Finding Nemo

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Moscow: An aimless, magical stroll

The Four Seasons Fountain, symbolized by four horses, just outside Red Square
It was a glorious sunny day, a few white fluffy clouds ambling aimlessly amongst the blue. They and I were apparently of the same mind. And so I began my walk.

I had seen the sights, made peace accords with Lenin and Stalin, rubbed toppled stone Communist heads for good luck, touched a rusting Soviet space shuttle, partied my funky chicken off with lingerie-clad stewardesses, and even gotten into a scrap with one General Orlov. It had been a quite a week in Moscow.

But my favorite moment was yet to come. One of the greatest pleasures afforded a long-term backpacker is the luxury, and oh what a luxury it is, to have a foreign city beckoning with absolutely no goals or plan in mind. Paul Theroux would wax eloquently about this singular emotion in his many books. 

My friends, this is a thrill like no other, the ultimate in travel. A lightness in your step, a smile upon your face, an anticipation that no matter what comes it will be something... weird and new and wonderful. You walk and say "Oooo, does that nice little cafe have a woman playing a cello? Hmm. I have nothing better to do, so I think I will plunk my ass down there and get an espresso and listen. Why the hell not!" This idea of "Porque No?"  / "Pochemu Nyet?" (Russian)? "Porquis Pas?" (French) comes up again and again in every country around the world. You see it in graffiti, in a shrug before heading out for the night, in a bar when a round of shots appear; it is a secret handshake amongst the free spirits of the world. Life is short, every day is a precious gift. Why not indeed.

And so with Porque No? resting comfortably on my brain, I began to walk. My first stop was the world famous Bolshoi Theater, the heart and soul of ballet in all the world. Simply put, it is legend. None other than Tchaichovksy's Swan Lake premiered here in 1877. It houses by far the largest ballet company in the world with over 200 dancers. And the interior was said to be fabulous, almost palatial. I was determined to catch a Swan Lake, or Nutcracker, or at least a Sleeping Beauty at the Bolshoi. But, the backpacker curse struck yet again. It was sold out for the entire time I was in town.

The world-famous Bolshoi Theater
The backpacker curse is this: you travel for such a long time that you are freed from the constraints of a schedule. It is a very liberating feeling that is hard to even describe to those who have not experienced it. It allows you to reach a new state of mindfulness, of connection, of bliss: the elusive Traveler's Zen. But the curse is that this very lack of planning which gives you such freedom can backfire. The big attractions may be sold out or closed on the day you arrive, as had happened with all my beloved pickled Communist leaders. <sob!>

Then again, it is a small price to pay, really. After all, there was a sister theater to the Bolshoi in St Petersburg called the Mariinsky, which is arguably even more famous. I vowed that I would not miss this final chance for pretty ballerinas dancing in tigh-- er... culture. 

So instead I headed north to do a walking tour of the city per Lonely Planet. I wandered through nice cafes, bars, little cute churches, flower-filled parks, fountains, museums, and the occasional pair of high-heeled girls in tight dresses taking pictures of themselves in front of <insert landmark>. Then my phone beeped. (A veteran backpacking move is to purchase a very cheap phone, and then a new sim card in each major country you visit. It's a fantastically cheap way to stay in touch with new friends.) I picked up and found it was a one of the few girls I'd met at Pacha who wasn't completely freaked out by my attempt at a bare-ass break-dancing worm routine, And best of all, she spoke very good English.

Random acts of awesome in the streets of Moscow
She suggested we meet at a cute little cafe for dinner called Margarita. I walked in, we hugged and sat in a corner, ordering a tasty pizza and some yummy French wine. And just then, a string quartet began playing in the corner. I had low expectations, after all we were in a glorified coffee shop and they were probably street buskers by day. Instead, what I can only describe as golden drops of light and sound wafted through the air. These young music students were incredibly, delightfully, astoundingly good. After just a few phrases my hair stood up on my neck. Emotion poured out of the quartet, classical music, then pop arranged for strings, then Tchaikovsky, then swelling Vivaldi. I sat mesmerized.

This was just a just a little coffee shop with some pastry snacks and wine. A tiny mom and pop. And yet here we were getting a concert that I would have paid an easy $100 ticket back in the US: pure skill, pure magic and romance, pure serendipity, just for the two of us. A moment I would never forget. Once again, I had reached Traveler's Zen.

