After sleeping surprisingly well on our first overnight train, we arrived in Moscow mid-morning. We happened to go in the same direction as our train companions and so they helped us buy two 3 day metro passes in the station. It was only three stops to our hostel, but that already gave us a good idea about the amazing Moscow metro system. It is very efficient and there are so many staff! Every station has at least two security people who scan big bags and at the bottom of every escalator is a person watching people via security cameras. Trains are long and run three minutes apart at the most! So you definitely don’t need to worry if you miss one train or it is too full. Despite the fact that 9 million people use it every day, we never had any trouble or long waits even during rush hour.
We chose hostel ‘Hostelberry’ as our base for the four days in the Russian capital thanks to its reviews and the fact it was only 200m from a metro station with a 13 minute ride to the centre. It was a good choice despite the fact that there was only a microwave and a kettle available for cooking meals.
After our early check-in we jumped on the metro to the centre. It was a sunny Sunday and we intended to make the most of it. After a wander around Bolshoi theater square towards the kremlin we found Red square. The red square was entirely occupied by the tattoo arena, a sandy horse arena and a little fair so we missed out on the full impression of its vast size. We had managed to get some tickets to one of the music shows and were very excited about it. We skipped St. Basils cathedral due to the high volume or tour groups and decided to head on to Moscva river. The bridges provide a great view over the kremlin and allowed us to admire its size at least from one angle.
Our next destination was the famous Gorky park. Our train companions had also recommended the museum park on the other side of the road because of it’s sculptures, which turned out to be a good tip. It is roughly half the size of Gorky but the outdoor sculptures are nice and worth seeing, even if a lot of them are depictions of Lenin. We could not understand though why they had built a horrible square concrete builiding in the center of it to display modern art. At the tip of an island in the river stands the imposing and impressive monument of Peter the Great; immortalising his victory against the Swedish 1812.
Thanks to the good weather Gorky park was full of people and there was an awful lot to do and see. Zumba classes, speed dating or flashmob dances are only a few examples of activities. There were even free ping pong tables and an astro turf arena where we watched people playing dodgeball. Food was available from dozens of stalls but we intended to make the most of our hostel kitchen to at least help our travel budget a little. We spent hours in the park and loved it. The best show we saw was a group of roller skaters jumping over hurdles and slaloming around cones a well as doing other tricks.
On the way back we enjoyed another perk of the hostel: the supermarket adjacent to the metro station was our first Russian shopping experience and it took us quite a while to translate enough to know we were buying the right things. Who knew that Russia had so many different types of porridge.
We started our first full day by heading to Izmaylovo. This part of the outskirts has a fantasy kremlin surrounded by lots of stalls selling souvenirs and all sorts of other stuff. It also holds regular flea markets. We got there on a Monday morning and were almost the only tourists there. Okay, there were only less than 50 visitors in total and the market was pretty much deserted. Zoë had been there a few years ago and remembered it as a Russian bazar, crowded and busy. Evidently some of the bigger buildings were being done up and repaired but it seemed like the hole place was way past its hayday. The inner courtyard of the kremlin was the busiest area. It contained a few cafes, art shops, a wedding agency and a few museums. Half the reasons why we went there was the museum of vodka history. There we learnt how the Russians seemed to love and hate vodka. Over time it got banned, restricted and liberated at least three times over the last 400 years. Before they could produce glass cheaply and in sufficient quantities, the spirit got served in pubs (without food) in 12 liter buckets!
Back in the center we stopped to see the old KGB headquarters named Llubjanka (from the outside) and the adjacent shopping center with it’s own miniature train ride inside. Matthias even took the chance to go on a real spaceship inside Hamleys. We then went slightly upmarket and browsed through the GUM shopping mall next to the Red Square. It is similar to the KaDeWe in Berlin or Harrods in London. What it lacks in height (three floors) it makes up in length: two of the three arcades seemed to us about 400 meters long!
This was followed by about an hour of trying to get everything we needed to post Matthias’ broken phone back to Germany. Later this evening we discovered in a DHL office (hidden away in a Holiday Inn) that it would cost us over 9200 Rubles (£120) to post it insured! Therefore we took the step to get it repaired here and save us a lot of money and trouble (or so we thought).
Our next day was entirely dedicated to the Kremlin and it’s museums. We had decided to do the whole lot apart from Ivans’ bell tower. Visits to the armoury and the diamond fund are arranged in timed sessions of 1.5 and 1 hour each respectively. Audio guides are available for free at the entrances. Access to these two museums is through a separate entrance and does not require a ticket to the kremlin complex. Inside the armoury consists of nine sections. A big section is dedicated to religous art like icons, incense burners, gilded books and other items used during services. The decoration was impressively detailed and very intricate. The exhibits represented the pinnacle of craftsmanship from different areas and time periods. Another section displayed diplomatic presents to the Tsar from foreign rulers or other visitors; each a masterpiece of their own country and style. Judging by the number of them the Tsars must have been very busy recieving visitors all the time. There were also sections about imperial carriages, dresses and thrones. We were very glad that the audio tour only talked about a fraction of the items on show and we still spent longer in the museum than our slot was long. Otherwise we could have easily spent most of the day in there.
