Like a high-pitched sine wave our mood in Moscow rapidly oscillated between the highs of elation and the lows of bored frustration. We were only supposed to be in Moscow three days, but the agency that were booking our trans-Siberian tickets could only get tickets for the 15th May, not the 13th May as we had initially requested. We only found this out at the last minute in St. Petersburg. Tip: If you are planning a similar trip to ours, buy the tickets yourself. Most of the compartments in our first class carriage to Irkutsk were empty...
Moscow grows on you. To the people of St. Petersburg it is just a large village. With many dangerous undesirable elements inhabiting it. That is what we were told. What we experienced was a sprawling grey city, with occasional gems of beauty.
The first impression was of the underground system. The Metro, when you can find it is an experience in itself. Stations are poorly signposted, only a faded red 'M' above doorways gives any suggestion of their entrance. And knowing which station you are at is often shrouded in mystery- again the signage is very much lacking. Combined with the one station having two names depending upon which line it serves, makes traveling on the Metro for the uninitiated a challenge. But it is an enjoyable challenge, and so what if you get off at the wrong station, each is a work of art, a tourist destination in itself. Great subterranean cathedrals, with mosaics on the ceiling depicting heroic workers and the ubiquitous Lenin; fantastic chandeliers, and acres of marble and granite.
Fear on the 15th floor
We stayed in Hostel Asia. On the top floor of a fifteen story concrete high-rise block. Inefficient lifts that only occasionally worked. Concrete blocks whose exterior veil was eaten away by the poisonous polluted atmosphere to revel their naked, rusting metal reinforced rods. We stayed in a dormitory. For some reason that was never clearly explained the double en-suite room we had booked was unavailable. But it was hardly a dormitory. What was probably once a two-roomed flat was now two twin rooms with a common shared bathroom. The room spoke of neglect and decay. Of soviet utilitarianism. And a window that too easily opened out to a 15-story drop. The Fear.
I suppose it was through lack of sleep on the train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, but at every turn I was suffering from the Fear. Paranoia. I'm on the train and there is a shopping trolley by my side and it doesn't seem to have an owner and I'm thinking that it is a bomb and what about these Chechnyans... An old Lady hobbles off at our stop picking up her trolley as she passes. And I've got the fear of falling from out of this window in our hotel room. Never did like tall buildings. At university the hall of residence I spent my fist year in was a tower block. 21 floors. I told them I suffered vertigo and had to be low down. My room was on the first floor. The truth was I didn't want the hassle of waiting for lifts - and the laziness of avoiding long flights of stairs.
Anyway. Moscow. We leave our 15th floor prison in the morning. By 8.30 it is like an oven, reluctantly, I open the window, and by 11am we are on our way, doing the sights. I despise getting up so late, but with so many days in Moscow we decide to take it easy. We rushed around St. Petersburg and felt quite drained by the end of our stay there.
Red square is awesome. St Basils at one end. The technicoloured ice-creamed domed cathedral was partly shrouded in scaffolding, but still loudly confirmed that yes, we are indeed in Russia.
We paid our respects to Lenin. Since studying the Russian revolution at School I had long wished to visit his mausoleum. I surprised myself to leave thinking that he should really be buried. It is something I have yet to get to grips with, how the Revolution is perceived today. In some ways it feels like Russia is more riper for a communist revolution now than it was in 1917. Marx wrote of Communism to be an evolutionary phase. From feudalism comes capitalism, and from capitalism comes communism as the workers become alienated and disenfranchised from the fruits of their labour. Or something like that. It seems that in Russia today, at least in Moscow, shops are stacked with consumer goods that your average Russian could only dream of owning, priced well above their humble means. And poverty is ever present in this city. In the overt scenes of begging, but also less obvious in the child sitting on the Metro with clean but ragged clothes. Wearing shoes, but only one sock….
The GUM building opposite the Kremlin walls is now home to all the major labels. Small boutiques every bit as exclusive, if not more so than their counterparts in Bond Street. -Who can afford this stuff? - I reflect as we stroll through this multi-aisled, multi-storied shrine of capitalist consumerism. And find a small quality wine shop and buy vodka, caviar and a bottle of Beaujolais Villages. Hypocrite? Moi?
Park Sculpture as the name suggests is a park crammed full of sculptures, Lenin's, and Stalin's, monuments of a Soviet past, and their cult of dignitaries. We spend a relaxed hour or so there. The Pushkin museum of fine arts. One of the best art galleries we have visited. Paintings well displayed in a manageable number. A couple of excellent Van Goghs- the Red Vineyard in particular- that we had not seen before. There is truly some great art in this country. And whilst I ponder on the arts, if you say 'Ballet' to me I would say Swan Lake and the Nut Cracker. Don't know any others. Tcaikovsky's Swan Lake was premiered in the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow to a critical audience in 1877. 125 years later we were able to secure some tickets off a tout for a fistful of dollars (far easier than in St. Pete's) and enjoyed what is allegedly one of the finest ballets choreographed by the "worlds leading choreographer," Yuri Grigorovich. The seats were not the best though, up in the Gods, several rows behind large headed, tall German tourists, who, like us had obviously succeeded in getting their bums on the cheap seats. Consequently we spent most of the performance standing, but it was well worth it. It also picked our moods up which the previous day had been dragging their knuckles in the mud of inertia, boredom and fatigue.
The Third day
We feel. Fatigue. Frustration. Boredom. It shouldn't be thus, but sadly it is. No use in seeking a reason, just go with it.
Wander into the State museum hoping it will raise our morale. It doesn't. Walk aimlessly.
- "We gotta get out of this place" The Animals
- "Welcome to the Hotel California...you can stay a while but you can never leave" The Eagles
Need a pick up. And what better pick up than a good pint.
They are everywhere. Like China towns, every big city the world over must have one. The Irish pub. Moscow is no exception (indeed I believe there is, or was, an Irish bar in Moscow Airport). Rosie O'Grady's on Ulistsa Znamenka has all the ingredients, the oak bar and paneling, plenty of green decor and Guinness signs aplenty. The pint of Kilkenny goes down very smoothly. That's much better. Two more days here. Shouldn't have two more days here, should be going tonight. But our planning got screwed. That's planning for you.
The final swig
And now, ladies and gentleman, the moment you've been waiting for, the moment I've been dreading, the last gulp. The final mouthful of the amber paradise. At home, the dregs of the glass. Here, the end of my ephemeral nirvana. One more mouthful and that's it. Over. Finito. I know not when we'll get another pint like this one. Suddenly the fear. I'm afraid to finish it. I'm attached to it. I exalt it, I praise the form of the glass, with the Guinness trade mark printed on the side, the creamy froth slowly crawling down its innards. And at the bottom the liquid gold that is paining me so much. I hold the glass up to the light. Take a deep breath, exhale then bring the glass to my mouth. Those final drops roll down the gullet so effortlessly. I've got the taste. Awwww, sod it. Barman, one more Kilkenny and a vodka and coke for the Lady!