21.04.2012 - 24.04.2012
So, for our whole trip up until Russia, we had either planned ourselves or made up on the fly all the details ie accommodation and transport. But in Russia, that soviet power trip very much remains, and their need to know what everyone is doing at all times. This becomes especially evident when applying for a visa. After exploring the options, we decided to just book that particular leg of the trip through a travel agent, and to apply for a visa you need to show evidence of where you are staying, how you are travelling around and everything else, as well as needing a letter of invitation. So we gave a chunk of money to our travel agent and without a fuss received back plane tickets in and out or Russia, train tickets within the country, details of accommodation for each night, and of course our visas. It all seemed really simple. As it turned out, it wasn’t.
I wont go into too much detail, but basically the Russian transport department didn’t acknowledge our Australian issued tickets. The outcome of which involved fairly heated exchanges on five or so occasions spanning two days, getting into massive arguments with staff, having windows slammed in our face, things thrown at us, armed guards circling our back, and altogether being treated with the uttermost disrespect, incredible rudeness and borderline cruelty. At one point we found ourselves stranded at some backwater, run down, station in the middle of the wilderness at 3am. And when I say station, it was a concrete slab in the clearing of the trees that acted as a platform for some rusted rail lines that went through it, and housed a rusted abandoned carriage as a decoration. It was straight out of a horror film. Anyway, we only made it to Moscow after the Russian staff had extorted a large amount of money out of us, and even then it seemed begrudgingly, as if they'd rather us freeze and die. The whole experience was incredibly stressful to say the least, and the utter unwillingness to help someone in need is now disappointingly how I remember our time in Russia.
When we finally arrived in Moscow, things didn’t get much better. Although one of the train rides to there was incredible. It was from Novgorod to St Petersburg (long story) and the train itself should have been in a museum. It was old and smelly and felt like you were riding a washing machine. But, the people on it were great to watch. It was packed with working class commuters, and locals, some were drunk, some were loud, some were quiet. Several would hide whenever the ticket person came through. At every train station, and there were many, the train would stop for five minutes, as every passenger would hop off the train, smoke a cigarette on the platform, and then hop back on and we were off again. People would travel through the train with garbage bags full of chips and sodas trying to sell through the carriages, obviously poor and trying to scrape a few rubles. And the scenery was amazing. We passed steaming swamps, burnt out farms and naked forests, through communities surviving in the poorest of conditions, run down housing complexes, people huddled for warmth, groups of children running and playing along the train tracks as we passed. Packs of wild dogs littered the streets which also acted as graveyards for old industrial equipment and unfinished construction. In fact everywhere were indications of an old thriving industrial age, but now only abandoned and desecrated remnants remain. The exception was closer to the city, where humongous active chimneys bellowed startling amounts of toxic fumes into the sky, causing streaks of greens and purple through the orange dusk sky. It was really quite beautiful. It was one of those trips that I wish I could do slowly with a camera, as there were just amazing shots everywhere.
Well, when we had finally hit Moscow, after the shittest 36 hours ever, we were pretty exhausted. We hadn’t slept the past two nights, and dealing with the authorities just made me want to get out of the country. What also added to it, was that our hotel was in the outskirts of the city, and we had to pass through a series of scary housing projects to get to it, the type that its a good night if you only get shot at once. What we soon found out too, was that our exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm, and waning tolerance for people, was completely overshadowed by the dark, haunting, soulless figures that formed Moscow populace. I have never witnessed such a collection of lifeless, bitter creatures, who's insides seems to have been sucked out along with any sense of compassion, respect, kindness or even regard for their fellow human beings. These shells of bitterness hurried along the streets and subways with an eternal scowl on their face. Everyone that passed us would look us up and down and offer us expressions of vial contempt, as if they could sense the presence of a soul in their evil shadow world and the light was blinding their eyes. Everywhere there were men in dark suits sitting in shiny black cars watching everyone's moves, making the odd call on a radio device. At times I'm sure we were followed. It was truly a city of the cold and pretentious.
We did try and make the most of it though, and enjoy our own company. Luckily, the city had a few redeeming factors, none for which I would ever come back for, but they helped us have a bit of fun along the way. In no particular order,
-The Metro system. Yes, everyone says how beautiful the stations are, that they are works of arts gifted from Stalin to the city. But they are just ok. The real highlight is the people, the phenomenal amount of people that push and barge through it all day. Apparently more commuters each year than London and New York combined. Its absolute insanity. I'll never forget the destruction caused by one old lady just doing her thing to get the train, throwing elbows and shoulders and smashing anything that got in her way. She wasn’t alone either. I've been on trains in Japan in peak hour and have seen how mutual respect can make a crowded situation flow with a certain calm, but here, mutual disrespect produces this circus of hatred that is in many ways entertaining.
-I Love Cake. Yes I do, but actually this was a cafe we found in the back streets, in one of those residential artsy areas. It had phenomenal tasting cakes, a really cool interior, and were really helpful with Mel's nut allergy. They helped her decided on a gargantuan blueberry and raspberry chocolate cake, which I was certain, and somewhat looking forward to helping her finish. Lets just say I didn’t get the chance. Everything there looked amazing though, if I could I would've just spent the whole time there.
-Architecture. Ok, some of the buildings were cool. There were enough different styles to keep us amused, and a few weird ones at that.
-Red Square. Unlike the Kremlin, which was shit, Red Square was pretty interesting. The combination of the building, monuments and collective history gave it a much better vibe than the rest of the city. But thinking about it now, maybe it was because there were more tourists than Moscow locals there.
-Two diamonds amongst millions of lumps of coal. These were two people we met in Moscow that we actually liked. The first was Marie, who was a friend of our CouchSurfing host in Vienna, Masha. Masha had somehow foreseen our troubles in the city, and asked Marie if she could help us out or meet for a coffee or something. Well Marie contacted us and we all spent a nice night out having dinner at a sushi restaurant, seeing some awesome street performers and going for a cool walk and taking in the city by night, ending up in a nice little sculpture park.
The other one we met was Kate. Kate was a CouchSurfer as well, a Moscow local, who had earlier in the year travelled through Sydney for a month and loved it. She had seen that we were in town, and sent us an email offering to take us out for a drink. We happily accepted, and were glad we did because she was bubbly and excitable and really beamed with life, and had a great grasp on the Australian language with which she used with to our delight. We spent the night at her favourite bar, which was around the corner from her Uni, where she was actually sitting a big test for the next day, but she still made time to hang out with us.
So a few highlights, but mostly lowlights from our time in Moscow. I admit that we only stayed three nights there, and I didn’t know the language (I did try my best), but compared to the other cities we have been along the way, you suck Moscow. I hope to never see you again.