Thursday, 12 April 2012

Moscow, Russia

Not quite on the Trans Siberian route yet, but my first Russian train journey none-the-less. A pretty standard train ride really, departure time of 0010 and arrival time of 0953, St. Petersburg and Moscow are only a paltry 800km apart, so nothing much to do other than prepare my bed with the token starched bedding that everyone receives and try and get some rest.

First glance of my first train in Russia
By riding third class, known as platzkart, I subjected myself to the hustle and bustle that comes with sharing an open plan carriage with 53 other people, basically nine sections of six. I also had the pleasure of a side top bunk. If you’re ever given the option, try and avoid these bunks, they are supper cramped and a pain to get into without getting a sweat on. Also, I had a light in my face. However, as it was a night train, things soon settled down and everyone was snoring around me and eventually I dozed off.

Upon arrival I was a little tired but managed to navigate my way around Leningradsky terminal to find the entrance to the Metro. Everyone I encountered in St. Petersburg said how the Moscow Metro had absolutely no English, so, fearing I’d get completely lost I spent my last afternoon in St. Petersburg learning how to basically read Cyrillic by reading every sign I came across. No museums or anything of that ilk open on Mondays remember.

Thankfully I went to the effort, not that the Moscow Metro is any more complicated than that of London, Seoul or New York, but if you can’t read where you are or understand the overhead announcements, it makes things a bit harder. 

Having gotten a little used to reading the language I soon found the hostel I was staying in, although I’d rather I hadn’t. Much like Moscow itself, my hostel had a pretty unfriendly atmosphere, being the only English speaking foreigner certainly won’t have helped either.

I decided to get out and explore instantly. The Kremlin and the Red Square were only a ten minute walk away so I headed in that general direction. Heading north, you come across St. Basil’s Cathedral first as you walk up the length of the Red Square, with the Kremlin occupying the whole of the west side. Right in the centre, on the west side, of the Red Square is Lenin’s Mausoleum and at the north end are the State History Museum and Kazan Cathedral. 

St. Basil's Cathedral

Having five days in the city (which it turns out is more than enough, three would be just fine), I didn’t want to see everything in one day so I aimlessly wandered around, getting a feel for the city. Of course, by the end of the week I had visited the mighty Kremlin, its armoury and the churches within – Annunciation Cathedral, Archangel Cathedral, Assumption Cathedral and Church of the Deposition of the Robe. No photography in any of these buildings, and that also went for St. Basil’s Cathedral, possibly/ probably Russia’s most famous cathedral.

Clock Tower along the Kremlin Walls

Cathedrals within the Kremlin

Lenin's Mausoleum
Again, Lenin’s Mausoleum was a camera free zone, and definitely no lingering around the body or you were in for a quick ear bashing from security. However, Lenin’s security was slack in comparison to Ho Chi Minh’s over the top security where the body is just surrounded by bayonette wielding soldiers, Lenin only had twelve guards in the whole building.

One thing that is very prominent in Moscow is the ridiculously heavy police presence all over the city. Never walking alone, always in gangs of minimum two or three. They are to say the least, rather intimidating. No more so than when I went to the Luzniki Stadium to watch Zenit St. Petersburg versus Spartac Moscow, Russia's biggest derby game. Some friends I'd made had come down to watch the game, so having already watched one Zenit game, I joined them in the away stand. 

Standard celebrations
No booze to be had at the stadium, too much of a security risk. Had to go through four security checks, frisks and pat downs, it took so long just to get into the stadium. Flares, setting scarves on fire, kicking in chairs all seemed to be perfectly normal before the start of the match and when either team scored, the pyrotechnics were out in force again. Apparently the fans kept their toys in their pants, hence the reason they were able to smuggle them into the ground.  

Even without the booze, you could tell that basically every Zenit and Spartac fan was itching for a scrap, and, with Zenit winning 2 - 1, this only fueled the Spartac fans hatred. It took an hour and half before the police finally booted the last of the Spartac fans out, who were all clearly hanging around for the chance of a fight. Half the Zenit fans around me were warming up for one, with all the cops, I'm not quite sure how they thought they were going to achieve it. Still, I left them to it! 

Once finally outside, it was clear that nothing was ever going to happen, there were literally thousands of police and army, ushering everyone along, all the way until you reached the Metro. Every station had groups of police, there was no where to go but onto the train and home for anyone!

I had fun in Moscow, but travelling with someone or getting lucky with your hostel and meeting cool people would definately help you get more out of the experience. That said, there is plenty enough to keep you entertained and certainly enough things to see and do to comfortably spend three days absorbing the sights and ambling around, you don't really need more than that. Being in Moscow during the thaw period cast a pretty grey and dank light to the place, I'm pretty sure it looks far more picturesque in both summer or winter and has a more welcoming feel to it, but that said it was still a great experience. 

Next stop, Ekaterinburg, and finally starting on the Trans Siberian railway.


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