Having finished another medical trial, an easy way to make money and break up my trip so I can see family & friends, it was back to the road. I had originally been thinking of flying to Scandinavia, but a quick Google suggested I could be getting quite chilly come mid-September so made the most of being home to get myself a Russian visa. I’d thought for a while that I wouldn’t end up in Russia, because you have to apply for the visa in your home country and then arrive in a window that you specify when you apply, and that window can’t start more than 3 months after you depart. It had been made worse last December, as applications had to be made in person so they could collect fingerprints. While sat on my trial, I worked out the logistics and realised that I could go down to London to apply for it in person and as I’d be flying in the 30-day window would be easy.
I chose to fly with SAS, who I’d flown from Budapest to Manchester with, because they take your bike as is. That means you can ride to the terminal, walk to the counter (security generally frown on riding in airports) and hand them the bike. That is so much less hassle than having to box it, either in advance (and then have to get a boxed bike to the airport) or on the day (and then have to get a big box to the airport and spend 90 minutes before and after the flight getting the bike sorted out). So I took the last train to London, arriving in to Euston past 1am and had a ride across the parts of London I’d only ever seen the names of on TV getting to Heathrow by 3am. When I arrived there was a small problem when I was told that despite the lack of traffic it was impossible to cycle to the terminal due to construction and would instead have to go round to a different terminal and wait until 5am for the inter-terminal train to start. Thankfully the guy who told me this was actually very friendly and flagged down a bus that would would carry me through the forbidden tunnel.
I got off the plane in Moscow, and had no problems at immigration. They didn’t check my fingerprints, and at least my officer wasn’t particularly surlier than in any other country, letting me in without any questions. My panniers, all in a large laundry bag (which I’d been told in Heathrow was definitely going to fall apart) arrived without problem and I was organising it all when my bike was brought through. Everything seemed fine, until I saw my headlight dangling down.
The light must have taken a bang, snapping the arm that held it in place. It could get glued back together, as a temporary fix, but as the arm was integrated into the shell it meant that it would lose its waterproofness which in the long term would lead to the electronics getting fried. The people at baggage claims didn’t speak much English, but we got the paperwork filled in. They didn’t seem to care about the price of the light, only asking me for the value of the bike. Fingers crossed it’ll get resolved OK.
A friend that I’d made back in Brazil, Walter from http://wecallthishome.com, had arrived in Moscow a few hours earlier and had hung around the airport waiting for me to arrive. We took the airport train into the city together, and went for a coffee while we chatted and I heard all about what he’s been up to since then. http://kickstarter.com/profile/wecallthishome is his Kickstarter for a book that he put together full of amazing photos from his journey. I get a little jealous when I see it, as although of course I’ve had fantastic experiences during my trip, it can’t be shown and explained to provide the impact that the video he put together can. Oh well.
Saying goodbye to Walter, who was off to Belarus (formerly known as White Russia), I got to ride through Moscow to my Warmshowers hosts O + T. O had provided me with a GPS track for a suggested route, which worked most of the way except it was backwards. This meant there were a couple of one way streets it tried to take me along, not fun when it meant cutting across 8 lanes of incessant traffic to use. I was quite delighted to find one bike lane, even though it didn’t seem to last very long.
It turned out I was lucky with my timing to Russia. The conflict with the Ukraine, and the fall in the value of petrol, has hit its economy and currency meaning that instead of 50-60 roubles to the pound, I got just over 100. When you’re on a self-imposed tight budget like mine, it makes a big difference. My first day of tourisming saw me head to Red Square. It could also be translated as Beautiful Square apparently, but I guess it stuck better because of the Red Army. To get there I got to take the metro, which was less than 50p a ride, which I didn’t explore but especially the central stations are apparently filled with beautiful art and you can go on 2-3 hour tours to see it all. Moscow doesn’t have a Tourist Information Centre, or at least I didn’t find one, so I only had my GPS to guide me around instead of a map.
While the Kremlin stands out on Red Square, to me by far the most iconic image of Moscow is St Basil’s Cathedral – the one with the ice-cream-coloured onion domes. I managed to get in with my Mexican student ID that I still carry around, meaning it was only £1 instead of £3.50, and was treated to the most confusing cathedral I’ve ever entered. Orthodox churches don’t believe in sitting down, so they are much more compact. St Basil takes this to an extreme, and each of those dome-topped towers is actually their own individual church which when inside lead to a maze-like quality and rooms that were apparently churches that were barely big enough to fit a class full of infant-school students. There were signs in English, but they didn’t seem to really explain anything, and the main thing that I took away was that Basil (Vasiliy in Russian) spent all of his time naked.
