I left St. Petersburg on Tuesday (September 1) on the train for Moscow. What an experience that was! Nonstop cell phones and blaring music for almost 4 hours and that was in First Class. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown with all the noise. And apparently the signs and constant announcements about no cell phone use is just for show because NO ONE and I mean no one paid any attention to them. And the one thing I have not been able to get used to here is when Russians speak to each other. I swear to God they are shouting at each other non stop. It is only when I see a smile or hear laughter do I realize that it is the pitch of the language. Nevertheless, I feel like I am constantly on edge.
My guide, Gyuly (Julia), was at the train station to meet me. However, she was shocked to find out I was a woman. Apparently my name is not something easily translatable in Russian so she and her husband believed I was a man. I assured her I was 100% woman and showed her my passport to prove who I was. (For whatever reason, my effort to justify my gender brought to mind the Seinfeld episode where Elaine looks at Jerry and George and says “It shrinks?! … it shrinks?!” “Like a frightened turtle” “I don’t know how you guys walk around with those things…”.)
After it was established that I was indeed a woman, Julia then informed me that her car had been towed away for parking in no parking zone, and we must wait for her husband to “retrieve” us. We decided to wait in a bar where a little gypsy boy proceeded to bother the hell out of us. (I am not making any of this stuff up.) Julia’s husband finally picked us up and we headed off to my hotel, the Budapest Hotel, within walking distance of the Bolshoi Theater, Red Square and the Kremlin. The train station is only a few kilometers from my hotel, but on the drive I get my first taste of Moscow traffic and…. 1 ½ hours later we finally reached my hotel at about 9:00 p.m. GACK! I could have run faster.
My hotel is a very old early 20th century building that has not been renovated … ever! The interior was like walking back in time. No matter it was very clean, in the heart of old Moscow and the people were somewhat friendly. At the hotel, Julia informed me that the Kremlin had provided me with an afternoon ticket to visit the Armory (site of many of the czars’ possessions) and the Kremlin (another of the many czars’ palaces and now used by the Russian government for meetings and offices) so that meant I had the morning free. Julia then informed me that she has a friend, Andrew, who liked to practice English and would I enjoy spending the morning with him? Sure. What the heck. So next morning I meet Andrew an elderly gentleman who apparently was at one time some high ranking official in the Red Army. He arrived in a brand new Lexus and as we spoke in his car he told me he owned an traffic engineering company. I asked him if he was working on the horrendous Moscow traffic problem and he just laughed.
As we left the hotel it began to rain and this was both good news and bad news for me. Andrew advised me that it was probably a good time to head to Red Square to visit Lenin’s Tomb since the rain would keep the tourists away. Apparently, the lines can be horrendous. (Red Square is a giant walking mall with St. Basil’s Cathedral at one end and the State History Museum at the other end and the Kremlin in between. It was the site where the Red Army would strut its stuff during military parades during the communist era, and the site of executions during the period of the czars and in particular, Ivan the Terrible ).
So as we walked into Red Square in a down pour I ran into my first Moscow bureaucracy that was made all the more miserable by the rain and cold wind (it was about 45 degrees). Anyway, we walked through Red Square and stood directly in front of Lenin’s Tomb and the security to pass through to visit the Tomb immediately to the immediate right as you faced the Tomb. We were about 100 feet away. The only problem – there was a mass of fences, grand stands and major security between me and the Tomb. Apparently, Moscow was celebrating its 300th anniversary this weekend so Red Square was set up for the celebrations. So rather than letting visitors walk directly across Red Square, visitors had to walk all the way to the end of the Square, around the State History Museum and back to the same spot you were just standing on plus 100 feet. I was soaked by the time we got through security. Then the funny part. No cameras, bags etc. are permitted inside the Tomb so there was building you had to walk back to in order to leave your personal belongings. And yes, you guessed it, it was back where we had started from only this time we were permitted to just walk back, drop our things and then walk back to the tomb. Talk about ass-backwards.
After all this, we walked into the Tomb, down two flights of stairs into a very dark passage way, passed the sshhh police (any time someone spoke the guards would yell “sshhh”) and past the glass coffin in which Lenin lay. He was pasty, pasty white, had his fist clenched (apparently from a stroke he suffered before his death) and looked pretty pissed off to be on display (it was not his wish to lie in state for eternity). The whole viewing process took about 2 minutes. I actually found the whole set up rather amusing. (Sorry Russia.)
