Or: Can I have a lemon one please mate?
Distance travelled: 1766 miles
Yes, that’s right, I used those immortal words. But that comes later.
Upon arriving off of my overnight train, and ditching my bag at the hostel I thought, “first things first, I’ll go and collect my train tickets from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaator”. Good job I did too.
“Yes, your tickets haven’t got here yet. There has been a problem”
“Um, ok. What sort of problem?”
“The travel agency hasn’t confirmed the seats.”
“But aren’t you the travel agency?”
“So can you confirm my ticket?”
“Yes, we have”
“But I thought you said you hadn’t?”
I was told I could either wait there while she got my ticket, or I could come back later. I opted for the latter, and went to brave the tube system again. Despite being beautifully built (honestly, like works of art in their own right), they aren’t half confusing. It doesn’t help that everything inside is written only in cyrillic.
Deciding to not look at a map at the other end, and try to find my way to Red Square through my natural sense of direction, I got myself hopelessly lost for a while. In doing so, I stumbled across a film shoot. And by stumbled, I mean I was told off for walking too close. At least I think that’s what happened. It was in Russian, so who knows.
I eventually made my way to Red Square. So named from a mis-translation of the Russian for beautiful (krasnaya is used (somewhat archaically) for both). It certainly is that. It’s flanked by the Kremlin, St Basil’s, the Russian State Museum, Lenin’s Mausoleum, and GUM, which was possibly the poshest shopping centre I’ve ever seen. It was exceedingly odd to stand on Red Square and think to myself: “Only a very few years ago I never could have stood here; either the air fare would be astronomical, or I’d be shot as a spy!”.
Aware that I needed to get back to pick up my ticket later, I decided to forego the Kremlin and St Basil’s until the next day. Lenin apparently refuses to receive visitors on a Friday, so I went into GUM, not knowing it was a shopping centre. Feeling rather under-funded, I didn’t stay long, but I did manage to get myself a drink of lemonade.
A bit of context is required here I think. Back in 2007, I travelled around North France in a decidedly small Ford Ka, with Josh, Thom and Fil, taking advantage of the huge summer holiday granted by being a student. Anyway, on a hot afternoon in Paris, we decided to go and get some ice cream. After coaching Fil for a good ten minutes on how to ask for an ice cream in French (he not having studied it), we go up to the store. After we order ours in flawless French (honest!), Fil steps up to the counter.
“Can I ‘ave a lemon one please, mate?”
We haven’t let him forget it. So when I got up to order my flavor of syrup in fizzy water (apparently very popular in Russia, and pretty tasty) I got to use the phrase, and contribute to the decline in reputation of the English around the world. Met with a blank look, I used the Russian for lemon (лимон, which happens to be pronounced “limon”), and pointed. Well, I found it funny anyway.
Having plenty of time to kill still, I went to the Russian State Museum. It told the story of the Russian people, from stone age tools and carved log canoes, all the way up to the end of the Tzars. It really brought home how vast, and self contained Russia is. It has its own distinct history which, barring a few wars, is fairly isolated from the rest of the world. Notably missing was the communist revolution and beyond. Possibly this is dealt with in other museums, but the whole country seems determined to avoid, in particular, Stalin. At least when presenting themselves to the outside world. Hardly surprising I suppose. Aside from Lenin, who is truly ubiquitous across Russia (despite wanting there to be no monuments to him built), the major communists are avoided, like a skeleton in the national closet.
After returning to collect my train ticket (“Yes, here it is”, “oh cool. So that’s ok then, everything is sorted?”, “Da”… We shall see), I headed back to the hostel for a bit.
I would skip over the hostel, as it wasn’t too exciting, but I’ve been specifically asked to talk about it. The entrance was as unprepossessing as that in St Petersburg, but it gave way to a pretty nice two story hostel. The staff spoke only basic English (this in contrast to the previous one being run by a californian girl), but it was clean, and safe. We had individual lockers, and the shared rooms all had individual locks. And there was a water cooler upstairs. Man, I loved that thing (Moscow reaching the 30s).
I only met two of the people I was sharing a room with. Amelia, the Swiss girl prematurely introduced in the last post, and Boris, a Russian (not his real name, because I can’t remember it). Boris was wearing a ‘pro-life’ t-shirt, but I decided not to try and have that discussion through a sober language barrier. Instead, we discussed literature, Russian history, music and languages. Much easier. Apparently there’s a famous Russian song which warns against drinking perfume, because that was a serious issue under the Soviets. This would not be the first, or the last time that I would think to myself “huh, Russia is crazy” (more often than not it was, “huh, Stalin was crazy”, but nevermind).
Afterwards, I went for a walk into the center and had a beer with Amelia. She had to go and meet a friend at around midnight, and I, to my eternal shame, had an early night. This may have had something to do with my paranoia about missing my stop on the overnight train earlier, and subsequently waking up every hour.
The next day
Today I thought I’d wander down and say hello to Lenin. Turns out, hundreds of other people had the exact same idea, and I decided that I really couldn’t be bothered to wait that long to see something that had once, when alive, conquered Russia. Maybe I’ll go see Mao in Beijing if I decide morbid curiosity is worth waiting for hours.
Instead, I decided to go and look around the Kremlin, and it’s armory. I didn’t notice any doors labelled ‘smiert spionam’, but I suppose things are more subtle now (if you get that reference without googling, 10 points).
The armory isn’t really an armory, more a secure storage area that has developed into the oldest museum in Russia. The opulence in it was just overwhelming. Fabergé eggs were actually among the less impressive works of art. Any single piece would have to be worth millions. Simply stunning. Of course, they had weapons and armour too, but only up to the medieval. They included six shot revolver-style rifles, and a genuine gunblade, among other cool weaponry. Unfortunately, taking pictures came with an extra fee, so you’ll have to google if you want to see them.
Inside the Kremlin were half a dozen churches that, anywhere else would be national monuments, and the biggest cannon I’ve ever seen.
After the dazzling opulence of the Kremlin I needed a something more ascetic, and found it in St Basil’s. It’s really nine churches in one, with a bulbous tower each, all linked. I must admit; much more interesting from the outside, but still cool.
The rest of the day was spent wandering the streets of Moscow. Notable were the many imposing Soviet skyscrapers, and the cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the tallest orthodox church in the world.
This was very much a “Stalin was nuts” moment. He tore the whole thing down in 1931 to make way for the “Palace of the Soviets”. This thing was to be insane. 100 floors and 500m tall, the highest building in the world at the time, crowned by a vast statue of Lenin. Instead, they ran into geological and engineering issues, and WWII happened. It was turned into a vast open air public swimming pool in 1958, and the cathedral was rebuilt from 1995-2000. This sort of engineering would become a theme in my travel across Russia.
I think I’ll leave my notes on Moscow there, skipping over beers and ice cream in the park (delicious), dinner (moo-moo, canteen style, but pretty good) and kvass (made from fermented bread, and disgusting). Apologies for the verbosity, but its mostly been written while hiding from the rain in Novosibirsk.
Next up, the Trans-Siberian Express!