Sunday, May 31, 2015

Moscow Domodeja-vu

Bleurgh. It's always hard to blog the last part of a trip if I don't do it during the flight home. I've spent the whole last 23 hours or so getting reacquainted with my sofa and bed and various Netflix things and forgetting to watch Kung Fury and just bleh. I'm not on holiday any more. Neither of us won the lottery so we have to go to work tomorrow.

Anyway, enough about that. Fell asleep on Friday night only 1.5 cans into the 4 can haul, still being serenaded by what we learnt on Saturday morning was the club's visiting entertainer named T Killah. Think the T might stand for "tune". It was still going strong at 4.15am 'n all, bloody hell.

I woke up for good at 6am and played Threes for a few hours. I did try and get on the internet from the blogging sofa but rather than just getting online, this time round I was offered the choice of paying 900 rubles (a month) for fast access, or 64kbps for free. On the hotel wifi, this is. I chose the 64kbps option, which it turns out is painfully painfully slow. To think I remember 56kbps modems being state of the art consumer tech. Pfft.

We checked out at midday. On reception was a member of staff we'd not yet met or seen, which isn't so surprising since there seemed to be someone new on it every single time we'd walked past during the 5 days. Paying for breakfast seemed unnecessarily difficult - she originally seemed to not want paying and had to be told that we'd had it at all, and then when we handed her 1000 rubles she couldn't find 300 in change to give us - from petty cash, her own purse, the cleaner, or the tip jar. We settled for 200 and fucked off. So long, October Riverside Inn.

It was hot outside. The walk to Kropotkinskaya was not quite as painful as before though Helen's blisters weren't helping. Moderately well-trodden path to change at Park Kulturi onto the circle, back to Pavletskaya, then a looong walk to a sweltering platform heaving with people waiting for the Aeroexpress train's doors to open. Helen grabbed seats while I put the bags on the luggage rack, by the time we left the train was totally rammed, lots of people standing. As usual, it was not very express and despite no obvious delays as such, it had ended up taking us 2 bloody hours to get from the hotel to Moscow Domodedovo.
Mystery pies

Check-in was simple but the queues for exit immigration were long and slow. X-ray was fine, and then hey presto, we're airside. Some last minute shopping was required so we went into the second nearest duty free shop, picked some stuff, went to the till and were told by the woman sat next to the credit card machine that they weren't taking cards. Oh. So we went to the first duty free shop, ended up with even more stuff, and queued behind a man paying for a lot of booze, with a credit card.

When we reached the front of the queue the guy rang the goods up and then said, oh, cash only. No cards. Um, what? We may have been just about to quit when some concerned other people behind us in the now 6 or so strong queue said "what? no credit cards?" and the till guy looked vague, chatted to his mate, and put Helen's card in the machine. After some time she entered her PIN, and after some more time we got a receipt and our goods. Throughout this he had been repeating to other people in the queue that they were not accepting cards. And even if we did have enough cash, it wasn't going to be Euros or US dollars, which everything was priced in. No fucking clue what was going on there.

In a re-run of last year's debut trip to this airport, I am now in a massive grump, having consumed no calories so far yet. It's about 2.45pm and I really want the lounge. At check-in the guy had told us where it was, so naturally we did exactly the same as last year: walk the length of the terminal, go down some escalators, walk the length of the terminal back, go up an escalator, emerge right next to where we'd just done our shopping and see the BA lounge sign. For fucks sake.

Thankfully the lounge was not this time being used as a creche. Grabbed alcohol and rice and goulash and other stuff and took a photo of our plane at its gate. All these things cheered me up no end, of course. Some excellent Engrish in the lounge told us we could have our pick of "printed output", the most interesting of which was a guide of where to go shopping in London. I picked up two "pies" - this time, bread shaped like Cornish pasties - from the unsegregated plate marked both "cabbage pie" and "apple pie". What can I say, I like a gamble. They ended up both being apple.

Helen doesn't like to even chance being late, and I have a long and established bad habit of getting to gates way way way before necessary, so predictably we left the lounge early to join a queue that wasn't moving, but was spilling out of the gate area. We'd been told boarding for the 4.15pm flight would close at 3.55pm, but of course it hadn't even started at 3.45pm and in the end did not until gone 4pm - coincidentally during Helen's "oh fuck it, this is going nowhere" loo break. While in the queue the man behind me phoned a colleague of his, saying to him "I just emailed you and see you're on holiday, so I thought I'd call, sorry to disturb on a Saturday". Hang on, you what? Really? You're deliberately interrupting a man because it's both weekend and his holiday? Jesus, I think if any of my colleagues did that I would quit within a week.