Can you imagine a classical string quartet in the subway in the Bronx? Me either

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Moscow by Night Part II: Pacha!

From Russia with Club
The sulky beautiful woman with black hair, tiny ripped leather skirt, fishnets and knee-high boots tapped her clipboard, looking me up and down. I was wearing a fresh button-down shirt and new black shoes I had purchased for just this occasion. I had even combed my beard. She squinted at it, with a look that said perhaps it was giving her gastric distress.

"Where you from?'

"Um, I live in Los Angeles, you know near Hollywood."

Her face suddenly lit up. "Hollywood? Wow I vant go. I vant to be famous movie star... people say I beautiful..." Her eyes became dreamy. Then she hardened again and looked at my friend. He had no new button-down shirt or shoes. In fact, he looked like a typical frumpy backpacker, fresh out of the hammock. Ruh roh.

"He's with me?" I offered weakly.

 A pause. The long line of beautiful people behind us shuffled and frowned. Then, "OK, Mr Hollywood, you go. Enjoy. Pacha is very best, you will see."

Two very large black men in black suits appeared out of nowhere and escorted us to the front door, where we were given the chance to buy entrance tickets for 900 rubles. Each. At the time that amounted to about $30 (the ruble has recently tumbled to a whopping 46 rubles to the dollar). This must have been a small fortune to the average Moscovite. But in Russia, of course, the world is divided into the haves and have-nots. Club Pacha was squarely in the former. We paid, and walking down the stairs, started grinning and high-fiving. Woohoo! We got in! This was going to be EPIC!

American Airlines really should consider a new wardrobe
We rounded the bottom of the stairs and entered what can only be described as a room of pure cool awesome. White swanky leather couch-booth things wrapped around the entire room. Every 20 feet or so stood a supermodel wearing, well ... a stewardess outfit, if it was somehow made of skimpy lingerie and corseted breasts. The dancers slowly writhed to thumping music. A few well-dressed men with large shiny watches and gold necklaces slouched at the bar. Far outnumbering them were gorgeous woman in long sparkly dresses, miniskirts, boots, high-heels, and lots of animal print. You know, the usual Ruskaya street-wear.

I was a little taken aback by this. Perhaps I've just never been to the right club in the United States, but even at the best clubs it was very rare to see a ratio better than 50:50. Especially at the bar. If there were women, they were usually off dancing. What was it about Moscow and Russia that made this high-end club so different? An obvious answer was that because this was such a patriarchal society, the only opportunity for women was to find a rich husband. Or, maybe they were expensive "escorts."

But I was a stupid foreigner, and it was not always wise to make such sweeping assumptions. So, instead I set out to meet some locals and have fun.

It became obvious pretty quickly that the cool dudes at the bar wanted nothing to do with an American bumpkin. Even the ladies seemed a bit stand-offish. What? Didn't they know I was called Mr Hollywood?!

So, rejected, I walked over to the bar and plopped down an arm. Someone bumped it. I turned to find myself face-to-face with one of the gorgeous dancers. This called for something quick and witty.

"Um, ... Hi! Privyet!" I squeaked.


"Oh cool, so you speak English?"

She shook her head. Crap. "Drink?" I asked giving the universal symbol for shots. She nodded. I got some lemon-drops for something like 1000 rubles and my first-born. We put them down, and then I grabbed my camera and said "Picture OK?" She gave a half-smile, and nodded "OK."

Apparently I make a really good creepy guy!
I snapped a pic, and she immediately waved goodbye and vanished. Hitting on the dancers. Well played Nemo.

I made my way deeper and found myself entering a cavern that housed a massive dance floor. VIP booths ringed the balconies, massive disco balls glittered everywhere, vinyl records hung in the air aglow with colored lights. On a stage above it all were 3 dancing girls in stewardess outfits doing a routine that involved repeatedly sticking out their chests and butts in unison. Then something resembling a merman in a tutu began shooting weather balloons out of his arms. It was weird and wonderful.

Velcome to Russian Airlines. Please take wodka and enjoy ride
Never mind the tutu man-fish. What in the hell is the guy in the high-heeled white boots wearing on his head?
Imagine all the girls, and the boys, and the strings, and the drums, the drums, the drums ...
I had to agree. Pacha was indeed "very best."

