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

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!

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