Boarding, even via the fast track line, was slow, mostly because a good 20 or so people were being moved and/or upgraded. Lots of boarding passes beeped and caused the gate lady to go fetch a new one. We didn't get upgraded because of course we were travelling in first class again, don't you know. Window seats this time, though you have to crane your neck quite a bit to see out.

The cabin was full and there were even children present, dear lord what good is first class to a kid? Thankfully they were quiet, and the service all flight was great. Personal welcomes and then some champagne, why not. Took a while to get airborne and then came the nuts and more champagne, plus pyjamas and amenity kits. We do love us some cheap swag.

I decided to watch The Gambler, a Mark Wahlberg film featuring Omar from The Wire. Took most of the flight to get through it as I kept pausing it to be served, or to get up and talk to Helen - we were sat behind rather than across from one another. I was a bit sad to be on such a short flight because I love sitting up front so much.

Over another champagne I said yes to the amuse bouche - caviar and vodka - and ordered a mushroom fritatta thing for starter and a chicken Kiev main. I'm not exaggerating when I say the starter was possibly the nicest thing I've ever eaten on a plane. I recall Turkish airlines food being amazing back in 2010 or so but bloody hell, honestly, BA outdid themselves yesterday. The main was fantastic too but that starter...

The Gamber reinforced some of my approach to life - if you're not a genius, don't bother; there are plenty of happy electricians; don't make the same mistake twice; base everything around "fuck you". I do wish they wouldn't classify films starting with "The" under T in the inflight entertainment though. Mark Wahlberg and Jon Goodman are both great; I won't give spoilers about what happens in the film but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Unlike the food. I was asked if I wanted dessert or the cheese plate and asked if I could have both. The answer was yes! The cheese came first, with not enough oat cakes but nice quince. There was also port, and some more champagne. The thyme and pear tart would take a little while to heat and I was asked to give my opinion because the attendant thought it sounded lovely but hadn't tried it.

For the next refill I was asked if I'd like to try one of the other champagnes on the menu. I admitted that I'm just a drinker, not a connoisseur, and so really won't be able to tell the difference. She insisted I try a different one and y'know what, if I don't like it, she'll pour me one of the first lot again. I presume this was all a ruse to try not to open a new bottle of something that wouldn't get finished, and it worked.

Service was so great. I think the lass serving us smiled more during the 3.5hrs than I have in my entire life. I'd go to ba.com and issue a "well done" thing if I could remmeber her name. For the last 20 minutes before descent I sat on the buddy seat opposite Helen, and no new booze came. We were told we'd land at the C gates, which meant a pretty long trek to get landside but it also meant fuck yeah monorails.

Our bags game out pretty quick and after a brief vape break we got on the tube from platform 6 of the two platform T5 station, to Hatton Cross. A debrief in the Green Man pub was required, courtesy of gin and Guinness paid for with Sterling. Tube for Helen, bus for me - holiday over. Now where the fuck are my headphones?

Footnote: we did not split up on this holiday. 2/2 in 2015!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

From Russia with dove

The club next door was very loud until fuck knows what time. I fell asleep pretty quick but Helen struggled, and chose a particularly inopportune time and place to try one of those sleep/meditation apps which tells you to try and ignore any sounds you might be able to hear. So we slept in a bit late on Friday.

As it goes we had no tickets for anything. The Kremlin is shut on Thursdays so we were aiming to head there today, but on further consideration (and after seeing all the photos I took when I went last year) Helen decided y'know what, bollocks to the Kremlin. Can't be arsed queuing up to buy tickets to queue up to go inside some walls to see some cathedrals you can see from the outside, and a big fuck off bell and cannon. So instead, how about we try and find a museum of Soviet propaganda posters and the like? A quick internet tells us the Museum of Contemporary History is the place we want to go.

The Museum of Contemporary History is closed on the last Friday of the month. It was Friday May 29th. Fuck it. Whatever. Over breakfast in Strelka (there is no second s, unlke my previous references) of pancakes + bacon / ham and cheese omelette, plus raspberry and ginger tea, I mark on a map the location of the museum's 3 offshoot galleries: an underground printing press hidden behind a facade of a Caucasian meat shop; a reproducton of a revolutionary's house; and, um, another one I can't recall. An order is decided on and off we set.

First, onto the metro at Kropotkinskaya. The metro is a tourist attraction in its own right and Helen has seen barely any of it. On this journey we need to go one stop to Park Kultury and then around the circular line to Belorusskaya. The platforms and halls are impossibly ornate and fantastic. We emerge from Belorusskaya accidentally from the correct exit on the road for the underground printing press and take a walk. It looks like the city of London a bit, especially when we go past a cafe called Cheapside.