Feeling sufficiently lubricated, I descended the stairs and entered the madness.

If someone gives you giant heart-shaped glasses, it's best to pay it forward
All I can is that at some point I came into the possession of some clown-sized white heart-shaped glasses, which made me more friends than George Takei has on Facebook. After a particularly great song ended, the crowd left the floor and surrounded the bar for a breather. I decided on a whim to buy shots for about 10 of my new best friends ever in the entire world. They all cheered for me as the GDP of Somalia went down the hatch. My credit card was on fire, but there was too much fog from the smoke machine to notice. And then.... it happened.

Safety Dance came on. Yes, that song from the 80's. "You can dance if you want to, you can be a friend of mine."

To this day I'm not quite sure exactly how it happened, but I suddenly realized I was in the center of a dance circle, one hand behind my head, the other yanking my foot up to my butt in spastic jerks. Everyone was cheering. It didn't occur to me they could be cheering what they thought was a special Olympian. Inspiration hit. I couldn't help myself. And I began to jerk on the floor, doing something like the worm. If the worm had accidentally placed its mouth into an electric socket.

The next day I woke. I tried to sit up, but the sheets stuck to my body. I realized my shirt and clothes were covered in ... "club-juice." My neck hurt. I took off my new pants to take a shower, and then noticed the backside had completely split open.

At perhaps the swankiest club in all of Russia, I had apparently been doing the worm with my ass hanging out.

Yes that's right! Premium vodka in Russia is called "NEMIROFF!' I win!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Moscow by Night, Part I

Moscow nightlife is, um ... legend
A night out in Moscow! This called for the one decent shirt I owned and ... oh splurge of splurges ...a new pair of black shoes. Now, when you are backpacking buying a pair of shoes is not something you do lightly. You have to consider where the hell those shoes go when you are loading up your backpack. Odd things come to mind like: can I use these shoes for clubbing AND horse-riding? But I was in Moscow, MOSCOW! and the night awaited. This was serious business. I did not want to get denied at the club because my old sneakers might still be carrying bits of Yak poo from Mongolia.

I gathered a buddy from the hostel and we headed to a bar halfway between our hostel and Red Square on the main drag called Pokrova. Moscow is actually pretty easy to navigate: it's laid out in a series of concentric rings with Red Square in the very center. Pretty much anything that is interesting is within the center ring, so that makes things easy. The metro runs around the center ring and a few lines criss cross through it along the main streets. In other words, it was a piece of cake to get from our hostel to the bar, a mere 2 stops.

We walked in, sat at a table and ordered some beers. Across the room were two cute girls who gave us a look. Now, I have to admit, with my beard and long hair, I either looked like an Eastern Orthodox priest or a homeless man. I mean, compared to the standard issue Russian buzz-cut I could have been Gandalf.

After our second beer, the two girls came over and sat down. 

"You speak English? Where are you from?" said the brunette with long hair and highlights.

Good to see locals are not frightened by the beard
I explained I lived in California. Apparently that was the correct answer. After a few more rounds, they grabbed us and took us downstairs to a club that was attached to the bar. They went straight to the dance floor and gave us a the "come here" wave. We looked at it each other. I mean, we were pretty much the kind of guys that created the white guy dancing stereotype. This called for shots. I waved over the bartender and tried "Cheetireh stopkoo pahjalsta". He raised an eyebrow and said in perfect American, "you want shots?" In a moment he returned with four evil-looking black things, smiled and said "These are very good, you will like!"
Do not fear what you do not know. Or, ya know, fear it.

We put them down. It was actually quite sweet, with a strong black licorice taste. And... wow. Very strong. A few drinks later, funky chicken dance restored, I tried to find the brunette on the dance floor. Instead I found myself face-to-face with a stunning tall high-heeled blonde (do I even have to say that anymore? High-heels are a given here). We started dancing. And danced some more. And things were looking promising when a large hand suddenly appeared on her shoulder. The hand belonged to a man with a face that could have just won the middle heavyweight on Ultimate Fighting Championship. He was perhaps in his late 40's, built like a tank, in a crisp soldier's uniform. But not just any uniform. Judging by all the bars and ribbons, this was a BFD. His face was twisted into a glare, which fell straight on me.

Oh. Shit.

