Moscow


I had had a small tour of Moscow in the car from the station. But the biggest attraction (if you could call it attractive) was my hotel, the Rossiya. The Rossiya is the biggest hotel in Europe, and used to be the biggest hotel in the world. "Rossiya" means "Russia", after a very big country, and that should give you a clue as to the intentions of the people who built the place. Right next to Red Square and the Kremlin, it was meant to house Party people in Moscow, and probably could house Red Square and the Kremlin also, with room to spare.

I had heard many things about Rossiya. One book calls it a crime against humanity. Not only is the architecture drab, incongruous and unimaginative, its size overshadows the Kremlin. One of the guidebooks said that because it had been a Party haunt, the place was filled with bugs. While these listening devices were now switched off, their place had been taken by real bugs cockroaches and other vermin such as mice and rats. They had to close the place down for a while to deal with them. The guidebooks also said that the staff hardly paid attention to you, and that even getting your room key was a nightmare.

I'm very happy to say that only the first description was true. The place might be a crime against humanity, but the people in it were very human. I was treated very well, and my only problem with the room key is that the key chain had a light-bulb-shaped piece of wood on it that made my pocket bulge. There were no bugs in the room, the only pests being the woman who constantly called to ask if I wanted "sex-massage". Prostitution is rampant in these places, and somehow they know who the single men are. Luckily, I had brought an alarm clock with me, so I could take the phone off the hook. If I were waiting for a wake-up call I would never get to sleep in the first place.

The room had a large, bay window, and if I craned my head, I could get a view of St. Basils' onion domes. Not bad at all. There was CNN on the television as well. In London I've been trying to get cable for a year, and I think that the knuckleheads at CableLondon could take a few lessons from the supposedly inefficient people here in Russia. Or maybe they're just too busy giving themselves "sex-massage" to mind.

Moscow was a city where I instantly felt comfortable. It felt familiar, and the sun was also shining. I wouldn't mind going out on my own, especially to Red Square which was a short walk. But even so, I went down to the Intourist desk and looked for the City Tour. There was one that afternoon, but I had time to walk around by myself for a while. I looked at Red Square, and found a lot of tourists like me. It's a busy place, though not as huge as I had imagined. St. Basil's cathedral, of course, is a bit of surrealism, and I couldn't imagine why and how the department store GUM would be a part of Red Square. GUM actually reminded me of Covent Garden in London, and though I didn't buy anything, it was interesting to see how it worked. It's not really a department store it's more a collection of shops, like a very stately shopping mall. Everything was pretty expensive, most of the merchandise having been imported from Europe.

I walked over to the Hotel Intourist, where the city tour would start. The other tourists were a group of architects from Indonesia (with family), and a German who was in Russia on business but had stayed an extra day. The tour was in English, and he spoke not a word, but he decided to go along anyway, since it would give him something to do. I refuse to speak German with my German friends, since my German is past its sell-by date. After all, I studied German in University, and that was more than 5 years ago. But, with my friends not listening, I was able to hold a conversation with this guy and interpret for him a little bit. The Indonesians were on a long trip, which would take them to Hong Kong and then home. Apparently the firm, which specialized in sports complexes, sent them abroad every year so that they could look at buildings all over the world. They all got along very well, and were clearly having a good time.

Our tour guide looked like a portrayal of a Russian from a James Bond film. She had pointy glasses that made her eyes look very small, a pointy, henna hairdo parted in the middle, and a big mole on her cheek. She introduced herself. "Hello, my name is Svetlana, and I am your tour guide for the city tour this afternoon. I would like to introduce you to our driver, Igor". Luckily, they didn't get out of the van and send us off a cliff.

The tour took us around the Kremlin, to a convent, past Moscow University and through a very nice old Moscow neighborhood called Arbat. It was quite good. The day was snowy and foggy, and I've never seen such a heavy grey. One very interesting sight was the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Apparently Stalin had the building knocked down and turned into a swimming pool. The water from the swimming pool started seeping into the Pushkin Museum across the street and ruining the paintings, so they had to close the swimming pool down. In 1995 they started building a replica of the cathedral, to allegations that with Russia's economy in tatters, this was a silly thing to spend money on. The cathedral actually looks more like a mosque than it does a cathedral. Many cathedrals do. Around the time that Russia conquered Kazan, they started producing crosses with a crescent at the bottom. Though it was meant to symbolize the defeat of the Muslims, to my eye it looks like Russia is under the influence.

