Myself at the Kremlin.
N.B.: This is a really big wall.
The Zarya is immense and empty in that somewhat stereotypical hotel way – in our triple room we were unsurprised at the lack of Bibles, but the absence of a Gideonovich Communist Manifesto was a letdown. We ordered some terribly overpriced dinner in the bar and sat pondering navigation and listening to some loud Americans talking politics before it arrived (my dumplings took forever, but were amazing.) Then to bed, to rise at 7:45 (which in our jetlagged minds was 3:45, and in Moscow time falls into that roughly-24-hour period each day called “Really Cold O’Clock”.
Fortified by all-you-can-eat brekky at the Zarya (which is going to be exploited massively this week, I feel), we rolled down to the Kremlin (Lenin is shut on Mondays, so we’re doing Red Square later in the week) on the Metro to Borovitskaya, popping out at the library and muttering some half-hearted Metro 2033 references before wandering towards the enormous fort. There’s something slightly surreal, slightly fairytale about it all: the walls are immense and ancient, the equal of anything I’ve ever seen (Kumbhalgarh aside… mostly), but the towers and crenellations look like elaborate toys. The palace blocks inside are stunning and ridiculously big, but something about the combination of white trim and flat, pastel colours makes them look a bit too much like cakes to be taken seriously. And the cathedrals! I’m used to English churches, which have a generally defined anatomy of sections building on each other logically, but these mad Russian godholes start vertical and just go up and up and up, great cereal-box things capped with clutches of golden onions. Inside the walls are vast murals and endless little pictures of beardy saints and biblical scenes, and inside the onions are gigantic scowling Jesus faces. And don’t get me started on the retardedly huge cannon in the impossible solid-iron carriage, or the sundered bell big enough to live in. Every part of the Kremlin makes me think it was put together from a slightly breathless description by someone completely colourblind: it’s too clean, too cartoonish, the proportions are too odd. I see it, but I don’t quite believe it.
I suspended disbelief long enough to go on the bell tower tour (one of the guides, who was very jolly in the way stereotypes insist that sober Russians aren’t, took one look at Tom and told him he looked like the last Tsar [he does]). We saw lots of sculpted bits of history and listened to a long, glib-voiced history of the Kremlin down the ages. Sadly, even the freezing air wasn’t enough to keep me properly awake and I can’t remember half of it; hopefully I will recover soon (insomnia is fine but I am fundamentally out of sync with Russia).
After the Kremlin, we went on a long, aimless meander along Arbat, being handed spam by people dressed as hamburgers and marvelling at how amazing all the buildings looked. Moscow architecture is something else; I always thought the Scots were past masters in large, solid, tastefully adorned public buildings, but Moscow makes the combined work of Scotland’s best look sick. Even the brutalist Kruschev-era nightmares had a style and a substance unmatched at home, and the Seven Sisters I want to steal and take home and hide in forever. Say what you like about Stalin, he encouraged some nice buildings.
After a stodgy potatoey lunch at some random snack bar (food, sadly, costs almost as much as in London) we found our way back onto the Metro, and headed for Sportivnaya in search of the Metro Museum. We went up at the wrong vestibule (metro stations almost without exception have two entrances, one at each end, with quite a distance between them) and so had to pay another ticket for the privilege of going back through the station, but Sportivnaya station is glorious so that wasn’t a problem. The museum was very well hidden, behind a side door, through an abandoned locker room and up a staircase past a locked door with children’s voices behind it. It was somewhat creepy and also felt like the opening to every Soviet-era low-dialogue drama you’ve ever seen. Once there, we met a very amiable Russian trainspotter with excellent English and a fantastically encyclopaedic knowledge of the Metro (it was only at turfing-out time that we found out he wasn’t actually an employee of the museum) and saw lots of old maps and metro stuff, including some great big public parades in the thirties cheering the building of the system (even if they’re all posed and there’s a commissar with a revolver just offscreen, it would be nice if every once in a while we had people with placards actually praising our public infrastructure improvements).
Pushkinskaya was full of communists when we arrived, with big red banners flying around and lots of nervy looking cops stopping punters getting too close, and it turned out that Google Maps had lied to us about the location of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. We spent quite a long time wandering semi-lost around Metro streets hunting for it before finding a convenient Marriott hotel; the reception gave us proper directions, which told us we had been heading in entirely the wrong way. It wasn’t a complete loss: we saw many fine buildings, a trollface in one shop’s Halloween decorations, and a policeman with an AKS-74U. Schlepping along the right route to MMMA, with cloth-covered lorries full of police going by, we found that both it and the cafe beneath it were closed until Nov 28, but managed to locate a terribly overpriced tea shop to drown our sorrows, go to the loo and plot our next move.
Our next move was the University, which like Birmingham has its very own station, all the way down the red line (past Sportivnaya again). Around the vestibule was a street market, with lots of sealed glass stalls (all Moscow street vendors hide in glass cubes with tiny pop-open windows to squeeze goods through, which seems incredibly sensible) and old women wandering around vaguely trying to sell balloons and melon gratings. Bill was feeling queasy and didn’t fancy the walk (the university seemed quite distant, especially given how massive it is) so after some fantastic 90RU kebabs from a happy little food-selling glass cube (the kebabs reminded me a lot of something similar in Granada, many moons ago) we Metroed back to Vladykino, warmth, weird Russian TV, and bed.
Day 1: success.
Next (hopefully): The Tretyakov and Museum of the Great Patriotic War.