The museum is easily found. It is shut. There are signs on multiple windows saying "Museum not working", and a woman points at it too, just to ram the point home. Oh. Right, never mind, we have other options, and decide to walk to "My House", which is a small museum which just rotates through stuff borrowed from the main MCH. It's a fair walk through very non-touristy part of the city, though still fairly central. There is a branch of Subway where they have Cyrillicised the letters so that it phonetically reads "Sabvay" and this tickles me.

Half hour or so later and we reach where we think "My House" should be, but can't see it. Hmm. We have however found the museum of applied, decorative, and folk art. It is shut on Fridays. Pointlessly we walk down the side street behind the traffic police headquarters and peek into a little courtyard where My House might be, but there are barriers and what seem to be workmen emerging with cigarettes. It seems shut.

We're honestly having an excellent time here. I love just walking around the city with vague aims, even if those aims aren't reached. I love that after deciding to go to the nearest touristy thing - the Hermitage Gardens - we have to cross a giant behemoth of a road which has 8 lanes in each direction. The weather has been OK, we have water, it's fun.

The Hermitage Gardens are quite pretty, and claim to have wifi but don't. We sit down to plot our next move, which is to be a walk to Pushkinskaya metro and then head to Krasnopresnenskaya which can just fuck off if it thinks I can pronounce it. Near there is the last of the 3 museums we have bookmarked. A dead end takes us towards a big wooden structure full of doves and pigeons, we reverse and go through the French style entrance and wander north.

At the corner, next to the park we are about to walk through, there is what seems to be a pub. As I've been doing a lot I try to figure out what it says - Russia has felt much less alien to me this time now that I can at least pronounce stuff because I can read Cyrillic a bit, even if not understand it. But this pub I can understand: it says, in Cyrillic, "Scotland Yard - English bar". This kinda thing has happened a few times (and will happen again later) - places which are western-themed barely use the actual western name. It must be a place trying to be English, but not actually interested in attracting any English people to it, otherwise it would have some latin alphabet on its frontage. No?

Anyway we didn't go in, but instead took a stop in the park for some liquid nicotine. Soon enough we arrive at Pushkinskaya and go straght past it, because we've decided bollocks to trying any more museums, they are bound to be shut, and the pub Andrei told us about is quite close by so let's go there. But first we need some cash as we've almost run out. I ask for 6000 rubles and get it in a bloody 5000 and 1000 note. These are the biggest notes we've yet seen and the 5000 seems like it can only be spent if we have a LOT to eat and drink in one place. Gah.

Craft Republic's location was easy to find courtesy of having bookmarked it on a map, but it doesn't exactly leap out on the street. It doesn't seem to say Craft Republic on it, and it looks like a ... wait a second, a craft shop. I only just realised that while typing. Anyway from the outside there is a poster which did mention beer but peering in through the door it wasn't obvious. Nonetheless the rain had started so we chanced our arm and, oh, look, a really dingy room out back with HELLO, fifteen beer taps and loads of bottles. Hurrah!

We are the only customers. The whole place must only fit about 25 people. Helen gets a taste of Rosso and orders a pint, I go for a gorgeous milk stout. As with every interaction with Russian folk so far, we get no smile and no hint of "where are you from?" style interest. The barman just serves us and then goes back to his seat and dicks around on his phone. The rain outside becomes absolutely torrential and a few other people arrive. No-one is smiling.

If there were toilets, we'd probably stay, but there don't seem to be so we pay and leave. And see the toilet on the way out. The rain is still awful and we realise that, actually, the craft shop is awesome. There's loads and loads of mad stuff - glasses on top of toy cars or with handles made from metal chains, socks in bottles, sexist cushions, lots of Russian literature, whiskey flasks with built-in compasses, grumpy cat-faced hand-knitted dolls, novelty iPhone cases, a clock made from a frogman's flipper... like the oddest final round of The Generation Game you'll ever see.

We buy nothing and the rain doesn't seem like it's gonna stop so bollocks, we head out. The road we are on leads straight down to Red Square and we are aiming for GUM. It's actually really not that bad, the rain, especially if you're wearing a massive wide-brimmed hat that makes a pretty good fist of acting as an umbrella. Walking along Helen repeatedly shouts 'pectopah! pectopah!' at every restaurant. Through the underpass of Okhotny Ryad we find our first Lenin impersonator, and there are a couple more topsde en route to GUM.

