Published: May 5th 2005May 1st 2005
Just like the old days ...
Red Square: Russian troops practice for the May 9th celebrations of the end of WWII
Russia has an inexhaustible supply of miserable fat old women whose sole aim in life seems to be to harass, harangue and chastise the young for doing not very much wrong at all. What infernal alchemy is at work that transforms Russia's inexhaustible supply of pleasant and friendly youngsters into these hideous old hags?
I must apologise for this seemingly uncharitable rant. For several days we had gone out of our way to help these Babushkas, carrying ridiculously heavy bags down flights of stairs for them, giving up seats, holding open doors and filling their begging bowls, but frankly our patience is wearing thin. I mean, do we really need to be shouted at for five minutes in Russian for attempting to buy two 13 rouble metro tickets with three ten rouble notes - particulary when the four rouble change is at hand ? I know I should try to see things from their perspective but that is the exact problem - they don't. It may seem an obvious statement but Russia's future is definitely with its young.
The overnight train to Moscow was largely uneventful, and we negotiated the Moscow metro more successfully than the St Petersburgh one.
No, just practicing.
We had no accomodation booked but our tickets for the Trans-Siberian had been sent to G&R Asia Hostel, about 12km East of the centre, so we headed there.
We had completely failed to find reasonably priced accomodation in Moscow centre - the travel agent in St Petersburgh was shocked to see the price of one of her facourite hotels had increased from $26 per room per night to $60 per room per night in a year. G&R Asia describes itself as a hostel but really it is an apartment block in a city suburb converted into a cheap business hotel. G&R act as travel agents and also rent out rooms as a "hostel". In spite of the sometimes erratic office hours, we were reasonably happy to stay there at $26 per person per night for a twin room. It was nothing special but was adequate for our price range, and gave us the chance to see a real Moscow community.
After having not really eaten for 24 hours we succumbed to a visit to Russia's first McDonalds, opened in 1991. Pushkin stared down at us thoughtfully as we munched our burger and fries. To others it may have
The only cheap pastime in Moscow - hanging in the park outside the Kremlin.
been obvious, but to me, in hindsight, McDonalds early entry into the Russian market was strategically inspired. With the price of a large Big Mac meal less than a mug of coffee in most central Moscow cafes (2gbp+) these "restaurants" are never empty. In fact Moscow prices were something of a shock all round. Excluding fast food and kiosks it is hard to find a main course for less than 5gbp and the portions are not adequate. Whilst the government quotes inflation figures of 10% and 7% for the last two years, we generally found most prices have at least doubled from our guidebooks, both published in late 2003 and hence I guessed researched in 2002. Many Russian people want to get to Moscow to get a job and a foot on the economic development ladder which they feel is leaving the rest of the country behind. Indeed I have now seen some new data that shows that between 1981 and 2001 Russia plus it's central Asian satellites has experienced negative or stagnant gdp per capita growth, and in that period both the number and percentage of extreme poor and moderate poor has increased. Clearly this may have started to
turn around in the last three years, but on our last day in Moscow there was a very heavy police presence as 50,000 communists were expected to march (plus a handful of liberals). Mostly older people, the state in the New Russia appears to have abandoned them and they are understandably harking back to the good old days of the "Iron Wheat Field", sustained by oil exports and latterly state borrowing until the whole system collapsed.
With our bellies full of chemicals we wandered down to the Kremlin and saw a lot of police and Red Square blocked. Posters and flags abounded, celebrating 60 years of the end of WWII. We took a walk around the West and South sides of the Kremlin, crossing the Moskva river for a better view. From the bridge we watched the amusing sight of a battered old Lada polic car pulling over a sleek black BWM 7 Series.
As we wandered up to St Basil's cathedral at the South end of Red Square we saw that this was also blocked by police. We had been warned by guidebooks and reports on the internet that the police in Red Square regularly shake-down tourists
to supplement their meagre incomes. We had come prepared with Kim's (dead) mobile to pretend to ring our embassy for assistance, but it seemed that today they were on their best behaviour - we could probably have knocked a cap off, Denis the Menace style, and gotten away with it.
We headed down to the River to take a boat cruise, but at 4 gbp each we decided not to bother. As we deliberated a fleet of 15 - 20 coaches drew up full of Russian army in combat fatigues with semi-automatic rifles. We sat and watched as they surrounded us, lighting cigarettes and marking time. I had read an article that said that deaths of new conscripts in the Russian army due to initiation rites (either as a result of the ceremony or by suicide afterwards) were fairly common, but to find four recruits at the end of their training dead by suicide was quite puzzling. I wonder what Dostoyevsky would have made of that. Anyway, these fellows were decidedly scary looking (as you would want of an army) so we moved on.
We wander through the glitzy GUM shopping arcade which forms the East edge of
A seven sister
One of the seven large tower blocks built by Stalin to compete with America - he's done a good job - this would look just fine in Vegas.
