Highlights and Ugly Moscow Tour
The car drive to Moscow is a cold one. Pashas car is driving all right, but appears difficult to be heated. Further, the starting engine is not working, causing Pasha to try it every once in a while, without much success. When he needs to drop something off in Staritsa and leaves us waiting in the car a bit too long, we’ve had enough. When he comes back we decline his offer to visit some places of interest, we want to go straight to Moscow.
Coming closer to Moscow, traffic gets chaotic. Pasha, who is a quiet driver, has to adjust to it, and so he does. As we enter Moscow we also are halted by the police and Pasha has to show his papers. He tells us that’s quite common and we should not act surprised if this happens when we walk in the streets as well. So there’s still something left of the police state Russia once was. Without much trouble we reach Pashas apartment, where we take residence in his loft.
Contrast on the red squareThe next day we spend mostly doing laundry. But the Red Square is around the corner so we have to take a look. We are impressed by the Kremlin, Lenins mausoleum and Basili cathedral. And we imagine how the military parades were once marching here. On the other side of the red square, however, there’s Goem, the largest shopping mall in Moscow. The richness of the goods here show that those times are far behind us.
We walk a bit streets further to find something to eat. We decipher from the Cyrillic writing the Pizza Hut, and also the “Gambourgers” of McDonalds. From the rest of the restaurants we try to pick a cheapy, by not entering those where 4 people are waiting to let us in. We find one where they speak no English and have no English menu, but they do serve a nice meal for a reasonable price.
The Boulevard ringMoscow is built around rings, which mark former boundaries of the city. One of those rings is a chain of boulevards, which promises to be a nice route to walk. We recognize the first boulevard by the two rows of trees that separate it from the heavy traffic around it. It makes an unusual quiet pedestrian area. But as one boulevard is followed by another, the transition is not designed for pedestrians. We have to pass three heavy trafficked lanes before we reach the next boulevard.
Our travel guide describes lots of buildings along the route. But we can barely find a few, while others we do notice are not described in the book. There are also a lot of statues, it appears to us that when you write one book, you get rewarded with a statue here. It diminishes the value of statues of really important people, but maybe we’re wrong and all those statues actually are important people.
It’s pretty cold in this Moscow winter, and after we saw a ice hockey match on a pond we enter a restaurant to warm up. Because of the cold, we are not very picky and in the end we have to pay more for a few drinks than for our entire dinner the previous day. But in the evening, we are really ripped off. In a restaurant where the menu is in Russian, we are charged 110 rubles for a beer, while we asked for the cheapest. The waitress act ignorance, while she nodded when we ordered. We get angry, but that’s in vain. Just another lesson for budget travel.
Free Tour to the KremlinOn Saturday, Pasha arranges a free tour for us. A friend of the family wants to improve her English, so it works both ways.
She is a bit shy, and had to be convinced that foreigners aren’t scary or from another planet, but otherwise very nice. She brings us to the Kremlin which in fact is a bit disappointing for us. Of course, the cathedrals and churches are nice, but Russia has so many of them. And within the buildings are expositions of the tombs of the Tsars, icons of saints and jewelry, but we think it’s not much value for the entrance fees.
After the Kremlin we are guided to the main shopping street, Arbat. Despite the cold, there are a lot of souvenir stalls on the street. We get acquainted with the typical Russian fast food meals. And via the metro, an attraction in itself, we are led home.
The Ugly Moscow TourHaving seen most of the highlights, it’s time for us to see the other side of Moscow. Uncle Pasha is proud to be the only travel agent offering the Ugly Moscow Tour. He leads us around a number of strange places, originating from the Soviet regime of the past. First we drive to a hill just outside of town, where we have a view of the city. Apart from the churches, cathedrals and the river, the 7 Stalin buildings are striking. These almost identical huge gray buildings can be considered ugly but they are what they are meant to be: impressive.
Then we visit Victory park. Here are monuments of different military victories in the past, mainly the one to the Germans. There’s also a number of tanks and a strange high pole with a statue in the top. Moscovites call this the “bug on a stick”, a strange sight. We drive along the road that was especially designed for troups coming back to Moscow. The road is designed to allow 7 tanks next to each other, cheered from all sides, at least that was the intention. Every road into Moscow has two imposing towers at the entrance, but those on this road are extra high. And at the end, the road passes the white house and arrives at the Kremlin.
Other ingredients of the Ugly tour were the typical soviet apartment blocks, a statue of Colombus, whose head was replaced by one of Peter the Great, and a small park with statues warning children for evil (alcoholism, prostitution, greed, etcetera). But the statues are more amusing than scary.
The last Ugly Moscow story is about the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It was built on the grounds of a convent which was destroyed for it. The story goes that Mother Superior cursed that the cathedral would be destroyed and indeed, that happened under Stalin, who banned religion. He wanted to build a palace but unfortunately, the swampy grounds were too wet for an immense piece of concrete. The grounds stayed empty with a small lake, where children used to swim, and sometimes drowned. So they built a swimming pool which was replaced by the new cathedral after glasnost. But the legend goes that because of its past, the golden dome will never shine, no matter how much gold will be used. And if we look carefully, the dome indeed has a gray look around it.
Before we step on the train to Siberia the next morning, Pasha shows us a crowded local market where most of the people of Moscow do their shopping. All in all, we got a good impression of Moscow, the highlights and the lowlights, a city with many faces. We have experienced a city that is still struggling with the newly acquired position, and with the foreigner visitors it attracts. Because of the heavy traffic its not an pleasant city to walk in, but we guess that’s the case in most cities. All in all, Moscow is a city you must have seen, but it’s not high on our list to visit again.