Saturday, 8 September 2012

Moscow and Whistling Policemen

One of the Stalin Skyscapers seen from inside
the Kremlin walls
Our overnight journey from St Petersburg to Moscow was uneventful.  Our cabin mates were an older couple (by that I mean older than us but younger than our parents)  and as we hopped on the train at about 1 o’clock in the morning and arrived in Moscow at about 10 o’clock we mainly slept.

We were met at Moscow Leningradsky Station by a rather stern looking young lady called Irina who spoke very little English and who was to drive us to our homestay in a suburb of Moscow. 
The first thing I noticed on leaving the station, following Irina to her car, was one of the huge Stalin Skyscrapers. 

We now know there are seven of them (known as the Seven Sisters), built around the Moscow north/south circular.  From a distance, they look very Victorian, almost Gothic, but when you see them close up you can see they are very utilitarian, very Soviet era, but impressive nonetheless. 

We were still a little tired after our journey and Paul made a couple of stilted attempts to converse with Irina in Russian but it was soon decided that she needed her wits about her in the mad Moscow traffic.  She drove expertly on the north circular equivalent, with up to 8 lanes in each direction in places where drivers have a complete disregard for lane discipline and any speed limit.
The trip took about 20 minutes and we were soon delivered safely to our apartment block in a suburb called Victory Park (so called because the park and it’s various statues, triumphal arches etc were erected to commemorate the victories in both the war with Napoleon and the Great Patriotic War (known to the rest of us as World War II)). 
Another of the Seven Sisters captured on our way to the station
Russians are very fond of statues (mainly of Lenin, various Tsars, war heroes whose names escape me for the moment, and Pushkin), and they are even fonder of triumphal arches.  They like a water feature too but I digress.

Olga was our host in Moscow.  We stayed in her living room with a small balcony where we could smoke (although Paul’s fear of heights meant that he could crawl out backwards on his hands and knees each time he needed a smoke – the railing only reached the middle of his thigh and his vertigo provides him with an overwhelming urge to chuck himself over, and we were 7 floors up!).

Later that day, our Moscow guide Galya turned up to take us on a little tour to familiarise ourselves with the area where we were staying, and to take us into central Moscow on the metro to Red Square.
Amazing chandalier at Revolutionary Square Metro
station - doesn't do it justice
The Moscow metro is everything you hear it is.  The architecture is stunning (particular on the circle line stations where they are simply works of art, built in the Stalin era), the trains and stations are clean and the trains run to timetable from 5am until 1am.  And it’s cheap – approximately 50p a trip.  Central Moscow is easily navigable by foot but it is recommended that you take a trip around the circle line (the reddish brown one) just to see the stations.  Sadly, we didn’t have time to see them all, we only saw the stations we passed through from Victory Park to Revolutionary Square but three days simply wasn’t long enough to do everything we wanted to.

Victory Park metro station is incidentally, one of the deepest on the whole system, and it takes 3 minutes to travel up or down the main escalator.  In my estimation it is at least twice the length of the Angel tube escalator.  You don’t get any fitness freaks attempting to walk up it anyway. 

Massive escalator at Victory Park Metro
Galya took us around Red Square and showed us the familiar sights which included a lot of churches.  There was some kind of military show/horse riding competition going on in Red Square and so certain parts were cordoned off but we were able to wander around, see the State Museum buildings, Pokrovsky Cathedral (St Basil’s), and the amazing Kremlin Walls.  Once again, there was so much to take in, Galya was an excellent guide but at times, it was information overload and, I have to say, church overload.  
As we were tired, we returned to our apartment, and on our way found a self service supermarket.  The nearest shop was more like a delicatessen and our Russian vocabulary is so limited that neither of us can bear the shame and embarrassment of trying to shop by actually asking what you want.  

I should add here that, with some very notable exceptions, Russians are not, how can I put it, the friendliest  of people.  They do not smile, and indeed, we had been warned that they consider people that smile for no apparent reason to be a bit simple.  They don’t grant you much, if any, leeway in your attempts to communicate in their language which is fatal for the both of us because we are both shy of strangers and self conscious.  However, our experience so far in Russian has encouraged us to adopt what we now call “the Russian way” and we have discovered, to our delight, that we can be as miserable as the best of them.  It seems to work.  Paul, in particular, is excelling at his attempts to fit into Russian society and can sneer and pout with the best of them,
St Basil's

Not keen on having to battle with a grumpy Russian shopkeeper we decided to find a proper supermarket and luckily found one a few minutes walk further afield.  We could browse at our leisure and spend some time trying to identify what they were selling by looking at the pictures on the labels.   We only ever buy bread, cheese, butter, salami, cigarettes, beer and vodka, all of which we can say in Russian, but it’s the impatient questions, filthy looks and raised voices that we can’t cope with, but that you are almost always guaranteed.  At least in a proper supermarket, you only get all that at the end of your shopping experience by a rude checkout person.
The next day, we wandered around Victory Park and then headed into central Moscow again.  It was a lovely sunny day and so we had another look around Red Square again, walked all around the walls of the Kremlin, along Tverskiya Ulitsa, and then later on across the river and down to Gorky Park. 

