Thursday, 6 September 2012

Milling Among the Muscovites

We farewelled Genya and Sasha our kupe compartment companions, in the early morning after a rocky sleep on our first Russian train. A grim driver holding our names drove us to the hotel without a fuss, or conversation. However, stumbling into the metro we were renewed with fresh interest; Moscow's underground metro stations were a little more than your average dull commuter tunnel, in fact they were works of art!

We followed the instructions back to our hotel, where we met up with Daniel, our local young Muscovite orientation guide, in the lobby. Sporting an unassuming beige jacket and black backpack, he also greets us without a smile, produces an envelope, and says "I have your documents" in such a stereotypical Russian accent, that I cannot help but grin. Would someone please drive these ridiculous James Bond images out of my head?! We thank him politely for providing us the tickets for our next train journey, and follow him out so he could show us around his home town.

He took us back to the metro station to catch a train to the city centre. We mentioned that Moscow's underground stations were rather fancy. "You like the metro?" He finally cracks a small smile, "You know some people like to tour just the metro, going around and around, and it only costs one Ruble! If you would like, I can show you some of my favourites." Sure why not! we chorused, and were subsequently treated to quick tour of Socialist art, checking out the stained glass colours of the Novoslobodskaya station, the funky molecular tribute to Dmitri Mendeleev (of periodic table fame) at Mendeleyevskaya station, and the famous Ploshchad Revolyutsii station, featuring 76 bronze statues depicting the ideal progression of the life of a true Soviet man or woman, from birth in a wheat field to an armed soldier fighting for the motherland. We rubbed the well-shined nose of the dog for good luck, like every other commuter that goes past on their way to work.

The most beautiful metro stations in the world. Mendeleyevskaya Metro - Moscow
The most beautiful metro stations in the world. Ploshchad Revolyutsii Metro - Moscow
While ornamental metros dominated the underground, public squares reigned on Moscow's surface. We popped up at Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolutionary Square), and wandered across the road to Teatralnaya Ploshchad (Theatre Square) to view the historic Bolshoi Theatre, renown for it's ballet performances. Upon mentioning our recent appreciation of Russian dance arts, Daniel asked us what we thought of rival city, Saint Petersburg. Beautiful! we said. "It is very European," he replied matter-of-factly, "Not really Russian." I suspect the rivalry runs deep. We walked a few more blocks to Pushkinskaya Square featuring a statue of Pushkin, Russia's most celebrated poet. We were also introduced to classy shopping, from Moscow's own posh Eliseevsky supermarket to the glass-ceilinged opulence of TSUM and GUM department stores. So that's why Russians always seem dressed up to the hilt!

Ornate decorations in the Eliseevsky grocery store - Moscow
We eventually topped off the tour at the Krásnaya Plóshchaď (Red Square) - the seat of Russia's post-revolution power. Some multi-day military band festival had occupied the area, cutting off access to this famous landmark. Daniel appeared mildly perplexed, however he managed to keep his cool and find a side entrance through some shops that was still open, so in we went.

The Armoury at the Red Square - Moscow
It felt pretty amazing to be standing here in the Red Square, viewing St Basil's Cathedral (which almost became a victim of the destruction of any non-Socialist art early last century) next to the seemingly impenetrable high walls of the Moscow Kremlin.

Around the Red Square - Moscow
We were milling about the Alexandrovsky Gardens after watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, when Daniel asked "Do you need to go to the MacDonalds?" Huh? Ben had not eaten anything from MacDonalds for at least 12 years, and avidly avoided stepping foot into one, and so was rather concerned about where this was going. "Some teenagers go to MacDonalds for socialising," Daniel continued, "But most people go there because they have free toilets." Turns out public toilets are a rarity in Moscow, so Maccas helps fill the loo shortage.

We declined the toilet break offer, but did end up going through the Family Restaurant anyway to get to an outlet inside the adjacent shopping mall of a Russian homegrown fast-food chain competitor called Teremok, specialising in blinis (Russian crepes) which could be had with all manner of sweet and savoury fillings. I cannot say it was the best meal we have ever had, but it worked for typically cheap backpacker grub.

We did enjoy the cafeteria style of eating though, perhaps a remnant from a Socialist era turned into a buffet-like bounty of indulgence. In some of the popular establishments were freshly prepared offerings of soups (shchi and borsch well represented), salads, dumplings, roasts, stews, pastas, desserts and fully stocked bars offering soft and hard drink concoctions, including the ubiquitous range of Russian vodkas. Sampled as a matter of obligation.

Our First Russian Vodka - Moscow
Having already dealt with the Red Square crowd during our orientation tour, and being slightly nerdy, we decided to check out the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. I was thoroughly fascinated browsing for English captions identifying taxidermied space dogs Belka and Strelka, a 1:1 replica of Sputnik, space race era Soviet and American space suits, chunks of moon rocks and meteorites, and an exhibition dedicated to the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.

Space Monument and Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics - Moscow
More fountains, monuments, and buildings dedicated to national achievements were found roaming through the VVC Exhibition Center (VDNKh).

Fountain at VVC Exhibition Center (VDNKh) - Moscow
A proud country indeed.

Space Monument and Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics - Moscow

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