Saturday, October 15, 2011

Moscow (and the overnight train to St. Petersburg)

Jeff, Ana & Judy in front of Peter the Great Statue
 Moscow is magical.  Our hotel (Melody) was in the heart of the city, just a few blocks from the red brick walls of the Kremlin.  On our last night in the city, Ana, Judy and I head out one last time to Red Square, located next to the north walls of the Kremlin.  Prior to visiting Moscow, I’d thought Red Square had something to do with communism.  After all, the Soviets were referred to as “Reds.”  I was surprised to learn the name Red Square predated the Communist revolution by a few centuries.  The term came from the red cobblestones used as payment for the city’s market.  Equally surprising was the number of churches within the Kremlin, but then this was the place where the Czars lived and worshiped, at least until Peter moved the capital to the city that now bears his name.  That last night in the city was especially magical.  It’s been raining and lights reflected off the puddles. To our left, the giant GUM department store was outlined in lights.  To our right were the walls of the Kremlin, with towers rising into the darkness.  At the end of the square was Saint Basil’s Cathedral, its multi-colored onion domes bright against the dark sky.  We’d toured Saint Basil’s the day before and was surprised to find that it wasn’t one big church building, with a large sanctuary as we might expect in the West, but a number of small chapels, each under dome and each commemorating a victory by Ivan the Terrible’s army in the Kazan campaign.  We walked around the Square, much of which was partitioned off as workers were assembling grand stands in preparation for a giant military marching competition that was coming up in a few weeks.   Afterwards, we rushed back to our hotel and picked up our backpacks and journeyed through the subway to the station where we caught the overnight train to St. Petersburg.

We’d fallen in love with Moscow the first day in the city.  Ana, Judy and I broke away from the rest of the group who seemed to be overly interested in eating and then shopping in GUM’s.  Instead, we headed to the Gulag Museum, which told the history of Stalin’s treatment of his enemies in the depths of Siberia.  Afterwards, we caught the subway over to the Pushkin Art Museum.  For some reason we decided to check out the Western European and American art collection.  There was a fine collection of European Art, but for the life of me I don’t know why they’d attached “American art” to the name as their American collection was skimpy—mostly consisting of a small collection of Rockwell Kent’s paintings, but I’d never even heard of him.  There were no Western Artists like Russell or Wyatt or Remington, no art from the Hudson River School, and no Warhols.  There wasn’t even a Grandma Moses or one of those paintings by Edward Hopper that create such a lonely feeling.  Judy insisted there was a Norman Rockwell painting, but I didn’t see it. 

At Sculpture Park: Gulag Monument
We came out of the art museum at 6 PM and headed across the street to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, one of the most impressive churches in the well-church city of Moscow.  Stalin had the church destroyed for a revolutionary monument which was never built.  Instead, a swimming pool occupied the site.  If any good had come out of World War Two, in which Russia suffered greatly, it was that it thwarted Stalin’s plans to tear down even more churches as St. Basil’s was on the destruction list.  In the 1990s, after the fall of communism, the church was rebuilt.  I wanted to go inside, but the doors closed at 6 PM, so we decided to head across the river and head down to Gorky Park.  Along the way, we admired the large statue of Peter the Great standing in front of a ship.  Why they have such a statue like this in Moscow which is a long ways from the sea, as well as having such a major statue of the man who moved the government out of Moscow to his own city on the Baltic Sea is a mystery to me.  Next stop was a sculpture park that’s located along the Moskva River, just north of Gorky Park.  We wound through this rather odd collection.  There were modern sculptures, but the park’s claim to fame was it being a place where old Soviet statues went to die.  There had to be at least 25 Lenin statues, as well as statues for Stalin and other Soviet leaders.  There were a number of large stainless steel “hammers and sickles,” all mixed in with mildly obscene modern statues of grossly proportioned humans. 

Gorky Park was next.  We entered the gates, pausing long enough for Judy to have her picture taken by the entrance, as we joked about being spies.   But even spies have to eat and we were getting hungry.  We quickly moved through the park, forgoing the sausage stands (we’d had a sandwich on the run for lunch) and then a restaurant that seemed a little classy for our dress.  We then stumbled upon a wonderful café with tables outside and sat, attempting to figure out what we could have for dinner.  The waitress’ English was better than our Russian, but still we didn’t get all that we thought we we’d ordered, but it was filling and good and by then light was fading and we started walking back across the park and the city.  We missed the subway entrance and ended up walking all the way back to our hotel, stopping along the way at a street filled with outdoor entertainment and cool (and overpriced) shops. 