And somehow I end up with General Orlov's girlfriend
I put up my hands like "Who? Not this guy!" and backed away. He grabbed her by the neck and shoved her back into a booth at the far end of the bar. Then he sat down and commenced yelling spit into her eyeball. As he did this he kept glancing up at me. Woah. It was time to leave. Immediately. Tangling with an drunk angry official in Russia seemed about as smart as kicking a honey badger.

I popped out into the cool night air, and suddenly felt very alone. It was very late and very dark. Garbage littered the street. Across the way a group of men stared at me. I walked faster, looking over my shoulder. The candy glow of St Basil's in the sun seemed like a distant memory. This was a different side of Moscow altogether. Then, up ahead, a golden glow appeared, with a crowd of party-goers lined up in front.


Never had I been so happy to stumble into a Makdonalds.

It's funny how shots make you grow a fedora and red sunglasses
It wasn't the last time I witnessed violence in Moscow. The next day after coming home from my tourist jaunt, I saw 3 men walking quickly in a tight group. They crossed the street towards me, walking up from behind. My spidey sense started going off, and when I turned around they pounced. But it turned out I wasn't the target. Just a foot behind me was another young man. Before he realized what had happened, he was on the ground and the men started taking turns punching and kicking him. This was happening literally right in front of me. I was in shock. But in a moment I felt a rush of emotions. Half of me wanted to bolt and escape, yet half of me couldn't stand to watch this man get beat to death. I wanted to rush in and help. I wanted to run away like a chicken. So I just stood there, frozen. I wasn't the only one to do nothing. People on the sidewalk quickly got out of the way. It was understandable, I guess, this instinct to protect yourself first before risking everything for a stranger. But it was cowardly too.

The beating continued, with people continuing to walk by, and me frozen in indecision. It was terrible, seeing this man getting hurt and no one stepping in.

Then the spell was broken. Someone honked their horn. In a moment, all the passing drivers started honking. The three men looked up and realized the gig was up. They ran down the street, turned a corner and were gone just like that. The police would never find them.

I walked over to the man on the ground, but he was already up and walking away. Blood streamed down his face. And in a moment it was all over as if it never happened. Why he had been targeted no one would ever know. 

My body was lit up like a Christmas tree, almost shaking. I walked back to the hostel, wondering what kind of place was Moscow. There were clearly gangs and mafia running around the city. And yet, there was no graffiti, anywhere. What an odd paradox. On the surface this an open welcoming capitalist society, teeming with gorgeous sights, dancing ballerinas, wonderful music, flower-filled gardens, glittering gold-domed churches and palaces. Hell, even the metro was a work of art. But yet, underneath it also felt alien. The hard-faced men all wore buzz-cuts and track suits. No one smiled or said hello in passing. There was an edge to the place, especially outside the main tourist areas.

I spent the next day seeing the sights, but also looking a bit closer at the people who lived here. But my poor little brain came up with no grand conclusions. And I've found by far the best way to meet locals is to meet them intoxicated and dancing on tabletops. So, that night, I decided to step it up and hit a big-time night club. I took the time to wet my eyebrows, brushed out all the knots in my mane, and even decided to comb my beard. Best not to take chances.

(to be continued ...)

Oh sweet Maccas, never have I been so happy to see you and your shiite burgers

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Moscow Part III: Space Shuttles, Marvelous Metros

View from the bridge over the Moscow River. A Russian fairy-tale

After getting my fill of Red Square, I walked south across the Moscow River on my way to some very exciting Soviet nerd candy.

Halfway across the river, I came across two startling sights: first was the view back towards the Kremlin, which turns out to be the very finest in all the city. Absolutely amazing. And the second was also amazing in its own way: a beautiful woman in 3" red heels and skin-tight red dress getting picture after picture of her taken by her similarly clad friend. After awhile, they switched positions and more snapping away. This went on for the entire time it took for me to cross the bridge. If I've learned one thing, it's that some Russian women really, really love getting their picture taken. It was fantast- ... I mean, terrible to watch. Of course, it was a symptom of a patriarchal society that objectified women. But so did the Middle East and Latin America and of course most of the world including the US. What made it so striking here was how sexy the women were dressed, and of course their beauty. What was it really like to be Russian woman in this day and age? Were things any better than in the era of the Soviet Union? It seemed doubtful.

