continued my quest to get everyone who stayed at the Baikaler to try some. Turned into a bit of a party game apparently. I’m glad it went to good use, as I was a bit miffed that I’d forgotten it, imagining it being left to harden further (if that’s possible) on top of the microwave.

    Note how wide the woman’s mouth is open. THAT’S how loud they were

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    I enjoyed my day out and about in the centre of Moscow. On the Sunday of my arrival it chucked it down, thus I hadn’t been all that keen on sightseeing (it was that afternoon that I got stung at the umbrella shop. I’ve since been back to try and sell it to them in its nearly-new state. The woman, on seeing me, said


    I finished the sentence for her.

    “Yes, that’s right, it’s me.”

    She wouldn’t take the umbrella back, even at half price. Looks like I’ll be lugging all 3 tonnes of it back to Sheffield then. It has got a good push-button erection action though.)

    So yes, it was Monday that I set off early for the Belarus Embassy to apply for my transit visa. Met a Japanese girl from Kyoto in the small queue – I was struck by how much of the language I seem to have forgotten in the space of three weeks!

    Application submitted and $45 dollars paid, I trotted off to the Kremlin, which lies at the very heart of the city. I’d never really known what a Kremlin was – just some government building I thought, but it turns out it’s a lot more than that. Moscow’s Kremlin is mightily impressive. It has huge red walls interrupted at regular intervals by magnificent towers. Inside the compound can be found a number of palaces and cathedrals, and at 202 tonnes the world’s largest bell that has never had the pleasure of being donged.

    Not quite 22 tonnes, but a nice bell trip nonetheless

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    Whilst I was very taken with the Kremlin architecture as seen from the outside, I wasn’t intrigued enough to pay the entrance fee to wander around its inner sanctum, and opted instead to walk the (outer) circumference. Another reason for not going inside was that penguins weren’t allowed access, and the thought of a few hours without Pepé filled me with fear.

    Pepé admires the kremlin walls

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    Approaching the eastern side of the compound I was struck by St. Basils – the icon of Russia. It truly is quite a sight. So outrageous it seems more like an oversize children’s toy than a real building. (Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible, who’d commissioned its construction in the 16th century, had the architect blinded after its completion so as to prevent him from creating anything comparable).

    Pepé doesn’t know what to make of St. Basils

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    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Unfortunately, Red Square was closed that afternoon in order that the (British) Queen’s Royal Scot’s Guards could practice tattooing their bagpipes: for three days from the 13th this part of Moscow will host a magnificent dawn celebration, featuring military bands from all over the world. It was a shame that I was unable to get a shot of them in their kilts (they being hidden behind a stack of portable seating) – nonetheless, I loved standing there just listening to the melodious wines echoing down the boulevard.

    Lenin’s tomb, being situated in Red Square, was also off limits. However, with the aid of my 200mm lens I was able to get a couple of shots of the magnificent slabs of granite.

    Lenin’s tomb

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    Another sight I enjoyed was the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unnamed Soldier, a memorial to all those who died in the second world war. I wasn’t aware that this would be happening, and it was only when a crowd began to gather along the railings in front of the Kremlin wall that I realised that the Ministry of Silly Walks had managed to extend its influence all the way to Russia.

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    Clearly, these chaps have never looked at themselves in the mirror when doing this. In fact, I bet mirrors are banned in their dojo.

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    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    The highlight though had to be the exchange of meaningful expressions seconds before the fresh guards dismissed their colleagues. A close up reveals that these two are clearly quite emotionally involved. Is one of them angry with the other for the things he said last night? Or are they communicating about the darts match after work through precise rhythmical movements of the eyelids?

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Moscow has a lot to offer the weekend tourist. In addition to the eye-catching architecture, it has a wide variety of highly regarded museums and galleries. These, however, were not for me. Whilst I find history in the classroom fascinating (a recent discovery, thanks to the talented staff at SEAS), museums tend to bore me silly. A piece of pottery is still just a piece of pottery, no matter how old it is. I can but hope that this attitude of mine changes over time as I’m sure when I’m a pensioner museums will feature prominently in the SAGA holidays I take. For the time being though I’ll give them a miss thanks. Galleries – it depends on the nature of the exhibition. I love modern 3D art, and recall with enthusiasm some collections by artists whose names completely escape me in London, Milan and Tokyo. Naturally, I am a great fan of photography exhibitions too, but stick me in a room with a bunch of 18th century landscapes and you may soon find me dead on the floor. Once again, I hope to educate myself in this field before I die – I know that if one attends a gallery equipped with knowledge of the artists and their influences paintings can come alive, no matter how dull the scene being portrayed.

