The shower at the hostel in Moscow was amazing. It didn’t even have a shower head – there was just hot water pouring out of a pipe. But it was hot water and it was washing my body and oh my God it was amazing. It was that kind of dirty where you can physically feel it washing away, but as soon as you’re clean and dry, you just want to have another shower just to make sure you’re completely clean. Or perhaps that was just me rediscovering the meticulousness of my personal hygiene. It also felt good to be on solid ground. There were places to go, things to see, drinkable tap water, and did I mention showers? It was also a change to be in a big city like Moscow. After we’d freshened up, I headed into the streets with Tim, Tracy and Jenna to find some breakfast. It was a drizzly overcast morning, but I soaked in the surroundings of the concrete jungle. As much as I loved the great outdoors and the rural getaway that had been Mongolia and Siberia, I have to confess that I’m still a big city boy at heart. Places like Bangkok and Saigon had found ways to win me over, with the busy streets and the nightlife and the diversity of people, and even the sleek and somewhat sterile Singapore was nice when it wasn’t charging an arm and a leg for a few beers. Beijing might be the only exception, with its pollution just being too intense – though I also harbour a few bitter memories – but generally I love exploring new cities. With a population of around 10 million, Moscow was big, and I was definitely excited to see what it had in store for us.
After breakfast we returned to the hostel to meet our guide. Maria was an attractive woman, tall and thin with long blonde hair and sharp, defined features – almost every stereotype I had expected from a Russian woman. We did a round of introductions, then wasted no time in setting out into the city to see some of the major attractions. Along the way, I was advised by the rest of the group that there were three must see attractions in Moscow – Red Square, the Kremlin, and the State Armoury. It was lucky that we had three full days in Moscow, because due to a serious lack of planning it took that many days for me to see them all. To get from the hostel to the city was only a few stops on the Moscow Metro, but even that proved to be a little bit of a thrill. And that’s not because of my weird obsession with efficient subway systems, although the Moscow Metro is insanely efficient – one time we missed a train, and there was literally another one coming out of the tunnel just as we lost sight of the one we missed. It was actually a thirty second wait for the next train – needless to say, I was impressed. But all the excitement happened before we’d even reached the platform. For the metro, all you have to do is buy a standard ticket that lets you travel anywhere within the system. All you have to do is swipe the card and walk in. Now, at the train stations back home there are barriers that open to let you through when you swipe your ticket. To be fair, some of the stations at Moscow have this too. However, the station we were at didn’t seem to have barriers, just metal gates which you walk through after swiping your ticket. I swiped mine, saw a little green arrow, and proceeded through, then turned around to wait for Kaylah. She swiped her ticket, went to walk through and then suddenly BAM! These old, rickety metal arms came flying out of the gates to crash together directly in front of Kaylah. I don’t deal well with sudden shocks and jolts like that, so I’m pretty sure I let out a scream. Kaylah herself was standing there, dumbfounded. “Oh my God,” I said as I ran back towards the barrier. “Oh my God! Are you alright?” We looked down at the metal arms clamped together in front of her waist. “Jesus, a second later and you wouldn’t ever be having children!” She was startled but otherwise fine, and laughed it off in her typical style. “It’s all good, it’s all good.” One of the station attendants came over to help us. Turns out Kaylah’s ticket just hadn’t swiped properly, and so hadn’t allowed her to go through, but her movement forward had set off he barriers to rather aggressively stop her from proceeding. Which makes perfect sense, but still, it was as freaky as Hell to watch, and for the rest of my time in Moscow I tentatively slipped through the gates at the metro, so as not to awake those angry metal arms.
The first attraction we visited was Red Square, which in itself was more of a collection of sights. We took photos in front of the State History Museum, and then visited the Lenin Mausoleum. I know what a mausoleum is, but what we found inside still took me by surprise – a glass coffin with the preserved body of the Soviet leader lying there for the world to see, looking rather peaceful. Kaylah and I had been walking along with linked arms to stay a little warmer in the cold, overcast weather, but I felt her grip tighten tenfold around my arm when we walked into the room and saw the body lying there. It was a chilling experience, but we slowly and respectfully shuffled around the room and out the other side. From there it was onto St Basil’s Cathedral, a place that I’ll confess I didn’t know by name, but instantly recognised from photographs. The colourful tops on the towers were a typically Russian style of architecture, and I thought it made the building a little more fun and interesting than some of the other ones – though I’m not sure if anyone ever built a cathedral with ‘fun’ being the primary objective. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful building, both exterior and interior. Inside and upstairs, there was a male a capella vocal quartet singing what sounded like Russian church hymns. Their voices were beautiful, and their musical singing added a whole new level of awe to the atmosphere inside the cathedral. Even though any spiritual or religious convictions I might harbour lie far from Christianity or Russian Orthodoxy, it was simply enchanting to explore the stone walls and corridors while they echoed with the rich tenor and rumbling baritone voices. I took a few photos, but as I lined up my camera, before I’d taken a single picture, I knew that no image would ever capture this experience in a way that would do it justice.
After we’d finished in Red Square and had some lunch, Maria took us down to buy tickets for the Kremlin. The deal with both the Kremlin and the State Armoury is that they only allow a certain amount of people inside, during scheduled periods of visiting, to prevent the places from growing too crowded at any one time. This happens every day. Except on Thursdays, when the Kremlin is closed. It was a Thursday. Yep. That was a little awkward for Maria. “I guess we will have to come back tomorrow… What else would you like to do?” Tim and Alyson wanted to go shopping, so we left them to their own devices, while – short of our own ideas of what to see in the city – Maria took us to a part of the city where we could ride up the Moscow River and see some of the cities major and minor attractions from the water. Even though the weather was a little cold, it was an easy way to spend the afternoon. So easy, in fact, that I may have been guilty of taking a few power naps between photographs. We’d been up since 4am, after all.
That night we took it pretty easy. I had dinner at a small little pizza place around the corner with Tim, Tracy, Alyson and Jenna. The food was nice, but the one thing that struck me was that all over the restaurant, people were lighting up cigarettes and puffing away like chimneys. I have so many friends back home who smoke that the smell of second hand smoke doesn’t really bother me too much, but I think it was just more the fact they were allowed to smoke inside that surprised me. Although I really shouldn’t have been surprised – I’d been warned by almost everybody that smoking inside clubs was a really common thing all over Europe. I hadn’t expected that rule to apply to restaurants, but there you go. Rather than complain, I just tried to accept it and get used to it – if it really is as common as everyone says, then I was going to be seeing a lot more of it in the next few months.