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August 8th 2019
Published: August 8th 2019
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Days 10 to 12 of 80

As we said in the last blog the Sapsan high speed train into Moscow arrived on time (1 minute early to be precise), but just to clarify ... on the journey Pip didn't see a bear, but lots and lots of trees, with isolated, wooden-hutted villages that went by so quickly that she failed to get a picture of a single one. Maybe she'll get the timing right sometime during our first three days on the Trans-Mongolian Express. In the meantime we came across a bronze bear statue in the city centre to satisfy Pip's ursine yearnings. See photo.

Do bears s*** in the woods?

We have lucked out on our hotel again, finding that it is barely 10 minutes walk from the Kremlin, Red Square and barely 10 to 15 minutes from almost everything we want to visit this week. Though the 'included breakfast' is certainly nothing to write home about. It comes on a tray, per person, 2 small pieces of toast, jam and butter carton, tea or coffee with 2 sugar lumps neatly counted out on the side, and a different hot dish each day. On our first, Tuesday, it was 5 chicken nuggets - see later what we ate on our first night here, Monday - with a small mountain of cooked buckwheat. A later day promises us the delights of crab stick tortilla! !

Bloody heck, we think not. .... we've bought ourselves a box of Oat Flakes, orange juice, yogurts. We do have a kettle and fridge in our 'apartment'.

Monday evening, after settling in, we headed for Red Square - that iconic centre of Soviet power and might. Scene in the 50s and 60s particularly of fur coated and hatted Soviet leaders taking the salute from line after line of Soviet military, hardware, tanks, missiles. ..

And now we are here? What a big bloody disappointment.

Most of it is fenced off and they are building, inside the fencing, an arena, scaffolding seating, retail outlets, other stage..... a set up for an International Military Tattoo that starts last week of August into early September. Think Edinburgh Tattoo but in a more touristy accessible space, except that now it is not. So no long distance vistas down to St Basil's in the near distance. In fact, having looked at TripAdvisor we find that throughout the year there are often complaints about Red Square being taken over for events. Such a shame for such an iconic location. Way to go Moscow!

Surrounding streets have pretty lights festooned above them. The GUM department store, which lines almost the total length of the side opposite the Kremlin, is decked out with thousands of white fairy lights.

The wooden huts have a slight alpine feel about them. There are men in Cossack outfits singing and seeking - donation please - photo opportunities. A couple of nearby icon shops are blasting out religious music, the tune for which was 'Deck the Halls'.

It's bloody cold, temperature in the single digits, with a cold wind adding a significant wind chill favour. We are in 5 layers of clothing, including a wind proof rain jacket, with hats and gloves.

Bloody hell, we've invented time travel. Surely this is our annual Xmas city break?

The Gum department store used to be depicted on Western TV in the 50s and 60s as the height of decadent Russian retail, whilst at the same time the pictures from inside showed a different reality of empty shelves and queues for basic daily essentials, like bread.

It is, now, one of Moscow's 'must see' spots, so we had to see it.

Inside ... it is now broken into dozens of individual retail opportunities. We have seen 'poorer' shopping inside glitzy shopping malls in Kuwait and Qatar. All the big names are there. No shortage of goods now.

It's sights like this that make us sometimes wish we had had the wherewithal, means and funds to visit some of these places 30 years or more ago to 'experience' them in the raw fashion in which we remember them.

And talking of old memories, for Monday evening we headed for McDonald's to eat, just around the corner from Red Square, nestled between KFC (sic) and Starbucks (not sic. .. that's 50 yards away). Yes, headed for, deliberately.

McDonald's for us is normally, at best, useful as a port in a storm, if we cannot locate anything abroad that we really want to eat in an evening, probably, say, twice on a big trip. You know what you are getting, which for us is almost always chicken nuggets (see hotel breakfast, following morning, above). Never a burger. Can't stand McD burgers.

But as western capitalist socialists we felt we would make a point of frequenting the Red Square MaccyD on a point of principle - just don't ask us to clarify what principle that would be.

