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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Kremlin, Moscow, Russia
TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY Ulan Ude Aug 6-7 Irkutsk Aug 4 Aug 5-8 Yekaterinburg Aug 8-10 Aug 11-12 Kazan Aug 13 Nizhny Novgorod Aug 14 Golden Ring Aug 15 Aug 16-17

MOSCOW Aug 17-19 Aug 20-21 Aug 22-23

Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, August 18, 2003

Russian Flag MOSCOW

August 17. VLADIMIR to MOSCOW We tried to find a train from Vladimir to Moscow but discovered that the bus was the only option left.  It was a comfortable enough ride and took less than five hours.  The bus let us off on the outskirts of town and we caught the subway to the G&R Hostel about 20 minutes away from the city center.  We hadn't had any opportunity for Internet access in Suzdal and didn't know if Uncle Pasha had space for us so we thought a hostel was the best option as it was already late in the day.  We needed our visas registered in Moscow anyway and Uncle Pasha couldn't provide us with that.   It was in a decent enough neighborhood but the hostel itself was fairly rundown.  It was operated off of the top floor of a hotel and looked more like a second class reception for the left over rooms at the hotel.  The woman operating the hostel was very friendly and helpful but when we got to our room we were less than thrilled. Karen had done much better with the dorm option which was basically the same double room suites but filled with random individual travelers.  Our suite had our two bed room, a single and a shared bath and shower.  We had a lock for our own room but it had something of the San Francisco tenderloin feel to it.  The wallpaper was peeling and some of the sheet rock was coming off.  I had gum stuck to my headboard and the mattresses had seen better days.  It still didn't top the pit we stayed at in Xining, China but at least they used mattress covers and fitted sheets.  Most of the beds we'd had in Russia were only covered with one loose sheet that didn't come entirely to the top or bottom of the mattress.  That was a bummer when your mattress looked like it had seen thousands of users but had never been cleaned.  Rob put in a call to Uncle Pasha and he was a bit flaky.  We had received two emails from him, the first confirming our request and the second saying that the lodging would be on a first come first serve basis so basically the place that Guy and Stephanie had stayed in was already occupied again.  He proposed some other options but we would have to wait until the next day to explore them.  The restaurant options near the hotel were limited but we took Karen's suggestion and shared a roast chicken from a nearby market.  It was really tasty and filled us up.

August 18. MOSCOW  Our second day in Moscow was mostly relaxed but we still had to sort out another place to stay. We checked out of the hostel and left our bags there.  From the subway we called Anastasia, one of Uncle Pasha's contacts.  Fortunately, she had room at her apartment, just across the river from the Kremlin!  But, she was at work and we would have to meet her after 6:00.  It sounded good but we were uneasy all day about whether it would pan out.  

The weather was actually beautiful and made for a nice walk from Lubyanka Station, the nearest station on our line to the city center and right smack dab in front of the old KGB building, to Red Square.  Right out of the subway we quickly spotted an ATM that spit out Rubles, Euros or Dollars.  Russia had certainly changed in the last five years since my first visit and Moscow was the best evidence of that. The commercial signage was rampant and shops, cafes and restaurants had sprouted up all over central Moscow.  The majority of the population can still only afford to eat out about once a year but a burgeoning money class was becoming much more conspicuous.  Our first break of the day was at the GUM State Department store built in the 19th century.  It was a beautiful building with two floors of shops and cafes under a huge glass ceiling.  A fountain marked the middle of the mall and the top floor overlooking the fountain contained several fast food cafes, selling everything from pizza to pastries, and a movie theater.  We had a good lunch at the pizza place while we observed people coming and going in the bustle of GUM.  There were high end designer shops, top of the line cosmetics stores, some swish looking cafes and essentially something for everyone with some money.  

Out on Red Square a barrier kept people from walking directly across the middle but access had recently lessened to allow people passage along the pedestrian walkway next to GUM.   This was an apparent precaution due to recent bombings by the Chechnyan rebels. Opposite GUM stood the red marble tomb of Lenin at the base of the Kremlin wall, the yellow and white Kremlin buildings peeking over the red wall.  On one end of the square stood the impressive red-brick building that housed the State History Museum and at the other Russia's most memorable buildings, the stunning St. Basil's Cathedral.  Between the two ends the barren gray brick square slightly bowed to give the effect of greater distance from one end to the other.  Half of the turrets of St. Basil's were sadly under scaffolding for refurbishment work but hoards of tourist groups were busily clogging the interior.  We carefully maneuvered around them and tried to stay one step ahead of or behind them so we didn't get pressed against the walls.  For all of St. Basil's dramatic and whimsical exterior of asymmetrical onion-domes colored in different designs, the un-restored interior was more sedate.   It had a cave like feeling with cozy little chapels in each of the onion-domes, the square footage fairly compact but the ceilings reaching all of the way to the top of the domes.  The elaborate alters in each were worth a good look but, still an inactive church, the halls were littered with too many kiosks selling everything from postcards to imitation Faberge egg charms. Looking closely at the refurbished part of the exterior I was almost disappointed to see how crisp and clean the brick work now looked.  The spectacular cathedral was built in the 1500's to commemorate Ivan the Terrible's acquisition of Kazan but with its new face it lost some of its antique charm.