Andrew and I then wandered back across Red Square to the GUM (pronounced “goom”) Department store, which is no longer the “peoples store” from the communist era, but a lux shopping mall full of Gucci, Chanel and Hermes stores. Yikes. I wonder what Lenin would think if he knew his final resting spot was directly across from such a blatant display of capitalism? Andrew took me to a very upscale grocery store inside GUM that had every kind of luxury food item. He then proceeded to tell me that the old grocery store inside GUM was at this location and had been the site of long, long bread lines. It must be so strange to have seen those lines on this site and now witness the excess of capitalism.
So from Red Square we jumped into the car and headed to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This Cathedral has been entirely rebuilt since perestroika. Stalin apparently ordered the original Cathedral destroyed and a swimming pool was built in its place. The remains of the Cathedral were used to construct many of the spectacular Moscow subway stations (complete with frescoes, sculptures, lighting and tiles making the subway stations appear to be rooms from palaces). Andrew did not have much to add about the Cathedral, but fortunately, I already knew the story.
From the Cathedral of Christ the Savior we moved on to Novodevichy Convent and cemetery to see the grave of Boris Yeltsin (the father of perestroika). The traffic was horrendous. Imagine 3 lanes of traffic in both directions with no one really paying any attention to the lanes. Then imagine cars merging and cutting in at will. Then add on top of that these weird circular merges where dozens of cars attempt to merge into one lane. Finally add rain and you get the traffic we found ourselves in. Good God! Why would you own a car in this city? Nevertheless, we made our way very slowing through the weaving cars and ended up about 45 minutes later at the convent. The conversation now with Andrew was labored at best. His English was not that good and he did not seem to understand questions I asked him. Having said this, however, his English beat the hell out of my Russian.
Anyway, once we reached the convent, we walked through the gates, past the guards and to the grave site – which I will say was actually pretty spectacular. The tombstone is a Russian flag that appears to be waving in the wind. A very fitting tribute. After standing there for a few minutes and freezing our butts off, I suggested that we head to a coffee house and I would buy Andrew lunch. We retraced our steps and ended up along the Moscow River at a very fashionable restaurant. I ordered chocolate cake (which was fantastic – Russians love their desserts) and tea and Andrew ate some salmon blinis. He refused to let me pay – (insert Russian accent) “Russian men do not permit a woman to pay. It is not the way of our society. You are my guest.” Wow. I felt kind of bad, though, because it had been my idea and Andrew ended up paying.
By now it was about 1:00, and I had to be back at the Kremlin in Red Square by 2:00. Well once we hit the road it was clear that I was not going to make it by 2:00. Andrew took a wrong turn and we ended up in this wacky roundabout where I could see my destination, but Russian security would not permit us to exit. Fast forward 90 minutes and I finally met Julia outside the Kremlin. Fortunately, the guards did not object to my tardy arrival, and I was permitted to enter with Julia. (Apparently, it is the norm in Moscow to be late and having spent almost two days in traffic, I can understand why.)
My first stop was the Diamond Room where all of the czars notable jewels are stored. It was so over the top I don’t even know how to describe it. Crowns with diamonds the size of a baby’s fist. Rubies, emeralds, topaz, sapphires and garnets adorning elaborate, baroque style necklaces and tassels for garments. Hairpins and buttons in the shape of flowers made of gold and diamonds. Earnings made of diamonds in the shape of cherries (my favorite of the whole display). Round diamonds, square diamonds and on and on. Jewelry on steroids. Unfortunately, no pictures are permitted.
From the Diamond Room we went back outside to tour the Kremlin grounds. Tourists are limited to a very small area in which to visit (mainly the cathedrals used by the czars) and Russian police are stationed everywhere to make sure you do not stray. It was a very odd feeling to have these guys watching your every move. Julia and I visited the Assumption Cathedral, which is where the czars were crowned. It was a lovely church, but after visiting Church on Spilled Blood and some of the others in St. Petersburg, I found it pretty unremarkable. After walking around the Kremlin grounds, we headed into the Armory, which as I mentioned houses many of the czars personal possessions, including Faberge eggs. Again, no pictures permitted. (I think this is done solely to force you to buy a book or two, which I elected not to do.) Julia and I first visited the lower level of the Armory and saw the coronation gowns and clothing. It was quite interesting to see the styles over the years. I was also amazed that the colors of the gowns were still quite vivid.