The rain has got worse and there is now thunder and lightning over a dismal Red Square, and it is fucking fantastic. We stand there for a bit watching the sky and getting wet; it's still nice and warm. I got a video of lightning and managed to get a freezeframe showing both streak and sheet at the same time, next to St Basil's cathedral. It's great. But Helen needs a historic piss, so she goes to the historic toilets. They cost 150 rubles a go and are very fancy.

Back outside for some more sky watching and some excellently moody photos of the square, Lenin's mausoleum, the state museum, etc. Honestly, Red Square in bleak weather is completely awesome and totally tops off what has already been a fun day. But we are hungry, so off to Burgermeister for beer and something to eat. There is a Joe Stalin impersonator lookng lonely on the way, and what seems to be a Putin impersonator having his photo taken with a Lenin because why not?

In Burgermeister we are seated in front of 5 beer fridges and before I've even sat down the waiter has pretty much demanded I have a bolshoi Russian beer (sibirskya corona, y'know); Helen opts for some local champagne, which is smoother and sweether than that French muck. The food menu looks great. I order one of the 4 types of marinaded mushrooms by reading out the name of it having read it in Cyrillic. Honestly, I can't get over how much of a kick I get just from being able to pronounce stuff. Helen orders two starters: 3 Russian meat pies, and some mushroomy cheese thing. My main is chicken breast with potato in sauce.

The pies are totally not pies; they are bread triangles filled with what seems to be Shipham's paste. Then the mushroomy cheese thing arrves and it looks just like this small mushroomy cheese thing that came alongside her main in the Russian no-starters place on Thursday lunchtime and HANG ON A FUCKING SECOND. That was the starter! It just came alongside the main! And let's think, what was the starter I'd ordered? Potatoes fried in pork lard. Kinda like them there chips what came with my fish? Bloody hell! We'd just been ignorant idiots and not actually twigged that the stuff on our plates was the stuff we'd ordered. Well colour us stupid. Ha!

The food is lovely and the waiter keeps coming back insisting we get more beer and champagne. Oh, go on then. And fuck it, some dessert too - mascarpone pancakes and cheesecake (pronounced "cheezkayeek"). We think about heading off and that's when the rain really kicks in: it is darker outside than it should be 2 hours later and the sky is totally falling. We tell the waiter not to throw beer at us but give us 5 minutes, after which he gleefully serves us more beer and champagne. Seems we're trapped. I go for an English beer, a bottle of Wychwood Ginger Beard. It's lovely.

But we can't stay any longer. As it happens, the LOTS OF FOOD AND DRINK required to spend the 5k note has just occurred naturally. Now, it's Friday night in Moscow and we're about 3km from our hotel; there's a metro nearby but not one on the island so no matter how we do this, we might get a bit wet.

Might turns into definitely as we get drenched inside 15 seconds of being outside. The big shin deep puddle didn't help. There's a guy brooming water out of Teatrinya station. Down at the platform I am delighted to discover this is the one with the brass statues I'd told Helen about, so some bonafide tourism right here. Helen rubs the nose of the dog for luck, and we get our first and only unsolicited smile from a Russian who is waiting to do the same while I take a photo. The tube takes us one stop to Biblioteka which is also 3 other station names: where multiple lines intersect, the name of the station can be different for each line. It isn't at Park Kultury, it is here. I am confused.

Another stop to Kroptkinskaya and we're topside again. It's hammering it down still. Round the cathedral, over the bridge, along the river and to the off licence. It's Friday night, we go home tomorrow, and we don't want to go to the pub in wet clothes so we just want some beer. We kinda want to buy 8 but I don't know any numbers greater than 6, so decide on a plan of ordering 4 beers of two different brands. Simple.

The plan is scuppered by the off licence being shut. Presumably because it's Friday and also a museum, who knows. The light is on and the woman is inside but the door is locked and she doesn't react when people try it: the guy in front of us, us, and the 3 people after us. For fucks sake. Back to the hotel for a loo break and then one last attempt: we know there's a proper supermarket about 5-8 minutes walk in the other direction.

As we leave the hotel Helen asks the reception bloke and his mate where the nearest beer shop is, and they direct us elsewhere. We go in that direction and there are no shops. So we walk to the supermarket anyway. The rain remains unrelenting and Helen's sense of humour is being washed away. I'm finding it all hilarious. In the supermarket the Budweiser is half the price of the off licence and we get 8 cans for 4 quid. We queue at the till behind two Englishmen who seem to live in the ex-spy-chief accomodation next door.