Our joint memories told us that the Red Square MaccyD was the first one in Russia post Perestroika. A later check showed us that our memories failed us both. The first, January 1990, was in Pushkin Square, about a km away. It opened to great fanfare, and expected to serve around 1000 people on day 1. It actually served 30000. Most every day there were queues stretching into the distance. Peeps were waiting 8 hours or more for a burger. For a MaccyD!

There are several hundred in Russia now, mostly Moscow and St Petersburg.

That evening we also passed a street busker who wasn't so much murdering Clapton's Layla as shooting, garotting and drowning it all at the same time. 😥

Tuesday, first full day in Moscow. We firstly, around 9.10am, joined the lengthy queue for Kremlin tickets, but after 10 minutes during which barely a soul emerged from the ticket office we decided we were on to a very lengthy wait, and decided to postpone until Wednesday.

We moved on, therefore, just around the corner to St Basil's Cathedral (dare we mention Siberian hamsters? We did once, but we think we got away with it!), that of the multi coloured onion domes.

The info board outside kindly explained that 'St Basil's' is actually an aggregation of 10 individual churches contiguous with each other within the same structure. And several of these are individually topped by one of the external domes.

Its full name is The Cathedral of the Protecting Veil of the Most Holy Mother of God on the Moat. Where do they get these names from? We saw another sign post yesterday to, deep breath, Church of St George the Victori-ous, the great Martyr (of the Intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God) on the Pskov Mountain. And relax.

St Basil's was erected in 1555-61 on the instruction of Ivan the Terrible, and you don't want to ignore an 'instruction' from Ivan T. In 1588 the church above the tomb of St Basil the Blessed was attached to the Cathedral which is now named after the Saint. It became, post the Revolution, in 1923 a museum. Learning point for Russia - 'churches' or 'Cathedrals' which are now classed as museums charge for entry. Places that are still places of worship are free. Except that many of the 'museum churches' are still treated reverently and are used as places of worship.

In 1990 St Basil's was listed by UNESCO and services were resumed. They still charge though.

In addition to the Church of the Protecting Veil....., there are also
2 - Saint Cyprian and Justina
3 - Saint Gregory The Illuminator of Armenia ( he of the pit ... see Armenia blogs from earlier this year)
4 - Lord's Entry into Jerusalem
5 - St Barlaam of Khutyn
6 - the Velikoretsky Image of Saint Nicholas
7 - the Holy Trinity
8 - Saint Alexander of Svir
9 - Three Patriarchs of Constantinople
10 - Saint Basil the Blessed.

We did manage to find our way into all 10 of the spaces, though it took some checking back through of name board photos and some maze solving skills to ensure this.

The layout of the decorated ones is very similar throughout with a highly decorated, icon covered screen across the total width of where an altar would be in a C of E church. But in some there were wall murals covering everywhere. One striking church had an image of Christ within its dome staring down.

After Saint Basil's we checked out the line for Lenin's Tomb, but it was looking out of the question for Tuesday. So we went to the Gum outside cafe and had coffee and 'cheesecake' from the breakfast menu. We were somewhat surprised to be told that it was a 15 minutes wait for the cheesecake. When it/they arrived it was three, freshly baked and very hot, turned out curd cheese cheesecakes, with some fresh berries. Absolutely delicious. We'll be back later in the week for a repeat.

So we walked up to the State Central Museum of Contemporary History which, supposedly, documents the country's political development over the last 150 years.

We are sure there were many important artifacts on display, but difficult to know as nothing was labelled in English. And then to really confuse matters we realised that we had jumped from WW1 to the 1950s. Was the museum trying to whitewash or brush under the carpet the killing of the Tsar and his family, and the Russian Revolution?

No such conspiracy actually. When we asked an attendant he told us that those rooms, about 6 of them, were closed for renovation. But there had been no notice about this at the entrance. So a double disappointment.

