Sunday, 27 November 2011

Episode 18 (final part): Veliki Novgorod or Novgorod the Great (in both senses)

final part of my travels chaps, thanks for reading all the way!

We confused the hell out of the compartment conductor by doing an Andrei impression when he asked us if we were British:
“Dah! Koneshhnoh!” we groaned in unison causing the poor man to stare perplexingly at us.
After face-palming our idiocy, we settled down for the night train from Moscow to Veliki Novgorod and tried to get some sleep. We were on our way to one of the major, ancient cities of Russia and a place of learning and religious mysticism. We slept not really knowing what to expect. The strangely negative Lonely Planet section described it as “a bit of a backwater” and out initial impressions upon arrival at pitch-black 6am were equally as frosty.
The Old Kremlin of Novgorod

We didn’t know if we should check-in at our hostel or hit a cafe and turn up in daylight.  We stumbled, sleepily and weighed-down into the 24 hour cafe at the station and immediately froze in terror. Despite the bizarre hour, the place was packed and stacked with kebab-eating, drunk Russian men who, with gaping jaws looked at us through the sizzling heat of a grill. Silence descended menacingly over the plastic table tops. The smell of greasy meat seemed to be say “ooh foreign tourists, maybe we could relieve these good people of their bags and wallets.” We backed out sharpish and tumbled into a taxi.

Arriving at our hotel, we were confronted by another drunken group of men, this time arguing with the reception staff.  After attracting a lot of attention from them with our accents we eventually procured our key and locked ourselves in for a four hour nap, finally safe from the drunken denizens of Novgorod.
We awoke and realised how small the town was instantly: we could walk to the historical centre in 10 minutes.  After fortifying ourselves in a cafe that played some awesome 80’s music (well I like Laura Brannigan – google “self control” TUNE!) we stood awe struck looking at the beautiful kremlin that is the main attraction of the town. It easily gives the red Kremlin of Moscow a run for its money and houses the beautiful Cathedrals and churches of the ancient city. We wondered around inside a few of these and received an impromptu religious lecture from a very friendly, slightly crazy curator. Our Russian-university, student cards were incredibly handy in this town as they guaranteed us free entry to everything. We then visited the 

Cathedral of St Sophia and saw the monument to one thousand years of the Russian people – a beautiful giant, ceremonial bell (see right) with intricate carvings of scenes from Russian history.

After taking in our fill of culture we collapsed in a local bakery/cafe where we sampled some of the most affordable and tasty Russian pastries of all time. We loved it so much that we figured we’d use it as a base for the next and final day, when we would have to be up until 2am to catch our final train. The rest of the day was spent looking for places near the train station that were open long enough to crash in until we could board the train. We discovered a brilliant little restaurant and the local cinema which, to our blessing, had an odd 11 30 pm showing of the new “Tin Tin” film that ended 30 mins before our train was due to leave!
Me on the river
We think there was a rodent in our room, but nonetheless slept well.  On our last day we wondered the lovely, clean and cultured town once more and went to see the famous “birch-wood manuscripts” – some of the earliest examples of Russian writing. Reading the modern Russian translations we inferred that several of them were cooking recipes and many were humorous letters from different people to one another. They all began with the same phrase “Poklon ot” which roughly translates as something like “With bows of respect from...” so we figured they were kind of like a greetings cards from medieval Russia!

Staring madly at my Grape Gateaux
Eventually the evening came and we had a slap-up meal in the same restaurant as the first night as it was near the cinema and we had all of our heavy luggage with us. As a treat, we hit a really pricey cafe for last-night desserts (see picture) and found that we had a whole cinema to ourselves to enjoy “Tin Tin”. This was the best, most eccentric way to end the trip and after boarding the train at 2am we soon drifted off and woke up again in Petrozavodsk, refreshed from the road and reminded of how much we love studying this wonderful, diverse country and rich culture.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Episode 18 (part four): Goth Moscow (Lenin the Mummy, the Cemetary and a massive Cathedral)