We then moved on to the throne room. Lots of gold, baroque and velvet. Many of the thrones were inlaid with rubies, emeralds, lapis and sapphires. These folks loved, loved loved their gemstones. Then it was on to my favorite display – the carriages and sleighs. Most of the carriages were covered in paintings and, inlaid with gold and affixed with hand carved designs and ornaments. We even saw the first carriage with rubber tires. Really remarkable. It was very, very interesting to see the development of these really outlandish carriages.
Julia and I then moved upstairs to see the display of gifts from foreign governments to the czars as well as the czars’ personal possessions. First stop – the Faberge egg display. These eggs were made of gold and decorated with gemstones and each egg contained a surprise inside. One egg contained a copy of a palace another contained a ship and on and on. The detail on these tiny little miniatures inside the eggs was astonishing. From here we moved on and viewed clocks, statutes, a china set from Napoleon, more crystal goblets than I could count, wine carafes and smoking pipes and on and on. We were finally shooed out of the Armory by the guards because it was closing time.
The walk to the car turned into a mad dash through a blazing lightening storm and torrential rain. I had long put away my umbrella, but Julia seemed intent on trying to stay dry. I kept yelling at her that she needed to ditch the umbrella with the lightening striking all around, but she either didn’t understand me or decided to gamble. Either way, I was trying to stay as far from her as possible as we raced to the car. The last thing I needed was for my guide to act as a conduit for several thousand volts of electricity.
So once in the car, I told Julia I had seen enough. No more czar stuff please. It is just too too much. Julia promised that we had seen the last of the czars possession. On the way back to my hotel, we drove me past the Bolshoi Theater and rather than letting me off on the main boulevard to walk the two blocks to my hotel, Julia insisted on driving me to my door because of the rain (uh I’m already soaked Julia). As Julia turned down the street… it happened. Yet another traffic jam. We proceeded to sit for about a half hour before we moved. I could have got out and walked, but I felt so bad for Julia I stayed in the car and kept her company. As we were sitting there, I learned a new word, which I think should be the name of the Bull’s next race horse: Yolki Palki. It is apparently the polite Russian substitute for Mother F***er. (Bull you can get this name by the name police and they will never know!) Anyway, Julia finally dropped me off at my hotel and suggested I have dinner at a restaurant called Cafe Vogue. I had mentioned my difficulties finding good food in St. Petersburg, and Julia advised I would not have that problem in Moscow. So having cleaned up, I headed down the street to Cafe Vogue.
Some commentary here about Moscow and my impressions to date. Moscow reminds me of the “W Hotel”. For anyone who has stayed at a “W” you may already know what I mean. For those who have not let me try to describe. The “W Hotel” came into fashion in the early part of 2000 with the first hotel in New York and then expansion westward. The “W” tries to be very trendy and slick with lots of “beautiful people” for staff and very trendy arty interiors. However, you often leave the “W” with the impression that the hotel is just trying too hard. That is Moscow. Everywhere you look there are fancy cars, model beautiful young women and men wearing polo shirts with raised collars. Wealth is new to Russia, and I believe they are still learning how to behave with money. (Interesting factoid – many of the Russian nouveau rich made their money on the back of America’s wars. As Marina, my guide in St. Petersburg stated, “We loved President Bush. His wars made the price of oil rise and made Russia very wealthy.” Great!)
Anyway, the nouveau rich were raised in the communist era and remain somewhat reserved. However, the next generation, their children, do not know the communist era or were far too young to be left with any recollection of the hard times. As a result, they are the material generation. They have money and they spend it like crazy. More problematic is the fact that these young people have no role models and apparently believe if you got it flaunt it. Discretion is not exercised here. Everywhere I went in Moscow I felt like I had returned to the excesses of the 1980s. Perfectly coiffed hair. Perfectly manicured fingers. Designer clothing. Designer cars. Everybody hanging out and posing on the streets. Hence my impression – Moscow – the “W Hotel” of cities.
And so that brings me to Cafe Vogue. I entered the building and immediately felt out of place in my jeans, boots and rain coat. This was the beautiful peoples restaurant. 20 somethings draped in gold and Gucci, drinking champagne and smoking like crazy. The hostess could have been a model and the wait staff looked to be right out of Cosmo. The restaurant was a microcosm of what I was surrounded by on the streets of Moscow. I was about to turn around and head out when the hostess asked me where I wanted to sit. OK then. I guess if you have money to spend on a meal it doesn’t matter what you look like. So I sat and proceeded to drink a fantastic cosmo and eat the best meal I had in Russia: Gazpacho soup with crab meat and tuna and avocado tartar. It was terrific (despite the cigarette smoke). When I got up to leave, a waiter came running over to pull my chair out and escort me to the door. It was a very nice touch. But as I left and took a final look at the beautiful people, I half expected Madonna to appear and start singing Vogue “strike the pose”.
