I arrived into the capital of Russia via a night train from Saint Petersburg. Everyone on my 3rd class cabin seemed to wake up at the same moment, stretching, groaning and looking half awake. I desperately needed to pee but with one bathroom on the train and a long line of women holding their combs and tooth brushes I thought it best to hold it. I watched the train zoom into the city through Moscow’s colourful suburbs. Once at the train station I transferred onto the cities massive metro system and took the train six stops south. Once off the mile long escalator I burst out into a beautiful sunny garden. I walked north past artists who sold their paintings which dangled over tulip beds. Once at the Golgy Statue in the cities famous Arbat neighborhood I had found my hotel. I unloaded my things, had a quick shower (and pee) and immediately laced up my walking shoes ready for an adventure.
My first stop was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which dominates the skyline along the Moscow River. The original church was built from 1839 to 1860 to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon, but it was destroyed during Stalin’s orgy of explosive secularism. Stalin planned to replace the church with a 315m high “Palace of Soviets” which included a 100 meter statue of Lenin, but the project never got off the ground. Instead, for 50 years the site served an important purpose: as the world’s largest swimming pool. This time around the church was completed in a mere two years, in time for Moscow’s 850th birthday in 1997, and at an estimated cost of $350 million. Much of the work was done by former Mayor Luzhkov’s favorite architect Zurab Tsereteli, and it has aroused a range of reactions from Muscovites, from pious devotion to abject horror. Muscovites should at least be grateful they can admire the shiny domes of a church instead of the shiny dome of Lenin’s head.
From the church I skipped across the bridge which straddles the Moscow River and explored Red October, an old chocolate factory now full of hip bars, design galleries, television production studios, shops and restaurants. The area reminds me a lot of Toronto’s Distillery District. From Red October I walked into the heart of Zamoskvorechie, meaning “beyond the Moscow River.” The atmosphere of 19th century Moscow lives on in the low buildings, crumbling courtyards and clusters of onion domes along narrow ul Bolshaya Ordynka which runs 2km down the middle of the neighborhood.
I hopped into a grocery store to pick up a can of iced cold beer and ice cream cone, which would become a classic pairing during my adventures in Moscow whenever a little famished but not yet ready to sit for a meal. I enjoyed my treats on a wooden bench enjoying the mid day sun. I was sitting inside the cities famous Art Muzeon Sculpture Park which was formerly called the Park of the Fallen Heroes. This open air sculpture park started as a collection of Soviet statues (Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, a selection of Lenins and Brezhnevs) put out to pasture when they were ripped from their pedestals in the post-1991 wave of anti-Soviet feeling. These discredited icons have now been joined by fascinating and diverse contemporary works. Tsereteli’s massive Peter the Great surveys the scene from his post on the embankment of the Moscow River. At 94 metres, it is the 8th tallest statue in the world (larger than New York’s Statue of Liberty!) In November 2008, it was voted the tenth ugliest building in the world by Virtual Tourist and in 2010, it was included in a list of the world’s ugliest statues by Foreign Policy magazine. I really don’t get the hate, I sort of enjoyed staring up at the whimsical bronze.
The park sits behind New Tretyakov Gallery, the premiere venue for 20th century Russia art. This place has much more than the typical socialist realist images of muscle-bound men wielding scythes and busy women milking cows (although there’s that too). The exhibits showcase avant-garde artists such as Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall, Goncharova, and Lyubov Popova.
Once I had absorbed as much Soviet paint as possible I walked back across the bridge to the bustling pedestrian shopping street ul Arbat. I was starving after a day which consisted mostly of beer, ice cream, apple and a nibble here and there of chocolate. The street is Moscow’s quintessential strolling street. Filled with tourists, shops, art dealers, sketch artists and North American chains such as Cinnabon, Starbucks, Wendy’s and Hard Rock Cafe.
I was starving and exhausted. Not a good mix when trying to decide on your first meal in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I had deliberately planned my first restaurant review in Moscow at the massive McDonald’s on ul Arbat. I thought it would provide an interesting story telling piece and reflection on the politics of food. It was also relatively cheap so win-win.
The following morning I walked to the Kremlin and took a few pictures of the flower gardens and then headed to the ticket office. A little old women with a purple tinged perm taped a sign to the door as soon as I arrived “Kremlin Be Close.” Apparently they only sell a block of tickets a day in order to control the number of tourists. I was out of luck and it wasn’t even noon yet! A group of flabbergasted tourists stood by the tourist office with their mouths ajar. The predicament was funny as Lonely Planet had not indicated that you have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get a ticket. So I made a quick change to my itinerary and made Kremlin my first visit of the day the following morning.
