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Trans-Mongolian adventure part 1

May 14, 2013

Saint Petersburg of the Winter Palace and Summer Cholera

Lenin faces out to the river, mid-speech, arm-raised, cap tucked in his pocket, DSC_1930oblivious to the harsh wind blowing off the Neva. There are some dying carnations at his feet and behind him, the red flags with the hammer and sickle fly confidently in the wind and the façades of valiant workers on the front of Finlyandsky Station can just be made out. No, I’ve time travelled back in time to the USSR, I’ve just trekked over the river to Lenin Square. As a lover of Soviet retroness, I wanted to see a Lenin statue still standing and I was not disappointed. Admittedly, the hammer and sickle flags aren’t actually USSR ones, they are a modern variant put up for the Victory Day celebrations in a couple of days time which celebrate the Red Army’s triumph over the Nazis, but I like the ambiance it creates. It wasn’t easy to get here, earlier it had chucked it down and my trainers are still soaked, and a cold wind blasted me as I trudged over the bridge, but it’s worth it. The only tourist, I take a few pictures then head into the station to get the Metro. I am rooting through my bag to find my purse and when I look up, I’m confronted by a huge mural of the little dictator, a worker at his feet handing him a pitchfork. I had to smile, this was more Soviet retroness than I had bargained for.

Sure, Saint Petersburg in beautiful and The Hermitage has a whole load of mega-star artists in the gorgeous setting of the Winter Palace, but this is one of my favourite Saint Petes memories. This was my first day in the Motherland. Out of all the countries in the world, Russia has been the one I have most wanted to visit. I’ve grappled with the language, read (some of) the great

Victory Day banners on Nevsky Prospeckt

Victory Day banners on Nevsky Prospeckt

novels, studied the history, taken up some of the politics and wasn’t quite sure what to expect at all. I’d heard Russians are cold and unfriendly, but the girls running the hostel treated me like an old friend. I thought I would struggle with the food, but so far, I was doing OK. I’d already discovered the blini fast food chain Teremok’s ‘Blini Email’, a pancake filled with delicious creamed mushrooms and cheese, and I’d already figured out the Metro.

Just walking the streets of the city was fascinating, there were traders with boxes full of eels, Russian girls teetering about in pin-thin stilettos and old babushkas with bright coloured head-scarves selling vegetables and eggs. Outside the hostel, an old man in military fatigues was loitering who bore a passing resemblance to Fidel Castro and the Nevsky Prospekt is decked out in the red, white and blue flags, Red Army badges, red and yellow stars for the Victory Day parade, above the designer shops and Western fast-food chains.

Dostoevsky's study

Dostoevsky’s study

So I’d paid tribute to the history and the art, but couldn’t not pay tribute to St. Petersburg’s greatest, adopted, literary son. The Dostoevsky House and Museum is located in a building where he spent some time when he was older, married and successful. The apartment has been faithfully recreated and the museum is designed to reflect his fantastical, dream and nightmarish-like visions of Saint Petersburg. I left feeling awed and also slightly depressed because however hard I try as a writer I know I’ll never write anything as good as The Devils (which featured Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky who liked to complain of the aforementioned ‘summer cholera’) or Crime and Punishment. I understand why Dostoevsky was so drawn to the darker side of the human condition though as I am myself. He didn’t have an easy life, being banished to a labour camp amongst murderers and thieves (which proved to be a great inspiration) and getting tied into crap publishing contracts, but I got the impression he was a man with a great sense of humour and a real devotion to his family. Great taste in wallpaper too if the apartment is really authentically recreated.

On my last day, before the midnight train to Moscow, I hunted down a vegetarian restaurant, The Beautiful Green, where I had some ‘pelmeni’, Russian dumplings. Maybe this is going to get the FSB on my case, but I have to say, I preferred Polish ‘pierogi’.

It was my first taste of Russian night trains, and I can only hope they all live up to this one. As I struggled along the platform to my carriage with my backpack, smaller rucksack, handbag and bag of food which contained half a quart of Lithuanian vodka, I was suddenly serenaded by rousing, triumphant orchestral music. Cymbals crashing, brass, that kind of thing. Music for a solider returning from War, or a girl on the start of an epic Russian adventure.

My Kupe cabin on the midnight train to Moscow

My Kupe cabin on the midnight train to Moscow

The train was gorgeous. All red and yellow inside and I had a whole kupe cabin to myself. The bed was ready-made to climb into and I slept so well I woke up and wondered where the hell I was and why was the bed moving. It was a pleasant surprise when the provodnista (the stewardess allotted to each carriage) came and brought me breakfast – an aeroplane style box full of bread, cream cheese, yoghurt, orange juice. Ok, so there was some kind of meat with gherkin and olives that I couldn’t eat and don’t think I’d have fancied even if I was a carnivore, but it a nice touch.