There is no such thing as a boring church in Russia
Pondering these deep thoughts, I made my way into a pretty district with many more domed churches of all different shapes and colors. There were pink churches, blue churches, green churches, oh blimey; peach churches, orange churches, all gold domed and shiny. (With apologies to Dr Seuss.) 

Finally I made it to the weird park known as "Gorky". It was a mix of open green spaces, choreographed fountains, cheap-looking roller coasters, kitsch-selling booths, bums, beggars, and ordinary mothers with their kids. It was like a permanent state fair without the deep-fried oreos (so basically without the best part). But I wasn't here for any of this nonsense. I was here for the awesome and amazing Soviet Space shuttle, the Buran!!!

The Buran sits atop the pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (1988)
I couldn't wait to explore the sure-to-be-amazing museum documenting the fascinating history of the space vehicle and hopefully find fellow Russian space geeks! Oh that would be so great to laugh with them about that silly cold war space thing.

I rounded a corner, and ... there it was. Just sitting by itself on the pavement, like a van down by the river. It was as if the Soviets had said, "You vant Shuttle? No? You? No? No one vant crappy shuttle? OK, we dump by river." I couldn't believe it. How unceremonious! Poor Buran!

The Buran, just sitting in a lot rusting away

"Mom can I keep it? Please???!"

You can walk right up and even touch it, there are no guards. I circled around in awe, which shortly changed to pity. It was falling apart and no one cared. In the US, cities clamored for these orbiters, and I won't forget the famous moment when Endeavor was paraded around the streets of LA to a special home at the California Science Center.

The Buran is a comically close copy of the US version, even down to the launch system with a main tank and two solid boosters. It was developed as a reaction to the American shuttle-- Russia's military was frightened by it's enormous payload capacity which was much larger than anything before. The Buran was intended solely for military purposes, as confirmed by Cosmonaut Oleg Kotov: "We had no civilian tasks for Buran and the military ones were no longer needed. It was originally designed as a military system for weapon delivery, maybe even nuclear weapons. The American shuttle also has military uses."

It was flown only once, successfully I might add, before the USSR dissolved and the need for it vanished. Sadly, the one that flew into space was crushed by the collapse of the hanger it was stored in at the Cosmodrome. I took a last glimpse at this relic of the cold war and shook my head.

It was time to get ready for a taste of the infamous Moscow nightlife and so I made my way back to the metro. Perhaps one of the greatest relics of the USSR is the glorious metro system. The trains themselves are rusting old buckets which rumble along like they might implode at any moment. But the metro stations are pure magic. Every station is different. One has red mosaics of Stalin leading busty women with guns, another has stained glass windows like a church, yet another looks like the inside of a gilded gold orchestra hall, complete with glass chandeliers. Taking a few hours just to troll around the subway is one of the best things to do in Moscow. There is nothing else like it in all the world.

Stained-glass in subway... definitely not in Kansas
Opera?! Nope, subway.
No subway is complete without Red Soldiers marching under Lenin
Mm mmm that gold looks tasty

Kremlins, churches, shuttles, blah blah blah. The best of Moscow was yet to come! Time to get my funky chicken loose and go clubbing...

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Moscow Part II: Kremlin Candy

Snapping postcard pics are just too easy with St Basils
After getting the back of the hand of Lenin's tomb, I realized I still had a ridiculous amount to see. And I would start with the confection of St Basils. Walking up to St Basils for the first time for a travel-nutbag like me is one of those moments. You know, like when you first walk up to the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall or walk into your first pit toilet. I had little thrill tickles running up and down my neck. Here I was, actually standing in front of the iconic sherbert-flavored temple!

The Cathedral of St Basil's is in a strange location: it just sits by itself, all alone, in the middle of the street. And it was so ... colorful and weird and swirly and different! How did this happy-happy joy-joy whimsy end up here, in the heart of stone-cold conservative Russia of all places?!

Tsarina Catherine
Ivan reacts after learning his nickname
The answer is that, once upon a time, Russia was nothing like its current post-Communist incarnation. Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution it was ruled by a line of Tsars going back to Ivan the Terrible in 1547. Peter the Great expanded Russia into a vast empire in the early 1700s, and the Tsar period culminated in a period of enlightenment under Catherine II. Yes, that's right, some of Russia's most wonderful buildings come from a female Empress. In St Petersburg especially, Catherine's feminine touch can be found in the pretty pastel pink and blue buildings, stunning gardens, and gilded palaces. I have loads of awesome posts coming up that soon! (St Petersburg is simply amazing.)