The later rooms had displays about Russian space exploits, including a dog dressed in the fashion of Laika, the first dog that Russia sent into space, on Sputnik 2 on 3rd November 1957. Laika was a stray mongrel from the streets of Moscow and there are descriptions on line that say she was sent on a 'suicide mission', as there was no return facility.

Now, our understanding is that 'suicide' is a personal decision, and we don't think the mutt in this case got any say in the matter. So doggycide or doggy murder wethinks is a better description.

The scientists had planned for Laika to survive for 10 days, but we can't find out what the planned, if any, manner of her death was to be. We can only assume it would have been running out of oxygen. In actuality she only lasted a few hours as the temperature in the capsule rose to over 40 centigrade.

All in all, then, needless to say the dog on display in the museum was not a stuffed Laika.

We found a very nice 'Russian Pub' - that was its actual name - for a meal that evening that claimed to be modelled on English Gastropub but serving Russian food. And very nice it was too. Pip ordered a fruit beer, Belgian, but it wasn't until she was drinking it that we realised that it was 8.5%, but Paul was there to steady her on the walk back to our room.

Wednesday then was back to the Kremlin queue, but early this time, 8 ish for a 9ish ticket office opening. Now we could go on. ..and on. ..and on. ..about the omnishambles of mega proportions that we encountered in our attempts to buy the Kremlin tickets. Just two examples 1 - there are 9 ticket windows, but each window only sells tickets for certain parts of the complex. We wanted the Architectural Elements, ie all the Cathedrals and churches, and the grounds, but eventually we found out that the queue that stretched outside was heading in to the window that only sold Armoury tickets. Inside, the windows selling main area/Architectural. .. tickets had hardly anyone waiting. They were all in that queue outside.
And 2, an additional, inside option was a building with bell tower, entrance to which was in timed sessions. On asking for a ticket for that the lady held up a sign with session times on, and a line saying that tickets were only sold for each session 45 minutes before EACH session. It was 9.10. We couldn't buy tickets for the first, 10.15 session without returning to the window/queue at 9.30. The stupidity of this system just beggers belief. Kafka-esque.

In the end, after all that and the melee at the bag check area we were in and walking around barely 10 minutes after the 9.30 Kremlin opening.

In summary, too many churches and bugger all politics. Too many whistle happy guards blowing off if you so much as put your foot off the pavement into a gutter. We had the amusing sight in one case of a gentleman stood 4 feet into the road ignoring the frantically whistling guard around 50 feet away. As we watched the guard walk towards the man it was almost as if watching a physics lesson about gravity. The closer the guard got to the man the faster he went.

Outside were a number of interesting objects. The world's largest bell, over 200 tons, cast in 1733-35 , though unfortunately with a large chunk broken off one side.

And the Tsar Cannon, 39.5 tons, the world's largest known medieval gun.

To some, possibly most, people 'the Kremlin' is synonymous with Russian politics of autocratic rule, most recently of Putin. In recent times past the scene of fur coated and hatted blokes, who always looked liked they lived a better fed life than the proletariat, standing overlooking Red Square as lines of military, men and machines and missiles, paraded past in front of them in the freezing weather.

In reality the public see, hear or read nothing of this in a Kremlin tour. In effect it is a fortified enclosure, surrounded by its high, red brick walls, with an internal collection of churches, cathedrals and museums.

There is a concrete slab of a building, the State Kremlin Palace.
There is the Senate & Palace residence where Putin and the previous Soviet leaders have all lived, rather like the Tsars really. Oh, the irony of it all.

But no feel whatsoever for what goes on in those corridors of immense power.

We were able to get through the 6+ Cathedrals and churches before the place filled with tour groups. The queues were quite lengthy from 11ish onwards. Regrettably very few pictures from inside as they are forbidden, upon pain of a large Russian lady dropping on you from a great height.

As a tour guide said in the queue "No roof above you, photos OK. If roof above you, no photos."