 

Moscow Maddness

So, to Moscow. I arrived at rush hour and navigating the Metro was not fun. I didn’t even notice the ornate decoration at Komsomolskaya station, I was too busy trying to figure out the system,which seemed totally confusing. There was no time to recover from this ordeal though once I’d reached the hostel because I had to SIGHTSEE and there was no time to lose. I’d realised three days in Moscow wasn’t going to be enough even before I got there. So I valiantly hopped back onto the Metro and heading to the flea and souvenir market near Izmaylovskaya Park. I was still searching for a Russian stacking doll of the Soviet Leaders, staring with Gorbachev and going back chronologically to a tiny Lenin. I’d seen them in Berlin but they were too expensive there. Well, it seemed that Gorbachev is out of favour here. There were dolls of Lenin, a large, nine piece set starting with a large Stalin (perfect for any mantelpiece), followed illogically by Putin, but none of Gorbachev! Why have the Russians rejected their Nobel Prize winning, perestoyka-introducing last Communist leader? By the end of my time in Moscow I can’t help but think it’s because they deem him responsible for breaking up the USSR. Anyway, not only was a really disappointed not to find my coveted Soviet doll, but it was from here on in that Russian food took a turn for the worst. I chanced some street food, a pasty type thing that was supposed to be cheese and ‘ne meerca’… no meat. It was tasty but halfway in and I discovered a strange substance that was definitely flesh-like. I was convinced I was going to get food poisoning and throw up on the metro or in the Kremlin which I was visiting that afternoon. Thankfully, this didn’t happen.

Finding the Kremlin ticket office was easy, but reaching it was not. Because of Victory Day, Red Square and half the streets and Metro exits around it were

The megaroad you have to cross to reach the Kremlin

The megaroad you have to cross to reach the Kremlin

closed. After a detour that had unintentionally taken in the Bolshoi theatre, Lubyanka, home of the KGB HQ, G.U.M department store and Revolution Square, I stood on the other side of the road, remembering how in Rome a Canadian woman in my dorm had warned me of the Moscow traffic and said ‘I was like, I can see The Kremlin, but it’s over ten lanes of traffic’. My God, I totally got this now. I was ready to strangle someone by the time I finally managed to get to the other side of the road. Sod the churches, I thought, and just bought a ticket for The Armoury. At the princely sum of seven hundred roubles it wasn’t cheap. ‘It had better be good’ I muttered to myself, ‘or else I’m going to… smash up my audio guide… or something’.

Well, The Armoury is a unique museum of decorative items and the sum total of all the dazzling gold, silver, diamonds and other gems in there must be worth more than Roman Abramovich: there were medieval filigree gold bible cases, ostentatious Baroque cups decorated with solid gold fruits, gold candle holders with figurines of nymphs and Greek Gods, Ostrich feather fans with jewel encrusted handles and all sorts of other treasures.  My favourite things were the Fabergé eggs though. Sadly, the one mentioned in my guidebook, dedicated to the Trans-Siberian railway, with a little train inside, was out on loan, but the others were so beautiful – like the glass egg decorated with hundred of tiny, sparking diamonds, with a little ship inside, a gift from one of the Emperors to his wife. Oh, to find a man who gives a girl Fabergé eggs!

That night me and some of the others from the hostel ended up at the Propaganda nightclub. If there was one nightclub in the world I’ve always wanted to go to it was this one, even if it was playing house music. No stiletto heels and micro-skirts here, I was totally at home in my jeans and Converse trainers. I even accidentally smuggled the Lithuanian vodka in (long story). I stayed out until half two and then had to get up for nine because the next day was Victory Day! Me and Ros, another English girl from the hostel, went to try to see the Victory Day parade. We hung around at the end of the road where a load of locals had assembled, but after about forty five minutes realised there was actually nothing to see here and we’d be better off watching it on TV back at the hostel. On the way home we did, however, see the fly overs: the Russian air force showing off all their best planes, I think. All round the city, stages had been set up with WWII-themed entertainment and the street stalls were doing a brisk trade in little Red Army hats. Some Russians even donned the garishly

A Victory Day reveller

A Victory Day reveller

coloured, fake fur Cossack hats with the Soviet badge on that I though were only for stupid tourists. I saw a man in a white one passed out in front of the souvenir shop he may well have bought it from down on the Arbat.