    Despite not visiting any of Moscow’s fine galleries, I have had the opportunity to appreciate some real live art – in the subways. The Moscow metro system features some of the most stunning stations you have ever seen. A magnificent labyrinth of huge caverns deep below the ground (I actually suffered from vertigo when stepping onto one escalator!), great domed halls with walls plastered with original tiled mosaics, fancy chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. If ever there was an underground network worthy of a ride, Moscow’s is the one! The service is fantastic too: at peak periods the next train can be seen approaching the platform before the tail of the last has disappeared. My only complaint is the signage, which is absolutely atrocious. The lack of any English can be forgiven (anyone planning on being in Russia for any length of time should learn the Cyrillic alphabet, as I didn’t), but the complete lack of underground maps anywhere except on the trains themselves means that one has to get on a train in order to find out which train one has to get on! This accounted for the fact that on my first evening it took me about 90 minutes to cover a distance of some 2km. I can only guess that this oversight is deliberate, there being some idea that any form of modern colour on the walls would destroy the austere beauty of the communist-era architecture.

    Another thing that has struck me when wandering the streets of Moscow is the beggars. Being a large capital city there are of course many of them (as with China and Mongolia, over a third of the population live below the poverty line. The state pension is only about £40 a month, yet the cost of living in places like Moscow is now said to be comparable with London. It’s a dire situation, and thus its unsurprising that you do find many people on the streets, cup in hand. What is significant about Moscow’s beggars however is their age – almost all of them look over 50, and the majority are female. They clearly manage to get by on charity; I lost count of the number of times I saw generous donors dropping a few coins into the cups of a sign-bearing babushka.

    There was one beggar, a young woman sitting on the street near the Belarus embassy that caused me to stop and think twice. Generally, I don’t give to beggars, instead donating to charities that invest money in setting up support systems for people in need. But this time I was so stunned that I’d literally walked not 20 yards further when I had to stop and ask myself how I could possibly ignore this woman’s plight. Why had she made such a strong impression? In her arms, wrapped in what reminded me of the swaddling clothes that Jesus was wrapped in the picture in our Children’s Family Bible, was a little baby, not six months old. As I walked by, his dark eyes seemed to fix upon mine, and follow me. I was utterly stunned. I wouldn’t describe myself as the religious type, but this experience was overwhelming, and saw me hurtling back to Sunday School. I started to think, “Ok, so I’ve heard that there are organised crime syndicates that have beggars working for them, but seriously, would a mother be so callous as to put her child through this, in these freezing temperatures, were she not desperate in her bid for survival? I turned around, walked back down the road, and handed her a note from my wallet.

    It was not long after that that I picked up a free copy of the English-language Moscow Times. talk about contrast. The Russia depicted in this was the one of the may sleek black cars with tinted windows that filled the streets outside of Moscow’s many casinos. Pages and pages of ‘news’ about oil and gas deals – and that wasn’t even in the business section, which also had little else to talk about. Seriously, anyone would think that this was published by the state’s energy companies. Oil field this, natural gas pipeline that. I winced at the thought of those pristine areas of Siberia that were being sold off for their ‘vast energy reserves’.

    Then there was the political news, most of which had some energy connection. It was either that or stories of corruption and the suppression of an opposition movement in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. Oh, and the ongoing ‘chilly war’ with the West.

    I’m quite glad I don’t live in Russia.

    But you know, I’ve really have found the ordinary people to be extremely kind and friendly, often going out of their way to make you feel at home. It’s only when you put them in any position of authority (such as behind the counter in a shop) that they become somewhat tricky to deal with. However, even those steel facades can be melted by a big smile and comical use of a phrasebook (except when it comes to border officials).

    St Basils peers over Red Square at Lenin’s tomb

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    Being in Moscow, and Russia in general, has been an interesting and rewarding experience. It feels good to have more of an understanding of the people and the place, an understanding that until now has been pretty much limited to a couple of ‘memorable’ flights with Aeroflot!

    I now appreciate that not everyone drinks vodka all day every day (the drink beer instead; alcohol is a major factor behind the declining population here, alcohol-related health problems and accidents being common causes of death); the women are beautiful until age 30 when they seem to throw it all away (probably the stress of living with alcoholic partners); people in positions of authority are hard nuts that can be cracked with grotesque displays of deference and a sense of humour; I can easily pass as a Russian (until I open my mouth. Must be the nose); the food is great; the country is so huge that it defies the imagination. I mean, 11 time zones! The environment is trashed in those areas that have been settled; and finally, PDAs (Public Displays of Affection) are common, especially snogging (the more of ones partner’s face one appears to be eating the better).

    So that’s Russia then.