A city of contradictions
Moscow is a city of contradictions. We arrived from St Petersburg via the fantastic high speed railway (expensive but worth it and great views across lakes and wetlands) and made our way to the metro to find our hotel. This involved going down really steep (and fast moving!) escalators but also a few stairs.
On two occasions, young men scooped up my bag at the bottom of the stairs and dashed up to the top with me hastily trying to keep up, unsure at first if this was theft or a kind deed. In a city where nobody smiles (this is seen as a sign of idiocy) and spoken English is a rarity, frowning, elderly women patiently helped us negotiate the metro, speaking slowly in Russian with lots of pointing. Apparently, once you scrape the surface of this huge city, the people are more friendly and seemed to appreciate our regular ‘spasiba’ (thank you) as they helped us.
The weather was another amazing contrast. One day we awoke to an intense thunder storm with crazy heavy rain. By lunchtime though the dark clouds had vanished and we were left with blue skies and sunshine. This happened on two of the three days we were there.
An expensive city
Moscow is also an expensive city. Despite the fall in the ruble, the exchange rate was not very favourable.. Fortunately, in order to obtain the complicated Russian tourist visa we’d had to organise accommodation in advance so had already paid for our lovely private hotel room at the great value and centrally located Mercure Arbat. The biggest tip off of our trip so far was on leaving Russia at Moscow airport. Unable to spot any water fountains once through security we bought a bottle of water each and Mitch had a cappuccino which cost us an extortionate $25! Mostly we ate at ‘fast food’ outlets or canteens where we paid between 500-750 rubles for a meal ($15-$20 AUD).
The food was quite satisfactory but we didn’t stumble across anything as good as we’d had in St Petersburg and we paid more. I quite liked the baked potatoes from Korshka Kartoshka which are served with the potato inside the jacket mashed up with cheese and butter and topped with a filling of your choice (feta and dill for me, chicken, ham and mushroom for Mitch). We also mistakenly sampled the national spirit, vodka, when ordering ‘honey mead’, which was extremely alcoholic but actually very tasty as vodka goes!
A good cheap snack to have a taste of the Soveit era is a cheap 50c ice cream from expensive department store rym gum.
A great city (but better in 3 years)
The free walking tour was excellent and our guide was fantastic. She was knowledgeable, enthusiastic and had the best sense of humour of all the Russians we’d encountered thus far. We learned that the government is already beginning to clear up the city in preparation for their controversial hosting of the 2018 football World Cup. Currently there isn’t a tourist information centre. Don’t worry, come back in 3 years and there will be. This flattened site with all the construction work? Come back in 3 years and it will be a beautiful park. Want a cheap hotdog from a street vendor? Too bad, they’ve already got rid of most of them as part of the clear up.
We also learned more about Russia’s pre Romanov history (which had been the focus in St Petersburg).
Our guide entertained us with tales about Ivan the terrible (who was pretty terrible – he killed his own son and future tsar in one of his rages and apparently had the architects who designed and built the beautiful St Basil’s Cathedral blinded so they couldn’t recreate it elsewhere) and current events. For instance the flag was raised at the Kremlin supposedly indicating that Putin was home however we’d seen that he was in St Petersburg meeting the FIFA chief that day.. Our guide’s response: he is Putin, he is everywhere!
It was pretty hot at 32 degrees so we decided to have a walk around some of Moscow’s parks that afternoon to make the most of the good weather. Unfortunately we hadn’t taken into consideration that it was Sunday afternoon and many Muscovites had had the same thought so it was pretty packed! The sculpture park was excellent, amazing sculputures everywhere.
Our favourite was a huge pirate boat with a sailor up the front. No idea who it was or what it was representing but just its sheer scale was incredible. We also enjoyed a wander around Gorky Park and a snooze in the shade.
A city of holidays
Given the forecast for rain we decided to visit the Museum for contemporary history or the Russian Revolution Museum on Monday morning. I was eager to find out more about the fall of the Romanov dynasty and about Lenin and Stalin’s rise to power. Unfortunately I’ll have to read about it myself as it turned out Monday’s are a holiday. Similarly, they give Lenin’s corpse a rest from the tourists on Monday and so Mitch was disappointed to miss the opportunity to visit the former soviet leader’s tomb.
However, we were lucky to get tickets to Ivan The Great’s Bell Tower that afternoon which also gave us access to the grounds of the Kremlin. Surrounded by a 15 foot high red brick wall, the Kremlin is an imposing fortress. On a backpackers budget I think this is the best way to visit the Kremlin. It’s only 200 rubies per person and so long as you aren’t interested in visiting all of the church’s inside but happy to admire the architecture and magnificent golden onion topped domes from their exterior, tickets for the bell tower only are the way to go.. Climbing the Bell Tower gives a great birds eye view across the Kremlin complex and out across Moscow. It also gives you free access to the grounds and gardens.
Our primary purpose for visiting Moscow was to get the cheap Aeroflot flight to LA however I was surprised by how much I liked the city. It didn’t have the same atmosphere and beauty as St Petersburg, and I don’t feel the need to revisit but it’s worth a few days visit if you’ve gone to the effort of getting a Russian tourist visa!