Squelching through vast puddles we make it back and collapse onto the blogging sofa. We crack open a beer each and talk louder than usual, to drown out the sound of the club next door which is loud enough that our entire room is reverberating. There seems to be a crowd going wild for awful house covers of Five and Whitney Houston and fuck knows what else. This is brilliant, but seriously thank fuck we have enough sauce to knock us out for the night.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Another one rides the bus

Thursday morning and the weather was much worse. Raining, though not too hard, and a bit colder. We were in possession of tickets which allow us on 2 buses and 1 boat, hop on hop off style, and had not ordered breakfast. I recalled some stalls near the place where all those forms of transport leave, in Bolotnaya park, so we head in that direction.

It takes a while, because there's a huge road to cross next to the House on the Embankment. It seems to have 4 or 5 lanes in each direction but in Moscow the highway code seems entirely optional. Most crossings have a countdown telling you how many seconds until the green man allows you to cross, but this one does not. We mildly peg it during a rare gap. At the next crossing there are no gaps, the lights don't seem to change, very few of the locals are daring to cross, and the filter lanes are appropriated by people who don't want to turn. It probably takes us more than 5 minutes to cross both roads.

In and through the park, the stalls are selling ice cream only, making a mockery of my recollection. We don't buy, and hope there's at least some crisps or something on the 60-120 minute boat ride. It's still raining a bit, everything is grey and bleak, but the forecast said the afternoon would be worse and anyway there's a boat and they wave us on. There are 5 staff and only us, the interior of the boat looks like a floating primary school with uncomfortable immovable plastic seating in two aisles, 3 each side, with long narrow desks in front of each row. Someone checks our tickets, and after 10 minutes or so of nothing happening an angry sailor checks them again, staring at one for upwards of 30 seconds. Eventually a bus arrives and a few other people get on, and then we are all told to get up and move to an adjacent identical boat that has just pulled up.

In the new boat, the cover has been opened because the rain has stopped - there is a section of about 4 rows in the centre which is now open air. We sit at one of them and lay out our guidebook and maps while everyone else starts on picnics. The angry man takes a long time to stare at some other people's tickets. There is obviously no food. Nor is there anything English, no audio guide, no written guide, no announcements. The stereo system at the front does not play even a Russian guide to the sights, but is just pumping out some terrible Moscow radio station. It starts to rain, quite hard, so the cover is closed and we set off.

In very short time, we pull a U-turn next to Peter the Columbus, at the end of the island. This is unexpected, because the map kinda shows that we should be heading all the way to the Radisson past Kievskaya before coming back and doing a circuit of the island. Never mind. Helen gets some shots of the awful statue through rain-covered plastic and we begin a slow trip past all the stuff we've already seen multiple times a day so far: the Red October complex, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the Kremlin. The locals all keep heading out into the rain to get some photos of pretty things under bleak skies; we stay put.

Our understanding of this as a hop-on hop-off tour is challenged, because we never stop anywhere. We go past a few building sites, and one of the seven sisters (a big fuck off apartment block), and reach a monastery that looks quite nice. Then we turn back, going up the other side of the island. I am cranky as fuck now. There's fun bleak and there's starving hungry this-boat-tour-is-shit bleak. And it is shit. At one point one of the small children onboard lets out a piercing scream. Really hope this finishes back where we started.

Mercifully, after almost exactly an hour, it does. We're back at the park where twice we have seen a man dressed in half-arsed armour handing out leaflets for a Russian restaurant - we have one of these leaflets, there's lots of English on it and we are fucking ravenous. It's easy to find though requires crossing an almost uncrossable road, again. Inside we are seated and handed a big English menu by a man in what we presume is traditonal Russian dress. Success?

While I make friends with the canary in a small cage on the window next to me, we decide on food: starters of potato in lard for me, and, um, something chickeny for Helen. It's hard to remember what we ordered because they never arrived; our waiter tried to get us to order steak, coca-cola, and Russian vodka but we wanted none of it. Some bonus starters of a cherry pancake and some bread and pickles turned up, as did our drinks: my lager was indeed a lager, Helen's lemonade was a pint of unadulterated unsweetened undiluted freshly squeezed pure lemon juice. Powerful stuff.

Our mains arrive; I ordered "crocodile ice fish" which turns out to be a plate of fish and chips. Very nice fish, and certainly not a kind of fish I'd had before, but still, a very expensive fish and chips. Helen had some dumplings with sour cream. We ask for the bill and on it are our free starters, marked as free, and the paid for starters we never had. We tot up the price of the missing stuff as about 4 quid so fuck it, we let it slide. It's not like the food or surroundings were bad, but there's no fight in us to try and argue a bill.

Lunch done, the weather is getting better and we still have tickets. The park itself is quite nice and has a big statue called Children Are Victims of Adults' Vices (or something like that). There are two joyous young scamps at the front, while behind is a semi-circle of representations of all the bad shit adults get up to that fucks kids up: prostitution, war, ignorance, "irresponsible science" and so on. It's actually very cool.

