Date of Trip: August 2008
We arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Terminal 1 – the terminal for domestic flights – early in the morning of Saturday, August 2, after a 4 hour Aeroflot flight almost due west from Novosibirsk, Siberia, crossing three time zones. Things may have been different in Soviet times – I don’t know – but, today, arriving on a domestic flight in a Russian city is just like an American domestic arrival. You simply walk off the plane and, if you haven’t checked any luggage, simply walk out of the terminal. As we did.
A friend of one of our daughters had lived in Moscow for a year or so, and I’d written her for advice. She’d responded that our hotel, the Sevastopol, was at the opposite side of the city from our airport, and suggested taking a taxi, which would have cost at least $50-$60 and probably much more, inasmuch as it would have meant taking a taxi at random – something not recommended in Russia – as opposed to ordering one through a hotel desk. I quickly spotted the local bus that links the airport with Moscow’s huge Metro (subway) system, the number 851. It was crowded, but we had seats. It was a long dull ride to the Rechnoi Vokzal station – the northernmost station in Line 2. We passed miles of industrial areas, warehouses and nondescript buildings. Eventually, I dozed off. A woman across from us alerted us as we pulled into the stop for the station. (If you don’t know the language, but want to find out how to get to a certain place, or to be alerted when you get there, just state the place name. Your “guide” will get the message!)
We dragged our luggage off the bus, across the road and into a large indoor waiting area. There were ticket windows and lines, but they moved quickly enough. Moscow’s Metro now uses electronic card-like tickets rather than tokens, which are used in Novosibirsk and St. Petersburg. You can have more than one ride stored on your ticket. We went down a long escalator and boarded the number 2 “green line.” A word about their Metro. The cars are always full and yet there are almost always seats. The reason for that is that the trains on all the lines run almost continuously. In New York, if you miss your train and it’s not rush hour, you may wait 10, 15, even 20 minutes for the next one. In Moscow, you’re more likely to wait only two or three minutes. It is a superb system, and goes pretty much everywhere, like the one in Paris. And it is easy to use and the signs are easy to read and follow, if – and this is a very big IF – you take the trouble before your trip to learn the Russian/Cyrillic alphabet. Without that, you will be lost.
We went through more than a dozen stations, and directly under the city center, including the Red Square area. Many of the stations, including the busiest and most central ones, were built shortly before or even during World War II, and are noted both for being very deep underground – they doubled as air raid shelters – and for their large scale art work, murals and statuary. Unfortunately, we could see almost none of it through the windows. We finally reached our transfer point – Kashirskaya (most station names seem to end either in -aya or -ovo) and switched to a short, three-station line, bound for the Kakhovskaya station. We emerged into a relatively small and not very deep station, complete with a few small shops and, near one exit, a resident dog. Our hotel, I had been advised, would be in Building One of a series of tall buildings, leading out from an intersection where there were some smaller buildings and a few of the roofed beer/water/snack kiosks that are common and convenient in Moscow, just as they had been in Novosibirsk.
Finding the hotel turned out to be a nightmare. The buildings seemed to house primarily small wholesale one or two room operations, mostly staffed by Indians and/or Pakistanis, dealing in bags and crates of dry foodstuffs, costume jewelry and decorations and all sorts of things and parts of things, with loaded wheelbarrows and dollies constantly moving about.. It was bizarre. My wife would wait outside each building while I’d walk around inside, questioning people who either didn’t know there was a hotel in the area, insisted there was no hotel in the area, or gave me the wrong directions – sometimes directing me to another floor in the building, sometimes to a different building. Finally, after dealing with 4 or 5 different buildings and persons in them, we encountered a man in a coat and tie who spoke perfect English and offered to lead us to the actual hotel, which was in one of the buildings farthest down the line. We entered a rather plain lobby, with a rack of cards from dozens of taxi companies and an old couch. A middle aged blonde woman at the desk confirmed that she had our reservation and that it was indeed prepaid. I waited on the couch while my wife dealt with her. It seemed that the unpleasantness caused by the difficulty in locating the actual hotel was over, and everything had finally fallen into place.