“Nyet!” said the scary Russian police lady. “You need to leave all bags and cameras in the museum before queuing up here!” We shuffled off heads bowed in shame. Of course it was high time to visit Lenin in his mausoleum on Red Square and I got everybody out of bed with a rousing speech about the joys of visiting a dead communist! Jovial tone aside, the tomb and embalmed body of Lenin is surely a candidate for one of the wonders of the world, especially to an amateur history buff like me, so let me explain a moment...Not only is it a testament to human achievement (the mummification of a body to a level in which it can be viewed) but also the architecture and eerie atmosphere of the place gives a real sense that “here lies one of the most significant shapers of the modern world, don’t stare, keep quiet, pay your respects and move on.”
Lenin's Mausoleum on Red Square

Sure enough, the guards inside the tomb quickly moved us through with snaps of their fingers and hisses for disrespectful, noisy tourists to be. Apart from the charge of leaving your bag (roughly 60 roubles) this is a free attraction and also includes a walk around the back of the tomb, under the Kremlin walls, where many other famous heroes of the revolution lie. Someone still puts flowers on these graves, someone still puts flowers on Stalin’s...

The grave of Anton Chekhov
Not quite having our fill of death for one weekend, we took a metro trip to ‘Novodechivy Cemetary‘ (the Moscow equivalent of the ‘Père Lachaise Cemetary’ in Paris) where many famous Russians are buried. We managed to find the grave of Chekhov, Mayakovsky, Khrushchev and Yeltsin yet were disappointed by the poor map of the graveyard which did not lead us to where Gogol and Bulgakov are supposed to lie. Nevermind! Have to come back when i’m living there in January! This cemetery was again a free attraction and certainly should be on the list of things to do for literary and history fans visiting the city.

Our final major visit was to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which, after being destroyed and turned into an open-air swimming pool by Stalin, now dominates the skyline as a national icon of the Orthodox Church. It is truly lavish and a contrast to the grim, candlelit interior of St Basils. It reminded me of the Vatican and was awe-inspiring.

We had plenty of time left to kill before our 9 o clock train to Veliki Novgorod so we chilled out in a cafe on the beloved Arbat and passed a pleasant afternoon in high-spirited debate about pretty much everything:  corporate greed (ironic as we were sat in a McKafe), pro-wrestling, Beyonce vs Rihanna, the state of the UK, the state of Russia, the upcoming elections and the American education system. ..
This leads me to say a simple thank you to Alex, Jaya and Marilyn who made a good trip great. Travelling with you was a joy and I really hope we can the chance to reunite one day for other adventures.
Alex and I kicking back in Mckafe

Concluding episode on Veliki Novgorod will be out soon! (I will eventually have this all written up!)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Episode 18 (part three): Bartering, boats and bottles of (single-use!) vodka...

The next day we rose late and seriously enjoyed the lie in. I mercifully leant on the snooze button with all my might until eventually we decided it was high time to crawl our way to Moscow’s biggest souvenir and Soviet Kitsch market at Lamailovo. Arriving at our destination we were somewhat dismayed by the very few stores that are open at this time of year. The market is vast, and I assume that at a weekend during peak season it must be atmospheric and buzzing. However, the traders on that particular day could not really be bothered...

Hunting for the perfect Matroshka...
They smoked and shuffled their feet. They didn’t chase sales. They didn’t push their goods. They didn’t rush after us screaming and yelling about roubles and kopecks. In hindsight this may have been a good thing, but at the time, the long metro journey seemed a little empty. Still, we got stuck in and did our best to barter our way to lower prices for the things we wanted. It was great to know that after researching, we were buying cheaper and smarter than in the Arbat shops from the night before.

Bear in mind this is not always the case and if you are travelling with no idea of prices or no knowledge of Russian you may want to stick to souvenir shops. I toyed with the idea of buying a smallish banner of Lenin from the market and was told it cost 3000 roubles (about £60). I had no idea of the price but being familiar with what things should be worth I told the man he was obviously joking and walked off. I would have bartered but he didn’t follow me. Later in the day I found the same lanyard in a shop on the Arbat for 900 roubles (still too much for what it was) and then felt rather smug...Nonetheless, we all left the market with shorter Christmas lists and heavier rucksacks...

State History Museum
 Finally we were able to get into the state history museum on Red Square! Today it was open and sidling in we took full advantage of the student discount with our Russian student cards. This museum was a joy to walk around, especially the upper floors which chart Russian history from Ivan the Terrible to the Revolution. The lower floors contain an average exhibition on Russian pre-history and ancient tribes that is quite dull except for an amazingly old boat that was found in a river. Much better exhibitions on this can be found in Karelia and Veliki Novgorod, but those are other stories...

