Saturday, October 4, 2014

Marching on moscow

Thursday 28–Saturday 30 August 2014 

'Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: 'Do not march on Moscow' – Bernard Law Montgomery.

A long night

We awoke abruptly in the small hours of Thursday morning to the brusque commands of the provodnitsas, eager to prepare the train for our 4am arrival in Moscow. Awaiting us on the platform was our honcho for this leg of the trip, Dmitry. He led us yawning to a minibus, where our corpulent driver entombed us one by one behind the walls of our bags and took us to Godzillas Hostel. 

Walled in at the back of the bus. 

It was the first actual hostel (as opposed to hotel/chalet/train carriage/ger camp) we stayed in on our trans-Siberian journey, and the only time we were all sleeping in the same room. The plan was to meet Dmitry at twelve to get some food and discuss our options for the next few days, so we had some free time until then. My top priority was jumping into my first shower for four nights, which I never wanted to get out of. Some of the group decided to use the time productively, exploring the city, while others (like me) elected to get some more sleep. But then I accidentally stayed up finishing and uploading my Beijing blog post, video and photos and then I couldn't get to sleep anyway.

Dmitry turned up at twelve eager to get going, but Til and Heli still hadn’t returned from their expedition into the city. When I called them they confessed they’d gotten lost, and they ended up keeping us all waiting for half an hour, so when they finally did show up we all clapped them in, trying to embarrass them as much as possible. 

Touring the town

From the hostel Dmitry led us around the corner to a really cool buffet restaurant, ‘Grabli’. We claimed a spot outside and ventured into the garden-like interior. After four days of instant mashed potato, the fresh food cornucopia in the restaurant was somewhat overwhelming. Plus it was really busy and hard to know what the procedures for ordering were, on top of the language barrier and the vegan factor, but we got to hone our skills when we came back there the next two mornings. 

Dmitry runs us through our options.

The only thing I didn’t like about Grabli was the needless imprisonment of this little guy who, once again, was exhibiting obsessive behavior running in the same circle over and over again. How can anyone think it's a good idea to put a sentient being alone in a cage for its entire life?

After brekkie Dmitry led us on a walking tour around the city, during which we saw the Bolshoi Theatre and Teatralnaya ('Theatre') Square, the Russian White House (parliament), the Red Square (which was unfortunately obscured by the infrastructure for the International Military Music Festival), the state history museum, GUM shopping mall, St Basil's Cathedral, the Eternal Flame, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and Bolotnaya Embankment (a trendy arts, culture and nightlife precinct on an island in the Moscow River).

Teatralnaya Square.

Couldn't get over the sky this day. So much ... depth? Like you're looking at the clouds from among the clouds.

The Bolshoi Theatre.

Russian parliament.

The state history museum.

Marshal Zhukov statue.

Some young soldiers stare down a brave, lone protestor.

St Basil's Cathedral.

An amusingly named boutique in GUM. No one.

Heli camouflaging.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where Pussy Riot did their famous protest. I couldn't go in because I was wearing thongs.

Heli and Ajay testing out some cardboard furniture in a paper shop Dmitry randomly led us into.

A random apartment building Dmitry led us into, where he asked a stranger if we could all join a party she was throwing. Unsurprisingly, she said no.

Buildings on the way back to the hostel.

After the tour we went back to the hostel to get ready for that night. Chris, Isabell, Emma, Anika, Heli, Til and I were all going to see Swan Lake at a theatre next to the Bolshoi, which the rest of the guys decided miss.

Zac and George getting into Tinder in our dorm room. 

Ah, the ballet

'Ah, the ballet'

I'd never been to the ballet before, so I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about it, but for the most part it was really enjoyable. In musicals I tend not to mind the songs, but I can't stand the 'sing-talking', and it was similar with the ballet. The big dance sequences with a bit of a story were really cool, but I hated all the exaggerated 'dance-talking', with all that repetitive, pointless gesturing.

'And all that dancing.'

We were also all seriously struggling with sleep deprivation. I was fine if there was any story I could follow in the scene, or if there was a lot going on onstage, but whenever it was a solo or duo performance I'd start to flag. I found myself having to focus really hard on different things going on so I could keep myself awake, and the others said they did the same. My favourite strategy was trying to work out what nationalities the different prospective wives of the prince were supposed to be (I got them all but one, I think).

I tried like four times to get a photo of us all in the audience, and this was still the best one. It wouldn't focus!

'We did 27 takes and that was the best one.'

Trying to stay awake during interval.

The bows. See the video at the end of this post for some footage of the performance.

The Bolshoi at night.

After that we met up with the rest of the group for dinner at an underground bar and restaurant named Kamchatka, then headed home for some much-needed sleep.

The kremlin and a french invasion

The next day after another feast at Grabli (to which Til was late AGAIN) it was time to head up to the Kremlin, the walled city within the city of Moscow housing the palace and a bunch of churches. It was an extra seven hundred roubles to go into the Armoury, which to us just sounded like a little additional part of a museum with, I dunno, some old cannons in it or something, so Til and I and a few others decided to leave it. We lined all lined up for ages to get in (the Russians are so security-conscious, to the point of paranoia, I think, methodically checking every bag as people entered). Inside it turned out we couldn't go up the belltower because it was closed, and you couldn't go into the palace, either. So we just saw a million Churches of the Holy This and the Sacred That (they were actually pretty cool, though; one even had the tomb of Ivan the Terrible). When we met up with the others they told us that the Armoury was incredible, so we were kicking ourselves for missing what now appeared to be the main attraction.

Til jumping into shot to wreck my photo.