Minutes later, my wife turned to me, visibly upset. The woman had told her that she had no confirmation that our visa had been properly registered in Novosibirsk, our previous city, and that therefore we would have to pay a government-imposed fine of 5,000 rubles each – almost $250 – in cash, in rubles, paid directly to her. This was, of course, a bald-faced lie, a crude extortion attempt. At first, we thought we were in the grip of a pitiless bureaucracy and that our travel agent, or our hotel, or someone had been negligent. But it was the woman at the desk who was pitiless. She mocked me for not knowing the phone number of our embassy, and, when I raised my voice, threatened to have us forcibly removed from the premises. We didn’t have that kind of cash on us, and there were no ATMs in the area.
My wife began to remonstrate with the woman, at first distressed and then getting progressively angry, and it dawned upon us that there had been no mistake or negligence but, rather, that this person was lying to us and trying to extort money from us. It was our first, and thankfully last encounter with crime in Russia. After some talk about calling the embassy, calling the police, and about me maybe having a heart attack right then and there, and questions about the location of the nearest hospital, this nasty creature suddenly “found” the “missing” confirmation, gave us our room key and directed us to the elevators. Leery of further trouble, we thanked her and acted polite, while at the same time I soothed myself with thoughts of how, once back home, I would report her and her hotel to every travel site I could find as well as well as to the Russian authorities (and you better believe I did just that! And the woman from the agency who had arranged our time in Russia assured me that they would never book anyone at the Sevastopol Hotel again).
Our room and bath were somewhere between the 2 and 3 star level – not bad at all. Down the hall was the large open breakfast area, and nearby was the desk where the “floor lady” sat. The procedure was to leave the key with her when we’d go out and return it to her when we came back. We unpacked, took a little time to recuperate from the nightmarish experience of first finding the hotel and then dealing with the extortionist desk clerk, and then discussed where to go and what to do. We were tired and didn’t want to go far, and the nearest place of interest was an old royal estate, Kolomenskoye Park, just one station up the green line,
streetcar moscowWe emerged at a busy intersection. There were colorful streetcars – actual trolleys on rails – not that common anymore in Moscow or St. Petersburg – and just to one side was an outdoor terminus where they turned around. I’ve been fascinated with trolleys since early childhood, and took some good shots. We turned and walked along a wide boulevard, not sure where the park was or which side it was on, but we finally came to an entry point.
It was cloudy and cool. There was a ticket window, but no one was selling admissions, so we just walked in. The park was a very long and wide green area paralleling the boulevard, filled with pathways, beautiful trees and small and medium sized old buildings – presumably once houses – widely scattered. Far ahead were larger and more intriguing-looking buildings with decorative exteriors.
As we walked up one wide paved uphill path, we came upon a man with no legs, positioned on a small cart, really not much more than a small wooden platform with equally small wheels, only inches above the ground. He was propelling himself slowly up the path by means of blocky objects with handles, one gripped in each hand. He’d push them down and back, thereby moving himself forward and up by inches each time, then holding them in place to prevent backsliding, then pushing again. It was a shocking and pitiful sight. No one offered to help, nor did he seem to want help, nor would there have been any feasible way to help him, short of bending down and pushing him on his back, or attaching a rope to the front of the platform and pulling him, which would probably have upended him.
russian orthodox church moscow We walked past him, and came to a small but impressive church with three decorated blue domes that looked as if they could have been jewelry if they had been small enough. Inside was a small sales counter and a sign requesting that photos not be taken. The interior was dark and divided into several chambers, filled with standing worshipers, candles and icons. It was so Russian orthodox, so ritualistic, mystical, gloomy and spooky and yet no doubt inspiring to its congregants. There was no conventional large chamber with rows of seats. It was all chambers.
