I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

East Feast

Ouch. My head hurt a bit. Nothing too bad, but the sauna conditions hadn't helped. I swigged water like a bastard and kinda felt ok, but it was damn early, 7am or so. We had fuck all planned til 1130 and I wasn't in the mood to grab breakfast, so just stayed in bed listening to the Steve Austin and Doug Stanhope podcasts while playing Threes. Eventually I figured a shower etc might be wise, and then we went down to reception.

Moscow Private Tours come very highly recommended. Not personally, but tripadvisor looked very very good. The worst review was one which had a personal response from the management saying yeah, but, you arrived on a different day to the one you told us... Dude, just delete your shitty review, you tool.

Anyway, expectations were high. We'd been downstairs early so went for a very brief wander to the junction just up from the hotel where in the dark last night we'd spotted some kind of tourism potentially worthy of a photo. Turns out it's a WW2 monument and, yeah, not bad. Weather was pretty bleak and grim though. Headed back to the hotel at 1125 to wait for our guide, turning up at 1130.

No sign at 1130. Still no sign at 1145. Hang on. This sucks. That girl over there, she's not our guide is she? Ian had a word, which clearly wasn't understood. No, that's not her. I texted our guide saying hey, me and my friend are waiting, ... and left it five minutes. After that, and no response, I called and got "BOODOOBEEP, lots of Russian, BOODEEBEEP, the subscriber you are calling is unavailable". Oh. Called the Moscow Private Tours office and got no response. Oh. Emailed them and, er, just sat around in the hotel. WTF?

I called the guide's mobile again, and that time got "failed call" immediately. I emailed the agency saying, hang on - no guide, no phone contact - and sat back down, fidgeting, Hoping for third time lucky I tried to call the guide once more and an out of breath, extraordinarily apologetic lady answered, sounding mortified at her own timekeeping. She was going to arrive in 40 minutes. So went back to our respective rooms to play Threes. The agency called me to say shit, so sorry, was I sorted yet and don't worry, there'd be a partial refund and internal investigation. I mean, seriously, it's fine! We've been delayed by 70 minutes on a 4 day trip. She's on her way, no big deal. But thanks for chasing up.

Went back down to reception half hour later and she arrived almost immediately, again apologising for being late. It meant we had no chance of visiting Lenin's mausoleum, but honestly that's no problem. And so we set off, firstly having metro tickets bought for us before being shown a few stations.

I can't imagine a city where "visiting tube stations" is an actual thing you want to do. No one is ever going to say "hey, you MUST see Colliers Wood!", but Moscow is different. The stations are vast, high ceiling caverns of architectural beauty. Each is different, with statues and mosaics and murals and arches and paintings and holy shit. She took us to 3 different stations and explained a few things to us - the poet one was modelled around, the brass statues that people rub for luck (they really do - not just tourist schlock, we saw regular folk rubbing the brass appendages several times), the way the circular metro line came into existence as a result of a Stalin coffee cup staining an existing map and being interpreted as instruction. Even if that's not true, it's a great tale.

Apparently 6 million people ride the Moscow subway every day. I'm not surprised. There are trains on every line every 90 seconds or so, and they are all crowded. It's a real experience and I love riding it.

Eventually we had to go topside. The weather was shitty but hey, we're English, it's fine. Ian had actually got the "aren't you cold?" treatment as soon as we kicked the tour off. Once on the street we were opposite the big theatre, otherwise known as the Bolshoi. That means big, and next door is "the small theatre". Good naming scheme, Russia.

We saw the hotel metropol. what used to be one of the only hotels where foreigners were allowed. A whole lot of today involved being told about how life was, for locals and visitors, in the soviet era. Those crazy days. Thank goodness for the stable, well meaning, accurately representative democracy of modern times.

The Duma came next. It's the Russian parliament, and an object lesson in perspective. Sometimes, things are big, and sometimes, things are near. The Duma was big and near. From a distance it looked like a fantastically grey and brutal Soviet square-edged building, coloured only by a gold motif above the door. From up close you realise the floors are huge, the windows are huge, the everything is huge. Overly so. I loved how overbearing it was.

We saw a museum or two, some colourful architecture and a gate built in 1997 that looks a lot older. A statue of a military genius, the zero kilometre point of Moscow (ie, from which all road signs are measured, a la Charing Cross) and then, oh, hello! Red Square! I've heard of you.

It's not red and it's not square. Turns out the word for red is also the word for beautiful, and not only that but "red square" is the location's 4th name since it first became A Place People Reference. I forget the other names - the first was "fire square"?