When we got back that evening, one of the Indonesians invited me to come along on a trip they were making the next day to Sergiyev Posad, which I thought was incredibly nice. They had hired a van, and had an extra place. Sergiyev Posad is a "lavra", or exalted monastery about an hour and a half outside Moscow. The only catch to the trip was that as they were in the majority they would be speaking their own languages, and that we would go and look at the sports stadium first.

That evening I walked around to see what the city looked like at night. Like St. Petersburg, I saw a lot of people who looked like they owned the place, dressed very fashionably and looking confident. The stores were packed, the restaurants were packed and the movie houses were packed (Notting Hill was playing). Clearly, not everyone is starving, though I wonder where so many people get this kind of money. I wonder the same thing in London and New York. The shops where interesting, the city was interesting, but the major find was Yeliseev's Food Hall on Tverskaya Ulitsa. This is the Zabar's, the Harrod's Food Hall of Moscow. It has a cavernous, baroque-looking interior with carved wood, gilt, marble and porcelain. It feels like being at a banquet, and there's an incredible selection of foods. I bought a few things for dinner in my hotel room, went back and read for the rest of the evening.

The next morning, I met the Indonesian group at the Intourist hotel. The sports stadium was, well, a sports stadium. But for some reason, no one wanted us to go in. In fact, we had to make several tries in traffic before we could even get near it. When there's a detour in Moscow, it's not an alternative route there's simply no way to get there from here unless you argue or use a bit of cunning. That's why if I drove, which I don't, I would still never drive when I travelled. The local guys know best, and usually get things done without being thrown in jail. Somehow he got us into the stadium with a warning to be careful taking pictures, we carefully took pictures and then left.

The Monastery is incredibly beautiful. Under the Communists it was allowed to continue without hindrance, and now it was a very important place in Russia. People who came to see the place were tourists, but many people crossed themselves on the way in and out of the sanctuaries. Where religion is on the outs in the West, Orthodoxy is a gaining in Russia. Perhaps it's because it was forbidden, perhaps it's part of the rediscovery of something uniquely Russian, or perhaps that things are not so certain right now. In any case, the place was breathtaking, especially in the snow, though my big, bad, Timberland boots didn't know what to make of the ice. It was slippery as hell, and I had no intention of breaking an arm until I got back to London.

We visited the monastery museum, which was a collection of old things that were thrown together. We spent a lot of time in the gift shop, since the group was leaving the next day and didn't want to come back empty-handed. I was very impressed, since not only weren't they leaving empty-handed, but they didn't come empty-handed either. They had a bunch of small gifts which they gave out to people they met in Russia, and in general, they had a very easy time of making friends. It was a very natural type of poise that I really admire. After more gifts and more museum, we headed back to Moscow.

The car trips were also pleasant. The scenery was great, I got to see a bunch of wooden dachas, and I learned a bit of Indonesia. It turns out that in Javanese, there are several sets of vocabulary depending on the class of person speaking and being addressed, so that the net effect is of several languages with the same grammar, but with different words. I told them that I thought "Megawati" was an electrifying name, though no one thought that was as hilarious as I did.

Anyway, after a stop at the Intourist hotel, we all went out for dinner. Some people didn't eat pork, and finding a place to eat was a bigger problem than you would think. We ended up at a new restaurant behind Red Square. If you've ever seen "The Man With Two Brains", it looked like the condominium dungeon where Steve Martin met his girlfriend. It was the first night for the restaurant. Whatever you ordered they didn't have, but they "didn't have it" with such good humor that it was charming. And they really tried. Early in the evening there was no beer, but later on they announced that they had just got some. In the business world this is called "setting expectations". We were happier to have a beer here than we would have been anywhere else in the world. While not particularly Russian, the meal was all right, and it was a great evening.

The next day was my last day in Moscow. I signed up for a Kremlin tour in the morning. Not only do they tell you everything about the Kremlin, but they get you right in, which in itself is worth the price of the ticket. If time is short, there's no sense waiting half a day. The kremlin, or fortress, is right next to Red Square. By the way, every medieval Russian town had a kremlin. The first few Kremlins in Moscow were made from wood, which the Mongols and the Poles burned down with glee. The current Kremlin is a bit more durable. What struck me is the number of churches that are in the Kremlin. One is where all the royal weddings took place, and even during the time that St. Petersburg was the capital the couples came back to Moscow for marriage. 