 The Melody Hotel provides a nice breakfast buffet.  The next morning we feast as a group and then all head out to see Lenin, whose body is on display in a special mausoleum next to the Kremlin.  We’re there early, before they open and stand in the drizzling rain watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  I know everyone makes a big deal about how life-like Lenin looks, just as they say folks in caskets look life-like, but they don’t.  They’re dead and look it.  We slowly walk by Lenin’s body, lying as it has for nearly seven decades, in a three piece dark suit.  Afterwards, Judy, Ana and I head over to GUM for some coffee, and then we toured Saint Basils and checedk out the Bolshoi Theater.  We had evening tickets for the ballet “Giselle,” and since the main theater is closed for renovations, the summer productions are being featured next door in another venue. It was a good thing we did this because when it came time to get to the theater, we were running late and due to construction and a foreign language, things are not as clear as I would have liked.  

That afternoon, our group meets up with another “Yulia” for a tour of the Kremlin.   Yulia, the tour guide (like Yulia our group leader), is another attractive Russian woman.  Moscow seems to be filled with such women.  Yulia leads us inside the walls of the Kremlin, telling us about the construction.   Inside, she points to various government buildings as well as the world’s largest canon (which has never been fired) and the world’s largest bell (that has never been rung).  Next, we tour several of the churches, one of which is the final resting place for a bunch of Czars.  The architecture is amazing.  The highlight of the tour is the Armory.  It used to be a real armory for the military but is now an incredible museum.  Much of the Czar’s royal trappings, such as the wedding dress of Catherine the Great (who added on a few pounds over the years) are kept in this building on display.  One of the more amazing collections is the Czar’s royal coaches.  Compared to some of these horse drawn carriages, a Rolls Royce would look like the mode of transportation for a pauper.  Yulia is a very knowledgeable guide and we’re shocked to learn that she’s just past her exam to lead tours in the Kremlin and we’re only her second group.  

The tour was supposed to take just a couple of hours, but we stay longer than planned in the Armory.  Yulia had great stories that kept us engaged.  By the time we leave it’s after 6 PM.  Ana, Judy and I had planned on heading back to the hotel and cleaning up before the ballet, but there isn’t enough time.  A number of others in our group had seen Swan Lake the evening before and assure us that we’d be fine the way we’re dressed.  As I am normally dressed in a suit for the ballet or symphony, I felt a little out of place wearing shorts, but since there was no time I forged ahead.  We stopped and purchased a hot dog as we made our way to the theater.  Coming around the corner of the building, we are greeted by Terry.  He attended the ballet the evening before and came to make sure we knew how to get into the building with the construction all around, a nice gesture.

Once we find our seats, I’m glad we’re sitting on the back row as I feel more than a little under dressed.  The production of the ballet is wonderful, but this being my first time seeing Giselle, I am not happy at the subtle meaning that I gleam from the story.  In Act 2, after Giselle’s death, we watch the spirits of the dead lure the woodsman to his death.  In Act 1, he was the one who truly loved Giselle.  The prince, who couldn’t promise a long-term relationship to a commoner like Giselle and had to dress as a commoner to seduce her, but in Act 2, he is saved from the deathly spirits by Giselle herself.  It just doesn’t seem right, but maybe that’s life.   

After the ballet, we head back toward the hotel, taking the subway.  As it cost the same where you take it for one stop or twenty (provided you don’t leave the subway), we decide to tour the city’s underground and check out the neat subway stations under the center of the city.  Each station in the older part of the subway (those built between the 1930s and early 1950s have unique architecture.   On some walls, there are stain glass.  Others have glass mosaics or frescos or carved plaques depicting the revolution and the Soviet’s achievements.  It is late when we finally make it back to the hotel.

At breakfast on our third day in Moscow, Judy bows out, saying she was tired and needed to rest.  She had a blister on one of her feet and didn’t feel up for more running around, so Ana and I head out into the city.  Our first stop is the Museum of Contemporary Russian History (formerly the Museum of the Revolution).  There are only a few people there, but this museum, along with the Armory, are the two must-see places I recommend in Moscow.  The museum is well done as it traces the development of modern Russia, from the era of the Czars through the Revolution and the Soviet era to the reemerged Russian Federation.  

