Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Trans Siberian: Russia (Part 2)

We got off of the train and walked through the station, waving goodbye to our cabin attendants we joined Sergey and Ira as we headed out into the city of Moscow. Natalie's sister, Amy, went on a travel exchange program to Moscow with her school and thus met Sergey, Galina and Ira. They've stayed in contact ever since and really they're just lovely people and we felt very lucky to have the opportunity to stay with them.

We waited outside the station for a taxi to arrive to take us to register. In Russia you have to register whenever you enter a new town or city, it's an immigration protocol and it's taken incredibly seriously, so we thought we'd get it out of the way as quickly as we could. As we entered the traffic in the taxi Sergey and Ira commented that "this is why we don't have a car," the traffic was mental, we were at standstills at traffic lights for over ten minutes sometimes and cars are weaving in and out of each other all over the shop. We eventually made it to register and handed over our documents, it was an incredibly easy process thanks to the efficiency of the agency that we made our travel arrangements with. After we had completed all the banal formalities of Russian bureaucracy we caught the subway to our hosts apartment. They live in a suburb of Moscow about fifteen minutes from the city center by subway. Like most other suburbs that we came into contact with it's like stepping into a soviet wonderland, just identical high rise after identical high rise overlooking small childrens playgrounds and mini markets. We walked through the estate and entered the huge soviet building that they lived in and we were pleasantly surprised as we walked into the apartment to find that it was just so damn nice inside. Galina greeted us with an amazing traditional Russian meal, the first of many more to come and we were given the obligatory house tour. We settled down for the night, contented that we were finally in one place and no longer on a train in Siberia.

Our first day in Moscow we went to the Moscow Kremlin. We must have spent seven or more hours inside seeing all of the museums, exhibitions and cathedrals. The orthodox architecture of the cathedrals in Moscow took me back to Romania who have similar churches and cathedrals dotting their landscape. They have beautiful curved gold steeples and white wash exterior walls and inside they have intricate decorative paintings and finely carved wooden sculptures. Even to somebody as completely opposed to the church as I am, the buildings were something to marvel at. The security at the Kremlin was nothing short of ridiculous, much like every building in Russia there seems to be a fear that someone is going to smuggle something metal in and do something untoward with it. Again, Russian bureaucracy, right? It's a little silly. We walked around the famed Kremlin armory and saw the Moscow Diamond Fund all rather extravagant but very interesting and set within beautiful buildings clearly built way before the Soviet era. After we had explored the interior of the Kremlin we went for some lunch at a Russian kitchen and headed to Red Square. When you first walk into Red Square you are struck by the magnitude of the place and the cartoon like beauty of the dominant St. Basil's Cathedral. St. Basils with its colorful steeples and interesting shapes stands at the Northern tip of the square (it could be the Southern for all I know) in front of it is a circular ring where dissidents and wrong doers used to be executed in the 18th and 19th century. Next to this stands the Kremlin, proud and tall, with its glistening red stars a top many structures that surround the bright red walls, no wonder it's called the Red Square, sitting in front of the Kremlin is Lenin's mausoleum and if we had actually been collecting communist leaders then I'm sure we would have visited him, but alas we already missed out on Ho Chi Minh and Mao, so we left it at a photo of the mausoleum. At the Southern end is the giant red and white historical museum and to the left of that stands a huge shopping mall reminiscent of Harrods in Kensington. A busy day indeed and we hustled home to more delicious food and conversation with our hosts.

Our second day in Moscow. it snowed, it was like the snow was following us from Mongolia and it had finally caught up. We visited a huge panorama of the Napoleonic War, which was quite a sight to behold, it was a perfectly circular painting that was all around you and it even bled out into sculptures and decorations on the ground beneath the painting of the panorama itself. It detailed a huge battle just outside of Moscow in which Napoleon was defeated by the Russian army. Oh, don't get me started on state proper gander now will you? We'll leave it at that. After this we visited the gigantic World War 2 or as the Russians call it the patriotic war museum. Why they call it the patriotic war is way over my head, I was under the impression that several countries (the allies) banded together to defeat the fascist imperialists but apparently I was mistaken and it's all about how awesome Russia is. Never the less the museum was fantastic and again included some great paintings and memorials and it was rather educational had you previously not known about Russia's involvement in the war effort. It's definitely worth a visit if you're ever in Moscow. After visiting the World War 2 museum the snow had died down and we went for some food at My-My, an awesome restaurant which serves a ridiculous amount of food in a kind of buffet, carvary style. After eating we walked down the famous Arbat street and looked at all the kooky over priced Russian dolls and other artsy items on display as we made our way way to the biggest cathedral in Moscow the Church of Christ the Savior. We stepped inside and obeyed the you must take your hat off and pass through airport security to get into the cathedral and we walked through the cathedral for a while. It was rather awe inspiring and magnificent in breadth and architectural style. It was actually destroyed during Soviet times but was rebuilt again after the USSR disbanded. We were getting pretty tired by this point but still had time to scoff our faces back at the apartment and play some Nintendo Wii, something I hadn't done in over a year.