We must have walked about 10 miles.  We spent some of that time trying to find somewhere reasonable to have something to eat but we just couldn’t find anywhere that was not McDonalds or completely out of our price range.  And when I say out of our price range, I am talking over £30 for chicken and chips (and, more to the point £8 for less than a pint of lager).  Russian cuisine being what it is, we weren’t prepared to fork out a ridiculous amount of money for a dish that would probably arrive cold and taste, at best, mediocre.  We haven’t been particularly impressed with Russian food (apart from that we have been provided with by our homestay hosts) but we are ever hopeful.

St Basil's Ice Cream Cone Onion Domes
So after walking for miles and ending up back just outside the Kremlin Walls, we settled on a kebab.  We had found a little bar where beer was cheap by Moscow standards at £3 a pint, and chicken kebabs for £2.  There was nothing else on the menu, just chicken kebabs, and very popular they were too!  This soon became our favourite bar.  Not least because Paul took a liking to the waitress who was very attractive.  Miserable but attractive.  Although he did eventually get a smile out of her but it took a great deal of effort.

In fact we met a bunch of Northern Irish football supporters that evening who were over for a game which they expected to lose.  There were about 10 of them, all originally from Northern Ireland but now scattered all over the place.  They were a nice friendly bunch (well, they were Irish weren’t they?!) and we chatted with them for a bit.  One of the first questions they asked us was what did we think of Russians?  It turned out they had had similar experiences and the general consensus was that Russians were, indeed, by nature a miserable bunch.  And I always thought that if anyone can get a smile out of anyone, it’s an Irishman, but apparently not!  They were however having a great time, and loved Moscow.  I think Russian people just take a bit of getting used to.   As I said, they think we’re a simple lot for smiling all the time so we just tried not to.
There's always a McDonalds!
On our third day we visited the Moscow Kremlin which is really just more churches, more cathedrals and more onion domes, along with a few palaces, all within a fortified wall with watchtowers.  And a lot of policeman with whistles, who whistled  at anyone who dared strayed from the path.  That was the best bit about visiting the Kremlin.  Watching the policemen.  It was especially funny watching an American who didn’t use the designated pedestrian walkway to return to the pavement from the gardens.  He seemed oblivious to the irate whistling until he actually reached the spot where the policeman was stood.  He was made him return all the way to the pedestrian walkway (rather than just hop over low chain fence).  The policemen were there to herd the tourists and herd us they did, with enthusiasm.

It was a bit strange actually being within the walls of the Moscow Kremlin.  We are old enough to remember when Russia was out of bounds and it still seems strange to be visiting this once forbidden  country and its famous landmarks.
The Main Square in the Moscow Kremlin
It seems to us that much of Russia has been rebuilt, either because it was originally made of wood and burnt down, or because during Soviet times, the Communist regime tore down (or blew up) certain buildings (particularly religious buildings, as it was an atheist state) and then rebuilt them after the fall of Communism.

The Russian Orthodox Church has grown in popularity since the fall of communism, probably as some way of unifying the country but also I think because Russians were not allowed a spiritual outlet and they have welcomed the return of their churches as places of worship and reflection.  It is of course much more complicated than that but that is the impression we have from speaking to Russians.  Living in a secular state is completely different from living in an atheist state.

Three days was not long enough to enjoy Moscow.  We explored as much as we could on foot but there was so much more we wanted to see, museums to visit, and metro stations to gawp at.  We have vowed to return and, despite everything we have said about Russians being miserable, sometimes when you think about what they have been through during the last century, you can perhaps begin to understand why.  At this point we are growing more fond of this vast and beautiful country, and we’re even beginning to like the miserable Russians.

More gold onion domes
Note - Of course not all Russians are miserable and, indeed, our hosts and guides have been nothing short of lovely, friendly and couldn't be more helpful.  We also know that Russians, as a general rule, simply don't smile very often for no other reason than they just don't.  In fact, they think we are a bit simple because we tend to smile rather a lot.  We are, however, beginning to think that to work as a checkout girl in a supermarket (or in any customer service industry anywhere in Russia), you must not ON PAIN OF DEATH even consider smiling at customers and if they are foreign, and particularly if they are trying (badly) to speak to you in Russian, look (a) confused and (b) disdainful then respond quickly, speaking at a million miles an hour leaving said foreigners ready to collapse in a heap in tears in front of you.  Only then may you consider that your work is done.


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