|Charlotte with the beer teapot!|
Our first overnight Russian train experience was spent in Plastkartny (3rd class). This is an open carriage, therefore just rows and rows of bunks with no doors to section off different segments as in the other classes. We had a mild panic when we got on as we realised our numbers were to the right of the carriageway, which on first glance appeared to be just two small chairs and a table, rather than bunks. Thankfully a young guy realised our consternation and showed us how to put the top bunk down, and we then realised that the table top flipped over the form a bed along with the chairs. This meant that the beds we were in were really narrow (the cheap tickets were starting to make sense now!), and were also running parallel to the aisle. Sleeping feet first rather than side-on to the train's movement did feel a little more natural, although it was odd for people to be wandering up and down the carriageway right next to your bed. Everyone was very quiet and respectful and we got a pretty good nights sleep all things considered!
We arrived in Moscow at 7.40am and had the joy of our first experience of the Moscow metro at rush hour. Over 10 million people live in Moscow, and around 9 million use the metro every day. This does not make tackling the Moscow metro at rush hour with backpacks much fun, particularly when none of the signs are translated into Roman alphabet as in St Petersburg. Standing there getting in people's way desperately trying to get the Cyrillic signs in front of you to match up with the map you have which uses Roman alphabet was tricky to say the least. At times like this it makes us very thankful that we had learnt the Cyrillic alphabet before we arrived.
Our first day in Moscow allowed us a wander down to Red Square. It currently has a touristy ice rink in the centre of it, which looks quite odd juxtaposed next to the Kremlin walls, St Basil's Cathedral, Lenin's mausoleum and the grand State Museum. One side of Red Square is taken up by the GUM - a shopping centre akin to Harrods. Probably the swankiest shopping centre we'd ever been in, with reams of fresh flowers, piped opera and an Emporio Armani Cafe. We treated ourselves to... a loaf of bread from the food court downstairs. Stopped by Pier. O.G.I, a lively, smokey, noisy student hang out, on the way back to the hostel for some beers.
We then had to spend some time sorting out our Mongolia visas. The lovely ladies that Liam had been emailing at the Real Russia travel agency were very helpful (highly recommended if you are thinking of taking a trip to Russia, very helpful with visas, although to be honest apart from that Russia isn't all that hard to travel independently in) and issued us with an official letter stating our passports were with the Mongolian embassy - in Russia everyone (locals and tourists) is expected to carry around their passports at all times, and the police can stop you and ask for it. That afternoon we had intended to do some shopping to set us up for Siberia and Mongolia. It turns out that Moscow does not cater for people on a budget! All we could seem to find was either designer shops or rather dreary looking shops that were still pretty expensive. Where's H&M when you need it! This trudging around took us a few hours in the bitter cold, and we needed some cheering up. Back to Pier. O.G.I, where the beer teapots on the menu turned out to be literally 3 litres of beer in a teapot. Classic :)
WIth our passports returned and sporting a shiny new Mongolian visa, we headed out to the Kremlin. However, today was 'Defender of the Fatherland Day', known locally as 'Men's Day', when the nation celebrates fallen soldiers, war heros, and men in general seeing as any of them can be called up at any time. Charlotte should really have bought Liam presents, given him breakfast in bed, and showered him with pancakes; funnily enough that didn't happen (note from Liam - this isn't a dig as this blog was written by Charlotte!). Unfortunately this means that it's also a national holiday, and the Kremlin was blocked off by the militia as there was some kind of commmemerative event occuring at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Frustratingly some of the Metro was also blocked off which made it difficult to get around the city! We travelled out of the centre a little to take a peek at Gorky Park (a theme park in the summer) before heading to Moo Moo to stock up on canteen style Russian food. It seems that these cheap eateries are really popular in Russia which is great for people on a bduget who still want to eat what the locals eat. Russia is actually quite a bit more expensive than the rest of Eastern Europe, so we can't afford to eat out at proper restaurants here. We jumped on the metro and realised that we got on the wrong way when we stopped at a big shopping centre which sold... things we wanted! We had both come to Russia with an intention to buy an authentic Russian hat. Charlotte did have some ethical qualms over this and had avidly researched on the internet the fur versus leather industries, as well as the European/Asian fur versus Russian fur industries. After all of this, it turned out we were too stingy to challenge our ethics with fur hats (they are expensive - literally hundreds of pounds!), so made do with hats from.... Next and Topman. Haha ;)
On our last full day in Moscow we visited Lenin in his mausoleum on Red Square. A very surreal experience indeed. We had left our bags at the hostel to avoid getting charged at the cloakroom, but ended up being charged £4 anyway to give up Liam's phone as you weren't allowed any form of cameras, bit of a bummer! To get in you are then ushered through metal detectors and walked down dimly lit corridors with militia guards on every corner. Finally you turn a corner and there he is, lying down but slightly propped up for our viewing pleasure, looking like a waxwork under the spotlights. Apparently there is a bit of controversy as to whether it is actually him there, and he's now a little bit of an embarassment to the Government and they don't quite know what to do with him. Stalin used to lay beside him until Krushev quite rightly reassessed his legacy and buried him outside, along with other deceased political leaders. There were fresh flowers next to Stalin's monument as we passed, presumably laid there on 'Defender of the Fatherland Day'. Scary stuff.
After a visit to St Basil's Cathedral, with it's onion domes and colourful decor making us feel that it was a kind of cathedral Walt Disney would have designed, we trekked off to get our rail tickets for the long journey. We had attempted to buy them previously in St Petersburg but the ladies gestured that there were no good beds left and to try again 24 hours before. After a slightly panicked look at the internet in Moscow where it appeared to have no two beds together, the hostel guy helped us with a script to give to the lady at the ticket office. Success! We then stocked up on Trans-Siberian essentials which was akin to packing for a music festival: baby wipes, instant noodles, deodourant, toilet roll, sweets and alcohol! After a quick trip out to see the Lenin statue near Gorky Park we returned to the hostel to cook some dinner and share Soviet champagne (actually champanskoe - obviously they wouldn't be allowed to call it champagne) kindly provided by one of the hostel workers. It was sweet but we would most definately recommend it!
On our final morning we visited the Kremlin. We weren't quite sure what to expect but it wasn't really that impressive, just some nice old buildings juxtaposed next to ugly new Government ones. It had a cool Tsar cannon (biggest in the world but has never been used) and the Tsar bell which at 6 metres high and 200 tonnes is also the biggest in the world. Cathedral square was full of... cathedrals (small churchs would be a more accurate description!), which were all much of a muchness. So feeling Kremlined out we hurried back to the hostel, grabbed our bags, and hit the train - which was to be our home for the next 4 days!