Archive for October, 2006

Moscow: Heart of the Motherland…

…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.

Resuming Transmission

Okay, I am determined to finish this off…

Since my last post I have experienced a lifetime of changes and half a world of places. Briefly summarise it went a bit like this:

When I entered Russia I had a rushed trip in St. Petersburg and Moscow followed by the mother of all train journeys. At no point during this did I manage to get on the internet for longer than ten minutes at a time. After that came a stint in Siberia and Mongolia (with even less internet exposure) followed by a few weeks in China. For the time in China I have no excuses other than the fact the so much had happened in Russia and Mongolia that sitting in front of a computer for hours recollecting this would have deprived me of time spent exploring. Now, however, it is all over and life has slowed to strolling pace. I am behind a desk, fulfilling my role as part of the corporate machine and intend to use that time both recollecting my last little adventure, and planning the next one…

Of course, it would be too much to try and fit this all into one post, so over the next few entries I will be trying to put together an accurate reconstruction of the second half of my trip from memory, before they too fade and I forget where I even went. I realise that few people are probably interested in this anymore (if they ever were in the first place) but I think this blog has become more of a journal for myself than anyone else.

Well, here goes….

After some wobbly Scooby Doo-esque time-travel transition I found myself at Helsinki station at some ludicrously early hour of the morning. Despite the early hour, I was still late for my bloody train but managed to negotiate the station with European efficiency (possibly the last station on this trip that will be easy to navigate what with Russia, Mongolia and China ahead of me). I proceeded to fall asleep almost instantly, and it wasn’t until I was rudely awoken that I got to enjoy my first ever experience in Russia. I must admit my first Russian experience was rather hairy one (in both senses of the word) being awoken by a classic James Bond style border official armed with all sorts of scary weaponry and his equally scary dog. After pondering for a while what they do if the dog decides it need to ‘go’ mid interrogation I opened up my Trans-Siberian Lonely Planet guide, for this was the first stage of my trip where it would come in handy. The train pulled into Finland station, St. Petersburg, and armed with a few handy phrases and a rough idea of where my hostel was I stepped onto the platform to a rousing patriotic anthem and felt Russia concrete beneath my feet for the first time.

My stay in St. Petersburg was rather uneventful to be honest and I recall my arriving my more vividly than the actual stay. The weather was good to me, the city was beautiful and the people surprisingly friendly. I saw the main tourist’s sites as usual, but you should all know by now that I never really spend much time writing about those things as any guide can give more information than myself on the matter and in most cases the actual visit to the sites in pretty standard. However, no account of St. Petersburg would be complete without a little about the Hermitage, one of the largest collections of art and historical artifacts on this fair earth. However, as intriguing as the contents of the buildings is the buildings themselves. The complex is enormous and many of the rooms within the building are so lavishly decorated they border on tacky. The best example of this being the doorknobs. I know it may seem odd to visit the Hermitage and comment only on the door handles, but the inner metal-head in me couldn’t help but love the fact that they are all dragons’ claws holding onto massive plastic ‘rubies’. There is also so much gold paint/leafing on the ceilings, walls, doors and even floors of the place that Gaby (a lovely German girl who fancied a trip to the museum) and I developed a new categorisation process for the rooms.

After rating the rooms anything from ‘too much gold’ to ‘distinctly lacking gold’ we headed off for a night out in town. Successfully avoiding the mental Russian who lived at our hostel we had a nice night out on the town with some other English girls we met and wound up outside some monumental club disputing whether or not to go in and witness the greased up Russian bodybuilders in g-strings dancing to techno. Despite being assured this wasn’t a gay club and there were many ‘beautiful women’ inside, I decided against it as I had a night train to catch and I didn’t fancy navigating my way to and through Russian train stations completely destroyed.

Of course, all this time I got pictures, so go check them out:

http://flickr.com/photos/joehastings/sets/72157594254611104/

For now I will leave it at this, but expect another update soon with details of my stay in Moscow and onto the Trans-Siberian railway!

Godspeed