…and a very strange place.
Moscow is a huge, sprawling, beast of a city with a population to match. I read on the mighty Wikipedia that is actually the most populous city in Europe and as such expected Hong Kong-esque bustling streets and an overcrowded city centre. However, Moscow being the behemoth it is, you are never faced with the sense of overcrowding that you get even in cities like London. Either that or half of the 10.5m population live underground or something.
In fact, the most crowded place I did visit in Moscow was underground. The Moscow metro has to be the most impressive metro system around and is a tourist attraction in its own right. The stations are all built adhering to the typical “look how big and mighty we are” guidelines and this soviet scale and style is apparent in every station. However, every station seems to be different from the last as well. The walls, floors and ceilings are plastered with classic communist imagery and you are never further than a sickle throw from a statue of some square jawed chap looking determined or an angry looking eagle.
Above ground most of Moscow is equally impressive with its imposing buildings and countless monuments harking back to days long gone. I didn’t get half as much time as I would have liked whilst in Moscow and a couple of days simply aren’t enough. I had a reasonably priced, clean and comfortable hostel in a good spot and could happily have spent a week roaming the streets and checking out the sites. Alas, I had only two days and one night to see what I could so I contented myself with a trip to Red Square and the Kremlin, had a stroll around the epic GUM State Department Store and popped in to check up on Lenin. Having a look at Lenin lying in his mausoleum at the heart of Red Square is definitely an interesting experience but I couldn’t help but laugh. Now I know it might seem the wrong thing to do, however, I couldn’t keep the laughter in when the guy in front of me turned to his mate and loudly whispered, “He looks like he is covered in butter”. When the echoing of my snort of laughter finally hushed over the deathly silent chamber I made a hasty escape under the glaring eyes of some pretty pissed off looking guards and some amused looking tourists.
Red Square and the Kremlin are pretty magnificent but heaving with tourists, Lenin/Stalin look-alikes posing for pictures, crap souvenirs and even a couple of dancing monkeys. Of particular annoyance is the constant presence of Russian police checking VISA validity. Russian Visas need to be registered for every three days spent in a different place; if they are not appropriately registered you are liable to suffer a pretty hefty fine (at worst about US$200) and a lot of hassle. In Red Square (in particular) the number of Russian police ensuring that neglected Visas are found and fined is overwhelming, and in two days mine was checked twice. Of course, being the responsible traveler I am, my documents were all in order but that didn’t seem to stop them trying to extract a ‘fine’. One guard was convinced that the fact I did not have my VISA registered in Moscow despite the fact I would not be there for three days (and had both my incoming and outgoing train ticket to prove it) still constituted a breach of VISA law. I challenged him on this and muttered an exchange with his colleague in Russia before they both grunted and sent me on my way, but by many accounts some people have not been so lucky and been ‘fined’ or paid an outright bribe to avoid whatever it is they would have done if you refused. You may find yourself asking, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”. Well, the situation has got to the point where a separate branch of the police are actually employed in order to keep an eye on the notoriously corrupt Moscow street police.
The last thing I did before setting off to leave Moscow was drop by a supermarket to buy some supplies for the next and most exciting leg of my trip. I had been chatting to a lad in Moscow who had just completed the Irkutsk – to Moscow leg of the trans-Siberian in the opposite direction. After listening to some of his stories I figured my best change of finding some people to hang out with should I find myself in a carriage with absolutely no other English speakers was to buy a few bottles of Vodka, because “all Russians speak Vodka”. So stocked up with snacks, vodka and shiny new ticket I headed towards Moscow station to embark on the longest train journey of my life.
The 5151km #10 train to Irkutsk, Siberia.