Baaaack to the bus stop via some coffee out the back of a van and a look at some metal trees on a bridge covered in individually marked padlocks, like that bridge in Paris. Then, two buses arrive, one for each route. We walk up to the no.2 and the driver just waves us away. Oh. Turns out the tour buses are all on lunch now, and various members of staff head to the restaurant we've just left. It's now 3pm and we've not yet made it off the island.

Thankfully, Helen is actually enjoying her birthday. I'm twitchy because I suck at just sitting down letting the world go by and am very glad when the buses finally start their afternoon shift. We make damn sure to get on before the surly couple who'd barged past us at Red Square the previous day, and get a good seat in the open air bit. Moscow traffic is fucking crazy and we slowly go through junctions where horns blare constantly and lights don't seem to change, while being serenaded by a wide variety of different sirens on different emergency vehicles. The gaps between bits of commentary are very wide, and the voice alternates between a woman whose accent is such that we were told NO SMIRKING and the bloke from the other bus who overuses the word "however".

After heading up through a very commercial district over the Garden Ring we see two more of the seven sisters - the Radisson hotel (aka Hotel Ukraine) being one - plus the "white house" old seat of parliament, and the excellent Kievskaya train station. Finally some people hop off the bus, which is reassuring as it's the first time anyone has got on or off either bus or boat outside of Red Square or Bolotnaya Park.

We have the British Embassy pointed out to us and then they witter on about something to do with Sherlock Holmes, but we're confused: there's a British Embassy on the island, a 5 minute walk from our hotel, with a Union Jack on a flagpole and the words BRITISH EMBASSY written on the gate. Uh?

I've also written down "Zeus in his bovine form", and don't know why.

About 20 minutes later through the most chaotic junction yet we get off the bus outside the giant fuck-off Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which just seems to redefine the word "heft". And turn the corner to reach Arbat, one of Moscow's "must-sees" according to the guidebook we are increasingly unwilling to trust.

I need a piss and there's an outdoor loo; however, you need coins to buy a pass that lets you in. This seems unnecessarily complex and besides, we have no coins, so we go to a pub instead. I have my first Russian beer: Plotnikov ale. I wonder how local it is, while staring out the window and realising we are on Plotnikov side-street.

Down Arbat, the artists are no better than last year. We see some black people, which stands out because Moscow is not cosmopolitan. We're ushered into a tourist tat shop and stare at Putin t-shirts, Putin mugs, and Frank Lampard dolls. Nothing is purchased. Arbat is crowded but, well, a bit crap really. At the arse end we turn into a mystery park between two sides of, of course, another really busy and wide boulevard. There are benches, and there are shelters, but the shelters are not over the benches and don't quite seem wide enough to stand under and get any, er, shelter. Hmm.

It's a bit of a walk but finally we go past that bloody great Cathedral again, over the river, and back to the hotel. Time to chill. The day has not been quite as amazing as the previous day but who cares? Let's do some internetting and then go eat in our local, Strelska. So that's what we do. There is no Russian food on the menu and we get burgers, served with sticks through them and on non-plates. It really is hipster here. There's a massive queue for an architectural talk going on next door; Thursday seems busy.

After a few drinks we figure, y'know what, it's much cheaper just to drink at the hotel, plus there Helen can vape without fear. We are yet to see any other people using electronic cigarettes and the internet told us they might be banned. Mind you, earlier in the day we had also not seen any other men with beards until I started to feel paranoid about it, from which point on it seemed like every bloke had a beard.

Back to the off licence for another 4 beers, and then back to the hotel. There were, briefly, fireworks visble across the way. We sat up doing serious stuff - I played Threes, Helen researched the fall of communism and the IMF-backed march into capitalism, and all the suffering of the Russians over the past 25 years. Both these things got rudely interrupted by the fairly sudden start of a VERY LOUD dance night kicking off in the bar/club next door. Pesky youths!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Oh Stalin, There Ain't No Pleasin' You

Our first full day in Moscow didn't really get going until gone midday. Sure, we had breakfast delivered to us at 9am - some bircher muesli and an activia yoghurt - but after that Helen went back to sleep and I spent 2 fucking hours trying to blog. Writing as much as I do takes a fair bit of time anyway, but that was nothing compared to the fail festival I was about to attend.