Best thing in Moscow though? For me, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts. As a result, I have become obsessed with the Soviet space programme. The building it’s in is impressive enough: the roof turns into one giant metal ‘whoosh’ rising about a hundred metres up and tapering at the end where there is a little metal rocket. Along the sides of the building are one of the best Socialist Realism tableaux I’ve seen. Some people knock this somewhat contrived genre of art, but the composition of this scene of all the workers involved in getting Yuri Gagarin to the stars, including one of the dogs, flowed so well. And it was so touching, it almost brought a tear to my eye.

Inside the museum, although most of it’s in Russian, there are the stuffed

The Cosmonaut Museum roof

The Cosmonaut Museum roof

bodies of Belka and Strelka, two dogs who made it back from space, real space suits, Yuri Gargarin’s electrogram showing his heart going haywire the night he went up, and lots of photos including one of Yuri meeting Che Guevara. Whilst I don’t agree with all their practices, particularity the use of animals, it is staggering that the scientists and engineers managed to invent space travel at a time when there were no computers, mobiles phones, internet, just a few years after a crippling war. And how cool must it be to go into space. The pictures of the Cosmonauts training and on missions made it look like fun, though I know some of them (Astronauts at least) go a bit mad or join weird cults when they come back down, still wonder if I too old to be a cosmonaut when I grow up.

Afterwards we went to the All-Russian Exhibition Centre Park. Today was another public holiday and it seemed the whole of Moscow had come out. As we approached the entrance, a huge neoclassical arch topped with some victorious workers, we passed people selling puppies, a competition to see how long someone can hang onto a metal bar, people dressed as Red Indians playing pan-pipes, lots of flashy-looking motorbikes, including one with a real live monkey on the back and all sorts of other madness. Inside the park, in front of huge there was a fun fair, stalls selling Victory Day flags and hats, and USSR ice cream for sale. I had one – it was like Mr. Whippy but encased in chocolate, delicious but it fell apart towards the end as ungraciously as the Soviet Union itself did. There were even Soviet-style water dispensers. Yulia, my new Ukrainian friend, had told me about these the night before when we were having a pint by Red Square– back in the old days they didn’t have plastic cups so one cup was placed under the dispenser and constantly reused. This, so she told me, became known as the ‘cup of the USSR’. The two Russian guys who’d attached themselves to us looked too young to remember communism but still knew about ‘the cup’.

On the boulevard leading to a huge building with Romanesque columns and a

Go-Kart Lenin

Go-Kart Lenin

hammer and sickle crest, guys walked with their girls who were wearing heels far to high for a sunny day in the park, as rollerbladers tried to weave through the crowds. Others sat around the fountains and drank beer. There was a kids go-kart track, built around a large statue of Lenin. We walked though all this – we were looking for the Friendship Fountain which had been mentioned in my guidebook as something to see, well, nothing can quite prepare you for the first glimpse of it. It is a Socialist-Realist/ Neoclassical monster of thing, the audaciousness of which is only matched by Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Golden maidens, each representing one of the USSR republics stand around the giant centrepiece, and enough water gushes out that I’m sure, if you stood on the right side, on a windy day would give you a great shower I loved it. Around it, buildings fashioned on Rome’s Imperial Fora, but with the obligatory communist touches, rose. The place was epic.
If I hadn’t got David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ stuck in my head, I would surely have had ‘Back in the USSR’ after today.

That epic fountain

That epic fountain

Afterwards we went to a terrible restaurant which had nothing vegetarian on the vast menu but a ratatouille and left me thinking I should stick to pizza and pasta for the rest of my time here.

Towards Siberia

The next day I bid a sad ‘dosvedanya’ to Moscow and headed to Suzdal, a Golden Ring town, that despite only being a few hours out of the capital felt like a world away. No metro rush hour here, to reach the hostel I walked down a cobbled road, past a wooden bridge over a sleepy river, and down a dirt track. The only sounds here are birdsong, the regular chiming of church bells (Suzal has more churches per person that anywhere in the country I think) and a strange squawking noise that I at first thought was ducks but then surmised was coming from hundreds of frogs hiding in the river reeds. I have a phobia of frogs so it’s a credit to Suzdal’s charm that this didn’t put me off the place. A quick glance at a restaurant menu that had not a single vegetarian item on it told me I should head to the supermarket instead. Ah, slices of cold pizza were available in the chilled section! But then I discovered that even the margarita had chicken on it! I had to make do with some dry bread, some cheese spread and a disgusting ready made beetroot salad (this hostel had no kitchen… I hate hostels which have no kitchens). I think it’s only going to get worse. I was glad I’d stocked up on instant noodles and porriage oats for the two day train I was about to take to Novosibirsk.

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