After a short snack break it was time to see the diamonds. Locked away behind heavy doors (which are only opened one at a time to let people in or out) lay a dazzling array of diamonds in all shapes and sizes both raw and cut and polished. We were most amazed by the detailed and fancy jewelery with diamonds (white as well as coloured ones) combines with saphires, rubies and other gem stones. Sadly, photography is stricly forbidden inside the vault. The Russian regalia were strikingly beautiful and covered with thousands of diamonds. On top of the scepter sat, encased in gold, the famous Orlov diamond (one of the biggest diamonds in the world).
Last but not least on our kremlin tour was the fortress itself with it’s five churches. Since it is still used for parts of the government and it seemed like there was an official Iranian delegation visiting we were only allowed into less than half the area. Two of the churches were also closed but the other three were fully sufficient. Unlike the basilica in St. Petersburg these ones were painted. Some of the paintwork looked fairly new whereas some others looked hundreds of years old. The churches were all very nice but started to recognise the same paintings over and over again. Russian people seemed to have strong preferences to certain saints and paint them in the same way again and again. The only stand out feature was the high number of coffins in the cathedral of the archangel. They contained Tsars and Tsarevitshes (princes) and covered most of the space.
Before our music show we headed back to the hostel for dinner and to take the phone to a repair place. It seemed like we would get it back within two hours but had to leave it for a day because the ‘good copy’ display did not work.
Soon after arriving on red square again we forgot our worries and watched an amazing show by some acrobatic riders in the horse arena before walking to our seats for the tattoo. The show seemed sold out and was awesome. St. Basils cathedral provided a beautiful background even though a lot less grand than Edinburgh castle. During the following two and a half hour show we watched and listened to about 20 bands. Nine of them were Russian and others came from Turkey, Austria, Armenia and Azerbaijaan to name but a few. Our favourites and most anticipated acts came from the celtic massed pipe and drums (including a group of highland dancers) and the top secret drum corp from Switzerland. Some of the perfomances were brilliant but overall it would have probably been better to give each band more time rather than cram as many bands in as possible. Overall we had a great time and the best evening so far. Even the weather was on our side.
We had decided that on our last day we would take up one of the tips we got on our first train and go and see the VDNHa park. This is a huge area of parks and pavillions built between 1935 and 1937 to show off achivements of the USSR.Each republic has its own pavillion for exchibitions and representations and there are museums about mechanical, electrical and aeronautical engineering. Other buildings covered agriculture and social culture. It even includes a farm and horse riding school with stables. Overall the park is at least 1.5 km long and half of that wide. Unfortunately it was all under renovation and most of the big pavillions were closed and/or covered in scaffolding. There were still plenty of people around though and it was worth coming to see something different. We recommend waiting until all the works are completed so it actually feels like a park again rather than a building site.
On our way back we spent some time visiting some more of the highly decorated metro stations. Almost all of them were clad with marble and were decorated with stained glass windows, mosaics on walls or ceilings or statues.
Back at the hostel we went to pick up the repaired phone and treated ourselves to a super yummy Chinese dinner. We got a shock later when we discovered that in the process of repairing the front glass they managed to break the back one. In addition the SIM card and SD card slot seemed to be broken…
The next morning we meant to get on a train at 9.30am but instead we ended up in the phone workshop to complain. By this point we had lost all trust in the repair guy, but it was his responsibility to right the wrong or refund us the phone. After waiting for ‘the specialist’ to turn up to fix it he did it himself (therefore only a part-time specialist during certain hours!?) only to stop 10min later to proclaim we needed to wait for a courier to deliver the new glass panel. By then he had at least managed to get the card slots working again. This all happened without even a hint of any apology. Cutting a long story short we stayed in this place until about half three. Every time the device was put together either the camera would not work, the battery dropped from 40 to 4% after turning it off and back on or it would not turn on at all. We eventually got the money for the screen repair back. By the time we left we were so fed up with the whole affair that we didn’t mind the vibration not working and left in order to get our next train during daylight hours.
We needed a big KFC bucket at the station and lots of Pepsi to recover after not eating or drinking anything since breakfast. Being righteously knackered, we would have fallen asleep instantly had the train been longer than two and a half hours.
In the end we still keep Moscow in the good books; we just won’t trust them to repair anything (especially not an Armenian) ever again.
PS: Well done if you made it this far. Now we have a special tip for you. If your phone requires a SIM card adapter and you have to take the card out DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES put the tray back in the slot with just the adapter but without the SIM. It will get stuck and you won’t be able to get it out without damaging the contacts.