In one of the buildings, they had the Throne of Ivan the Terrible. I love the way that sounds, "The Throne of Ivan the Terrible". It was very ornately carved wood, so much so that it looks that it might have been made in Thailand rather than Russia. Despite the ornamentation, it looked austere enough for someone like Ivan. Elsewhere in the Kremlin was a giant canon that he made to scare people. I like this guy. He was definitely one of the great bastards of history. For some stupid reason, I take delight in collecting stories about people like him: Genghis Khan, Nazrullah the Emir of Bukhara, Muhammad Tughluq and the like. I'm always amazed that someone can be so awful, and that they do it with style. Ivan got his kicks by setting bears loose amongst his audiences.

Also in the Kremlin was the Duma, or Parliament, other government buildings, and my favorite, the Tsar Bell. The reason I like the this bell is that it was cast to be the largest bell in the world. Like all projects of its magnitude, it never worked. An 11-ton piece broke off, so even though the bell was delivered, it never rang. The last part of the tour was the museum. I have never seen such a collection of gems in my life. It's kind of numbing after a while. There were garments made with thousands of small pearls, as well as rubies, emeralds and whatever other expensive things they could muster at the time. There comes a point when your appreciation of such things is more intellectual than aesthetic. I saw the Faberge eggs, and the various gifts from the rulers of other countries. All in all, it was a pretty amazing collection.

I joined two of the guys on the tour and convinced them that we should go to the Pushkin Museum afterwards. One was a software developer, originally from India, and now living in Reston, Va. The other was a Japanese railroad expert, who had developed special systems for determining train inventory. He had just given a lecture in China, and was taking the train from east to west, ending up in Budapest as his final stop. We were all very hungry and didn't know where to go. On my walks up Tverskaya my first night I had seen a place that looked interesting, but didn't feel like going in myself. It looked like people were eating noodle soups. I dragged them out there, and it turned out to be a Mongolian barbeque (which, by the way, they have everywhere except Mongolia).

After lunch we took the underground to the Pushkin Museum. I suppose we could have walked, but I wanted to see the fabled Moscow underground. I wish I had a few more days in Moscow, and certainly a day to see some of the stations. The two stations we did see weren't that interesting, unless, of course, you compare them with any other system in the world. Then they would be classed as stunning. The Moscow underground is cavernous and grand, in keeping with other forms of totalitarian architecture. I must say I have a problem with totalitarianism, but for architecture and athletics you can't beat it. One interesting thing that they do, and in the St. Petersburg underground as well, is that they like to hide the trains. Instead, they have a wall with doors. When the train comes in behind the wall, the doors open with the train doors. Inside, the train is very wide. The rolling stock is older, or older looking than in other cities, but it's very solid and well-maintained. The trains are on time, and the prices are bargain basement. I'm very impressed.

Changing trains, however, I wasn't so impressed. We came up one stairway and were about to go down another when the Indian guy and I were stopped by a bunch of policemen. We were obviously tourists, and they didn't seem to know what they were stopping us for or what documents they wanted to see. Since I had to check in my shoulder bag so many times, I was carrying my passport in a money belt under my pants, and had to do something cute to produce it. The Indian guy wasn't carrying his passport. Here, again, is where I think Yelena was a terrific Russian teacher. She told me that one of her students had been very proud at putting a sentence together under duress. A policeman asked for her passport, which she didn't have on her person. She told the policeman, in Russian, that the passport was in the hotel. I said that we were tourists, and "Passport v'gastinitsa", the passport was in the hotel. Realizing that the Indian guy wasn't a Chechnian (which is what I think the search was about), they let us go. Though they were reasonably good-natured, they were also largely clueless. It seemed to me that there was a gang of them that were left there with nothing to do. People with nothing to do do the darndest things, and that's actually what muggings are about neighborhood kids who hang around and see an opportunity for excitement. Luckily, this was something short of a mugging, though it could have gone either way.

We got to the Pushkin Museum, which houses a great collection of European paintings. It took forever to get in, but then again, it's great when museums are such popular attractions. The paintings were by painters such as Picasso, Gaughin and Van Gogh (serious painters), and they also had a sculpture exhibition. These were plaster casts of sculptures from all over the world, lined up very neatly. The collection was a little too complete and left me cold, until I realized that until recently, not many people travelled outside Russia, so the world had to come to them. I think I missed out on the fascination that other people would feel.

After the Pushkin, the Japanese fellow had to run off to catch his train to Budapest. The programmer and I made our way back, where I made one last stop at Yeliseev's for food for the train. I bought 2 salamis, vodka, chocolates, bread and rolls, all part of a balanced diet on the Trans-Siberian.