Some thoughts on Moscow

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Moscow felt different right from the start. For one thing, it's huge. London is huge too, but there's an oft-repeated saying that London is just a big collection of small towns, and to a certain extent that feels true. That is not the case with Moscow, or at least not with the 0.0001% of Moscow I've seen. If London is a collection of towns, then in my experience Moscow is a collection of imposing buildings, impossibly wide streets, massive public spaces, and oddly wistful amusement parks, all linked by the most magnificently designed metro system I've ever descended into. As the trusty LP says:

"The Moscow metro is justly famous for the art and design of many of its stations. Many feature marble, bas-relief, stucco, mosaics and chandeliers. Diversity of theme is not their strongest point - generally, it's history, war, the happy life of the Soviet people, or all of the above."
I thought the different designs of the Metro stations in Montreal were quite nice - different tile work, a bit of mosaic tossed in here and there, certainly respectable. And you already know how I feel about the wall tiles in Baker Street Station. Love 'em. Well the Moscow Metro stations makes it look like those designs were inspired by a cinderblock. Seriously, the main interchange station (Arbatskya - Borovitskaya - Alexandrovsy Sad - Biblioteka imeni Lenina) has freaking chandeliers hanging over the tracks. It's like the train is driving through an opera house.

The chandeliers, hanging over the tracks at Arbutskaya

And the corridor between platforms at the same station. Are you kidding me?

There's white marble all over, and stone and bronze statues of idealized workers, and lots of carvings celebrating farming and engineering and good, solid, socially-responsible pursuits. "My" metro stop - Partizanskaya - has what the trusty LP guide describes as "floral bas-reliefs decorated with AK-47 machine guns". (My shot of the AK-47s is over at Flickr, but woefully out of focus. Sorry.)

The happy, or at least sturdy, Soviet citizens at the top of the escalators at Partizanskaya

So the metro is just wonderful. If I had more time here I'd spend a day just riding the metro, and hopping on and off to see all the fantastic designs. Two days is a ridiculously inadequate amount of time for the city, but it's also an exhausting place to be - physically and mentally, so I'm not entirely devastated at the thought of moving on.

As for the above-ground bits of Moscow, they are big and intimidating. The Kremlin has 2 kilometres of walls. Red Square is 1100 x 230 feet. And on my way to meet some friendly Moscow hashers* after dinner on Monday I ran up against a street I had to cross that was about 10 lanes wide, and all those lanes were going in the same direction. It would have been like trying to cross a football field of cars. Luckily I realized there are pedestrian underpasses for this kind of thing, and it only took me about ten minutes to navigate to where I was going, since I had to keep popping up, gopher-like, to orient myself.

Red Square, featuring St. Basil's Cathedral on the left (the one that looks like a cartoon), and the Kremlin on the right.

So it's a tiring place to look around. Unlike London, where the scale was so small I kept overshooting the mark by blocks (sometimes miles) , there's none of that in Moscow. If it looks like it's going to be a long way, you better pack a lunch, because you're in for a trek.

Russia is also a tiring place to be mentally. I mentioned it in my first post about Moscow, but it bears repeating. It is really difficult functioning in a world where you can't read or speak the language. My Cyrillic is coming on a treat, I have to say, and a lot of the time I enjoy puzzling out what the words say, and feel a rush of triumph whenever I'm successful.

The first Russian word I read without assistance. I know, it's pretty obvious, but it's not like it's displayed inside a big red octagon...

I can now actually noodle out what most signs say, but the problem is that unless the words turn out to be similar to English, I'm still screwed. It does me no good to know that "бутерброд с сыром" says "bootyerbrod s siram" when that could mean "motor oil" or "next Wednesday" or "Whatever the hell you do, don't even think about coming in here." (In fact, it means cheese sandwich). So you can see how this kind of thing, repeated hundreds of times a day, could begin to wear very quickly. I start the day all fired up to go out and conquer the language, the city, and the world and by lunch time I just wish I could remember the words for cheese sandwich.

I can't even count. I know one number: cto ("stoh") which means one hundred. And I only know that one because some guy charged me 100 rubles to take my picture standing next to his stupid camel, which was about 110 rubles more than it was worth (photo at Flickr, but not even remotely worth posting here),

God, there's so much more to tell. I went to Lenin's tomb. (He's still there, in case anyone was worried.) That was just bizarre. We** waited in line in the rain for about an hour to descend into the marble mausoleum, past impossibly young Russian soldiers with dinner-plate sized hats, and then shuffled around Lenin's preserved corpse, laid out under a canopy and lit with a very odd shade of pink (no talking, hands out of pockets, gentlemen please remove your hats...). The actual viewing lasted about 30 seconds. As I said: bizarre.

And we toured the Kremlin, which is vaguely analagous to the Tower of London I suppose, but covers a lot more area. It had 4 churches in it, and they're all Russian Orthodox, which are very different to the cathedrals I've seen so far. And I went to Gorky Park, which turns out to be an amusement park, though you wouldn't know it from the front gates, which look like they belong to some kind of re-education centre, but conceal the mandatory miniature train system, carnival rides and even a Whack-a-Mole game.

Gorky Park. I don't know about you, but this looks like fun fun fun to me.

And I wasn't kidding about the Whack-a-Mole.

Phew. Moscow. Enough said for now. Except I could really go for a cheese sandwich.

* Once again, the hash has come through for me. Even though I missed the run on Sunday, I got to go to a local bar and met some friendly Moscow hashers, two of whom ended up taking me on an impromptu driving tour of Moscow at night before dropping me off right at the hotel. I got to see a complete circuit of the innermost ring road, and saw loads of amazing Stalinist architecture and Moscow landmarks, which are all lit up very nicely at night. And I got some tips on Moscow in general (carry a copy of your passport instead of the real article, and if the cops stop you, act stupid and tell them the original is "being registered". They may get huffy, but they won't get your passport.) And I got some help in reading Cyrillic ("Which is that one that looks like a K in a mirror?" - "ZH" - "Oh right!". "What does Aptika mean" - "Drugstore" - "Ah!"). And so on. Thanks Don and Julia!

** I say "we" because I'm now on a pre-booked package tour with 10 other people (5 Aussies, 4 Americans, 1 Brit, and me). It's something I planned long ago, and I'm soooooo glad I did. It's really nice to have some backup in this country - I don't have to worry about booking hotels, or buying train tickets, or planning an itinerary. I just have to show up. And I've got a built-in social group which is positively intoxicating for someone who's be traveling alone for 2 months.


Heather Moore said...

I notice the Clinique ad is in English tho. ;)

Patti Pon said...

Hey Pam

Sounds like you are having a fantastic time. Can't wait to join you in the new year!



Colleen K said...

Hey Pam: Got your blog address from your mom about 10 days ago and have just caught up with you. Love to hear of your adventures in places I've seen and those still on my list. Loved the Whack-a-Mole in Moscow -- saw one at the Ex here yesterday. Take care and/or have fun. Hugs, Colleen

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