St Basils, however, was way ahead of its time. In fact, it was ordered under Ivan the Terrible back in 1551. The architecture was unlike anything before: a swirling multi-hued bonfire rising to the heavens. A history of Russian architecture by Shvidkovky gushes it has "... a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design."

I stared up the different colored onion bulbs and couldn't help but think of Willy Wonka. The first was undoubtedly green apple, the second blueberry cream, the 3rd, well, hmm.. maybe something that I coughed after my first taste of Russian herring.

The crayon-colored ceiling panels

St Basil ceiling
The cathedral is not one church, but 8 small churches around a central core. Wandering around these various rooms is interesting as each has a complete different personality. But nothing matches the absolutely stunning interior. There was the ornate iconostasis, the crayon-colored ceiling panels, and at the center of it all a Jesus looking benevolently from a red-blue-green starburst. Perhaps the most interesting feature is the striking blue mosaics in the arches. It was all so very very different from the dark goth pointy churches of Europe. So refreshingly bright and welcoming!

Striking blue mosaics of St Basils
Once back outside, I found myself ambling around the church, marveling at it from all sides. From the south, the sun lit up the domes with a warm glow. This was the angle to take that postcard picture, and the crowds with their cameras ogling for a selfie agreed.

The author, perhaps over-embracing his 10% Russian heritage
It was on to the Kremlin itself. The word "Kremlin" actually means a fortified town center and many Russian cities have one. Of course, in Moscow the Kremlin is just a tad bigger. From Red Square you can see some golden domes atop something inside, teasing you with their sparkly bits. The red Kremlin walls are pleasant to walk around, surrounded by green lawns and flanked by the Moscow River.

Impressive Kremlin walls. Keebler elves man the parapets, I'm sure of it
If you are a lover of churchy gold Russian domes, and count me on that wagon, the Kremlin interior is like a fat kid in a muffin shop. The Kremlin has 7, yes count 'em 7, churches and cathedrals and towers and each is anointed with gold dumplings. There were big gold domes, rows of little gold domes, and even some hidden domes that can only be seen if you stand in a special place and press L2 on your controller. (Make sure to always backpack with an Xbox controller for just these occasions.)

Secret golden dome stash
I really am not sure why on earth the Russian Tsars needed so many churches. There was the Cathedral of the Archangel, Cathedral of Bad Pronunciation, Cathedral of the Interesting Assumption, Church of the Deposition of the Robe, Church of the Putting the Robe on the Towel Rack Before Taking a Shower, Ivan's Bell Tower, my personal favorite The Church of Big Baby Jesus, and finally the Cathedral of the 12 Apostles Playing A Game of Cricket.

Kremlin Churchiness
I looked high and low for the Church of Twerking Angels but apparently that one is still under construction. Most of the main buildings are closed for government business, and it is pretty funny to see blacked out cars with blue flashing lights coming and going, just like in Beijing. Ah, if only I was an important official in an autocratic country! How awesome it would be to watch traffic melt to the sides as I, the great and important bureaucrat Nemo, proceeded!

Ivan's Cock and Balls... er... sorry misread it. "Tsar Cannon" apparently
Beyond a quick lookie-loo through the churches there really isn't much else to see in the main square. So it was off to the Armory, which has a ton of royal carriages, robes, jewels, crowns, Faberge eggs (!) (Russian rulers apparently loved them), and of course the token bundle of horrifically awesome medieval weapons. If you want to pay more for the Diamond Fund you can go see the famous Crown Jewels. But after tromping around the entire Kremlin and getting abused by the crowds in the Armory, I really wasn't in the mood to pay more and wait in another long line. I'm sure there are big incredible jewels in there but a man can only handle so much ABC per day. (Another Bloody Church/Castle/Crowd.)