First, transferring photos from my phone to my iPad took 3 attempts, because AirDrop is shit. Then once I wrote everything, it wouldn't post - the Posts app just hung on "waiting to submit" and wouldn't let me get back at the text to copy and paste it. I quit the app and restarted it, to be presented with 10s of com.google.gDataServiceDomain 404 errors, but at least I could get back at the text. blogger.com worked OK, but wouldn't let me edit the text below what I could see on screen, and the paste had fucked up the spacing and inserted huge picture placeholders but not the actual pictures. Then my iPad keyboard kept dropping connection every 5 seconds, and I fell off the internet totally. Grargh. After about 40 minutes of rage and anger I managed to get a post of some description up, but the spacing was all still fucked and there were no pictures and I couldn't actually reach my blog (though every other site I wanted to use worked OK). So bollocks, I gave up in a huff and we set off out to actually do some tourism.

We are staying on the nameless island in the Moscow river, the site of the Red October factory and at the end of whch is the giant awful statue of Peter the Columbus. We decided to wander around the complex for a bit and immediately were overtaken on the pavement by a man carrying a sword. We found a small 24hr shop but it didn't sell toiletries, which was a shame as the hotel is somewhat lacking in shower gel and that. 5 beer fridges though. There are bars and coffee and donut places too. There's the nut production area, the packing area, the chocolate area, etc etc. Through to the south edge of the island and there are more bars, a photography exhibition, a gig venue and some restaurants. We mentally bookmarked one for later, based on it being a reasonable price and having a menu written in both Cyrillic and English at the base of the steps which led up to its roof terrace location.

It was bastard hot, again, but without bags and now wearing shorts and a comedy wide-brimmed hat it's survivable. Took some selfies approaching the Cathedral over the bridge and then walked through the gardens towards the Kremlin. Had the briefest of street hassle from a young man with a delightful cheap plastic "I'm a sailor boy" thing over his shoulders who wanted us to get a boat. Maybe later. There is of course nothing in the entirety of Russia that looks remotely gay, certainly not men in sailor outfits nor those in teeny teeny tiny tight shorts and vests, nor the hundred or so construction workers looking like 20% of a Village People convention. Nuh uh.

Up around the edge of the Kremlin through the pleasant gardens with much less construction going on than last year, Helen was enjoying herself but a bit perturbed by how non-bleak Moscow seems. This is not what the 80s taught us about Russia. There's all these people not queuing for bread and there's neat lines of well maintained flowers and there's colours other than grey and that. Damn it.

Past the eternal flame and unknown soldier and into Red Square. It's still not red and still not square. There's some kind of stage and outdoor seating thing being erected as if there's going to be a concert or public execution soon. Probably the former. We take a bunch of photos and then head into GUM, the hefting great department store/mall, with an intention to have a piss, buy some toiletries, and get some lunch. Food was courtesy of Stolovaya 57, the self-service Soviet-style canteen with cheap eats and bad cranberry juice. I had perch and mash plus some beetroot with prunes and walnut, and chicken pate with very hard bread. The chicken kiev with mushrooms, I am told, tasted like a chicken kiev from Sainsbury's might. The whole lot came to the same price as two pints. The English language signs around the place refer to the customers as comrades.

Wandering through GUM afterwards we did the full length of the supermarket in which last year I bought my vodka. The place only sells food and drink, still no toiletries. But back outside past the historic toilets and onto, um, a road whose name I forget, we find first another 24hr mini-mart and then a pharmacy. Also "London Grill" English pub - we didn't go in - and branches of Le Pain Quotidien and Subway. Hurrah! Really we are looking for a place to sit and have a pint, but there don't seem to be any. No, we're not going in fucking London Grill.

Deciding to cut a circle, we get to yet another preposterously large building that seems to be the Residents' Insurance building which is of some vague import. Along the street there is a woman in a cardboard sandwich board, protesting alone about something. Perhaps it says FIVE PROTEINS WITH FISH DAILY, we aren't sure. A stern uniformed lass talks at her and takes photos of the text as two men emerge from the Metro and try to intimidate, erm, both of them? Not sure. Back along the road where last year we had pie and bought Russian dolls, we nip into a souvenir shop and buy nothing.

Back at Red Square we take lots of photos of St Basil's: on its own, dual selfies, and solo shots of Helen. It was a photo of me in front of this place that was the first thing Helen ever saw of me, as it was my profile pic on Guardian Soulmates. So we figure that if we split up, a photo of her in front of it might do her well next time, since it worked for me.

We leave Red Square through the gates built in 1994 which recreate those that were there for hundreds of years before Stalin had them removed to make room for tanks. Helen goes briefly ballistic at the mere sight of a Jamie fucking Oliver restaurant, the fat-tongued Moskvy twat. I point out the Bolshoi ballet building and am pretty much done with the extent of my ability to get around without a map. Next to the metro station which Ian and I used as our pivot point last year there is a place with outside seating so we wonder if they will serve us just a drink.