From Red Square we made our way to Alexandrovsky Garden, at the front of the Kremlin fortress.  When I last visited Moscow the now completed Okhotny Ryad Mall was just under construction.  It was built under ground with a park and skylights sticking up along the street in front of the Kremlin.  It looked pretty nice from the outside, the top floor looking down into an extensive display of fountains at the edge of Alexandrovsky park.  The interior was less impressive.  It felt more like a 1980's mall in the U.S. with attempts at grandeur that just turned out tacky.  The central skylight made of a stained glass map of the world was an exception and a real contrast to the Las Vegas style gold ceilings in other parts of the mall.  In any case, it had a massive Internet cafe that was useful and a perpetually packed McDonald's.  

We called Anastasia from the Borovitskaya subway station at 6pm as we had agreed.  She gave us directions over the bridge to her apartment.   It wasn't difficult to find and was definitely a great location for $35/night as opposed to the $40/night we had paid at "Motel Barfly" on our first night.  She lived there with her mother and father and, as we later learned, her grandmother (who only heard but never saw).  The flat consisted of four rooms, a kitchen, toilet and bathroom.  Only three of the rooms opened up onto the main hall and we had one of those rooms to ourselves.  The bed was a snug fold out bed but overall it was a pleasant set up and the mother cooked us some hearty breakfasts.  After seeing the place we had to trek all of the way back to the hostel to retrieve our bags.  Anastasia and her mother gave us their bus passes to get to the subway.  We stopped en route to grab a McDonald's dinner and rushed out to grab our stuff.  It took longer than expected and since the helpful bus that got us to the station didn't seem to exist in the other direction we lugged our packs all of the way across the bridge on foot.  We got in past ten and the mother was waiting for us to give us instructions on the electric water heater for the shower.  We actually slept reasonably well.

August 19. MOSCOW  Our third day in Moscow was our first full day to just explore without any time constraints.  After breakfast at the apartment we walked across the river and headed for the Old Arbat street.  It was still early so the multitude of souvenir stalls were still setting up.  The narrow pedestrian street was littered with little cafes and shops but at the end loomed one of the towering Stalin wedding cakes, enormous tiered gothic buildings that marked the horizon in every direction in Moscow.  Before we reached the ring road where the Stalin structure stood we found another McDonald's, this one complete with a McCafe, more of an imitation Starbuck's than the cheap McCafe's we found around China but still one of the cheaper real coffee options in Moscow.  At $1.50 a cup that was still expensive!

From the Old Arbat we swung around to the less scenic but more useful New Arbat street where we found some much needed camera supplies and a clean pay toilet.  Feeling like we had exhausted that neighborhood we cut back across town to go buy our tickets to St. Pete's and mail post cards.  We were quite lucky to get a patient ticket window lady when we bought the train tickets.  We wrote everything out on a piece of paper in Russian beforehand which helped.  Of course, our limited phrasebook didn't have the term for upper and lower berth so we had to draw a little diagram of the train cabin to convey our request with an red "x" on the upper and lower berths on one side.  She couldn't get us exactly what we wanted and after her talking loudly at us in Russian and us looking blankly back at her she took our paper and drew an "x" in the two top berths to indicate that only the top was available.  We nodded that top berths were fine.  She also made a feeding motion with her hand which meant we had the pricier "with meals" tickets.  If you can find someone with just a bit of patience and at least some sense of humor it is amazing what you can accomplish without a word of language in common. 

All in all it turned into more of an errand day but we made up for it when met up with Karen at 5pm to see a Ballet, Sleeping Beauty.  She turned up with a nice Russian guy who had befriended her on the train, Nikita.  A rather non-typical young Russian he had recently spent about six months in India.  Seeing Karen on the train alone he offered to spend the day showing her around parts of Moscow.   He passed on going to the ballet with us, which was a good move since it wasn't spectacular (less experienced off-season troupe), but he met up with us again afterwards and brought a friend.  The five of us went to nearby gallery where they served matte, Argentinean tea.  Karen, Rob and I stopped for a coffee at Zen Coffee on Kuznetsky Most (a cafe run by an American expat?!) before the ballet and combined with the matte I was destined to never sleep that night.  Karen, on the other hand, had to get up at 3am to catch her flight back to Oman.  We said our good-byes around 11:00.  

The only bad thing about doing a home stay sort of lodging was that coming late made us feel like high school kids breaking curfew.  We tiptoed in but still found people up waiting for us.  We had given then advanced notice that we had Ballet plans but t would be the last night that we would come back late.