And so, after reveling in the Tsar riches of the Kremlin, it was off to see the real Moscow! More goodies await!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Moscow Part I: Red Square Delights

Every park could use a sweet ginormous CCCP sculpture
Spending a few days wandering around Moscow is a complete voyeuristic thrill. As with all large capital cities, there is a bonanza of things to see and do. Yes yes, of course one has to walk into Red Square, see the famous technicolor church of St Basils, and stroll under the shiny gold onion domes of the Kremlin. But these would have to wait. The most exciting thing on my itinerary had to be first. I took the glorious Moscow Subway (much more on that in a separate post) to Red Square and strolled south along the Moscow River. But before I got there, I was shocked to find a massive pirate ship in the middle of the river!

What the hell is that thing?!
It is hard to describe how enormous this dark monstrosity is. It towers over the nearby buildings, with the pirate captain itself at least 150 feet high. What the hell was a pirate ship doing in the heart of Moscow?! Thankfully my Lonely Planet explained that was in fact Peter the Great, easily the greatest ruler Russia has ever had. At 98 meters, it is the 8th tallest statue in the world and towers over the skyline. However, Moscovites famously hate it. Why was Peter the Great, who disliked Moscow and moved the capital to St Petersburg, here at all? And why the hell was he atop a pile of sailing ships? The Wikipedia article is hilarious reading:

"The statue is allegedly based on a design [by Zurab Tsereteli] originally intended to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first voyage ofChristopher Columbus in 1992. When an American customer for the project could not be found, it was repurposed with a Russian theme.[1] Tsereteli denies this story.[8] A separate, equally colossal statue of Columbus by the same designer eventually wound up in Puerto Rico after being rejected by various US cities, but, as of 2011, remains disassembled.[9]"

So.. a Russian architect in bed with the Moscow politicians decided that he would take a ginormous, freaky Christopher Columbus statue, change the head on top to look like Peter, and resell it to Moscow. I'm sorry but that is hilarious.

Anyway, after placing my eyeballs back into my head, I neared my target: the awesome Fallen Monument Park. At the entrance you are greeted with an array of whimsical statues -- old skinny men, girls, cartoonish animals, you name it. But I wasn't here for these. Finally after wandering around a bit, in a quiet corner I hit the jackpot: the greatest collection of old Stalin and Lenin statues in all the world! Stalin looking serious, Lenin grimacing in deep thought, Stalin smiling menacingly. Perhaps my favorite was the now headless Stalin body pointing boldly to ... a shrubbery. Oh Stalin! What were you pointing to back in your days of glory?! After the wall came down and the USSR crumbled, a lot of these statues were pulled down. And it seems quite a few found there way to this pretty sculpture garden along the Moscow river. Being an American strolling next to these bearded kings of Communism in the heart of Russia has a certain thrill--I felt like I was breaking some rules just being here.

Why so serious Len?
Cmon quick! Which is Lenin, which is Stalin?!
Communist schadenfreude tank filled, it was time to hit the highlights.

For most visitors to Moscow, the prime target is Red Square and for good reason. Of course I got the obligatory picture shaking hands with the leaders of the Soviet world. Upon walking inside the gates you are greeted with the massive Square itself. The north is flanked by the impressive ornate walls of the historical museum and pretty Kuzan church; the West by the Kremlin walls and the pickled corpse of Lenin; and to the East a ... well ... a high-end shopping mall called "Gum." Chew on that. (Welcome to Russian city planning.)

I immediately thought of one of those old photos of ICBMs being paraded right here in this very spot. A missile designed to obliterate America. And here was I, an American, warmly welcomed. It was all very surreal.

1965: The massive "Brezhnev Blockbuster". Lenin's tomb in background 
Down the street, yes, there it was! The candy-colored swirls of St Basils! Wow. I couldn't wait to explore it up close, but first things first. I had to go see me a pickled Soviet leader!!

I waltzed up to the Tomb and was surprised not to find a line. Huh. And then I saw it: a sign in English stating that the tomb was closed on Sundays. I checked my watch. It said Sunday.

Nothing makes a shiny bald dome glow like mummy wax
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggh!!!!!!!!!!!!! Heartbreak. I couldn't believe it. I had already missed my chance to see pickled Mao in Beijing. I had arrived on a Monday, the one day it was closed. And now I would miss pickled Lenin for arriving on a Sunday. Something inside me died that moment. Or perhaps it was just mummified. Hard to say.

(For a wonderful article on pickled Communist leaders (the list is surprisingly extensive) see this Atlas Obscura link!)

The awesome red goth State Museum dominates Red Square