The third day wasn't any less busy and we started off at a huge art gallery housing some of Russias most famous paintings. I've never spent too long inside galleries before but we spent a good three hours walking around this one, and it was enormous. We marveled at some paintings and frowned at others and then we went to My-My for some more lunch. After this we went to see the monument to Peter the Great which is the biggest monument I've ever seen, he is standing on top of a giant boat right in the middle of the city, quite something. After this we went with Ira to her weekly dance class and met her dance teacher who is the most Russian person I've ever met. She was pretty amazing and we watched everybody dancing and felt like we were experiencing some of the real Russia rather than just the tourist side of the place. The next day was a Saturday and we went to the Natural History Museum in the morning which is by far the best Natural History Museum I've ever been to, the amount of taxidermies was insane, they had everything set over a giant three floors. Then we walked back through the Ho Chi Minh square (as ya do) and went to catch a bus tour that the family had arranged for us which took us to some sights that were harder to get too via the metro. Once this tour had concluded we headed to the Moscow State Circus for a surprise treat that the family had planned for us.

I was reluctant to attend the circus as I had heard many stories about the tragic abuse that goes on there. It's certainly prevalent watching the show that these animals are abused and some animals they use in these shows should not be participating for the sake of entertainment, for instance endangered species like polar bears were playing the drums and cheetahs were reluctantly jumping over each other whilst a kangaroo was forced to wrestle with a man. This was hard to watch and was cringe worthy at times, how could people not find this utterly heart breaking? However, the acrobatics and other non-animal orientated elements of the circus was nothing short of amazing and as we didn't actually give the circus any money as it was a very kind treat, we thoroughly enjoyed experiencing it.

On our last day in Russia we went to Ismilovlad, this is a small Moscow suburb in the North of town which has its very own kitschy Kremlin to explore, all log cabins and cute gift shops, it was very Chrsitmasy and winter like and I felt like I was stepping into a Dickens novel had I not been in Russia and was far more likely stepping into a Tolstoy novel. Never the less we had a good time exploring the cute yet beautiful Kremlin and then did some shopping in a market close by. After this we swung by the Russian cosmonaut museum to get our space fix and even saw the first digs to ever go into space and some other really awesome space stuff at the museum.

Thus concluded our Moscow tour and we had an amazing time. There was a small incident which happened on our way home on the last night which did turn the trip a little sour. We were coming out of the Russian gingerbread store close by to where Sergey and company live on the estate and we were going to go to the pharmacy to get something for the flight the next day. As we were walking merrily along the road suddenly a very drunken, sturdy and rough looking Russian bumped straight into me, nearly knocking me to the floor. I didn't think much of it, and just wrote him off as drunk and rude and we continued to walk, but then I felt him grab my jacket from behind and he pulled me towards him. Sergey, Ira and Natalie all turned around and as we tried to keep walking he persistently kept following us becoming more aggressive with each step that we took away from him. We eventually ended up huddled into a corner of the street, Natalie was stood in front of me and the man had hold of my jacket with a very tight grip, Ira was stood to one side as Sergey argued with the man in Russian, as clearly I couldn't defend my "what the hell did I do?" in English as it probably would have made things worse. The man wasn't letting up and was determined that he was going to pull me to one side and beat me up or rob me, I don't know. He became increasingly aggressive towards Sergey and luckily at this point a man walking past must have either pulled the man back or got his attention and he lost his grip and we quickly darted away. We thought we had escaped as the man started to argue with the bystander, but before we knew it the man ran up behind us, ran past me and straight into Sergey's back, pulling the hood of his jacket, luckily the hood was buttoned to Sergey's coat and it came off in the mans hand and then fell to the floor, Natalie stealthily picked up and we all turned around again, only to find that the by stander had pulled right up to the side of the scene and was pointing a gun at the man who was trying to attack us. We all kind of froze as we had never seen a gun being pulled in public before. Sergey signaled to us that this was probably a good time to leave and unfortunately I can't conclude the story as that was the last we saw of the man or the bystander, but by gum it was a scary experience and I've never had anyone just openly attack for no reason, we blame the fact that he was drunk, but if it wasn't for the brave bystander with a gun, who knows what would have happened. We darted back to the house and collapsed onto the sofa, before we knew it we were eating our last Russian meal and smiling and laughing again, glad we had survived the ordeal. We took some photos with the family and settled in for the evening, in the knowledge that we had experienced some true highs and low of Russian life.

The next day we boarded our flight to Germany and now that is where we reside, we're home next week and we have many stories to tell that I just haven't been able to write about in these often rushed blogs. Weve had an amazing time but we're finally looking forward to coming home and seeing everybody, next time I post I'll no doubt be back in the UK but I will for sure write a post about Germany and then one final conclusive post from the comfort of my home.

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