Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tourism in the Eastern Bloc – Part 1

I've written a lot about the many practical aspects of living abroad, however Russia is a country so alien to many people that I thought I'd write a bit about travel and tourism here, starting with a trip to Moscow that was like something out of a Michael Palin documentary.

Some friends and I recently spent a superb, if slightly unusual, five days in the capital. I've never been somewhere it's so completely normal to see tanks driving up and down the streets and riot police everywhere. And water cannons. More on those later.

We decided to take the overnight eight-hour train to get from St Petersburg to Moscow, and bravely chose to travel 3rd class (platskart) for the full 'Russian experience'. Each train has the extremely expensive first class, the second class with (very tiny) four-bunk compartments, and then third class, which is one long, open-plan (if you can call it anything so sophisticated) carriage of bunks. Booking only a week in advance, we got return tickets for around £30 – the sooner you do it, the cheaper it is. Tickets are available here; however to ensure that travelling companions end up in relatively close proximity, and the same carriage, it's not a bad idea to drop by Moskovskii Vokzal, the station for Moscow trains, in person (complete, of course, with passport) to book in person.

So, third-class tickets purchased, and hostel booked (courtesy of the ever-reliable Hostel World
), the five of us set out for Moscow. We'd been settled on the train for about 10 minutes (remember, it's an eight hour journey) before a few other passengers sussed that we were English and therefore the most exciting people they'd ever met, especially when they discovered we could speak Russian. Travelling with these people revealed a side of Russia less often documented in the West – hospitable, friendly and attentive, they insisted on sharing their food and drink with us, and talked to us into the early hours, despite the fact that after our departure in Moscow they had another thirty-six hours of travel to Volgograd.

Tradition dictated that we joined all the toasts, sharing our vodka and beer and their odd but pleasant (and strong) nut liqueur. We did however decline the offer of alcohol decanted into a water bottle, which the slightly drunk owner described simply as 'Russian cocktail'. Everything was toasted: international relations, beautiful English girls, train journeys, safe journeys, journeys to new cities, and the most obvious one - to fishing. Apparently they think fishing is a major national sport in England. Luckily the constant toasts were soaked up by an equally constant stream of food, as traditionally you toast, drink a shot, and then eat something. While many people would imagine boiled eggs to be antisocial in a confined environment, apparently in Russia it simply isn't done to travel without them, so we made the appropriate, 'Mmm, delicious' comments and accepted. 

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
Amazingly enough we arrived safely, at four in the morning, and having jumped on the first metro we found our hostel (in reality a room in someone's apartment, but a decent place nonetheless). Our location was perfect, just off Tverskaya – the central street of Moscow which leads straight to Red Square. On arrival we took the opportunity for a quick nap, and then, trusty Lonely Planet guide in hand, headed for the Kremlin and Red Square. Which were closed. And got more closed over the next few days. In fact the barriers around the buildings moved further and further away until the entire front road was shut off, as our visit coincided with not only the inauguration of Vladimir Putin, but also Victory Day...and large anti-Putin protests. However on our first day we managed at least to walk around the side and back of Red Square and got excellent views of St Basil's, probably the building most synonymous in most people’s minds with Russia. We also visited the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which has been rebuilt and refurbished since Stalin knocked it down and turned it into a swimming pool. Actually it was so hot that a swimming pool might have been preferable. But joking aside, it is a hugely impressive and utterly beautiful building, inside and out. Be warned though, it is a working Orthodox church, so don't try to enter in shorts or a short skirt, because you will be brusquely refused entry.  