The first page of the menu is wine. The next 9 pages are all beer. That'll do. I want to order the local Russian dark bread beer but am told they don't have it so settle for an O'Hara stout. It's a real spot-hitter. I get frustrated at wifi which provides only around 5 seconds of connection at a time, and blame the wind. A man walks past wearing a WWE wrestler t-shirt and I want to shout "I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you!" at him, but don't.

We feel pretty much done for the day, tourism-wise. It's been 28c and blazing sunshine all day and we've walked a fair distance. There's a sightseeing bus tour round the corner opposite my last "I know that!" thing in the vicinity, the parliament. We buy the 48hr ticket that lets us get on 2 bus routes and a boat and wait for them to leave. The audio commentary is oddly delivered but informative. The Russian parliament is not a place for discussion, the Bolshoi has a statue of Apollo who is the only sober taxi driver in Moscow, there is a road called Chinatown and no-one knows why because it has fuck all to do with China, double decker buses are great aren't they?, etc etc.

We spend the first half hour on the bus basically retracing the exact steps we've already walked. That there Residents' Insurance building is actually the KGB/FSB headquarters. GUM was once going to be demolished so they could make the People's Commissariat of Heavy Industry but the wives of the party leaders persuaded them to keep it as a shopping mall. Ivan the terrible asked the blokes that built St Basil's if they could do it again and they said yes, thinking they were going to get repeat business; Ivan blinded them all so no-one else would get such beauty.

Over to the island (still on the bus) and we do a circle round a park whch used to host "festivities, fist fights, and executions" but is now where "punks, goths, and rockers" hang out. No mods? And then we get off and walk back to the hotel, via the 24hr shop we scouted this morning. After some faffing I mumble "chetiri bud pozhalsta" and the woman behind the counter angrily understands me perfectly, giving me 180 rubles change and using a remote control to open the beer fridge from which we extract the 4 Budweiser I just expertly ordered. This tiny exchange exhausts me.

Back to the hotel and we crack open a beer and do some internet from the blogging sofa. Showers are had and we get changed to go out to the restaurant with the terrace.

The entrance is shut and there's a sign only in Russian, seemingly pointing to a ladder up a wall. Um. Oh wait, no, there are more stairs. OK. The menu at this entrance is also only in Russian but I'm sure that's fine. At the desk they say something to us but Helen cuts it off with "Hello!", announcing our Englishness. The lass goes, ah! and sets off to find the one member of waiting staff who speaks enough English to help us. We're given a table and some menus - the drinks menu is in English, the food menu only in Russian/Cyrillic. Oops.

Drinks order is taken. Yet again the drink I want is not available, so I have a Leffe Bruin (which I can at least pronounce better than them). We stare at the food menu for ages and I try to figure out if any of it is understandable. Some progress is made - I can make out the words for dim sum, soup, shashlik, sushi, and sushimi. We don't want any of those things really, apart from perhaps dim sum. The waiter comes to take our order and goes, oh, your menu is in Russian. What do you want? Helen asks for some kind of chicken with rice and I say yeah, I'll have the same, and also can we have assorted dim sum. He tells us what 5 of the 7 pieces will be but doesn't know the English for the other 2. That's fine. Food is on its way!

It's a really nice place, the Shaktiri terrace. We were out of our comfort zone, unexpectedly, but about to eat and had booze. The dim sum was decent - no idea what was in the blue parcel though. And the spicy chicken in gloopy (not ridiculous) sauce was lovely, with a bit of seaweed that was tiny in size but huge in flavour. Nom. They came and grabbed my plate as soon as it was empty, in fact this seems to happen a lot - no waiting for the whole table to finish, an empty plate must be removed ASAP. While doing so the waitress said somethng at me in Russian and I kinda reacted blankly and then shook my head. I don't know what I conveyed. We asked for the bill soon after, paid, and made our escape back to the Strelska bar where we understand how things work.

Well, sort of. On Tuesday the guy had served us drinks then gone back to juicing a lemon. Hadn't asked for money, hadn't obviously entered it into the till, just juiced a lemon. This time we sat down and waited for waiting staff which I was convinced was the right thing to do. It took a while but I was proved right - English language food and booze menus were brought and I got a Guinness, Helen a huge and strong mojito. Aaaaand relax. Thought about a second drink but then, nah, save the cash - we've got beer back at the hotel, so that's where we went. Lounged around on the blogging sofa until just after midnight: Happy birthday, Helen :)