10 October 2007
WE DON’T HAVE enough words in our arsenal to describe Moscow properly. It is a hell of a crazy city. So crazy we don’t know whether to laugh or cry most of the time. It is, by far, the most hectic and chaotic city we’ve ever been in (so far!). Some of our observations:
On civility – there basically is none. You are fair game to be shoved, elbowed, and pushed aside as people try to get past you. This is especially true in the metro stations where sometimes – okay, most of the time – it is more crowded than a mosh pit at a rock concert.
On environmental conscience - again, none. Nyet. The Moscow River is full of floating debris – from rubber tires to plastic bottles to beer cans. On one bus ride a passenger briefly stepped off at a stop on the side of the road and over-handed two empty beer cans toward the general vicinity of the forest. This was not met by one solitary “tsk” or head-shake from anyone in the bus. This is accepted behaviour. (This goes for all of Russia.)
On the metro – this is one place we have to give them a lot of credit. The system is vast and comprehensive. And it better well be, seeing as it serves several million people per day. Every station is a work of art with statues, murals, pillars, and elegant chandeliers. You are never waiting more than two minutes for a train – and, amazingly, in those two minutes of waiting the platform fills up with people.
There are so many passengers they have to employ counter-flow escalators (although usually they just completely shut down two of four escalators creating massive bottlenecks at the top and bottom). It is clear where Moscow’s priorities lay – even with such a vast number of people using the metro system, the trains and stations are spotless clean. We even saw some ladies scrubbing the brick walls in the basement, where the stored luggage lockers are, with these little brushes. It makes no sense at all. Dirty river, clean metro basement walls?
On crossing the street - this can be summed up by an anecdote told to us by our Hospitality Club host. She told of an elderly lady who was petrified of the traffic and crossing the street here in Moscow. She was on a trip in Lithuania one day when someone stopped to allow her to cross the street. She broke down in tears.
On alcoholism - hmmm. Morning coffees here are substituted with beer. Need we say more? Combine this with their violent culture and it’s easy to see why the average life span of a Russian male is less than 59 years.
On the people – aside from the few friendly and nice folks we came across, most wore grim faces and rushed around town with perma-frowns. In contrast to St. Petersburg, where we witnessed lots of people smiling, laughing and generally having a good time, no one here seems to be enjoying themselves at all. Those with money seem pre-occupied with showing everyone else that they have money. As told by one of our hosts later on, people attend things like expensive concerts not because they necessarily enjoy them, but just to prove that they can afford to go.
Erin, our host in Moscow – a 60+ year old American who has been living here for 16 years – at one point in a conversation asked us “what was the one place in all our travels we would never go back to?” At the time we had no answer for her because there wasn’t anywhere we could think of that would satisfy the question. A couple of days later we returned to the question and answered “Moscow”. She understood all too well.
Of course, there are lots of people who will tell you they love the city, and we’ve talked to people who do (although if we knew how it was at the time we would have demanded the reasons why!). We could sugar coat it and say everything is lovely here, but it’s not. It does have its moments, but they are few and far between. Despite all of the above, we did do our best to enjoy it (and it really is a place that must be visited to see for yourself – maybe you have more of a penchant for it than us!). Aside from wandering the confusing streets and riding the metro (because it is just too big a place to see on foot alone), we took in most of the must-do’s here.
We visited the Red Square (where we met and briefly spoke with a Kiwi gal who did the Trans-Siberian the opposite way we are doing it) and checked out Lenin’s Tomb to view his embalmed body. It is pretty creepy – he looks like a wax figure lying there, looking the same as when he died in 1924 (we read that they clean his body once a week (hence that’s why you can’t visit him on Thursday) and once a year he is shipped off to be dipped in some chemical solution that includes paraffin wax). We walked inside the posh GUM shopping mall where the only thing we could afford was the toilet (and even that was a rip-off as they were squatting toilets!).
On Saturday we went to the Ismaylovo market and looked at all the neat goods for sale. We couldn’t resist eating shashlik (Russian bbq) from a vendor who, when I told him we were from Vancouver, Canada, said “Vancouver Canucks! Pavel Bure! Russian Rocket!” and went on to show me his Canadian flag pin on his nametag. According to our guide book and other people, bargaining with the merchants is half the fun of shopping in the markets. The one time we were interested in buying something (a “matryoshka” – Russian nesting doll), we offered a price not even much less than she quoted us. She gave an abrupt NO and turned around; end of discussion! That was the end of our bargaining – we opted for a matryoshka from a burly Russian man on Arbat Street who looked like Santa Claus and insisted we take our picture with him (now scared to bargain, we just paid asking price).
An unusual thing we did do was go to a famous “cat theatre”. Some guy uses the nature or cats (since they can’t be trained) and performs a show. Our host said she heard they do a rendition of a Shakespeare play. We were quite surprised when we went there to find out that it was not at all a semi-sophisticated thing like we thought, but instead it was a clown show that used a few cats to do funny things like push a baby stroller and walk across tightropes. We were the only adults in the crowd who didn’t have any kids! We were a bit embarrassed but we stuck it out and were even mildly entertained.
After being told by Maxim in Petrozavodsk about the rampant corruption of the police and reading in our book and listening to others tell us that police harass tourists for their documents, especially dark-skinned people, we were half-paranoid when we were around them (which was most of the time as they are numerous around the city). We did see a lot of people in metro stations stopped by the cops and having their documents checked, but we spent our time unmolested and in hindsight we may have been overly nervous – which is not to say trust the police! We’ve been told enough times that they are not your friends to believe it.
From Moscow we took a sidetrip to a small provincial town called Suzdal – population 12,000 and about an equal number of churches! A bit of an exaggeration, but at one point in time there was one church per 12 residents.
In medieval times it was customary to place a church on every street and they kept it up, leading to what you see today: a skyline full of steeples, domes and crosses (many years ago a law was passed that no building could be higher than two stories). We took a bus straight here from Moscow (almost five hours on a small bus whose speedometer didn’t work).
It is an extremely charming town – a town with a large square where vendors sell their homemade crafts and food everyday, chickens wander freely, roosters crow, Soviet-era Lada cars rule the street, and small colourful wooden houses with intricate and detailed window trimmings line the avenues. We didn’t take one moment of peace and quietness for granted, especially knowing we had to head back into Moscow for one more day. It was easily the most enjoyable time since Kizhi Island, even though it rained the entire time. The high-comfort hotel we stayed in (including a great breakfast) certainly did nothing to discourage that! Our bus ride back was a little more comfortable – we took a city bus to nearby Vladimir and hopped a coach back to Moscow.
Upon our return to Moscow we had just enough time to check out the last thing we wanted to do here – the Kremlin. After reading that it closes at 4:00 PM, we rushed to get our tickets (we later saw lots of people still coming in after 4:00??). We wandered around the small area you are allowed to visit (bouncer-sized men in black with walkie-talkes made sure you didn’t venture off anywhere else). There are some churches, which are now museums, to look at and also a display of rich religious artifacts. It really poured down on us this day, so we went into a McDonalds, whipped out our laptop and used their free wireless service to research our upcoming trips.
Tomorrow we are boarding a train in which we will spend three nights (64 hours in total). Our destination is 4098 km from Moscow. This will be our longest stretch on the Trans-Siberian.