A giant cannon.

At one point we were walking along when Heli said, 'Imagine if we ran into the Frenchies here', and I swear to God, not thirty seconds later WE ACTUALLY SAW THE FRENCHIES (see my last post for an introduction to these Gallic villains).

He-Frenchie Giles. We were all torn between running and hiding from the awkwardness and going right up to him to punch him out. 

Cold war kids

After that the group reunited and we all went to a restaurant for lunch, where I had probably the most disappointing lunch of the trip (maybe a close second to sour-hot noodles). They just weren't very veggie-friendly, but it was only one meal, so meh.

Trying to imagine one another without hair.

Next up was a trip back in time to the Cold War, with a tour at an old Soviet-era bunker led by an attractive young woman with a nearly unintelligible Russian accent. Once again, see the video at the end of this post for some footage.

An old woman doing her shopping on the way to the bunker.

An old man praying at this shrine on the way.

George taking part in a (simulation of a) nuclear missile launch.

A model of Stalin in the office he never actually used.

Rolling stones

Til, Heli and I went out for an awesome dinner at a veggie restaurant that night, making up for the crappy meal earlier, and then we met everyone else at Kamchatka for a night out. It started a little slowly, with a long walk to a supermarket to buy alcohol, then a series of like five taxis to get us to the bridge between the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and Bolotnaya Embankment, but it picked up once we all got a bit of vodka into us. I foolishly took the DSLR but left the battery charging in our hostel room, so I had to lug it around all night and have no photos to show for it, except this one from my phone on the bridge:

From the bridge we went to a club, Rolling Stone Bar, on the island nearby, after wandering around a bit and getting caught in a giant crowd of other revellers. We had an awesome night dancing on the top floor of the club, getting the photographer to take photos of us (hardly any of which they actually put up on their Facebook page) and getting told to put our own phones and cameras away when we tried to take some. Early on Anika shouted a round of seven vodka and Cokes, which meant Til and I also felt obligated, so we did the same without any of us realising one such round was worth about $96 AUD!

Til, Chris, Isabell, Dmitry and I left at four, while some of the others stayed until sunrise on the bridge.

Hangover breakfast the next morning.

'They took my f*!king gum!' Heli gets irate the morning after about the packet of Finnish gum the bouncers confiscated and then lost.

Zombie lenin

Somewhat stupidly, a bunch of us left the hostel the next morning without checking out first, even though we'd be leaving for St Petersburg that night, which meant we had to rush back after breakfast and then take a taxi and/or run to the Red Square to see the Lenin Mausoleum before it closed. It was a creepy, weird, fascinating experience seeing Lenin's body. Again, no photos, but I can offer you this, from one of my favourite scenes in The Simpsons:

'Must crush capitalism.' Sadly, it didn't go down quite like this.

The warren and the treasure trove

After that, Til, Isabell and I decided to go back to the Kremlin to see the Armoury, because it sounded like it was not to be missed. But first we stopped off at St Basil's Cathedral to take a quick look inside. It was one of the coolest churches I've been into, I think, because it wasn't your standard cavernous chamber with pews and a dais and all that; more of a fascinating warren of interconnected rooms you could explore. We even happened upon a hauntingly beautiful performance by the Doros choir (see the video).

It turned out to be SUCH a good decision to go back to the Armoury. It was one hundred per cent the best museum I've ever been to. I like museums, but after you've done a couple of them in quick succession, or even after you've been looking around one for a while, you begin getting tired of parts and having to really force yourself to be interested, or else you just begin zooming past certain exhibits, unable to appreciate it all or take it all in. I can honestly say I looked at every exhibit in the Armoury with keen interest; there were no boring bits. It was all just like ... treasure. Like looking at treasure. Countless gold and silver-bound bibles encrusted with jewels, elaborate horse-drawn carriages and sleighs, Fabergé eggs, beautiful medieval vestments and gowns and crowns and swords and armour. I went to the silverware chamber straight after the swords and thought it was going to be boring, but even the silverware was awe-inspiring. If you go to Moscow, DO NOT MISS THE ARMOURY. And I highly recommend the audiotour, too!

Sadly, the Armoury was yet another place you couldn't take photos, so this giant bell outside the exhibition is the only one I got.

We walked back from the Armoury via a really cool little grotto full of fairytale statues, then went for lunch at the first cheap place we could find and headed back to the hostel.

Love me some of that frightened cheese.

The way home.

Marx statue on the way back.

Last hours in moscow

Having checked out of our room but not getting on our train till 1am, we all spent a few hours occupying the entire common room back at the hostel. With all the amusement value of the internet at our fingertips, we ended up passing the time by going round the circle trying to name all the countries in each of the continents (ironically a game that would've been much better suited to the train, where we had no TV or internet). We also got stuck in the room with the most obnoxious American stereotype you can imagine: ridiculously loud, obnoxious and ignorant. We brought up the country Georgia and he actually said 'There's only one Georgia I wanna know or care about, and that's the American one.' He was sitting right next to Til and I, talking to someone else about three feet away, and we actually couldn't hear anything anyone else was saying over the sound of his voice. And he kept cutting into our game, trying to impress us with countries we'd already named. Blugh.

Pretty much all that was left to do in Moscow was get dinner and get on the train, so we headed out and some of us treated ourselves to a swanky Italian dinner while the others got hamburgers. Then we went back to the station to await our train to St Petersburg, which would be the most luxurious of the whole trans-Siberian. We boarded and pretty much went straight to sleep, then woke up the next morning in St Petersburg!

Ajay-47 modelling his stylish Russian hat in Costa.

And here's the video:

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