07.06.2017 - 10.06.2017
7 June 2017
St Petersburg, Russia – Moscow, Russia
My train to Moscow left at 13:00, so I spent the morning packing and getting ready to leave. The train station was a short 15-minute walk from my hostel and I arrived in plenty of time. Not having experience with the Russian long-distance trains, I wanted to arrive early enough so I could figure out where to go.
I noticed that my phone was no longer data roaming, preventing me from getting online without wifi, which was quite strange as it had been working perfectly fine ever since I left the States. I was quite worried and concerned because I had planned to use Uber to get from the Moscow train station to my hostel, which I couldn’t do without data roaming. In addition, I needed to download the information for where my hostel was located! Russia has a lot of free wifi connections, but to connect to them you need to provide a Russian phone number so you can receive a verification code via text. I tried everything I could to fix my phone: I restarted it, removed the SIM card, tried it in one of my spare phones; nothing would work. I boarded the train hoping that the issue would resolve itself by the time I reached Moscow.
When I got to the train, the conductor checked my passport before boarding and then I easily made my way to my seat. My car was filled with Chinese tourists, who were very loud and noisy, shouting to one another across the entire car, eating their food (chewing and slurping quite loudly); I was not happy. A Russian woman across the aisle looked over at me after I’d made a face of disgust and laughed: she nodded in agreement.
I slept most of the journey and listened to music to help pass the time. The trip was only four hours and we arrived in Moscow just before 17:00. I’d thankfully been able to connect to the wifi on the train and downloaded the hostel information, which was great because the data roaming was still not working on my phone (I could text and make calls though). Not having any other choice, I took the metro from the train station over to my hostel. I had been concerned that it would be crowded owing to rush hour, but this was thankfully not the case.
My hostel was located quite near the Bolshoi Theatre – just two blocks away from where I had stayed last August – so I knew the area somewhat well. I found the building and was able to get inside easy enough (the hostel had emailed me the door code). The building had obviously been an old Soviet communal-flat and had been converted into private rooms after the collapse of the USSR. When I reached the door to the hostel, it was locked, but it had a button to call them. I pressed it repeatedly for several minutes, but no one came. Finally, someone came down the stairs and opened the door; he went and grabbed the front desk guy, who then got my checked in.
After getting settled in, I called my phone carrier to ask about my roaming issues; they informed me that it was an outage they were having all over the world and that it should hopefully be fixed soon. This was a relief as I had been concerned that something was wrong with my SIM card.
I met a guy from Chicago at the hostel as well; he had spent a year teaching English in Russian and had recently returned to the country. As he explained it, he “just didn’t fit in” at home and “could find lots of girls to date” in Russia. He went on and on about how beautiful they were, asking me if I had done any dating on my trip (I avoided the subject). He lamented that the Russian women would go out with him for drinks and dancing, but it would never lead to sex. He was a strange guy; his social skills, even when talking to me or others at the hostel, were just… off. I can’t describe it any other way.
I walked over to Red Square for a quick stroll that evening. The last time I was here (August 2016), a large seating stand had been erected in Red Square, preventing me from truly experience its grandeur. I was happy to find the square (mostly) cleared this time. They were erecting a stage near the GUM shopping mall, directly across from Lenin’s Mausoleum; other than that, the square was wide open. The difference was astounding. I could see from one end to the other and really see the expansive red brick walls of the Kremlin.
I stopped for a bite to eat for dinner (my first food of the day!) before heading back to the hostel and calling it a night.
8 June 2017
This morning I slept in and had a lazy morning before eventually walking back over to Red Square to see it properly by day. To my disappointment, more scaffolding had been erected in the square during the night, blocking the path in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum. The vast majority of the square was still open though. I found out that they were getting the stands setup for Russia Day (June 12), which celebrates when Russia declared its independence from the USSR.
Interesting historical note: 2017 will mark the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks (and Lenin) to power. It will be interesting to see how (if at all) Russia (and Putin) decide to commemorate this event…
I caught the metro outside of the city center, heading out to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. There was a large plaza in front of the museum with various statues and memorials scattered around it, including one for World War One.
Directly in front of the museum was a massive tower/obelisk that was covered with carvings of different aspects of the war. Topping the tower was a huge statue and at its base was a statue of St George slaying the dragon (a very common image throughout Russia). Behind the museum was a decent park with more sculptures and memorials in it.
I opted to not visit the museum for a variety of reasons, the principle one being that I had already visited several similar museums in other former Soviet cities; each museum followed the same general layout and structure, so I felt that I had probably seen most of it all before. Surprisingly, the Moscow museum was the least impressive exterior of the museums that I had visited. The one in Minsk, Belarus or Kyiv, Ukraine were far more impressive.
Nearby the metro station was a triumphal arch, celebrating the victory over Napoleon in the 1812 war. Construction work was being done near the base of the arch, so I was unable to get too close, but I was able to snap a few photos. Extending from the base of the arch was a line of flower gardens.
9 June 2017
My original schedule for the day revolved around Red Square, starting with visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum, but I discovered that it is closed on Fridays. The best I could do was walk along Red Square and view the Kremlin Necropolis from being the tiny roped barrier (the graves are all hidden behind the trees).
In disappointment, I decided to swap my plans for the following day and visit Kolomenskoye, an outdoor museum. Prior to that, however, I spent some time meandering about Red Square since I was already there: St Basil’s Cathedral, the various Kremlin towers, and walking onto a nearby bridge over to Moskva River to look into the Kremlin fortress itself. I also strolled through the Kremlin Gardens, passing by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the monuments to various Soviet cities from the Great Patriotic War (WWII). By this time I had taught myself to read the majority of the Cyrillic alphabet and could then decipher what the city names were on each monument.
