Woke to cold drizzle, which wasn’t ideal weather for a free walking tour of the city that we’d booked. It was a relaxed start time of 10:45, however it was still a dash of last-minute panic to get to the statue of Cyril (who brought the Cyrilic alphabet to Russia) near the Kitay Gorod metro station. We were surprised at how large the group was (maybe 40 people). There was nervous energy as we waited in the drizzle for our guide to come (instead we were visited by some drunks). Right on time, a nice energetic young guide, Marina, showed up and started a roll call. The tour is technically free, however you’re encouraged (though not enforced) to give tips. With such a large group, she was likely to make bulk money today.
We started through the back streets, visiting a small section of the old wall (Kitay Gorod) before heading to the Romanov family’s Church. Considering it was for the family of the tsars of Russia, it was quite a simple church, with subtle colouring. The domes were actually a mix of orange, brown and green, reminiscent of the leaves during autumn. Inside was sparse and white (and photography was forbidden).
The tour then took us to St. Basil’s Cathedral, where we learnt more about the patron saint that this cathedral was named after. He was described as a crazy naked homeless man, who among other things prophesised the end of Ivan the Terrible (more on that in a later post). The weather wasn’t great, so no photos today.
The tour continued through Red Square before visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum. The queue was reasonably long, but this was to allow people time and space inside. The path to entrance was filled with the graves of Soviet heroes, including Stalin and the first man to leave Earth, Yuri Gagarin.
There was a strict no photography policy inside the tomb. Inside was dark, with subtle lighting and hard square angles and lots of dark marble and red highlights. It’s hard to say why, but I found it incredibly beautiful. Lenin’s body was housed inside a large glass coffin, bathed in a red glowing light. It was strange visiting a dead man, but it’s hard to imagine that the body was anything more than a wax model – not that I doubt the authenticity.
It was a little sad to learn later that the former leader wished to be buried with his wife and family in Saint Petersburg, but more than 90 years later, he is still doing P.R. work. Our guide thinks that soon he will be taken off public display and buried in his family tomb instead. Maybe for the 100th anniversary of his death.
We continued around the walls of the Kremlin, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The end of our tour happened to coincide with the changing of the guards. Their exaggerated marching movements were almost Monty Python-esque comedy, with near horizontal leg movements. The costumes reminded me of M. Bison from Street Fighter II, but maybe it was just the hat and cape.
However, it was the peculiar head movements that really made it memorable. Risa and I still laugh about the odd little synchronised head tilt.
We were a little cold, and quite wet, so we made a break for lunch (after joining the queue to tip our guide). We visited a Russian fast-food chanin, Moo-Moo, which was another stolvaya serving slighter higher quality food than normal. This particular branch was just opposite the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, in what looked like an old cellar. The food was pretty good, and the price wasn’t too expensive.
After lunch, the weather cleared and the sun started to break through the clouds. We decided to go for a walk along the walls of the Kremlin towards the art district in an old chocolate factory. As we were trying to cross the rear entrance of the Kremlin, all traffic was stopped and there were dozens of police. For a while we didn’t really know what was happening. Then the motorcade of large black Mercedes and even larger black Lexus 4WDs were screaming through the streets through the gates into the Kremlin. Maybe we saw Putin…
This is a little personal, but I find it a little unfortunate that religion is making such a big comeback in Russia. A little south of the Kremlin was the truly enormous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was only recently re-constructed, after having been destroyed by Soviets (to reclaim gold from the domes, amongst other less practical, more ideological reasons). The church is approximately 100m tall, which I think is enormous for a church.
Crossing the Moscow River, we had a fantastic view of the buildings inside the Kremlin. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, but I vaguely remember Alec Baldwin having a hard time when he was Hunting Sean Connery and Red October, however we spotted the Red October chocolate factory pretty easy (you can even search for it on Google Maps). Yes, I shouldn’t try to make jokes.
We quickly walked around the factories, and tried to head to the Soviet Statue Art Park, which required backtracking as Red October is on a small peninsular, along with the truly enormous stature of Peter the Great. On later research, I learnt that it’s actually taller than the Statue of Liberty at nearly 100m! It certainly is decadent. The fountains making bow waves off the front of the boat was a neat touch.
The Fallen Monument Park wasn’t quite what I was expecting it to be – which was a park filled with hundreds of statues of fallen leaders, collected at the end of communism in the early 90s. It was a nice park, with some nice areas to relax by the river, and there was also the modern art gallery, but it wasn’t what I came to see. Walking to the rear or the gallery we came across statues with Soviet styling. but they were only a few. Some of them had even been created after the fall of the USSR. I personally loved the powerful sculpture of the imprisoned heads.
There were several busts of Marx, and a few more of Stalin and Lenin, but not the Terracotta Army like scene I had imagined. Again, as with most things that were disappointing, it was a case of managing expectations.
Attempting to explore the art district that has taken over the old Red October chocolate factory site was a little difficult and confusing. We expected a collection of galleries and shops, much like the 798 District in Beijing. However, what we found were a few schools, many IT-related startups, a few cafes/bars and a tiny bit of street art. Oh, and a small souvenir shop selling chocolate that was previously produced here. For once we weren’t shy about trying to go into unmarked areas, but we were shooed away by people at every attempt, which wasn’t great for confidence. There was no shortage of fashionable young Russians, but they all seemed to be here with a purpose.
So, with our tails between our legs, and a thorough sense of confusion about what makes this a tourist attraction – other than the sight of a large red brick factory – we left the area, and walked backed to our hostel.
We decided to explore in one of the nearby neighbourhoods and try to find somewhere interesting for dinner. Unfortunately, we got so close, then made a 50/50 decision if we should look left or right, and chose the wrong direction and found nothing worth spending money on. It wasn’t a fun mood, walking around, hopelessly searching for something, not really sure what it was we were even searching for.
The sun had long set, hunger had long faded and we had nearly returned to our hostel (via a long loop) when we walked past a small café that still seemed to be busy. It looked cosy, and the prices weren’t unreasonable, so we went inside. It was a strange nerd epiphany moment when I realised that this café was actually a side project of Art Lebdev, who amongst other things, designs some fancy (and prohibitively expensive) keyboards. I had my first real failure of a dinner tonight, with an all white ensemble of pilmeni stuffed with mashed potato, with a side of sour cream. Risa’s beef tongue salad was so much nicer, and she was kind enough to share a bite or two to allow me some flavour and colour. The meals that everyone else ordered looked good, so I can only blame my poor judgement.