This is it! The end of the Trans Siberia Express, at least it is if you’re travelling from the east like we did. We were still quite groggy as we started to enter the outer suburbs of Moscow, complete with large grey concrete apartment buildings, fantastic graffiti, and more luscious green trees. We slept for the majority of the way from Vladimir as we were tired from all the walking we did in Suzdal yesterday and this morning.
I really wanted to photograph a ‘zero’ marker on the platform, indicating the start of the journey (well, our end), but I couldn’t immediately see anything. Plus, it was hot, our bags were heavy, and we were in a rush to check in to our hostel so we could go out and see the sights of Moscow!
I didn’t even get a chance to photograph the station, as the metro entrance was directly at the end of the platform, and I’d packed my camera away by now anyway, as it was a little awkward to carry with the two large backpacks that we were also lugging around. After working out how to use the Moscow subway system (you can share a two trip card between two people, each using a single trip), thanks to the help of a kind stranger, we finally descended deep into the earth to get our first glimpse of the Moscow subway stations. Luxurious just about sums it up, with golden gilding, intricate carvings and marble everywhere, it was a palace for the people. A friend later shared a story about the true cost to the Soviet people to build this subway (mass starvation to millions), retrospectively dulling the beauty significantly.
We’d been booking hotels/guest houses/hostels using Booking.com for the majority of the trip. It came as a rude surprise when we went to check in to Happy Hostel, that the quoted price didn’t include the 18% VAT, which significantly shifts the affordability, and probably would have led us to choose another location. It wasn’t a great way to start our time in the hostel, and things continued to sour for us – who has a 11PM curfew and a zero alcohol policy in a city like Moscow?! (at least there were no drunk/noisy guests coming home at 4AM). Then there was the broken shower and the kitchen/dining area that felt more like a broom closet in a basement.
Walking through the streets from Lenin Biblioteka to our hostel near the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, we were shocked by the money we could see. It seemed that everyone had a large black AMG Mercedes, or a Bentley, or a Rolls Royce, or a Turbo Porsche Cayenne. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an amazing assortment of luxury cars in my life. I don’t know where so much wealth came from, but it was certainly on display. We later walked past a collection of dealerships, for these cars, just on the other side of Red Square.
The hostel may have been less than satisfactory, but at least it was a comfortable walk to the Red Square. It was one of those places that felt so familiar, having seen it so many times in movies, and in photos, that it was uncanny being here ‘in real life’. The square didn’t have the feeling of enormity like Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but that could be due to the elongated lumpy cobble stoned square being flanked by large and impressive buildings. And it was probably the most amazing sight we had seen in Russia (even with the large scaffolding/stage blocking some of the view). Have a look at the 360˚ Google Street View to get a really basic idea.
However, there is one building that stands out. Seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral with my own eyes was incredible. The colours, and the shapes were like something from a fantasy. Each of the domes were different in design and colour, each seemed to be competing for attention, however there was still uniformity and cohesion. It was too late to enter, so we had no choice but to save it for another day.
On the other sides of the square there was Lenin’s Mausoleum and the walls of the Moscow Kremlin, the red-bricked State History Museum and Kazan Cathedral, and the unbelievably large GUM department store, looking more lavish than a department store has any right to look.
Even though the sun was still shining, it was after 8PM, and it was time for us to eat. We’d heard about a fancy stolvaya (cafeteria) that was inside the GUM department store that was also affordable, so we made our way there for dinner. GUM was even larger inside than it appeared from outside (which is impressive). The stores were all luxury goods, and were so far beyond our means it was laughable. At least it was free to just wander through the halls, enjoying the interior decoration. In the centre there was a … fancy cherry blossom tree? I don’t know what it was, but it was three stories tall, and the base of it had an aviary with white doves inside. There were large fans blowing, making the hundreds of bells hanging from the tree ring and chime.
The restaurant, Stolvaya No. 57, was on the top floor, at the rear of GUM. We were lucky enough to grab one of the balcony tables, letting us look out over the fabulous interior of the building. The process was similar to many of the stolvaya that we have visited in the past – grab a tray, add plates to tray, or choose from the selection of food in the bain marie that dour Russian women would serve onto a plate for you, pay, return with tray and food to your table, sit, eat, enjoy, leave. The key differences here were English subtitles for the food (so ordering wasn’t a guess), serving staff that understood some English (so we didn’t just have to point at everything), and the quality!
Outside of the Red Square, we saw a crowd of people standing in the centre of a circle, and throwing a coin above their head, and making excited noises about where the coin landed. Not really understanding at the time, we joined in and Risa tossed a coin, too. We later learnt it was the Zero Kilometre monument, and it meant that if your tossed coin lands in the centre, you will return (or continue?) to live in Moscow. As we didn’t manage to see where it landed, it is a prophecy that we won’t be able to test. Unsurprisingly, gathered around the area where people were throwing money away was a group of people ready to collect it – it’s probably a lot easier work than begging.
It was a comfortable temperature, and there was still plenty of light, so we walked the area. We saw the outside of the Bolshoi Theatre, where exquisite ballet performances are held for those wealthy (or enthusiastic) enough to pay the 5000-7000r ($125-$175) minimum ticket prices. I hear it’s amazing inside, that the performances are some of the finest you can see, and comparatively it’s quite cheap. Maybe if we return in a more comfortable financial position.
We came across another department store that further solidified just how expensive and exclusive this area is. It was all luxury brands, with at least one decimal place too many in the prices than I am used to paying. We certainly didn’t feel comfortable or welcome, as we clearly weren’t their usual customer base. A little more interesting, though sadly closed, was the enormous children’s department store.
We walked back towards Red Square through some old alleys, with bars and restaurants doing great business. The buildings looked older than they probably were, but they were still beautiful. Even though it’s been similar for the past few weeks, it’s still confusing for us having the sun so late in the evening. Tonight it wasn’t until 9:30PM.
We returned to Red Square to see it all illuminated. The department store, GUM, looked like something from Disneyland with the thousands of lights highlighting the features of the building. Not the greatest photos, but it was nice to see the area lit up. It was kind of funny seeing all of the other tourists with phones/cameras held out at arms length in front of them.
We only had a few hours in Moscow, but it already feels like we’ve seen so much, and can’t to see more in the coming days.