Tired after another day’s adventuring we frequented our favourite subterranean supermarket for nibbles and I got it into my head to buy a bottle of vodka for the road. I felt that i’d like to sip a little each day to keep off the cold and picked a brand that i’d heard good things about “Putinka” (correct me if i’m wrong). Everything seemed fine until we got back to the room and popped the cap... Turns out that, instead of having a screw-top this was a single-use bottle of vodka. Oh the disappointment was written across my face as I realised that i’d either have to down the lot or pour it away... still it only cost me £2-50 so it wasn’t a major loss. In conclusion, in Russia everything that is good for you costs and lot and everything that is bad for you is very cheap! Gosh!

More soon!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Episode 18 (part two): "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown"

hats off to anyone who gets the movie reference, boo and go watch it to those who don't

Thus continue Rob's adventures in Moscow:

GUM department store on Red Square
We rose after a long hibernation and crawled our way to Red Square again. We tried to get into the State History Museum but fell foul to bizarre Russian opening times and had to make do with exploring GUM and looking for a part of Moscow known as “Kitai Gorod” (which means "China Town" although is actually a mistranslation) According to Lonely Planet this is the GREATEST PLACE ON EARTH full of narrow streets, a gripping atmosphere and a vibrant cultural mix. We either failed miserably at navigation or found a string of unhelpful Muscovites to ask for directions from as when we finally entered the supposed area we were madly unimpressed. The supposed “narrow streets” must only have been narrow by Moscow standards (e.g. two lanes of traffic not eight) and in truth we never really felt the character of the place. It seemed like a string of restaurants offering Sushi or Arabic cuisine, a Mcdonalds and  Starbucks. Very meh. Defeated, we ate in a Russian, fast-food cafe, drinking Kvass (Russian bread beer) and planning how to get to Sparrow Hills for a stroll above the city that would hopefully reinvigorate us.

We met up with Jaya’s hostess’s granddaughter (yet another Sasha to add to our collection) at Sparrow Hills metro station and took a long stroll around the imposing state university that dominates this part of the skyline. Built as one of Stalin’s “Seven Sisters”, the university is one of the best in Russia and is characteristic of Soviet neo-classical and “wedding cake” architecture. In my opinion it is also absolutely terrifying. Even more so than the gargoyles of Oxford colleges and St John’s porters....

We then took a long trip on the Moscow metro to get back into town. Sasha wished to take us to the Tretyakov Art Gallery – Moscow’s equivalent of the Hermitage in St Petersburg and a pilgrimage for lovers of Russian art and culture. We were not disappointed. Several hours were easily filled here looking at some of Russia’s most famous portraits and landscapes. Unfortunately the cloak-room staff and security guards were a little too self-important and snooty which somewhat soured our impression at first, yet overall, the majesty of the place and the calibre of the collection won us all over. My favourite works were probably those of Vrubel who I would now rank as one of my favourite artists ( although I really enjoyed the portraits of famous Russian authors, a lot of which are reproduced on the backcovers of the editions of their works that I read at uni.
Taking a break in McCafe (don't judge us!)

It was with aching feet and sore eyes that we ended up deflated and in need of food, our brains swelling with stirring images from Russia’s cultural past. Sasha suggested we should try to eat at Moo Moo’s on the Arbat (Moscow’s most famous street) as not only was the food good, but the atmosphere of this part of town would make up for the Kitai Gorod disappointment.

Agreeing we parted ways and plummeted again through Moscow’s beautiful metro to the Arbat station – possibly one of the prettiest stops – and in no time we were queuing up for a mega buffet of Russian, edible goodness. I highly recommend Moo Moo as a stop for travellers and tourists wishing to eat things a la Russe and the two outlets on the Arbat are probably the most comfortable and convenient. After eating we strolled up and down researching souvenir prices in the obviously expensive stores that line the streets. The Arbat is something of a "Las Ramblas" for anyone who has been to Barcelona and also has its share of street entertainers. We easily killed another hour here and returned contented to our hostel for more sleep – we were still dead on our feet from the gallery.
Posing with the Moo Moo cow on the Arbat

More really soon, probably tomorrow as I need to get this all written up :)

Friday, 11 November 2011

BONUS PHOTOS: Red Square day and night

As promised a malenki, little photo update ala Tumblr!