Within the Kremlin Gardens, I discovered that one of the monuments (topped with the Romanov eagle) that I had so liked during my prior visit was in fact dedicated to the Romanov dynasty. The monument had been erected there in 1913 for the tercentenary of the foundation of their dynasty in Russia; it was torn down during the Soviet times, but it was replaced in 2013 for the quadricentenary.
The Kremlin Gardens are full of various statues and monuments, including one to Alexander I (who designed the gardens after the burning of Moscow in 1812).
I caught the metro right outside the Kremlin and rode it out to Kolomenskoye. This outdoor museum was actually a series of museums in a massive park area. The centerpiece of the area was the wooden palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovitch, which was my first stop upon arriving. The building resembled a mountain cabin, just larger in scale. Tsar Alexey Mikhailovitch came before Peter the Great, when Russia truly became a major power and the wealth of the Empire began to be displayed in palaces (like those of Petersburg). Nonetheless, this log palace was quite a treat to see.
I next walked down the road towards one of the many churches in the park. One the way I came across a magnificent lookout area, overlooking the Mosvka River and Moscow itself in the distance. The church itself was nestled in among the trees of the forest.
Following the path around, I made my way over to the Tsar Square, which was surrounded by more churches and what appeared to be an old fortress wall. The square had large grassy areas where dozens of people were stretched out, enjoying the beautiful day. Throughout the entire park were several artists, either sketching or painting various scenes in the park.
The last major highlight for me in the area was a cabin of Peter the Great. It was the largest of his cabins that I’ve seen; it was closed, so I wasn’t able to go inside and explore (sadly). On my way out of the park, I spent time walking through the various avenues of formal gardens. At the exit was a small amusement park for children – in reality, more like a small fair.
For the afternoon, I planned to make a tour of the Moscow metro stations, similar to the one that I had done in St Petersburg. The best Moscow stations were scattered around the city, not along one central line as in Petersburg.
I took Line 2 (green) to Mayakovskaya station, where there were about a dozen or so murals made of tile in the ceiling; each one depicted a simple scene in Russia; a large mural at the end of the platform depicted Lenin (who else?!).
The next station on Line 2 was Belorusskaya, which had hammer and sickles on every column; along the ceiling were several oval cutouts with small murals in them.
Hopping onto Line 5, which runs in a circle around Moscow, I took it over one stop to Novoslobodskaya. This station had stained glass windows on every column which were supposed to be illuminated from behind; in reality, most of the windows were quite dark (Soviet Russia...). It was still a beautiful station and one could imagine how bright it would shine were all the lights to be turned on.
I rode Line 5 over to Komsomolskaya, which was coincidentally where I had arrived from St Petersburg a few days ago. This station is perhaps my favorite of any of the Russian metro stops. The tile murals on the ceilings were huge and depicted several scenes from the Revolution, including one of Lenin (in a famous stance, talking to the people). The wall decorations were equally breathtaking. I was amazed at how much beauty was contained in one small space - it was truly a palace underground.
The final stop was Ploshchad Revolyutsii, near to my hostel. This was a small metro station, but that did not prevent it from being decorated with massive, life-sized statues of various Soviet workers. They adored each of the columns in-between the arches. The arches weren't high enough to let the artist depict standing people, so each one is sitting or kneeling or crouching in some way.
That evening I returned to Red Square for a night-time walk to once again admire the amazing buildings light up. I'm not sure what it is about buildings or monuments being illuminated at night that captures the human interest, but everywhere I go, I like to explore at night - and I am hardly alone: hundreds of other tourists are there doing the exact same thing. The Kremlin is truly magical at night, especially with the red Kremlin Stars shining their ruby red over the square.
10 June 2017
I had planned to revisit Lenin’s Mausoleum first thing this morning since it had been closed yesterday. I had viewed his body a few times back in August 2016 and thought it would be fun to do it again (plus, it’s free!). The Mausoleum opens at 10:00, but there was no one lining up to enter. I then saw the guard talking to some tourists and it became obvious that the mausoleum was closed that day (most likely due to the work being done in Red Square). Needless to say, I was disappointed.
I walked over to the nearby Museum of 1812, which was adjacent to the entrance to Red Square. The focus of this museum was, of course, the war against Napoleon. There were practically no visitors when I entered, which was nice; the museum did not permit photographs.
The museum was so-so. There was signage in Russian and English, but it didn’t fully explain the issues surrounding the war or the events that occurred during it; Russian exploits were, of course, celebrated disproportionately. I was hardly an objective visitor though: Napoleon is my favorite historical figure; I view him as a hero, one history’s greatest leaders (politically and militarily).
Some of the interesting items on display include:
• Napoleon’s Sword, a ceremonial sword that was captured during the war. It was later used by Soviet soldiers before being turned over to the museum.
• Various letters and orders signed by Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I
• Napoleon’s field kitchen wagon, one of one a few such wagons of its type to survive. It was in quite good condition, though smaller than expected; then again, one doesn’t cook massive meals when on military campaign…
• Napoleon’s sled – this one is not verified! This is rumored to be the sled that Napoleon used when he traveled back to France during the retreat from Moscow. Political turmoil in Paris required that he rush back, leaving the command of the army in the hands of his generals (though Napoleon’s critics claim he abandoned the army). The sled was very small, only fitting one person.
• A small locket of Napoleon’s hair
It was an enjoyable museum, but I doubt that I would visit it again, given the chance.
I considered buying a ticket for the Kremlin that afternoon, but the weather started to get unpleasant and rain; since the majority of the Kremlin revolves around walking outside, I decided to skip the visit (I had spent an entire day at the Kremlin in August 2016). Instead, I spent the day taking it easy and relaxing before my journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad!