“You’re travelling light today” said the easyJet check in lady. “Just a short trip?”
Not exactly! Whilst it was a relatively short trip just in Moscow, it was certainly different to other European city breaks we’d had before.
The first thing you need to know in Russia is that a ‘P’ is an ‘R’, a ‘B’ is a ‘V’ and a backwards ‘N’ may or may not be a ‘Y’. Or something. We thought we were getting somewhere, having also figured out that an upside down ‘V’ is an ‘L’, but then were stopped short in the middle of a word by… a ‘3’??
Back to square 1. Or is that square ‘Q’?
We did start to get to grips with a few words, the easiest anchoring point being words translated phonetically from English. Our names from our visas were the starting point (Ребекка / тимьян) and the ever-present Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts signs helped us too.
Right from the start, everything was made easier by the Russian people we met. From the ticket lady who happily handed over a cash refund when we’d bought the wrong train ticket from the airport, to Irina, who took her whole evening to show us around the city.
We met Irina by complete chance. We chose Gogol bar at random from online reviews but as we walked up to it we had some doubts about its reputation as a drinking den for students and starving artists given the designer shops and lines of shiny new Aston Martins and Lambourghinis surrounding it. At the bar Timian met Vladimir who joined us for a drink, and then someone else, then someone else until there were about 6 people crowded round our table, none of whom knew each other. Just before getting weirded out, we found out it was a language exchange night. Rebecca spent most of her first night in Moscow practicing her French.
Ordering a drink in Moscow automatically triples the number of Russians you’ve met. One guy takes your order and makes the drink. He passes the money to the boss stationed behind the till who in turn passes your change to the runner who brings it back to you. It was Irina who rescued Rebecca from offending all three of them by trying to pay the equivalent of 50p for a round instead of £5.
We’ve also got Irina to thank for an authentic experience of Russian food. On Old Arbat Street (‘Arbatskaya‘ is apparently the oldest street in Moscow, connecting the Kremlin with Smolensk. Nowadays it’s dotted with street artists, musicians, and cafes), we went to a bar decorated as a suburban Russian living room in 1980. We had Pielmeny (a sort of Russian ravioli), and a layered salad which translates as ‘Herring under Fur Coat’. Of course we had the traditional shot of vodka with pickles (in this case pickled everything; pickled cabbage, pickled tomatoes, pickled beans, pickled garlic, and pickled pickles…)
Old Arbatskaya turns into New Arbatskaya in a juxtaposition of traditional and modern Moscow. Small retro cafes are replaced with high-rise hotels, bars, and night clubs. Shops on New Arbatskaya, as in the rest of Moscow, are open 24hours. But not just the types of shops you might expect to be open all night, in Moscow you can buy a new phone, a pair of shoes or even a new pet at 3am if you really want. Having shoppers mingling with theatre-goers and bar crowds at all hours makes the streets feel very safe, both day and night.
Our favourite 24hr shop was Eliseevsky Gastronom where supermarket aisles have taken up residence in what looks like an 18th Century Grand Ballroom (it is in fact the converted mansion of a pre-Revolutionary merchant). The tacky packaging of kids’ cereal boxes lined up on mahogany shelves sit beneath huge decorated mirrors, portraits and marble columns whilst the fruit and veg stands are lit by giant chandeliers.
Giant watermelons seemed to be a popular option in Moscow, not only in the supermarkets and city centre kiosks but also lining the bottom of a large fountain in GUM (‘ryM’ in Cyrillic and translated as City Universal Shop) on Red Square.
Both Eliseevsky Gastronom and Red Square were very close to our hostel on Tverskyaya which thankfully was not home to the ‘Long Term Russian Males’ we’d read about living in some Moscow hostels.
Sight-seeing in Moscow starts as soon as you arrive, on the metro. This is a world away from the London Underground. Pulling into a station there are no signs along the platform to tell you which one it is, which makes for an interesting game of Russian Metro Roulette. But, to be honest, you’ve won whichever station you choose. Just like Eliseevsky Gastronom, from eye-level upwards, they look more like palaces with chandeliers along the walkways, brightly coloured stained glass panels, intricate marble ceilings and huge paintings. It seems all the more incongruous with the 70s style carriages and creaky old escalators. Our favourites were Novoslobodskaya, Prospekt Mira, Kiyevskaya, Komsomolskaya. It was a cheap activity, too. We just had to buy one metro ticket for 50p (‘p’ being an ‘r’ for Rubles, but also working out conveniently as 50 pence) to see 5 or 6 sights.
We did resurface and visit the above-ground sights too. It’s easy to see Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral, GUM, the Kremlin and Lenin’s Mausoleum all in one day. Even after having seen so many photos of St Basil’s Cathedral it still seems unreal when you first see it, as though it has been CGI’d directly onto the landscape. It’s hard to believe it was built in the 1500s and was originally all white before being later painted in bright colours and patterns.
Inside the Kremlin complex, the Armoury was a big highlight. It’s essentially a huge collection of rare treasures from the Russian Court, covered in diamonds and precious gems, made of gold, silver or all of the above. Apparently, if all the gold in the world was melted down it would fill just 3 swimming pools. If that’s true, then there are easily a good few lengths on display in the Armoury. Timian’s gift shop purchase was the Faberge egg that won the Grand Prix at the Paris World Fair and has a solid gold working model of the Trans-Siberian Railway inside. Rebecca chose a large 17th Century French Cindarella-style carriage used by a Russian Empress.
Arms, and the military, were a recurring theme in Moscow. We didn’t get the famous view of the expanse of Red Square, with the high walls of the Kremlin towering over it. Instead, the space was filled with a massive temporary outdoor arena, in preparation for a military tattoo celebrating Moscow’s birthday. The outsides were flanked by Russian and Chinese soldiers marching in formation, or having pictures taken with their families, as well as a military-themed ‘play area’ with everything from giant, coloured rocking horses to sub-machine guns (not loaded, we think).
Uniformed soldiers and police can be seen all over the city. Guards (whose guns definitely were loaded) are stationed every few metres inside Lenin’s Mausoleum. We had the room to ourselves for just a split second before they hastily ushered us out.
Outside the huge, red Kazan Cathedral at the entrance to Red Square, we did the traditional coin toss over our shoulders at Point Zero and made a wish (like the Trevi Fountain in Rome). This metal circle on the ground marks 0km for all distances measured from Moscow, including every one of the posts marking each of the 9289km of the Trans Siberian Railway.