September 21, 2006


moscow-dawn st-basils gum-guess moscow-subway

So this is Moscow.

Eh. You can keep it.

Mostly it's a sprawling labyrinth of concrete towers, shopping complexes, BMWs and construction cranes. My timing probably has something to do with my reaction - the Kremlin is closed to the public this week, the Bolshoi is entirely wrapped in scaffolding and canvas - but I'm confident I'd take St. Petersburg over this town any day of any week.

There are some cool bits. The metro is indeed magnificent (but its grandeur is threadbare, and it's full of barricades that herd people into seething bottlenecks.) GUM, on Red Square, is surely the world's most beautiful shopping mall (but it's still a shopping mall.) The sculpture garden across from Gorky Park is quite cool (but Gorky Park itself is disappointing; most of it is occupied by a tacky amusement park.) The Kremlin, St. Basil's, and the Alexanderovsky Gardens are a bit like having a colossal fantasyland castle in the heart of the city (but sort of throw the gloomy industrial bustle of most of the rest of the place into sharp relief.) The peoplewatching on Arbat is outstanding (though Arbat itself is half souvenir shops and fast-food stores.)

My favourite thing by far, so far, is the Exhibit of the People's Economic Achievements, aka VDNKh, which was once sort of a Soviet Epcot Centre. Its kilometres of boulevards and gardens are decorated by huge statues of heroic Communist figures, massive golden fountains, Soviet space shuttles, a titanium spire that has to be seen to be believed, and gargantuan pavilions, one for every republic of the USSR and others catchily named things like "Pavilion No. 71." Nowadays said pavilions have mostly been converted to stores selling cheap consumer goods, the airplane hangar has become a farmer's market, and bouncy Russopop booms out of speakers hidden in the columns that dot the grounds. It's kind of the utter apotheosis of kitsch.

The occasional frissons of feeling like I'm living in a spy novel are also kind of fun. Stepping off the St. Petersburg train into the Moscow night; walking along the fearsome walls of the Lubyanka, that looming monolith that I think would look menacing even if you didn't know its long and bloody history of dungeons and KGB interrogation chambers; being accosted by a policeman (by the rather unfriendly expedient of coming up behind me and jabbing his finger into my back) who demanded to see my documents - "Passport, visa, Moscow registration!"1 - " and wasn't satisfied by my attempt to forestall him with a mere photocopy (I'm reluctant to hand out my passport unless it's actually necessary) - "Problem! You come to polizi stationi!" - and, when I gave in and gave him my passport, scanned my registrations minutely for errors before pronouncing "OK!", passing it back, and waving me on.

It's nice to see that some of the old Soviet traditions like random identity checks haven't died off. Two more cops were doing the same thing outside the VDNKh to anyone who looked Caucasian (ie dark-skinned.) I wonder why I looked suspicious. I am very obviously a tourist here; I consider myself relatively nondescript, but almost nobody has confused me for a Russian. Perhaps that's for the best.

eta: also of note: there's a lot of money flooding through this city - luxury brands everywhere, BMWs clogging the street, hordes of women in thousand-dollar outfits, enormous numbers of bahkomats (bank machines) and even more enormous numbers of burly security guards, plus a very-very-cool Fabergé retail store - but you still can't drink the tap water. Also, the public toilets are Porta-Potties manned by babushkas who charge you 5 rubles a go.

I'm a little footsore; in this last week I've probably done more sustained walking than at any time since ... sheesh, probably since trekking around Annapurna in Nepal. But my poor feet will get a couple days of rest soon enough: tomorrow night, we embark on the 38-hour train journey to Omsk. About halfway there, just west of Yekaterinburg, Europe becomes Asia. I wonder if there's a WELCOME TO ASIA POPULATION 4,000,000,000 sign at the border.

1You're supposed to get your visa paper (not to be confused with your visa) stamped every time you stay at a hotel for three or more days; lack of such stamps will cause great suspicion, apparently, even though it's entirely possible to spend a month in this country without spending three days in one place, particularly if you're taking the Trans-Siberian.

PS: Hermitage pix are up, but no Moscow ones yet - none of the Net cafes here do USB.


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