Published: October 10th 2007September 27th 2007
We took our first train journey inside Russia from St. Petersburg to Moscow. By this time we had met with our travelling companions - we are heading across Russia with Vodkatrain, who help out with the visas, getting the tickets and making connections and stops.
I wasn't sure about going on a tour, having never taken this route before but Trailfinders and Sundowners assured us that this was for independent travellers, the price was right and besides we were so busy with everything - wedding, renting out house, leaving work - that it suited us. The group is a mixed bag: two Scottish lads heading off on a year out, an Aussie returning home after two years away, an American on his annual big holiday journey, a Dutch girl heading off for four months across south east asia, oh, and of course us!
The first night we headed out together and had a walk around St. Pete - we had seen a lot of it already so it was great to yap to people after two weeks in each others exclusive company, and we walked, talked and of course, naturally ended up having a drink in a pub and
Fancy Moscovites shop at this shop
Take the bread queue and turn it on its head - fanciest supermarket ever
hitting a trendy cheap restaurant for dinner (Zoom for anyone heading there soon - highly recommend it!). The next day we went to the Hermitage and gawped at the amazing array of art. We met up with some of the group later and ended up in a bar drinking and dancing with the locals - the Aussie insisted I dance with the locals to assist him in getting a free shot of absinthe from them!
The next day the group headed off sightseeing while Alan and I tried to get our laundry done. St. Petersburg is quite shabby-chic and a bit boho in parts, so we ended up washing our clothes in a cafe that doubled as a piano-bar. At the start we watched Robo-cop with the owner - it was dubbed into Russian with only one voice doing all the parts, bizarre. The clothes took forever, so we went out and came back, by which time the laundrette had turned into a night club so we had a great time listening to a DJ being taught how to spin his decks, and even ended up really digging some of the music which incidentally is a band called 'VHS
Photo of the Kremlin...kremey
or Beta'. A coincidence about this band will be relayed in a future blog by the way, but I'll leave it at that for now.
That night we headed off to Moscow on the train - many photos were taken (promise these will be uploaded soon - it's hard to get access that will let us upload photos at the mo) . The group settled down into our cabins, and had a toast of vodka to the adventure. A few toasts later and we all fell asleep and woke up early in Moscow to the news that we'd want to get ourselves in gear as it was time to disembark (never argue with a Russian!).
On the platform our Vodkatrain 'Honcho' (tour-guide) was waiting patiently even though it was really early. She was a lovely young languages student and she got us to our hostel (Godzillas - it was a good place to meet people but pretty basic to be honest). A quick shower later and we headed out.
What do you expect from Moscow? I had thought it would be grey and dull - wasn't sure I'd like it. I was wrong. I loved Moscow.
Bells in the Kremlin
First off, Moscow and St. Petersburg are very different. There's some crazy statistic, not sure what it is exactly, some massive amount of billionaires live in Moscow - suffice to say Moscow is a VERY rich city. St. Petersburg is not. In St. Petersburg you can smell exhaust fumes everywhere and cars are WELL beyond their sell-by dates. The buildings are amazing, elegant, regal but CRUMBLING. Even the carpet in the Hermitage, one of the world's greatest art galleries, is frayed and coming apart at the seams. The roads into St. Petersburg were alarming, and I felt there was a sense of poverty and wealth, but predominantly poverty.
Moscow is awash with SUVs, confident well dressed young people walking the streets. The buildings are freshly painted, the verges in parks neatly trimmed. Not that the wealth is why I liked Moscow, as there is a lot of poverty in evidence there as well.
Simply put, Moscow is impressive. It merges the past and present together and is huge - the buildings - Stalin's seven sisters (huge Soviet style buildings) are awe-inspiring. The buildings are a blend of old and new, more than St. Petersburg where the architecture is mostly old.
On our first day there we went to see Lenin. I was just off a night train and had walked the streets of Moscow, visited the most ornate grocery store that you can imagine (photo to follow) and then we're in Red Square and St. Basil's cathedral is looming in my sight. Amazing. We queued up to see Lenin - what a bizarre notion it was to me too, I had no idea what to expect from this. I minded the first lot of the groups bags while they went first and then they came back and suffice to say these chatty boisterous men were dumbstruck... I was intrigued.
So we stand in a queue, and I've read that you should appear solemn so I do, and two guards look me over when I get to the top of the queue. I step through a metal detector and they nod me forward. I wait for the Dutch girl who was stopped as the metal detector went off. Nobody is smiling and it is terribly serious. She's blushing and I'm a bit nervous. We walk forward towards the mausoleum which is red and black marble. Lenin is written in cyrillic script on it. I walk into the dark, cold and can't see the steps leading down in front of me. I try to concentrate on my next footstep and it is quiet and cold. At the bottom I make out a shape, what is it? Is that Lenin? No - it's a uniform, maybe it's Lenin's uniform? The image becomes clear and I trip over the step. It's another soldier looking stern, staring right at me. I regain my balance, and want to laugh or something, but the soldier doesn't look as though he would agree with my laughing. I follow Alan and the Dutch girl on. I'm not sure where we're going - there are many steps. Everything is silent, dark, freezing. I shiver. More guards. Then into a room, where there's a yellow shimmering shining light emitting from the centre. Closer. It's a body. It's Lenin. The room is full of hushed silenced Russians and us, making our way around. His fist is clasped, his other hand open. What does that mean? His face is serene, he's shining, yellow, waxy. His beard is trimmed. We walk on, more guards, walk in silence onward. Then we're in the dark, more guards. The cold, and eventually out, into the light.
Oppression. Silenced. Awed. I feel small, insignificant. As soon as we are free from the solemn event the three of us gab away about Lenin - what happened? Can we go in again? It was the strangest event of my trip so far. I shiver.
Stalin apparently put Lenin in the mausoleum after he died. Lenin himself wanted to be buried in St. Petersburg with his mother. When Stalin died initially he too was placed in a mausoleum but soon after was removed.
The magnitude of what Soviet Russia was is beginning to dawn on us.
Later that day in Red Square Alan is asked for his papers by a soldier who takes us both away to his boss. We feel helpless. We smile. He sternly examines our documents. Our tour-guide is around and comes over to talk to the soldier, and he lets us go. The next day we see lots of people being asked for papers. There are army soldiers and police everywhere.
The next day we gawp at Faberge eggs, exquisite carriages, jewellery, clothes and artifacts from the various Czars and visit the Vodka museum. A night out and so we go out to a night-club in the basement of a building on a side-street and I end up talking with a young man from Moscow who has his own internet company. It isn't a safe society he tells me and we talk for awhile. I say I like his city. He laughs and tells me about his life, his family history.
Strange country. Funny times.
And we have a four night journey ahead of us, across Siberia.