Friday, May 29, 2015

Making New Comrades in Moscow

Phase one of our 14 country, month-long operation "See All The Stuff" began with a 15 hour layover in Moscow on the way to Istanbul. It was the cheapest flight available because people don't usually enjoy such insanely inconvenient itineraries. To me though it was simply an opportunity to knock another country off my list cheaply and quickly. The visa for one day in Russia cost $300, but I would have to pay that anyway. The ruble has been getting hosed lately so the whole trip was effectively on sale.

We flew Transaero Airlines which is a Russian company. Our cultural experience started before we even left JFK airport. At some point everyone just started lining up for the flight, and little by little the line grew massive. It blocked the whole hallway in the terminal so had to be snaked around to help foot traffic. No announcement that I'm aware of had been made to line up. We joined the hundreds of people and waited in it for a few minutes before thinking "this is stupid, our tickets have assigned seats" and sat back down. Sure enough, when we finally began boarding it was by seating groups, and when ours was called we walked right by the vast majority of this massive pointless line and boarded the plane.

The flight attendants didn't speak much English and I don't think there were too many Americans onboard. This continued at the airport and it was hard for us to find a place to leave our heavy backpacks which contain our only possessions for the month. We finally did find a place but it didn't seem secure and it seemed like a poor risk to take, so we decided to just lug them around the whole day. Carrying them sucked, but we kept telling ourselves that this would be the hardest day of the trip. Hopefully that's true.

The food on the flight was edible and the service was good. The seats were definitely outdated, but hey, it was a pretty cheap flight.

My first impression was that the Moscow outskirts were quite a bit more wooded than I would have expected. We saw large numbers of these massive housing complex looking buildings.

We took a train from the airport and met a guide that Lydia arranged for. Katerina was very focused on the architectural aspects of Moscow. Our first stop was the subway itself. She said that under the Communists many of the royal palaces were demolished and that the subway stations were meant to be like palaces for everyday people to enjoy. That's a nice sentiment I think.

We were really excited by this point. Yay Moscow!

There were lots of large bronze statues that sort of tell the story of the revolution, first with soldiers and then with scientists and athletes. Several of them had shiny spots where people had rubbed them for various kinds of good luck. This happened multiple times just during the minute we paused there. Apparently the metro is built rather deep and doubled as bomb shelters during more trying times.


We popped out of the metro and got a lot of buildings described to us including the Bolshoi Theater. You could tell the Soviet era ones because they were big harsh looking boxy things.

Bolshoi Theater. We checked showtimes online ahead of time but no dice.

Karl Marx gazing at the Bolshoi for eternity. Katerina said the local unofficial name for this statue is "Marx sitting on the fridge".

This nearby fountain doubled as a place for taxi drivers to water their horses while waiting to serve the Bolshoi's patrons.

We then headed over to Red Square. I got a jolt of excitement when I saw the Candy Land-looking spires atop St. Basil's Cathedral reveal themselves. Red Square, or Krasnaya Ploshchad, is actually named that way because krasnaya can also be used to mean "beautiful". The "red" connotation came later when the Soviets used the square to stage their military parades.


I can't remember this general's name but his horse is stomping on Nazi flags. Our guide said that when victory was declared over the Germans that the parade route was covered in Nazi flags for marching upon. This general was so popular that Stalin was concerned that he might be a rival. I don't think he was killed but his actions were erased from the official story. This statue is a fairly recent attempt at giving the guy some overdue credit.

St. Basil's Cathedral was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in the mid 1500s to commemorate his conquest of the city of Kazan.

Also on the square is Lenin Mausoleum, where the first Soviet leader’s embalmed body has been lying in state since his death in 1924. Our guide told us that Stalin was also lying in state alongside Lenin for a time but once his atrocities came to light they buried him nearby. There are apparently three or four other dictators lying in state around the world, and the Russians were always brought in as the experts in keeping creepy dead people around for gawking at. Unfortunately the Mausoleum was closed today.

Lenin couldn't beat death but he is sure as hell going to beat decomposition. The red walls and towers behind the tomb comprise the Kremlin.

We stopped for some little Russian pies. I got a savory mushroom and chicken and Lydia had a sweet apple and berry. We washed it down with some interesting red bilberry juice. It resembled cranberry without so much tartness.

Next we visited a shop with lots of different Russian handicrafts. These days I'm trying to avoid buying any souvenirs of any sort. I've done a bit of touristing and I already have enough knickknacks to be a grandmother someday if I wish. One good thing about the heavy backpacks is they make buying junk a painful idea.