St Basil's

The following day we were lucky enough to have continued gorgeous weather so we went out to the Novodevichy cemetery and convent - the cemetery is Russia's equivalent of Père Lachaise, and so were able to visit the graves of Chekhov, Gogol, Bulgakov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, amongst others. We also saw Tchaikovsky, but then closer inspection it proved not to be him at all, just someone with the same surname who clearly spotted an opportunity to have a fancy grave. Then we went into the convent, where we found half the police and press of Russia congregating around a small chapel. Thinking someone famous might have died, further investigation revealed that in fact no such thing had happened – in fact, Mr Putin himself was in said church. Which was pretty bloody exciting. It was probably just as well for him that he was there because there were about 50,000 protesters outside his new house in the Kremlin getting a bit worked up… 

A lucky metro mishap lead to us spending the rest of the afternoon in Gorky Park, which is an absolutely gorgeous area along the river. We basked in our new-found fame having nearly sort of almost met the President-elect, and the friend who had caused us to jump off the metro two stops early pretended that finding the stunning park had been the endgame all along.

On the day of the inauguration itself there were even more barriers everywhere due to the previous day's protests, and that's when we met the riot police, the tanks and the water cannons. Intimidating is certainly the word for it, and the centre of the city was even more closed than ever. We wandered up to see the Lubyanka (the FSB headquarters), which is a pretty scary building. It's said that during its days as the KGB headquarters, people feared it so much that they would cross the road to avoid walking past it. Even on a sunny day it casts a chilling shadow. 

The Lubyanka

Our final day was spent trying to find a famous but quaint flea market in a park, complete with antiques and local artwork, but apparently this has now been replaced by a gaudy and particularly unsafe-looking funfair. We blamed this on the fact that our Lonely Planet guide was four years out of date, but it didn't go unnoticed that it was the idea of the same group member who got us lost on the metro...

Instead we headed to Fallen Monument Park, formerly Park of the Fallen Heroes, where they now keep many of the statues of Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev that were moved after the collapse of communism. It's an eerie place to say the least. It's very quiet and serene there, but with an odd sense of awkwardness. Particularly odd are the flowers that some still leave by statues of Stalin, a sign that traces of his cult of personality still linger here today.

To lighten the mood we headed to the CSKA Moscow vs Kuban Krasnodar match. We'd attempted this the previous day and had been perplexed by how empty the metro was – and on arrival at the stadium we discovered that the date had been changed. The internet had lied about the date, it would seem, but it was the third strike for our ill-fated friend who was no longer allowed to be in charge of maps/directions/tickets/decisions. On the way into the game the police were out in force, and we went through six or seven bag and body searches. Relatively normal. It was a good game, and on leaving everyone was behaving quite well, if being the normal exuberant football crowd; however, as with many European venues, there's no alcohol allowed in Luzhniki Stadium (Russia's Wembley equivalent), which made life calmer. Nonetheless, the crowd was met by a line of riot police, who then formed two ranks the length of the walk from the stadium to the metro. We walked in lines about eight across through silent, glaring men in full body armour, and by the time we'd got about halfway to the metro everyone had fallen completely silent. The experience was intimidating, compounded by them then physically moving us onto the escalator. But in many ways, this is Russia...this is how they get things done, and it may not be the 'Western' approach, but it's certainly effective!

The train back to St Petersburg wasn't until 2am that night, so no Russian parties, just sleep. But the following day was another experience to add to the list. So hot that we could barely breathe when we woke up, we stood in between two carriages to get some air. We were moving at snail's pace from about 8am until our arrival at 11.30, but this gave us chance to see a whole other side of Russia outside the two main cities. The countryside rolled slowly past in the sunlight, revealing run-down factory towns of tower-blocks, rural villages and dachas ranging from the tiny to the luxurious.

So we got home to St Petersburg, bemoaning the lack of a proper walk around Red Square and complaining that the Kremlin was closed. But on reflection, in five short days we saw a whole spectrum of Russian landscape, and the architecture and sights of the capital city. We supported CSKA Moscow, we met real Russian people, and we experienced a whole new form of policing. We even had a 'same place same time' moment with Putin himself. It really was the quintessential Russian experience. Beat that, Palin.

1 comment:

  1. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.
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