The Assumption Cathedral, 1475-79, is one of the most important shrines in Russia, where the most important ceremonies, weddings, coronations, head of church ordinations are held . Nicolas II was the last to be crowned here. Many Metropolitans and Patriarchs are buried here. Inside are three canopied praying-places. The first was originally for Ivan IV, the Terrible. The Tsarina's canopy is crowned with icons of the Nativity, a reminder of her role in society ... to provide heirs, preferably male!

Annunciation Cathedral, 1484-89, private church of Tsars and Grand Princes, mostly used for family -Tsar - ceremonies. So many icons. The multilevel iconostasis - the 'screen' - is one of the oldest in Russia. Almost 100 icons in 6 rows, some dating to 14C. And a pair of silver doors, for royal family use only.

Archangel's Cathedral, 1505-08, was a burial vault for the Moscow rulers. Ivan the Terrible, and his successor sons are buried here in grand marble tombs covered in red velvet.

The Church of the Deposition of the Robe of the Holy Virgin, 1484-85, commemorates deliverance of Moscow from the Tatar Invasion. Contains a wonderful display of wooden sculpture back to 15C, including also a 14C St George icon, one of the oldest known.

Several other buildings too, but what caught Pip's eyes particularly, were two glass topped excavation pits. One for foundations of Nikolacvsky Palace, built 1775-76. In 1817 it was designated the Tsar's residence, and later Nicholas I and Alexander II were both born here.

The other was the foundations of the Chudov Monastery, founded 1365. The remains of Grand Duke Sergei Romanov, killed by terrorists in 1905, were buried here.

From the Kremlin we moved to the House of Romanov Boyars. This is where the first Tsar of the Romanov Dynasty, Mikhail Feodorovich was born in 1596. It became a museum in 1856, one of the first memorial museums in Russia, and shows domestic and family life of the rich Moscow Boyars - the level immediately below the Royal family - in the 17C. Amongst the many items on display the most interesting was probably a hand written family register open at the page where the name 'Romanov' first ever appeared in writing.

The day finished with a slow amble around the quite new, 2017, Zaryadye Park, the first park in over 50 years to be created in Moscow. Think Eden Centre in Cornwall, but all outdoors. And with some payable attractions, including a 0 degrees Ice House. From the park, jutting out over the Moscow river they built a floating bridge, supposedly capable of holding the weight of 4000 visitors at a time.

That was quite a busy day, but we weren't done because we had tickets for the ballet - Swan Lake at the Bolshoi. We glammed ourselves up as best we can from hand luggage and bimbled along there nice and early. We wanted to soak up the atmosphere.

The initial entrance inside was quite plain, but a kindly lady directed us to go to the 3rd floor where the Grand Rooms were located. And grand they were too.

It's the Bolshoi! Just how good do you expect the ballet to be. The theatre itself is opulent - gold leaf everywhere. The stage settings, 4 Acts / 4 sets, as larger than life as you would expect.

The ensemble, of course, is top world class, and big. There must be 60+ dancers in the cast, and the orchestra pit had another 60 in there.

As to the ballet itself. Well, by no means are we experts. This is only the 2nd time we have ever seen ballet live. But you have to admire the gracefullness and also, bluntly, the athleticism of it all. To untrained eyes, the principals, especially, are like watching gymnasts or ice dancers. But gymnasts and ice dancers only do a few minutes each evening session. What is it, 4 minutes for an ice dance routine? The ballet principals have many minutes-long set pieces peppered throughout the performance - 4 Acts, the evening took over 3 hours. They must be so fit.

And as for the audience. ... obviously largely tourists, in various states of posh dress. No evening-wear but many 'high maintenance' ladies on show, and we are talking oil-field-wealth-required high maintenance!

A really special and spectacular experience. The ballet, not the women.

But for the philistines amongst us
- during the dying swam scenes couldn't help think that the arm and hand movements would make the female principal a shoe in as a weather presenter on ITV - have you seem how their hands move over the weather chart, and
- at one stage Pip leant over amd whispered 'Dawn French'.

Tomorrow (but actually this morning - this blog is already well long enough) we go see the embalmed body of a murderer, dictator, despot.

Additional photos below
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