Next stop, Red Square which is located immediately outside the Kremlin’s northeastern wall. Commanding the square from the southern end is St Basil’s Cathedral. Red Square used to be a market square adjoining the merchants’ area in Kitay Gorod. It has always been a place where occupants of the Kremlin choose to congregate, celebrate and castigate for all the people to see. Soviet rulers chose Red Square for their military parades; and nowadays it’s the location for concerts, festival and cultural events. Incidentally, the name “Krasnaya ploshchad” has nothing to do with communism: krasny in old Russian meant beautiful and only in the 20th century did it come to mean red, too.
I entered Red Square from Resurrection Gate. Rebuilt in 1995, it’s an exact copy of the original completed on this site in 1680, with its twin red towers topped by green tent spires. Highlights of any Red Square visit include the quaint Kazan Cathedral, a mummified Lenin at his famous Mausoleum, The GUM Building (Gosudarstvenny Universalny Magazin) and the countries most famous landmark St Basil’s Cathedral. After spending a few hours soaking up the square my belly grumbled. I walked back to ul Arbat and enjoyed a late lunch at a famous Russia chain, My My which has taken the love of Holstein print to a whole new level.
The next morning I woke up at the crack of dawn and was one of the first tourists to purchase my ticket to Kremlin. The apex of political power, the Kremlin is the kernel not only of Moscow but of all of Russia. From here Ivan the Terrible orchestrated his terror; Napoleon watched the city burn; Lenin fashioned the proletariat dictatorship; Stalin purged his ranks; Khrushchev fought the Cold War; Gorbachev unleashed perestroika; and Yeltsin concocted the New Russia.
A “kremlin” is a town’s fortified stronghold, and the first low, wooden wall around Moscow was built in the 1150’s. The Kremlin grew with the importance of Moscow’s princes, becoming in the 1320’s the headquarters of the Russian Church. The “White Stone Kremlin” – which had limestone walls – were built in the 1360’s, with almost the same boundaries as you see today. Towards the end of the 15th century, Ivan the Great brought master builders from Pskov and Italy to supervise the construction of new walls and 19 towers (most of which still stand), as well as the Kremlin’s three great cathedrals.
I had a very unique opportunity during my visit. Since I was one of the first tourists allowed into the complex I actually arrived at Sobornaya pl before anyone else. I stood there alone, turned my head 360 degrees and enjoyed a quiet moment of tranquility. It was a bit errie knowing that just a few years ago it was illegal to walk around here with a camera. With a serious spy paranoia during the Cold War photography was banned. I can’t imagine the number of spies who would have died to stand exactly where I stood in the middle of the Kremlin that morning. It really is best to arrive as early as possible as the Cathedrals are overrun with tourists in the afternoon. Highlights of my visit included the massive Tsar Cannon and Bell, Ivan the Great Bell Tower and the Assumption, Archangel and Assumption Cathedrals, The Church of the Deposition of the Robe of the Holy Virgin, The Patriarch’s Palace and The Secret Gardens.
Once finished at Kremlin I was eager for lunch and decided to indulge in Russia’s favorite Japanese import at Planet Sushi. After lunch I walked to the countries most famous cultural centre, The Bolshoi Theatre located on the north side of Teatranlnaya ploshchad. This is where Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake premiered – unsuccessfully in 1877. I then walked north on ul Petrovka which is flanked by the worlds top fashion boutiques. The streets are filled with designer cars, so much so that you can barely walk on the sidewalk. An expression of the cities elite upper class. After dodging a dozen Maserati, Mercedes and Porsche I arrived at The MOMA (Moscow Museum of Modern Art) a pet project of the ubiquitous Zurab Tsereteli. It is housed in a classical 18th century merchant’s home with courtyard filled with whimsical sculptures. Directly across the street is the Upper Saint Peter Monastery worth poking your head into. Founded in the 1380’s, the grounds are pleasant in a peaceful near-deserted way. Once finished poking about I walked all the way back to Arbat where I grabbed dinner at Zhiguli Beer Hall.
