Moscow, Russia

Getting to Moscow was a tour highlight. Being there was a washout. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.

Our compartment on the 3:50 train from St. Petersburg to Moscow had only one other occupant (with six seats), and shortly after we departed she was escorted somewhere else by the attendant. We greatly enjoyed the scenery, getting lots of video out the window. News stories from village Russia have often given me the impression that they are a people still stuck somewhere in the 1940's, in terms of life's accoutrements. This was less apparent than I expected from the train windows. Most of the houses were smaller than their equivalents in, say, Pennsylvania small towns are, and there are lots of unpaved streets. But these didn't express the impoverishment of life that I rather feared and expected.

About two-thirds of the way to Moscow—a 400-mile trip—at Twer, we were joined by a young man, whom Bob greeted with, "Hello! What's your number?" meaning to give him his proper seat should he, Bob, be in it. But the newcomer just smiled and laughed a little and sat next to the door. Presuming he understood no English, we resumed our conversation, mostly chit chat about our observations through the window. At one point we passed what looked like a large "village" of buildings little larger than sheds surrounded by vegetable gardens, and Bob wondered if people lived in them. We passed still more, and I speculated that they might be gardening sheds.

After half an hour or so, in halting but clear English and with a smile, the young man asked, "tell me, what do you think of our dachas or vacation cottages?" He went on to explain that they were summer and holiday retreats that many Russians have. We talked with him—I'll call him Misha—the rest of the way to Moscow and found that he loved to joke and kid and laugh as much as Bob and I. He answered most of our questions straightforwardly, but when I asked if most of the small towns we had seen seemed to have no churches because they had been destroyed by the Bolsheviks, he changed the subject immediately!

He works in the computer industry and when I asked if he had an Internet address, he said yes and gave me his card with all the information in English on one side and in Russian on the other. I assured him I'd send him email, the idea of which he seemed to like, and Bob urged him, if he ever makes it to the States, to visit him. (We have been corresponding via email ever since.)

As we neared Moscow, we began asking him directions to our hostel, and he said he would gladly take us to our nearest subway stop. We said he could just show us, but Misha insisted, even buying the tokens for all three of our Metro fares. Outside the Leningradskaya Railway Station, the city seemed a beehive of activity, and instant confusion. We were very grateful for his help as he led us through the throng to the Metro.

Once on the Metro he offered to walk us to our "hotel," and we protested but he insisted again, for which we were indeed grateful. He asked on the street and was told to take a trolley bus two stops, which we did. The young woman he asked seemed glad to help—Misha is an exceptionally handsome young man of about 25. She was going to a nearby location and invited us to join her, so now we were four! She left us at what we later learned was about a block from the hostel, named the Moscow Guest House. Misha asked two other young women which way it was and the three of them discussed it for a long time. I believe they were looking for a major hotel rather than trying to hone in on number 50 Bolshaya Pereyaslavskaya Ul., which turned out to be only a stone's throw—well, a baseball's good hit—from where they stood discussing it. We walked a couple more blocks in a wrong direction before taking account of building numbers and turning back to locate it. Misha even carried one of my bags the last block or so, and accompanied us up the lift to the tenth floor "guest house," which is a definite misnomer.

We tried to get Misha to take a gratuity for his help, Bob even pushing a $20 bill into his shirt pocket, but he adamantly refused. So we bade him a genuinely affectionate farewell, checked into our room, and were soon in bed. It was 11 p.m., the end of a long, eventful day.

Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $29

Tuesday, May 14

Though I expected we'd have a double room to ourselves, the "Guest House" had even misplaced Bob's reservation and put us in with three room mates. (He had his receipt so their misplacing it didn't become a major problem, except that they had not saved us a double as I'd asked through the Internet reservation service.)

Tuesday morning we went looking for a McDonald's near the Prospect Mira Metro station which we'd come out of with Misha the night before. Bob was hoping to get his "Big Breakfast." Finding the McDonald's was no problem, but it had no English "subtitles," and no breakfast items. It was crowded nonetheless, with Big Mac aficianados. We pressed on, walking miles up and down Prospect Mira with no luck (for my part, I'd have been satisfied with coffee and a pastry or toast).

Finally, around 11 a.m., we returned to our building and found a cafe on the ground floor which offered sausage, cheese, and bread and tea for about $2. The "sausage" turned out to be two weiners, but it sufficed.