Next was the Red Square-facing GUM Department Store. GUM stands for Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin; literally "main universal store". In Soviet days it was a department store but now it's a mall. It was still reminiscent of Soviet days with old timey music and lots of old pictures in the halls. This contrasts sharply with the luxury brand shops that now fill the place.

We stopped for some ice cream. Glorious. People's revolution.

Many of the displays had sort of a Hitler Youth summer camp kind of vibe. I couldn't tell if that was supposed to be ironic or not.

I believe that tower in the distance was built by Stalin. Possibly from the bones of his enemies.

KGB headquarters.

One complaint I had with our guide is she didn't seem very flexible. I mentioned pretty early in the day that I wanted to try caviar but she kind of suppressed the idea. Then when I saw it for sale at a shop she said that this wasn't a good place to buy it, which I thought implied we would be going to a better place to buy it. We did not, and now there are zero fish eggs in my mouth. Unacceptable! If you are only in Russia for a day, and you are only going to see a thing in one store, then you that is default the best place to buy it! Anyway...

Russia shares the unfortunate European aversion to air conditioning. From the museums to the cafes to the malls, I tasted not a whiff of cool air the whole day.

We stopped for a lunch at a little basement cafe. I'd say it was a success because I got to try borscht but that's a about the only thing I have to say about it. We had been walking in the red Russian desert for hours like pack mules and they asked if we want coffee or tea, and I was like "shove both of those things and get me some ice water!" The water comes in a cup that probably doubled as a cup unit of measurement. We both hungrily gulped down the tiny things and asked our waitress for another. Old dour-face waitress glumly acknowledged our request but never brought it. The food was included in our tour so I still don't know the tipping situation in Russia but this girl was not motivated.

I got to try my borscht. I had thought it was going to be cold and tomato based but I was wrong and wrong. It was made from beets and was normal warm soup temperature. It was good! Lydia said that she didn't realize she liked beets. I reminded her that I made her beets a few weeks ago, and she said she remembered. Words are so hurtful.

The was a vodka tasting as part of our little set lunch. I had hoped that they would all be different varieties of straight vodka, and that I would learn something about the subtle differences between them. Nope. Each one was super flavored. It was like tasting the difference between a vodka flavored like apples and another one flavored like oranges. Oh well.

I also had a nice little bowl of vareniki, little cabbage filled dumplings with sour cream on the side.

Well our tour guide said goodbye to us near the Kremlin and we bought some Kremlin museum tickets to entertain ourselves before it was time to leave. First we saw the armory museum which houses all kinds of fancy royal stuff like coronation clothes, crowns, weapons and armor, thrones, and medals. Our favorite were the elegant giant carriages.

Kremlin just means "fortress", so many Russian cities have a less famous kremlin of their own. Also kremlins reminds me of the movie Gremlins. Just saying.

 There was another delightful line born of disorganization.

Our second ticket gained us entry to the several churches on Kremlin grounds. We popped in one and looked at the others from the outside. It was starting to rain at this point so we made a strategic decision to gather our heavy bags from bag check and head back to the airport before we got drenched.

I managed to get a shot off before getting yelled at by some cranky lady. The churches had the typical "giant wall of icons" that you often see in Orthodox churches.

The Moscow subway doesn't take credit cards which was really disappointing. It was like "1998, is that you?" It was especially annoying because we had to break our glorious streak of not handling the local money. At least there was an ATM. It was funny because the lowest amount you could take out was $4 (one ride on the metro only cost $1). I don't think you can really appreciate the US until you spend some time in other countries. We do commerce and convenience like no other country on this earth. If you don't take credit, you suck, I'm sorry.

I think my parting thoughts about Moscow is that it feels a lot like other places in Europe. I was honestly expecting it to be much weirder. I imagine more differences emerged once you are out of the big cities though. Country number one is in the bag!

People around here clap when the plane lands. I don't know if that's charming or terrifying.

Well we were expecting our adventure to be largely over for the night but things in Istanbul were a bit complicated. We are staying at an Airbnb random guy's apartment. It not being a hotel made it a whole lot harder to find. Our taxi guy clearly didn't want to put the effort in to find the place either, and he dumped us blocks away and pretended like we were really close. We split the ride with a couple of people from Milan so at least it was cheaper. Our plane landed about 1:30 am and we didn't meet up with our friends Zeke and Angela at the apartment until 4 am.

We asked a kebab guy for directions. He was super nice and tried to help us but gave us just a long jumble of confusion. Luckily Lydia noticed that the place had wifi so we mapped the damn place on our phones. It's a miracle that we made it.

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