Red Square - previously this had been a monument to Soviet shortages but was now stocked with all the overpriced Designer finery the West can offer - Louis Vitton, J-P Gaultier, Benetton etc. At the North end we stopped for a beer in a cafe and watched yeat another branch of army/police gathering. We asked what was up and found out they were rehearsing for the May 9th Victory parade.
Kim struck up a conversation with a Scottish rig worker and his Russian partner, who were holidaying in Moscow with her sister and sister's daughter. They invited us to join them for a meal and generously paid for the copious amounts of Georgian house wine, which tasted like chewing gum. Thanks to them we had a very enjoyable evening.
Next day we started thinking about preparing four our three day/four night train trip to Irkutsk, and on closer inspection of the Trans-Siberian guidebook realised we had a serious problem. The Russian border guards at the Mongolian border are famed for confiscating the non-Russian currency of travellers who haven't declared all their currency on entry - which I guess must be quite a few, if not most, people. Guidebooks
Old and new(ish)
Three very different architectural styles.
always need to present the worst scenario but we had also read reports of this happening on the web - it just hadn't registered with us with the appropriate force (and the relevent warning in the Lonely Planet is buried away in the Siberia section and will only be found with some hunting). We had some US$1500 in cash and travellers cheques left over from Africa, which we had brought along for emergencies, and some or all of that risked being taken from us. Travellers cheques are not replaceable if taken by government action. After discussing ways to deal with the problem we decided to see if we could wire the money out of the country, and, after a lot of hassle we found a very obliging young gentleman in Alfa Bank, who took me through the process of opening a Russian bank account, depositing the money and then wiring it abroad from their web-site. So I am now the proud possessor of a Russian visa card and bank account, which I hope I will be able to find a fluent reader of Russian to close once I have verified the money hjas arrived. The whole thing only cost us
I liked this large picture, depicting one of the Tsar's in a sled in a wintery Red Square - hanging in the stairs into the Kremlin Armoury
about $20. I was extremely impressed by the service, efficiency and internet security measures at Alfa-bank - maybe I'll keep the account. As for the Russian border guards - a favourite saying from Paul the Driver is appropriate - "Thieving gypsy b*****ds".
With that issue hopefuly resolved we headed to the Kremlin to see if we could look around but it was closed due to the celebrations. The Kremlin armoury was open, which at 6 gbp entry ( the same as the State Hermitage in St Petersburg) was a definite disappointment. They did, however, have a nice collection of Faberge eggs, made for the Tsars, including a clockwork Trans-Siberian train to commemorate the completion of the railway.
Tourist duties largely complete we did the best thing you can do in springtime Moscow on a budget - sit in the garden outside the Kremlin and drink cheap beer with the rest of the Russians.
On our last day in Moscow we staying in our room as long as possible, then went for a lunchtime promenade in the local park - Kuskovo. In the late 18th century the local count had turned this small park into a mini-Versailles, with
This one was given to the Tsar to commemorate the completion of the Trans-Siberian, and contains a complete clockwork train.
period buildings and ornate gardens, as well as the open woodland to wander through. We sat by the lake with the lovers, fisherman and families and soaked up a bit of sun, glad to be out of the city for a change. On the way back we passed a small market of local art in the middle of the forest, consisting mainly of mediocre paintings but with one set of extremely good landscape photographs of the local area taken by I guess a local with some real talent.
On returnng we enjoyed an excellent kebab from one of the stalls outside our hotel - the "chef" was extremely friendly. It occured to me that, despite the often very dishevelled appearance of the neighbourhood and some of its people that we never felt at all threatened, even late at night. I guess the same cannot always be said of many similar neighbourhodds in Britain, although that is generally the fault of the few, not the majority.
That afternoon we dumped our bags at the station in North Moscow and headed back into the centre to use the internet. After a nice meal and a bit of time kiilling we
went to a 24 hour supermarket behind the Lubyanka to stock up on food for the train: noodles, cheese, salami, bread and vodka plus a few luxuries. We headed back to the station bar where beer was a more Russian 50p a pint, as opposed to the 2gbp - 3gbp in the centre. We fell into conversation with a couple of students, one of whom was very, if charmingly, drunk.
The more sober and circumspect of the two explained they were studing oil engineering, and both came from the North of Siberia. His father was in oil, and he would go and work in the oil fields around the Gulf of Ob. They escorted us to the train carrying our shopping, their drunken antics attracting the close scruting of the two policemen on the platform. The drunker one kept repeating "English - and no beer. I don't believe it" until I put my finger to my lips, indicated the policemen with my eyes and said "don't worry, we have vodka in the bottom." This sent him into apoplexy, and with that we boarded the train on our next adventure across Siberia.
As to Moscow - if I were
Red fox to Red Squirrel ...
Waiting for a drop outside the Lubyanka, the former KGB headquarters and still in use by their successors.
sent on business or invited by a local I would love to go back, but for a holiday give me St Petersburgh any day.
There are more photos below