So my third day in Moscow turned out to be a great weather day, which was a good thing because I was planning on taking a cruise on the Moscow River. Temperatures were in the 70s (a huge contrast from Wednesday) so Julia and I made our way first to Red Square for a walking tour of the square and St. Basil’s Cathedral. After many interesting facts, Julia and I headed to the old Ukraine Hotel (now the site of the brand new Renaissance). The hotel is spectacular and has stunning views of Moscow. Julia and I went up to the 31st floor and walked around the restaurant for a 360 degree view of the city. It gave me a great perspective on the city.
Next up was a cruise on the Moscow River. Julia had booked a bit of an upscale boat for me so the seating was rather plush as we headed down the river. It turned out to be a wonderful cruise with Julia explaining and pointing out many of the historical sites of Moscow including Sparrow Hill, University of Moscow, Gorky Park and of course the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral. It was a wonderful 2 ½ hour cruise.
Last stop of the day was the Moscow subway to visit a couple of the beautiful stations. As with everything in Moscow this turned into an adventure. Julia decided to sit and wait in the middle of the road for a car that was backing out of a parking spot. Not only was Julia blocking traffic, but she was blocking the fellow trying to back out. For the next 5 minutes it was inch back, give the guy some room, motion for the guy behind us to go around and start all over again. Finally the guy had enough room to get out, and Julia zipped into the parking spot to much screaming and honking of horns. Yikes! I was petrified someone was going to ram her car.
With the car parked we headed into the Kievskaya station. It was truly incredible. Mosaics of Lenin and the working class. Art noveau lightening. Frescos at the end of a hall. And all the while, the Moscovites just kept walking paying little attention to the spectacular art work around them. I told Julia this was akin to me looking out my living room window. I have nice view across a green belt to Lake Washington and the Olympic Mountains. When I first moved in, I marveled at the view. Now… not so much.
After walking through the two station stops at Kievsaya, Julia and I jumped back in the car and headed back to my hotel in … yep another traffic jam. As we sat idling in traffic Julia decided it would be a good idea to pull over and show me Eliseevsky Grocery store, which used to be a palace. Holy ****. This place was amazing. Chandeliers, crystal and gold everywhere and yet there it was – functioning as a neighborhood grocery store. Whole Foods has nothing on this place. And, I didn’t compare prices, but I gotta believe there was a markup.
Rather than have Julia push through the traffic to my hotel, I elected to walk the ½ mile or so back to my hotel. I made arrangements for Julia to take me to the airport in the morning and with that I headed down the hill just as it started to rain… again.
Friday morning, and I was quite happy to be heading out of Moscow. This place will not top my list of favorite places to visit. It was interesting for a couple days. But not really my cup of tea. Too many people. Too many traffic jams. Too pretentious. So Julia dropped me off at the airport at 11:00 a.m. (and to my amazement we only hit one traffic jam), and I waited patiently for 11:40 to hit so I could check in. (The Russians only let you check in 2 hours before a flight.) I reached the checkin counter and the Russian gal behind the counter told me to put my luggage on the scale. She looked at the luggage and in broken English informed me that my luggage was overweight. Well I already knew this was going to happen so I told her that I realized it was overweight and was prepared to pay the charge. And then it happened. She leaned closer to me and told me she wanted to help me out. Rather than pay the 125 euro overweight charge (I have no idea if that was the actual amount or not, but that is the number she told me), she would let me through for 80 euro. Uh is this the famous Russian shake down at work? I told her I didn’t understand and she smiled and said again she wanted to help me out (sure you do) and instead of paying 125 euro I could pay less. “I check bags. You go over to passport control. Then come back and I give you boarding ticket in exchange.” Holy crap!! It was a shakedown. I looked around trying to figure out what to do. There was a desk to my left that read overweight baggage line. No one there. Well I had two options: make a scene and risk never seeing Turkey or pay the graft and pray my luggage arrives. I’ll opt for door number 2 Boris. I looked at the woman. She smiled again. I nodded. She handed me my luggage claim tickets, I walked through to passport control, hung around for a minute and then wandered back towards her. She came running over. I opened my wallet pulled out 70 euros “That’s all the euros I have” I lied. “It’s ok. We are good.” She takes the money very quickly slides it into her pocket, hands me my boarding pass and off she heads back to her check in desk. Unfreakinbelievable! See ya Mother Russia. I am outta here.