The Moscow Metro drives me nuts. It is like an entire city of ants running around in ten directions 50 meters under The Capital of frowns. So, the following morning when I decided to venture on the metro to visit one of the cities most famous art districts I was a bit apprehensive. It took me 30 minutes just to find the proper metro station entrance. I stood on the street looking desperate with blank stares passing right by. Once on the train It was a quick 30 minute ride but once in the lobby of the station I had no clue where to exit. Some 10 exits existed, all written in Russian. I remember thinking “this is absolutely ridiculous” when a fierce young man with an open bloody gash on his right eyebrow wacked right into me causing me to fall backwards. I crawled to the wall and grabbed hold of the railing. I took the closest exit and hoped to find a helpful soul when I reached ground level. I quickly spotted what sort of looked like tourists (at least young Russians). I ran up to them with an eager smile and soon discovered one was Irish and the other was his Russian friend (they had both studied on exchange in Germany together). Thank goodness she was able to lead my in the correct direction with instructions that read, “go straight towards that blue sign, turn left and follow the train tracks, then turn left again under the highway, then turn left again two or three streets down and you’ll be there.”
I arrived at Moscow’s Winzavod Contemporary space after a 90 minute adventure which had me thinking “I need to turn back to my hotel,” a few times over. I’m glad I made it in one piece as it truly is a unique space in the city. The gallery is tucked behind the rusting Kurskiy Train Station and is Russia’s very own Meatpacking District. The one-time wine bottling factory now houses a series of galleries, fashion boutiques, cafe and restaurant. Many celebrities swing by when in town; this is where to go for fashion shows, art openings and sightings of the city’s rich and notorious.
After snapping a few shots of graffiti I made my way back to the metro station, entered the belly of the beast and arrived back at my hotel for a quick shower. I packed up my things and sat staring at my bags for a few seconds. My heart palpitated again. Moscow never grew on me. I was regularly agitated, nervous, overwhelmed and uncomfortable. The staff who worked at my hotel spoke very little English and all of the guests were from small town Russia, visiting the capital to work on government documents. Needless to say families from Siberia are not very engaging. I often found myself lonely in the evenings and was very much looking forward to my graceful exit.
So with a big deep breath I strapped my life onto my back, marched across Arbat and slowly descended into the chaos that is the Moscow Metro on a Friday at 5pm. In the next hour I found myself transferring onto three different metro lines while trying to stand straight on a jam packed subway car. I exited at my final metro stop where the high speed train to the International Airport is located. I just assumed I would make my way to the main floor of the station, buy a ticket and be good to go. How wrong was I (Russia you drive me crazy even when I’m trying to break up with you!)
Standing in the lobby of the station it was clear this was only a metro station and had no train service. I asked a woman who looked like she was in her 30’s if she could point me in the right direction. She spoke very little English but proudly mentioned, “I have been in relationship with man from Brooklyn.” She grabbed my arm forcefully and pulled me out of an exit where we spilled onto a busy street. Without talking much she just power walked under construction awnings and across busy streets. She asked me, “Are you married? Do you have girlfriend?” I said no and pretended to sort of awkwardly laugh. She stared up at me hopefully and I thought “oh my lord.” I started to get a bit nervous as we had been walking for at least 10 minutes and were now very far from the metro station. Her phone rang and she stayed glued to whoever was calling her while I started to get nervous.
The following ran through my head: “27 year old Canadian tourist follows middle aged Russian woman to train station where she has her boyfriend kidnap him in a white truck.” I started to look desperate. Even while walking beside her I started eagerly asking others on the street if the train station was in the direction we were walking. Many just looked away or avoided my gaze. I was terrified now that she was walking me into a horror story. She remained on the phone and whenever I would stop to ask people on the street where the train station was she would yank my arm and pull me further into a chaos I was not familiar. I finally saw a woman pulling a suitecase and she confirmed that I was going in the right direction. My kidnapper soon transformed into a very busy yet helpful woman. She made sure I arrived at the correct ticket line for the airport express and then waved and dashed away. I felt a little bad that I had created a criminal persona in my mind of her.
I grabbed my ticket and soon found myself sitting on a train bound for the airport. I strongly urge anyone making the trek to the airport to leave lots of time to get there as it is located a considerable distance from the city centre. Once at the airport I checked in my luggage, spent the remainder of my Rubles on a few snacks and then whisked myself through security. Once my passport was back in my hands I gave the border security a big smile and said, “thanks so much for having me!” While waiting for my flight to board I watched as a crimson sun set across the horizon. I had survived Russia. At midnight I flew into the sky, Riga bound.