As we left, we saw the legless man, still moving up the path, and then it started to rain. Hard. Living in south Florida, we’re used to heavy downpours that usually end within minutes. This one didn’t stop, but got heavier. We saw a sort of outdoor restaurant/cafe with an enclosed area, but when we tried to go in, a rude bald man angrily barred the way. My wife said it was because there was a private party inside. There were also overhangs and small tables largely covered by umbrellas, so we did avoid getting totally soaked. There was a long grill under one protected area, and sandwiches and skewers of meat were being sold. We settled for beer and sweet rolls.
wooden house moscow The rain didn’t let up so much as simply becoming less intense, so we finally left the cafe, got a little lost, took some photos of intriguingly decorated old wooden houses, and finally returned to the covered entryway. The two dogs we’d seen on entry were still there, so I photographed them as well. Dogs, as well as trolleys, are favorite subjects of mine.
We walked back whence we’d come. There was a sort of covered sentry post with two officers, and we sheltered there briefly, then finally approached the trolley intersection. There was a supermarket there, and sheltered areas around it. We bought some food and made it back to our room. As we did throughout our stay there, we always took the “wrong” Metro exit, meaning we had to cross the intersection and get confused about the way back. We stopped at a kiosk for bottles of cold beer. Those kiosks are one of my favorite things about Russia, or at least the three Russian cities we visited. The operators will usually try to sell you a bottle of German beer first. That runs about a third more than the Russian brands, which are just as good. As in Novosobirsk, I always asked for Klinkskaya brand.
In northern Europe in the summer, it gets dark late, so we decided to take another short outing, and returned to the Green line. There was no time to do the whole Red Square and/or museums stuff, but we wanted to stop in that area, but somehow managed to make a fortuitous mistake and get off just south of there at the Novokuznetzskaya station. It was there that we had our first encounter with the extreme depth of the central part of the system. Entering or leaving through the major stations, you get on an escalator that seems to go on forever. In the median between the up and down portions are strange, illuminated tall pyramid-like lights. I also became acquainted with the fact that the Moscow Metro cars and escalators seem to be favored places for young couples to make out. They are totally unselfconscious about it. People associate young couples publicly smooching with Paris, but I’ve rarely seen it there. The Moscow and St. Petersburg Metros are another story. On one of those endless escalators, I saw two different couples, yards apart, standing and smooching as they were whisked along.
Our mistaken exit was fortuitous, because, when we emerged from the bowels of the Metro, we were in an area very reminiscent of New York’s Greenwich Village. There was a large outdoor fountain, and there were small restaurants and funky little shops. It was getting dark, the rain had stopped, and it was cool and pleasant. We walked around, didn’t buy anything, but saw one restaurant that looked interesting and reasonable, and resolved to have dinner there the following evening. We finally Metroed back to our hotel, got more beer at the kiosk. snacked, and, with no TV, read a bit and turned in.
Sunday, August 3: Red Square and museum day! We got an early start. Breakfast was served to us in the almost-empty breakfast area, eggs, toast coffee and a few other additions; it was good and adequate. We took the Green line to the Ploschad-Revolutsii station, actually part of a conglomerate of stations. It was a long walk underground. Emerging from the bowels of Moscow, we were in an area lined with sales stalls. Walking towards Red Square, we encountered a large group of peace demonstrators, complete with banners and flags, many of which spelled out “AMERICA” in both Russian and English letters. The banners were very long, supported by groups of people, like huge ribbons. As we watched, a huge group of balloons was released into the sky.
On to Red Square. There was some sort of museum with two characters in front of it, made up to look like Stalin and Brezhnev. I took their picture, thinking they were officers or security guards. Then I realized they were impersonators, and my wife reminded me that I had broken my rule about not photographing performers without tipping them, but by then, it was too late.
Through a large decorative archway, we saw the Square, complete with the famed domes and towers at the far end. We went through it. Red Square is a huge paved area, wide and even longer, with all the famed domes at the other end. It was crowded with visitors, befitting a summer day. Our immediate goal was to check out Lenin’s tomb, which closes at 1:00 PM and requires some preparation.
First, you have to get in a line to check your camera. That includes any cell phones with cameras (are there any left without?) You get a metal ticket, then get in another line off to the side for the metal detectors. One through that, things open up, and you walk along a wide path, overlooking the Square from the side, towards the tomb, over which is the name LENIN in Cyrillic letters. And down into a dark passageway.
