jn82’s Epic Adventure

Day 108 [17 May 09] – Moscow

Posted in Moscow by jn82 on May 17, 2009

We took the Russian railways operated “Tolstoi” overnight sleeper train from Helsinki to Moscow’s Leningradsky station. With the rail pass, we were able to get 40€ off the 150€ first class twin sleeper price per person, which is quite a fortuitous discount as I thought the Eurail pass could not be used on this route. Luckily I asked when making the reservations a few days ago, and it turns out that the 40€ discount is for the portion of the trip that the train covers in Finland before crossing the Russian boarder. After this particular sleeper trip, we have travelled in all classes of European overnight sleeper cabins, from the four and six bed couchettes to the two bed first class cabin now.

Tolstoi carriage.

Inside the first class twin cabin.

The interior of the cabin is not extremely spacious as I expected, but it was sufficient for the 13 hour ride. We met a very nice Russian man in the cabin beside ours named Sergey whom we had a chat with before and during the train ride, and he was even nice enough to drive us to the hostel once we got into Moscow.

Sergey’s son had bought a Nokia E75 from Helsinki a few days ago, as Sergey had promised his son a new mobile phone. However once back in Moscow, his son discovered that the phone had only the Finnish, Swedish and English languages programmed inside, and they could not get Nokia Moscow to program Russian into the phone as it was “contraband” (Russia does not have the Nokia E75 yet). Being the good father he is, Sergey went all the way to Helsinki from Moscow on the overnight sleeper the night before, and within ten minutes in the Helsinki Nokia store, got Russian programmed into the phone. Fast forward to a few hours later during the passport checks at the border, the Russian customs officials tried to convince Sergey that he had to pay custons duty on the mobile phone that he has gone to Helsinki to fix for his son, as Sergey was a frequent traveller and the law required anyone who travelled more than twice a month to pay customs duty on newly purchased personal goods. The customs officials quoted a particular statute and the date it was inacted, and produced a poorly photocopied version of the statute. Sergey happened to have a CD-ROM copy of all Russian legislature on his laptop (I have no idea why), and he could not find the supposed statute anywhere. Smelling a big fat rat, he refused to pay any money to the customs officials, and they were arguing about it all for about 20 minutes until the train was scheduled to leave the station. At the time the train was scheduled to depart, the customs officials just said everything was in order, and hopped off the train. What an amazing first hand view just minutes after crossing into Russia of what we had only previously heard, of about how the state employed locals are paid so poorly that they have to resort to such means to bolster their income.

About an hour or two after crossing the border, we went to bed, and woke up the next morning just outside of Moscow city.

Moscow Leningradsky railway station.

After Sergey dropped us off at the hostel, we had to wait about two hours or so before we could check in and head out for some sightseeing. After a relatively well priced lunch of soup, meat, rice and a pint of Russian beer for around 260 rubles (S$13), we took a walk to the Red Square.

The weather was quite cold and cloudy today, so the entire scene at the Red Square was not very vibrant. I have always wanted to see the Kremlin and in particular St. Basil’s Cathedral up close, and I must say the feeling of “WOW!” when you first see the colourful onion shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral has been one of the highlights of the trip (how cliche). However, it is not as big as you would expect.

The iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral in the Red Square.

There are too many tourists in the Red Square, as is my usual complaint in most of the big cities or major tourist attractions. However the tourists here are not your usual American or Western European mom and pop, but what I assume are tourists former the Soviet states, such as Belerus, Kazakhstan, or some other -stan. There are also quite a lot of police patrolling the square, and I made it a game of trying to avoid as many as possible so they could have no excuse to come and check my passport, find a “mistake”, and ask me to pay a “fine”.

We did not plan our itinirary for Moscow very well, so did it on the spot and decided to head to the National Historical Museum first. Big mistake, it was the most boring museum in the world (okay maybe I am exagerrating a bit here), but I was not really interested in all the exhibits which ranged from the stone age through to the bronze age all the way till the Napoleonic wars and the start of socialism in Russia.

The National Historical Museum.

The next place we went into was St. Basil’s Cathedral. Inside, it is really not like your usual cathedral with one or two large central naves. The entire walking route inside just brings one around small corridors and rooms below the large domes. The cathedral is really much more impressive from the outside than it is on the inside. Do not bother paying the extra 160 rubles (S$7.50) above the entry fee for a “photo pass” to take pictures inside the cathedral as it is just not worth it. Ditto for the National Historical Museum as well.

The interior walls and exhibits of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Once we were done inside, we headed back out and walked around Red Square. In the middle of the square is Lenin’s mausoleum, which has pretty limited opening hours, so we will only be back here on Tuesday to look at the supposed embalmed corpse of the man with the perfect communist brain.

Lenin’s Mausoleum.

Directly facing Lenin’s mausoleum stands the GUM department store (main department store), a mammoth complex with a facade of 242m housing hundreds of shops which has been around since the end of the 19th century. While this place has been a mall for a good part of its history, there is something very strange about the vast levels of capitalism that is represented through brands such as Levis, Hermes and Lacoste situated directly opposide the resting place of Valdimir Lenin and the Kremlin.

Inside GUM Department Store.

Very ironic?

Imagine a rectangle, with Lenin’s mausoleum and the imposing Kremlin on one long side, and the GUM department store on the other. Now imagine St. Basil’s Cathedral and the National Historical Museum on either of the short sides of the said rectangle. This is the layout of Red Square. You have:

1. The government and communism represented by the Kremlin and Lenin’s mausoleum

2. Religion represented by St. Basil’s Cathdreal

3. Capitalism, modernism and the free economy represented by GUM department store and

4. History, represented by the National History Museum.

Amazing. No one could have planned this any better.

I leave you now with one more picture of the amazing St. Basil’s Cathedral.

St. Basil’s Cathedral, from the courtyard.

Went back to the same place as we had lunch for dinner, and spent around 410 rubles (S$18) on much more food this time. Still cheap. The hostel we are at is a real slum, and I do not feel like talking about it for so many reasons.

Today’s pictures here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: