MOSCOW, Russia! An adventure into the east!

MOSCOW! Wow, back in September 2012 we made the voyage out east to a place which had been on the bucket list for a long while. We were a mixture of excitement and nerves as we knew little of what to expect. Seeing St. Basil’s with my own eyes for the first time is a moment I will never forget, Moscow is exactly what you think Russia will be like and at the same time totally different… what an adventure!

This is our report on the mad, crazy and beautiful and spellbinding Moscow, soon I will be also writing a “10 things to do in Moscow” to make it a little easier to see what there is to do!

WOW, so where do I even start. Well firstly to tell you this is a dream come true, I have been wanting to go to Moscow as long as I have been passionate about travelling. One of the things for me was that travelling long term is a while off yet as we need to save, But yet I wanted to do something and go somewhere really adventurous and out there but that isn’t actually going to break the bank. So here it is, RUSSIA!

Firstly I am very much interested in Russian history, politics and culture, I’m not sure entirely what draws me to it, but something does. I love the art work, the colours, phrases and symbols associated with it, oh and I am also a socialist!

Also the element of danger, or perceived danger is exciting too, it has historically been a no go place for westerners, for my parents and grandparents who see Russia and an enemy behind the iron curtain it is somewhere they could never imagine visiting, I guess a lot like North Korea today, although, given the chance, I would love to visit there one day!

Moscow and Russia seem almost close but far away, part of Europe but on the edge of it as well, geographically and politically. To get there we had to take a connecting flight, which I can’t imagine having to do for any other major city within “Europe”, but again, this gives it more of a sense of adventure and makes you feel like you are actually going somewhere much further than it actually is.

The visa was also another issue, I basically booked flights in a fit of spontaneity and excitement and figured, as I always do, we can sort everything out later! Which we did to be fair, but I may have been a little less hasty if I knew the visas were going to cost around £80 each!! But hey ho, I am glad I didn’t think twice about it and we went!

They are also not the easiest things to figure out, you have to get a tourist voucher, which as we didn’t go through a tour company or hotel we had to just buy online for £20, kind of seems pointless but there you go! Then you have to fill out a form on their website which as times is quite baffling and has some very strange questions, have I ever been involved with the development of nuclear weapons…erm, no, I don’t recall that I have! I was actually surprised when it all went through ok and we got our passports back with some shiny new visas in them!!

If you need some help figuring it all out I did a post here all about the process:

www.theroamingrenegades.com/2014/02/how-to-apply-for-russian-visa.html

At first it was a little like, what the hell do we do, there were just so many people rushing around everywhere, and no one at all spoke English. Luckily I had done some research and knew there was an air train into the city we could get and just followed the train signs! I remember thinking when we were on the train (which was absolutely massive, in every way, like, long, wide, high!) wow, we are actually in Russia!!

The countryside was beautiful and harsh just as I imagined, there were little houses here and there that looked like they had been built using left over materials, and people just randomly sat by the train tracks drinking vodka next to a fire in the woods! I have to say, from this train journey, I really did not know what to expect at the other end!

Arriving into the city was again, chaos, the station was massive and really just not organised at all, there were hundreds of people getting on and off the same train on one platform, but we pushed through and somehow managed to find our way to the subway. The machine was not the easiest to use, we asked the woman at the desk for assistance and got snarled at! So this is a good start! I kind of found her reaction funny if I’m honest, but shorty always seems to find the trip from the airport to the accommodation to be a very stressful one, whilst I’m just finding even the most banal object so novel and interesting!!

The metro is amazing in Moscow, but not easy! It is the second busiest in the world behind Tokyo, over 8 million people use it daily, and it feels like they are all on your train! It’s mental, I think in the whole time we were there I saw it quiet once, and that was at 2am on a week night, other than that every train and station is packed all day.

In London or New York, when a train is busy you think, I’ll just wait for the next one and it will be ok, we learnt swiftly that no sooner has the platform cleared from one train it then fills up again with a swarm of people!

There is generally only one or two very long escalators out of the station too, so the queues at the bottom can be crazy, and people like to push, such as the drunk old babushka who hit shorty with her stick!! These little babushka women actually exist, and they are mental! I did wonder looking at the young, tall and beautiful Russian women what happens to them to shrink into one of these crazed vodka swilling pensioners!! They are kind of cute though!

It is also quite difficult to navigate the metro because all the names of the stops are in Russian and I had everything written down in the English translation, unlike places such as Lisbon or Paris were the name of the stop is actually pronounceable, this is just impossible to even recognise as it is a different alphabet!! But that is again, part of the adventure and getting off at a few wrong stops along the way adds to the experience, we figured the best way was to just count the stops as the name for each one was on the wall behind the train instead of the wall you can actually see!!

And of course, no one on the train was either willing to help or could actually understand what you were saying! The metro is a tourist attraction in itself, built by Stalin as an exercise in propaganda you will never see a grander metro system, each is decorated in a unique way, many have ornate chandeliers, mosaics and frescos, statues and monuments, it’s hard to believe this is the underground and not a palace! It really is like stepping back in time, Lenin, hammers and Sickles are everywhere, amazing!

Obviously, one of the main areas we wanted to visit was Red Square, The Kremlin, St Basils and of course, Lenin’s Mausoleum. One the first day we got settled quite late on but went out for a bit of a wander and couldn’t resist going for a peak to come back and fully explore the next day.In reality it took us a few days to get around everything in there and it was one of those places you just want to keep going back to, not just to get another look, but because of the energy and people around there, it really is the centre of the city.

When I turned the corner and was finally stood in the centre of red square and saw St.Basils for the first time I was just in awe. It’s one of those moments why travel is so special and really makes you feel alive, places you never imagined you could ever go and see, and you are stood there, you almost have to pinch yourself. Its these moments I travel for and what I find addictive! The inside of this iconic building is just as ornate as the outside and it totally blew me away, I just wasn’t expecting it, it’s truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen!

It is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever set my eyes on, well worth the trip just for that. The thing with red square is that you feel totally comfortable, I mean, I felt comfortable for the whole trip to be fair but I am not easily spooked!!

But I mean if you are used to visiting European cities this feels quite similar,it almost doesn’t feel like you are in Russia. Lots of tourists, shopping malls, western places to eat but yet still many cultural things to see and do.
However some areas feel a lot more like the Russia we expected than others, but you know that was part of what we went for.

I have to mention the hostel too. Hotels and accommodation is pretty expensive in Moscow and although we are used to staying in hostels the thought of one in Russia…called Godzillas was a little unnerving! But honestly this is the nicest hostel I have ever stayed in, by far superior to the Thompson hotel we had been stuck with in Greece only a few months earlier. Nice people, nice and clean rooms, free wifi and walking distance to the metro, what more do you want!?

One of the first places we went was a place called “Bunker 42” which is an old underground nuclear bunker which is now a cold war museum. Now this is the Russia I wanted to see, to say it was a museum it’s not exactly easy entry.

You have to make a booking online before hand and once we got there, there was no one in sight. Just a few people in military uniforms going in and out and completely ignoring us when we tried to speak to them, I did think at one point this was a lost cause!

But we heard some American tourists inside so decided to try the intercom which again was not very encouraging but they opened the door finally and from that point on all seemed well. We had a very informative Russian guide showing us around and telling us a lot about the cold war, including a film which of course shows the story from the Russian side which is a refreshing account to hear after being brought up to fear the east.

This place is really cool, I doubt it would pass UK health and Safety rules though!! It is dark, damp and eerie, apparently you can rent a room our for a party down here and there is also a shooting range! We got to play with some decommissioned guns and gas masks too and you really got a sense of what it may have been like during the cold war. We also decided to let the old American tourists use the lift and took the stairs back up to ground level…18 floors up I regretted that decision!

Some areas feel run down and almost derelict, old soviet era cars being the main mode of transport and then around the corner it an exquisite grand old church covered in Gold.

Coming across Gorky Park on one of our wanders was also pretty cool, we ended up pretty far from the metro we had used and eventually at the massive statue of Peter the great by the river. The park was very active and full of all the things you would imagine in a European park, plus loads of wedding parties, which is something I noticed a lot around red square too. We even came across a strange Angry Birds game the kids were playing, but nobody seemed to be any good at it!

One of the most moving and strange experiences I have ever had was going inside Lenin’s Mausoleum, we queued for well over an hour to get in here and security is high. No bags of any kind, no cameras or phones or pretty much anything in your pockets. Metal detectors, patted down, armed guards the lot!

Once you are through the main security check point you have to walk around the back past the graves of people such as Gargarin and Stalin to name a few, then around the side and into the front. It’s dark and cold in there, and silent. You must keep moving at all times too, around a couple of corners down some steps and you are into the main room and there he is! Such a strange thing to experience, especially given the history of this man and how he changed the world!

here is debate as to if he is real or not, I honestly don’t know, I mean, how would you look after so many years, a little glazed I imagine! But it felt like a real experience for us and afterwards I did feel somewhat different, it felt like one of those one in a life time things many never get to do and it took a while to sink in that we had seen Lenin’s body!

The changing of the guard at the eternal flame is also something great to see as they still stick to their traditional goose stepping all the way along the side wall of the Kremlin! The routine they do when they change over is quite something too, these guards stand here all year in all weathers for an hour at a time guarding this flame!

Actually going into the Kremlin is also a cool thing to have done but yet a little disappointing at the same time. You are only really allowed in a very small part of the grounds, which I guess is to be expected, but I just wanted to see more. The cathedrals you get to see inside are beautiful though, every inch of the walls inside is painted it’s quite a sight.

There is also the Tsar’s bell, made 1733-35  is in fact the largest in the world and was broken whilst being cast and therefore has never actually be rang. And of course the Tsar’s cannon which again is the largest bombard by caliber in the world and dates back to 1586 a pretty impressive sight.

One real adventure we did have was to go out and try to find this climbing wall on the edges of the city. It appeared from the internet to be simple to find, but it most definitely was not, and the area was questionable as best! There was a point we were completely lost and getting all sorts of looks off people and we did fear for our lives!

But after asking some sketchy looking security guards we were pointed in the direction as of what looked like a derelict factory! Now, I love a good derelict factory, but when you are walking along as suddenly think, but shit, we are in Russia, then I’m not such a fan! When we did find this place is was really cool and the people very friendly, visiting a Russian climbing wall is quite a bit different to what I have experienced in the UK but a great challenge and experience. Those guys are beasts when it comes to climbing though!

We also ventured out to the Triumphal gate over on Victory hill which is the third and oldest surviving gate having been built in 1814 to commemorate the victory over Napoleon. This area up here is the highest point in Moscow and does feel both very exposed and also very quiet.

We also visited the WW2 museum and memorial whilst up here known as Poklonnaya Hill, the area has been a historical strategical point in battle as it commands the best views of the city. The main thing you see up here is the giant obelisk which is 141,8 meters (is 10 cm for every day of the War.) Again this is a very informative place to go and gives you another perspective on a war we are so used to hearing from only the British or German sides.

It is also full of statues, busts and paintings of Stalin, which within the city as a whole were removed after the fall of the CCCP, unlike those of Lenin. The main hall is really impressive containing the names of the “Hero Cities” of the Soviet union along with another huge statue.

It was around here we came across one of many little shops selling guns and other weaponry like there were sweets or cigarette. On the many subways they have crossing under the roads or connecting to the metro they have these tiny little shops crammed full of many random things, its a wonder the people inside can even move. These mostly sell papers, cigarettes etc, but we came across a few selling non only pistols but assault rifles and grenades!

Overall I just loved Moscow, I loved the atmosphere and the history. I just couldn’t believe I was really here! What is great is that is both lives up to and surpasses your imagination and assumptions of the place.

The people are mostly quite nice and try and help, although I did find some of the women (especially one particular who worked in the smallest supermarket around the corner from the hostel who really did hate us) to be very cold and harsh.

We were also followed by a man outside our hostel who didn’t want to leave us alone for a little while! I think he was drunk and a bit intimidating! The place is just fascinating though and full of things to see and do, details from the tsar and the soviets down every street, the metro beautify and baffling!

The food a little odd but not too different to the hearty meals your Nan cooks over the winter really. We plan on going back to Russia in early 2016 to do the trans-Mongolian express from St. Petersburg to Beijing and look forward to seeing more of this intriguing country.

Visiting Moscow was a dream come true and one that didn’t disappoint, full of adventure and excitement!

Some scanned bits and pieces!

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Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.