Apology time. I failed to take a pad and paper with me today, so all this post is coming straight from two things: memory, and the rapidly written "what just happened?" notes I scribbled when we got back to the hotel earlier. So I may be full of shit, and I may start getting terse as the later parts of the day had to battle for attention amongst my memory cells.

Anyway! At the far end of red square is St Basil's cathedral, in which we spent 35 minutes in taking photos of excellent apostolic art inside a very beautiful Gaudi-esque building. Proper tourism. bitches. We were met outside again and taken for souvenir shopping - my nieces will LOVE me - and then food and drink, a good job since we'd eaten nothing all day and it was 1530.

The guide price included an optional extra for food, so we didn't have to pay. Perhaps being a master of intuition, she took us to a pie shop and bought us two pies each. Cabbage and potato-mushroom were my choice, as we ate over a green tea while discussing what London is like. Ian was asked what he did: "I work for the BBC" "Oh, so you like small children?" came the deadpan answer. Ha!

After food came GUM, the enormous shopping mall that's been there since 1893 when it was "just" a traders hall. Unlike the "look how modern we are!" malls of Asia, this one still shows off soviet stuff, for people like us to lap up. On the top floor in the soviet kitchen we bought drinks, then we walked through the longest mall supermarket ever, being shown where to buy chocolates, cakes, fish, caviar, vodka, and soviet soda stream. I had pear flavour, which tasted nothing like pear. Or was it cherry that tasted nothing like cherry? It was X that tasted nothing like X, but my god it was sweet.

The weather was still shit and we had a decision to make: an unimpressive walk, three more metro stations, or a walk through the park next to the Kremlin to a restaurant. More food? Oh, ok then.

The park was pretty cool, showing us the eternal flame and some soldiers standing in boxes next to some commemorative plaques mentioning cities from huge battles in previous wars (Napoleonic, WW1, WW2). I got a bunch of Cyrillic script correct as I identified the words for Minsk, Kiev, Murmansk, and a few others. Chuffed.

The restaurant. Greeted by a guy in some kind of awesome native <somewhere> garb, we were seated and hey presto: here comes an order of many many native foods and four different vodkas, plus some non-alcoholic beer. It's all amazing. The pepper vodka is wonderful, like a herbal schnapps mixed with a bloodshot from garlic and shots. The pickles and borst were great but the dumplings were DIVINE. Holy shit, so so nice! Originally a Siberian dish, so Russian Far East and very similar to gyoza. Christ, as I type I want more. Right now. NOW.

Our guide was great. All day she'd told us all kinds of history, legends, information. She was friendly, happy, smiley, forthcoming and indulgent. And at the restaurant she bought us a bonus course to apologise for being late, which made me feel awkward. She also said she doesn't normally drink vodka but the weather made it appropriate to have one. She had two. Heh.

The Ukraine got mentioned a lot. Hmm. I'm sure it wasn't deliberate, but... yes, you gave them the Crimea as a gift. Yes, you have a metro station devoted to your friendship with them. But look, we're awkward westerners who know that some shit is going down right now. Don't make me feel on the spot!

After the food, we were escorted back to our hotel via rush hour tubes. At reception she gave us a gift of a Moscow Private Tours fridge magnet and a block of chocolate, to apologise again for her lateness. That, the extra course, and actually we'd had a 90 minute longer tour than booked, ... wow. This is an object lesson in customer service. And to top it off she tried VERY hard to refuse our tip. I'm not joking: Moscow Private Tours are great. Sometimes the sign of how good someone is is how they operate when things go wrong, and today was just ridiculously good. She thanked us for being great customers while we were, like, seriously, thank YOU: the tour was amazing and who cares about an hour delay?

Whew. That's a lot of stuff. Oh, and did I mention she also noted for us on our maps what other metro stations we should go to, how to get tickets to the kremlin, the armoury, the mausoleum, how to visit Arbat, Kolomenskoye, and the Peter the Great statue? Looking forward to the latter: apparently the statue is of Columbus, and was offered to Spain and some South American countries but no one wanted it. But the sculptor was mates with the Moscow mayor who said, well, just change the head and I'll take it. Best of all, Peter didn't even like Moscow (lots of family deaths) which is why he moved the capital to St Petersburg. Fantastic stuff.

Right. Pretend I'm ending this with some vaguely deprecating remark about what the next entry will contain, at least to start with. You have to pretend, because I've no idea myself.

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