It was almost totally dark; we could barely see a Russian soldier, standing stock still, pointing to his left by way of direction. I stayed on my left; my wife, Ellen, stayed to the right, stepped up onto a small rise in the black marble and stepped off into space – landing on her head and her shoulder. In this place where even whispering is strictly prohibited, I screamed “Oh My God!” Instantly, 7 or 8 Russian soldiers appeared out of nowhere to assist her. One of them wanted to escort her back outside. “No, I want to see it,” she said. After what she’d gone been through, I could hardly blame her!
Lenin’s body, which has been worked on repeatedly by experts in the field – whatever you call that field, it’s definitely a cut above what is normally referred to as mortuary science – was in the center of a room, in a transparent container on a pedestal, with a sunken area around it and a path around it. He’s on his back, facing upwards. My daughter’s friend who had once lived in Moscow had said to watch his left thumb, because it had supposedly once been broken off and reattached. I looked. It was tucked under his left hand. What did he look like? Waxy.
kremlin wall moscow I walked, and Ellen staggered, out into the light. We were back alongside but not in Red Square, with graves and monuments, mostly to our left, a few to our right. Some were buried in the famed Kremlin wall; others had more conventional graves, complete with busts on pedestals. One of them was Stalin. There was no mistaking that face. Another was Mikhail Suslov, who I recalled as the Soviet Union’s chief communist “theoretician.” We finally reached an exit into the square, and turned left to go retrieve our camera and phones.
As we walked back whence we’d come, we came upon what was a pitiable sight – the last gasp of Soviet communism. To be specific, it was a group of perhaps 100 to 150 old communists, slowly marching down Red Square, carrying old Soviet flags and banners featuring Lenin and Marx. It would be fair to say that their average age was in the 70s. I felt sad for them, not out of any nostalgia for the USSR, but because I suspected that most of them were World War II veterans – our allies – and they simply couldn’t comprehend the overthrow of the old order. And it is a fact that many if not most of Soviet WW2 vets have been shabbily treated since their old regime collapsed on Christmas Day, 199, and are barely surviving on meager pensions.
tomb of unknown soldier moscow red square On the side of the Square – really a huge rectangle – opposite all the tombs was a set off area where there was some sort of a commotion going on. Edging close, I realized that I was looking at the Russian tomb of the unknown soldier, and that a changing of the guard was taking place, as it does throughout the day. The tomb is marked by an eternal flame and by two narrow shelters. A soldier stands, still as a statue, in each one.
soldiers tomb of unknown soldier red square moscow Somewhat disconcertingly, Russian soldiers march by goose stepping, just as their Nazi enemies did. Later, following another guard changing, I was able to get closeup photos of three of them goose stepping away from the tomb. Towards the end of their short route, one of them barked a command, and they were quickly at ease and walked the rest of the way. I reflected that the United States has reached the end of its cycle of tombs of unknowns. The reason, of course, is DNA identification. The last of our unknowns was finally identified by DNA and, much belatedly, returned to his family.
The Square borders several museums, none of which we patronized. We had limited time, and had to prioritize. There were none that I’d ever heard of, and I had been through numerous guidebooks and websites. As part of the process of prioritization, we had to choose among Moscow’s many better known museums. Knowing that we would be spending four days in St. Petersburg, one of the world’s museum capitals, we decided to pick one that was unique to Russia, and that was the Armoury. Yes, spelled with a ‘u,’ British and American-snob-faux-British style. This museum, built into the outer Kremlin wall, contains the greatest of all Russian treasures – Czarist thrones – including the ivory one of Ivan the Terrible – and crowns, bejeweled and ornately carved carriages, extraordinary works in silver and gold, royal dresses and uniforms. There was no catalog, and photography was strictly forbidden- I was snapped at for even daring to ask about it. I ended up ordering a beautifully illustrated catalog online after returning home.
Getting into the Armoury was a long and difficult process, made more so by the second long and intense rainstorm of our Moscow visit. First, we had to stand in line, in the rain, for over an hour to buy the tickets. Then we had to stand in another line for about an hour, also in the rain, to gain entry. An attractive unattended dog hung about the line; naturally, I took a few more photos. Once inside, we hiked upstairs to the treasure-laden chambers. Not just the splendor and value, but also the artistry and designs were overwhelming.