The other main place I went to was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. I could never remember the name, and of course most locals don’t know it by that name, so I went with it’s more modern name Pussy Riot church. It’s the one where the group were arrested a few years ago, although I only used that name to O + T. There were lots of signs at the entrance, and even a metal detector, to make sure that we didn’t take any pictures inside, and multiple scary-looking security men who chased down every tourist who pulled out a camera. I don’t know if it’s always that strictly guarded, but there was a service on, lead by a man with a phenomenal beard who Google later taught me was the patriarch, the head of the Russian Orthodox church. For those who have seen Only Fools and Horses, he reminded me of Uncle Albert, but with a fancier hat. Most of those inside were women, and they all had shawls over their heads, and were constantly bobbing up and down bowing towards the patriarch who was busy waving an incense burner around. Of course the area is very holy, no photos, unless you are the official photographer who walks around with a large camera and shoots with impunity
The following day I took a free walking tour of the centre of the city to learn a bit more than just walking aimlessly can provide. It seemed to be mainly about history and I heard about Ivan the I (made Moscow capital), III (Ivan the Great) and IV (Ivan the Terrible) as well as several Peters. This habit of giving leaders the same name is just a good way to confuse tourists who will never know which one did what. The tour guide seemed very pro-Putin, saying in a way that I’d hear repeated often that Putin had restored pride to Russia and made the world notice the country again. When I asked about Boris Nemstov, the assassinated opposition leader, she said that he had died but wouldn’t go any further. The main other thing that I learnt was about the Seven Sisters, 7 skyscrapers in Moscow built under Stalin’s rule, which apparently cost more to construct than the whole of the city of Volgograd/Stalingrad, interesting priorities.
A twist that I heard elsewhere about the Seven Sisters, is that the star on top of the Stalin Tower was painted yellow and blue (Ukrainian colours) back in 2014 by a protester. He did it at night and then fled the country. Other Ukrainians were arrested for the crime, and are still locked up, even though the guy who painted the star has come forward and provided proof that it was him so the innocent people arrested can be freed. They haven’t been.
My highlights for the day (after a quick visit to see Lenin, meaning that I’ve now seen Mao, Lenin & Ho Chi Minh, where a solemn soldier smirked at my shoes) were a visit to the Kremlin, the fortress that is in the centre of Moscow where the Russian government is based. It’s also home to the world’s largest cannon, which has never been fired, and the world’s largest bell, which has never been rung, as well some spectacular churches where the tsars (emperors) were married and buried. The tour costs about €30, so I mainly wandered around a bit confused. The churches all have information sheets in several languages, but go into overwhelming detail about the innumerable frescoes and icons on the walls. Suffice to say, there’s not a single bit of free space on any of the walls.
In the evening I decided I had to go to a ballet, and went to the National Youth Ballet production of Romeo & Juliet. I am so glad that it was a story that I had read before, albeit 18 years ago. To the untrained eye, it was basically a lot of people jumping and spinning a lot and while that was very impressive I would have been hopeless lost otherwise. I’d got the cheapest ticket available, £8, but then wasn’t sure where it was and ended up just finding some steps to sit on which while not so comfortable did at least have a better view than my cheap seats would have provided.
I tried to call the airport a few times to make sure that the baggage claim was going well, but was treated to the infamous Russian customer service. Having pressed 2 to speak to someone in English I was routed to someone who admonished me for daring to speak English, forwarded me to someone who could speak English and then ‘transferred’ me to the correct department. Either they didn’t know how to transfer, or they hung up on me. I called 5 times during my stay in Moscow, and got this treatment each time. Having submitted the paperwork, I have a case number and worst case I’ll get in touch with SAS when I have some free time down the road.
You always hear about Russians not smiling, and when you walk around it’s something that’s easy to see. People do smile, and when they’re among friends it’s even more obvious, but for example photos seem to have a strict no-smiling rule applied. I frequently saw people happily talking, and then stop to pose for a picture with as blank and vacant an expression as I can imagine. That’s necessary for passport pictures, but especially jarring in holiday snaps. When one of my tour guides talked about it, it was explained as how Russians only smile when they are happy unlike westerners who they see as smiling too much, in a fake manner.
Thankfully my hosts O & T were people who broke the stereotype. I stayed for 4 nights and my memories of them are filled with radiant smiles, even though they had definite challenges in their lives. T is Ukrainian, not particularly welcome in Russia at the best of times but especially not now. On top of that, Russia is definitely not accepting of their lifestyle. People who think that the West has taken too long to allow same-sex marriage only have to look east to see how things could be much worse. The most famous example being back in 2013 when a law came out aimed at ‘protecting children from the homosexual propaganda’, something that of course didn’t exist but the law just inflamed sentiment about the issue.