Published: September 6th 2009September 6th 2009
(written by Sam whilst Laura snoozes after spending all night being disturbed by some Slovakians)
Good morning everybody
Today we awoke in Asia, in a very small hostel that doesn't look as if it has changed at all in the past 40 years. The bathroom is a bit of a horror story, but the owner is lovely and speaks some English which is a bonus.
Moscow was fantastic. A city of three colliding eras: '50s, early '90s, and iphones. Mulletted iphone users were a real highlight in fact. Stalin's Seven Sisters are fearsome gothic behemoths that dominate the skyline, and the metro system, once mastered, is a sheer delight. Some of the stations are pure works of art dating back to the 1930s and pride themselves on their size and grandieur.
On the evening of our arrival in Moscow we spent two hours searching for the hostel - lesson learnt - never ever think that with a Roman lettered map you can navigate cyrillic signposted streets. Anyway, we eventually found the hostel and headed off to Red Square, which was within walking distance, minus our bags.
Red Square was as breathtaking as expected, however, our view
was slightly hindered by some temporary staging that was being erected for some celebrations. Nevertheless, it was the perfect way to spend our first evening in Moscow.
On day 2 we headed to the Kremlin and had a look round the armoury, which is crammed full of the jewels of the state, which have to be seen to be believed. We particularly enjoyed the carriages on dislplay in which many Tsars have plonked themselves down in. We then visited the many chapels housed within the Kremlin, before a suited child told us to leave because it was closing time. We got whistled at by the Police for the manner in which we crossed a deserted road, which was fun.
We then had a long walk to see the monstrous Moscow University, then headed to Arabat, a district to the west of Moscow's centre. Here we saw some live music: full live bands, drum kits an' all, playing outside and in the metro system. You can drink in the streets in Moscow and there are kiosks selling booze absolutely everywhere, and this outdoor gigging seems to be the way to go. Certainly a lot less sweaty than the Zanzibar!
Speaking of sweat, the weather for all our time in Moscow was stunning; permanent, glorious sunshine making it much hotter than expected.
Day 3 was spectacular! We went to the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, which was built in the 1930s to celebrate the economic achievements of the Soviet Union..... you can imagine what we saw! It was incredible. 2km by 1km, it was a series of wide boulevards and tens of enormous pavillions, each celebrating a particular sector such as Education, Science or Agriculture. The scale of the place is frightening, but even more frightening, and perhaps somewhat fittingly, each of the enormous pavillions house naff little shops selling random items, from Ninentendo Game Boy games to hunting knives. Hopefully after writing this, I will be able to upload some photos so you can somewhat come to comprehend the magical madness of this place.
We then headed to the newly built Church of Christ the Saviour - the original was destroyed when the Communists came to power and was replaced with the world's biggest swimming pool (they had intended to build a 300m tall monument celebrating Lenin et al). We then headed to the Sculpture Park, which housed
any remaining statues that had adorned the city in the time of the Soviet Union. Some very strong women, giant busts of Lenin and Stalin, and men embracing and striding onwards together, all left us feeling rather inspired to pick up a hammer and sickle and get to work ourselves.
After some beers in the park and a good sleep, we were on to day 4, on which we were to catch the train. However, we had a few hours to spare in the morning, so we visited the museum of Contempory Russian History, which effectively documents the events of the past 150 years. The objectivity and neutrality of perspective was somewhat questionable, but it was a hugely enjoyable experience, and despite 99% of the museum being unreadable for us, we were able to follow the narrative and look at lots of inspiring propaganda posters. The section on the Great Patriotic War (WW2) was rather marvellous - any attempt to avoid bias was totally shunned, and the introductory narrative piece read like a piece of 1944 propaganda. The nation did lose approximately 29 million people, so I guess it is within its rights to champion the importance of their
involvement (even if Stalins purges and all that jazz was not dealt with).
In the afternoon it was time to get the train. So after navigating the metro, finding the train station, and then grabbing some food (which involved some accidental purchases ), we boarded the train. We were travelling second class (4 beds per cabin), and had two beds to one side of the cabin. The train was very comfortable and actually much nicer than we had expected. However, I'm sure our faces were quite something to behold when THE BIGGEST MAN IN RUSSIA made his was into our cramped cabin. He was very sweaty, and immediately took off his shirt, to which I gasped aloud, much to Laura's amusement. Fortunately, he was wearing a vest.
Anyway, he wasn't too friendly, which many Russians aren't to start with. It is said that they have two personalities. Smiling at someone you don't know that well is considered the action of a madman in Russia, so the ol' passing in the corridor smile has to be surpressed and replaced with a grimacing growl. Laura was fantastic at it (she has dozed off and can't see what I'm writing now). Anyway, he wasn't too keen to talk, seeing as he was on his way home as part of his weekly SEVEN HOUR commute to work! Beat that!
Anyway, at Nozhny Novgorod he left the train and was replaced by a lady called Svetlana who was very nice and spoke a few words of English and subsequently tried to teach us some more Russian. Here favourite novel is Emma, and told us that her dream is to be able to one day read it in English. She challenged me to read Anna Karenina in Russian. Pah!
Also in our cabin was a Russian chap, probably in his late 20s, who looked like he had not long been out of the army. He was less friendly and snored a lot.
After 26 hours on the train, we arrived in Yekaterinburg; a city which sits in the shadow of the Urals and consequently, means that we have arrived in Asia! We feel like we are in real Russia now, and are looking forward to our day today. There is a bar called the Yellow Submarine, which we simply have to attend tonight!
Russia is incredible. It is everything you would expect it to be and more. At times it is the ugliest place imaginable - huge grey tower blocks dominate the skyline in every city it seems, but then in amongst the tower blocks are always these beautiful churches, and then next to them will be enormous Soviet monuments. It does not feel at all like Europe, particularly in Yekaterinburg, and much to our delight, we were the only backpackers on the train. We really expected a few more people to be doing what we're doing, but it seems that it really is not that common. The Trans-Siberian is something a lot of people talk about, but I don't think too many people do it. Not to blow our own trumpet or anything, but we're chuffed pink that we have got off our backsides and are doing it.
The highlight of the trip so far for me was, just prior to pulling into Yekaterinburg, passing a misty lake at 9pm, just as the sun was setting. A little fishing boat was in the middle of this lake, surrounded by trees just starting to lose their golden brown leaves, and between us and the lake were little wooden houses, none with a car, each with smoke pouring out of the chimney. It was stunning, and a real reminder of the disparity between the rich and the poor in this country.
We shall be in touch again soon...
There are more photos below