I had been given the name of an American missionary working with the Orthodox Church in Moscow, to contact, and after breakfast I went through all my luggage, all the way down to my wallet, looking for the piece of paper with that information, to no avail. I asked at the hostel office if they had any maps of the city in the Western alphabet and got a cold "no." When I pressed as to where I might find same, the receptionist snapped, "maybe some shops." Definitely the Moscow Guest House fails its responsibility to host its guests if it can't even help us get around. Riding the subway without translations (not even a map) is impossible. Even with a map it would have been difficult, as stations, as in St. Petersburg, are identified only by voice, in Russian of course, with no signs naming them as you pull in. As with our hostel in St. Petersburg, this one had a travel agency attached, and when I walked into that room to ask about city tours, I was warmly greeted. But I've never seen anyone's expression change more transparently from welcome to annoyance in my life as when I asked the agent if he had any information on Moscow tours. "Ask reception," he snapped.

Frustrated, I walked several miles to the Leningradskaya Intourist hotel in the hope of finding such "a shop" as might sell tourist maps there, but I couldn't even get into the lobby. I was stopped by a uniformed man speaking only Russian, who barred me from going any farther than an entryway.

Back on the street I walked a little farther, judging from the Russian Cyrillic maps that I was about halfway to the Kremlin from our hotel. But there was no sign of it on the horizon, my feet were blistered and an ankle aching from walking on unbroken-in heels, so I hobbled back to the hostel. I encountered some tour busses and asked a resting driver if he spoke English, only to get "no." (Ironically, "nyet" is one of the three Russian words I know, but nobody ever used it!) Never did get to see the Kremlin, Lenin's tomb, the magnificent cathedrals, or the Arbat shopping street with the marble-floored McDonald's and a unique shop of Orthodox goods.

Moscow, a city of nine million, is much more urban and modern than I expected. Like New York, one sees no individual houses, only highrise tenements. We had been warned that the streets were not safe, but found this exaggerated, as all the women we encountered walking alone and with dogs and in pairs on the way from the subway with Misha attested. I felt no less safe than in San Francisco, a relatively safe American city. Though we were told that the people were favoring a return to Communism, the signs of capitalism were everywhere, especially in thousands of little kiosk stores that are clustered on sidewalks, in public squares, and at intersections both in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We also saw a number of street markets comparable to flea markets and farmers' markets of the kind we're accustomed to in California. Food and drink were relatively inexpensive (breakfast being cheaper in a Russian cafe, for example, than its equivalent, had it been available, at a Western fast food franchise), but merchandise prices seemed comparable to those we're accustomed to. Though the media have emphasized Russia's extreme poverty, we didn't get the impression life is as tough as that. But we were admittedly exposed to only a narrow window on the Russian situation.

We walked to a relatively small church within sight of our hostel. It appeared to have a small lavra being restored. After photographing the site we returned to our building's cafe (which did not appear related to the tenth-floor hostel) and had a dinner of cabbage soup and a little stroganoff over spaghetti noodles. We went to bed early after ordering a taxi to meet us at 5:15 Wednesday morning, for our airport trek. The information sheet we'd received by mail about the Moscow hostel said airport taxis go for $30 US. A notice posted in the hall listed it as $40; the receptionist told us it was $50. We didn't argue, thinking it would be futile, and $50 was not too much if it would get us out of Moscow

Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $23

Wednesday, May 15

Our taxi, unmarked by any kind of sign or rooftop light, was waiting at the building entry when we got down to the lobby early. Neither of us had slept more than a couple of hours. The driver pointed out a museum and the residence of Mikhail Gorbachev (in a more posh-looking apartment building than most) on the half-hour ride to the airport, and I was impressed by the presence of commercial advertising almost everywhere, perhaps even more than in our cities. We had to fill out declaration forms regarding money, purchases, valuables, and antiquities, and I had to show customs my four icons of St. Xenia (after which the agent scratched out the "four new icons" I had written under "icons," and had me write "none"!), and we stood in six queues before getting to the boarding area, but we didn't have to pay any of the bribes to officials or police that we'd read are common for Americans doing business in Russia.

Our Delta flight carried us to Frankfurt on time.



 © Jon Kennedy 1996, 2009