Onto Red Square

Looks a bit familiar...

The State History Museum

On Red Square

Photobombing Red Square

Rob in front of GUM

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Episode 18 (Part One): Moscow, hostels, builders and Basil's

"ты хочешь знать, что видел я на воле?"
Mikhail Lermontov, "Mtsyri" 

Oh would that I had a smart phone so that I could have better kept my word and filled you in from the road dear reader! Or rather not, because I was having far too much fun to write blog-posts! So stop complaining! Jeez!

Bags all packed!
Of course we arrived a little heady and tired-eyed into Leningrad Station (also known by its old name Oktyabersky Vokzal as our confusing train tickets taught us) and dropped our bags underneath the giant Lenin head in the entrance hall. The train journey was pretty good. Alex took a fantastic photo of me cramming a bun into my mouth but unfortunately his camera went missing later in the trip...(that’s another story.) Spending the night in the platzkart (cheapest) carriage was pretty much ok. We were not robbed or murdered. We did not encounter “bizarre people” as one of our university teachers guaranteed. Our conductor was pleasant and once the large lady sat opposite us stopped snoring we were able to shut our eyes and drift away into sleep as the Karelian forests dwindled outside the window...

We knew we were in expensive, metropolitan Moscow because all of a sudden all the toilets cost 20 roubles a go and in every direction we were confronted by H&M and Zara advertising. The pavements were clean and unbroken. People from various ethnic groups cropped up all over the place. The tang of a nearby Mcdonalds drifted over the streets. Yes still Russia, but sadly a lot more like anywhere else in the world.
A gorgeous fountain in the 'Alexandrovsky Sad'

The Moscow metro was our first port of call and we easily navigated our way to “Okhotni Ryad” which was the station nearest our hostel. Our eyes opened wide as we emerged onto street level and came face to face with not only the newly-opened Bolshoi Theatre but also with the State Duma (parliament) and the red walls of the Kremlin. Who knew the main attractions were so close together! The sun was shining, we were in high spirits and I didn’t even need my mittens! Moscow grasped us immediately and the brief illusion that we were in any-old, global city was shattered by the red Russification of those searing onion domes.

"rising majestically" (ignore the manhole)
We found the hostel no problem, tucked in an alley near the Armenian Embassy annex. The friendly reception staff adored our fragrantly accented Russian and showed us the windy, confusing route to our room. Our four- bed dorm was nestled under several flights of stairs and the neighbouring rooms were being renovated by a gang of sketchy builders smoking, swearing and loitering in the hostel. Their sleazy sneers and loud protestations made our first trip to the showers a little tentative but hey we’re young and pretty aren’t we? Nothing to be ashamed of and no awkward towel slippages... So yes we felt a little uneasy at first but had a prime location near the communal kitchen and showers and our door had a decent double-lock so we soon settled in.

After taking a short break to wash ourselves up and wipe the sleepydust from our eyes we hit Red Square – a candidate for the country's greatest icon- and were greeted by the stunning St Basil’s Cathedral rising majestically on the skyline. It was our very own Virginia Woolf "moment of being" but we couldn't shake the gruesome story that Ivan the Terrible, according to legend, blinded the architect who built it so that he could never design anything more awe-inspiring. As always I find myself returning to my philiosophy that no matter how beautiful or crazy Russia seems it will never, ever be boring!

More really really soon. (no, really. I’m not having you on anymore)

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Episode 17: I made it to Moskva! (or Rob has no time for blogging right now...)

Oh so much to let you all know and so little time! Instead of writing up all my adventures now, hurriedly and without photos, I have decided to wait until I am back in PTZ (what the cool kids call it) where I can upload at my leisure and put my thoughts in order. For now, click the link on the right to find my twitter page where I'll be keeping you all updated, as usual, with weird thoughts from the road.

Basically get ready for one massive episode when I get back featuring waxwork communists, looking like Gogol,  haggling with bored market traders, looking for a curry, taking "shocked face" photos in Red Square, giant cleaning ladies and the super rich...oh Moscow.