Back into the rain. There was a small overpriced cafe halfway back along the Kremlin wall towards the Tomb of the Unknown; we retreated to its shelter for much-needed hot tea.
gum moscow Afterwards, still in the rain, we wandered back into and then out of Red Square and then, after asking directions several times, to the nearby famous GUM indoor mall. Dating from the 1890s, this glassy multi-tiered structure was once a much-questioned showpiece for Soviet consumerism; now it’s a high-end mall with many if not most of the world’s luxury chains represented. It was worth a glimpse, but my main interest in it was my hope, in vain throughout our stay in that city, of finding an internet cafe. A search in a multi-level underground less luxurious mall proved equally fruitless, with us being directed from floor to floor only to be told that this one and that one had been closed.
Finally, we reboarded the Green line and returned to the Novokuznetzskaya station and the restaurant we’d planned on visiting for dinner. It was a cafeteria setup; the choices were varied, reasonably priced and tasty. We ate in a sort of screened-in porch-like area. It was a pleasant interlude. Then it was the Metro again, getting outside at the wrong exit again, saying a final goodbye to the station’s resident dog, finding our way back to our building, and buying beer at a kiosk to bring to our room.
Since leaving the hotel the previous day on our way to Kolomenskoye, we had not seen the extortionist hotel clerk; in her place was a younger, more attractive and far nicer blonde lady. Because of the need to board an 8:15 flight to St. Petersburg the following morning, using public transit to return to the airport was out of the question. The new desk clerk ordered us a cab for the wee hours, and provided us with a wakeup call. It had been a hard day. we packed in advance and quickly slept. We were downstairs before the cab came, with a pre-set price – I think it amounted to about $50. Not peanuts, but reasonable for such a long and distant ride. Traveling through the center of a deserted Moscow in the early morning darkness was an eerie experience. Back at domestic Terminal One, we dragged our bags up several flights of stairs – and then down a few more to get to our Aeroflot “Moscow-St. Petersburg Shuttle.”
Our Moscow stay was a mixed bag. The weather, quite frankly, stank. A hotel clerk tried to rob and cheat us, and Ellen’s shoulder still occasionally aches from the fall. But using the Metro was an experience, the Armoury was special, the Novokuznetzskaya station area was pleasant, and there’s no place quite like Red Square and the sights surrounding it. The guide books were filled with accounts of museums and monuments that I’d have loved to have visited. I can’t help thinking that we didn’t give Moscow a fair shake. But we had only so much time, and our decision to give greater priority to St. Petersburg over Moscow was a carefully considered one.
A word about the many stories about Moscow being ultra-expensive. It’s not. The Metro, as in Novosibirsk and St. Petersburg, runs about 70 cents per ride, as do the public buses. Entering the Armoury was not cheap, but far less than many big-city U.S. museums. The restaurants are medium-priced, and there are all those wonderful kiosks. Supermarket prices were about on a par with those in the U.S. Not surprisingly, vodka is cheap, and sold in all grocery stores. The ruble, thankfully not linked to the euro, is a bargain at around 4 cents. Our hotel room was not overly expensive by European big-city standards, but that experience was largely spoiled by its being hard to find and out of the central area, and of course by the extortion attempt.
Hints if you’re Moscow-bound If you’ll be using Sheremetyevo Airport, as most international travelers do, allow plenty of time to clear passport control. Use the cheap shuttles or the free Intourist buses between the domestic Terminal 1 and international Terminal 2. Make sure to change some money before you leave the airport. You can use credit and debit cards at many stores, restaurants and ATMs, but the only cash accepted is rubles. Make sure to stay at a hotel that offers visa registration. And, oh yeah. Make sure it’s not the Sevastopol!
Next report – four days in St. Petersburg (and no, not St. Petersburg, Florida! Although if you do go to Czar Peters’s Florida namesake, the Salvador Dali museum there is well worth a visit!) ==