After the museum, Ana and I head to the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall with the hopes of finding an evening classical music performance.  There are none and August doesn’t seem to be the month for classical music in Moscow (but that’s okay because if there had been a concert, we’d missed Red Square at night).  So instead, we opt for a lovely lunch on the sidewalk (but under an awning as it were raining) at the Tchaikovsky Café.  Afterwards, we walk down to the river, taking streets we’ve not yet explored and then walked in the rain along the riverbank across from the Kremlin to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the massive church that we’d tried to visit a few days earlier.  This time, they’re open but because we’re in shorts, we’re not allowed in!  So we head to the Pushkin Museum of Art and spend the rest of the afternoon there, leaving as they are closing the doors.  Again, I’m amazed at how much religious art there is in Russia, a country that was been officially “atheistic” for most of the past century.  The Pushkin also has a remarkable collection of “life-sized copies” of sculpture from around the world such as Michelangelo ’s David.  We spend several hours looking at the various collections and then walk back to the hotel where we meet up with Judy for dinner.  After dinner, we take our final stroll across Red Square and return to the hotel at 11 PM to meet up with everyone and to pick up our luggage.  Our days in Moscow were all wonderful, but the last one had been incredible. 
  Yulia, our tour leader in St Petersburg
 With the group all together, we navigated the subways to the correct train station (there are numerous train stations in Moscow) for the overnight train to St. Petersburg.  It’s well after midnight when we board the train.  Most everyone crashes, but I decide to first check out the lounge/restaurant car.  It’s stylish and, upon hearing my report, Ana and Judy decide they’ll join me for breakfast.  Early the next morning (as the train is to arrive in St. Petersburg a little after 8 AM, we head down to the dinner.  It had been open (as a bar) until 4 AM and reopened for breakfast at 6 AM.   We’re the only customers, but the service is good and the menu even has an English description in small letters under the Russian.  I have crepes which are delicious.  We eat quickly as we speed toward our final destination for the trip.   As we disembark in St. Petersburg, I am a little melancholy as I realize that not only is the trip with these fellow travelers is coming to an end, but that my solo journey across Europe and Asia was almost over.  This is the last of my long train rides.  I’d come from Singapore, a half a world away, on train.


  1. Funny how capitalism and democracy bring out the babes. Until 1989, all Russian women looked like Leonid Brezhnev in drag.


  2. all the views and walking tour throughout...i would have been all over the art and statue garden...some really cool pics...

  3. Wow....what an awesome telling of what is obviously an amazing trip. I'm struck by how many things don't seem to be followed through by the memorials built, bells that are never rung, etc. I don't believe we have any place in the US where old statues go to I right?
    What an amazing life you lead! And so do I...through you!

  4. I didn't know that abour Red Square either. I'd just assumed it was related to communism.

  5. You are on the trip I always thought I would take. I think I said that the last time too.

  6. PS Travel Tip Thursday will be up and running again this week!

  7. Yulia looks too young to be a tour leader! I have always wanted to see Moscow. My BIL went there about 20 years ago and took some fab photos.

  8. Randall, Ian Frazier has a discussion of capitalism and beauty in his book on traveling in Siberia--he doesn't fully buy the idea, but also shows some of the negative side of the "free market" and how Russian women use their beauty as a way out and also how others have used it to exploit the women (the first through mail-order marriages and human trafficking)

    Brian, if you like art, wait till I get to St. Petersburg. Moscow was nice, but I was glad I experienced it before St. Pete, if it had been the other way around, I might have been disappointed.

    Kathryn, the bell cracked when cast so it wasn't able to be rung and the cannon (I think) was just a show piece (I wouldn't want to be around it when it went off). The statues were interesting!

    Charles, I was surprised to learn otherwise!

    Pseudo, I'll check out TTT!

    Judy, Yulia was wonderful and the youngest in the group--she's an English teacher from Siberia, I think she's 23. She was so excited teaching us about her country.

  9. Glad to see your journey resume on the pages of this blog! I've been worried that I might be stranded in Russia for some more time until you get caught up back home.