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Benedict Cooper

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Track Records: Moscow Is a Huge Machine

Posted: 07/12/2012 7:00 am

My energy was at a low point as I shouldered my backpack which felt heavier than ever, stepped down onto the platform and with gritted teeth, headed into the station.

Passing through Moscow station is like running an obstacle course of soldiers, German Shepherds, metal detectors, policemen and two thousand irritable people.

But even as I dragged my aching body around the station I was startled by the fantastic sights everywhere. Like the bust of Lenin in the main waiting room glowing in one perfect beam of golden yellow light from the window.

Or the waiting room I stumbled into while lost, full of row after row of Russian soldiers in green combats and vests, sweating in the unbearable heat of the afternoon.

When I did finally find the metro it didn't do much for my confidence. There were barely any signs or maps, and ziltch in English, no ticket machines, just windows with long queues.

So I joined a queue, sweaty and with burning back ache. I somehow managed to buy a ticket with five journeys on it and went through the barriers down to the platforms.

I'm not saying they should kowtow to tourists, it's just not the Russian way and to be honest I admire them for it. But Moscow is Europe's second biggest city, Russia's proud capital, an international hub and the start of the Trans Siberian Railway.

Frankly it's crazy how hard they make things for foreigners. Not even writing any signs in Western alphabet, only sticking up the odd token metro map in each station and then not having any English/Western clues about where you are let alone where you're going is one thing.

But it's the "fuck you" attitude of many of the people who work in any kind of authority or customer/passenger facing roles which leaves such a sour taste in the mouth.

There was a total lack of empathy, even hatefulness about how I was treated on a few occasions in Moscow. And from spending far too long in queues wistfully watching people around me, it's not just the tourists who get this.

It's so sad to think how much ordinary Russians have been through, and how bitterly unfair it is that there is still a mean rule enforcement and bullying culture from on high. To so many questions you ask to people who know the place, about why x is so, or the reason y is the way y is, the answer is just 'It's Russia'.

But there is such a paradox because I also met some of the kindest most spirited, open people I've ever met in my life in Russia. All the hostility that you're subjected to by people in uniforms sitting behind windows evaporates away when you're sharing drinks and food as I did with a wonderful group of young Muscovites, friends of a friend, later that night.

We went down to Gorky Park to watch the Euro 2012 final on a big screen, got bored and went back to one of the guys' apartments for beers, music and a spot of late night pelmeni, a simple but tasty ravioli-like snack with mayonnaise.

And get your head around this: as we left Gorky Park and stood on a pavement on Krymsky Bridge as several lanes of Moscow traffic thundered past, one of the guys stood with his thumb stuck out and within a few seconds a very rattly old Lada stopped, forcing cars to screech round it. Funny looking taxi, I thought.

But you don't get a taxi in Moscow; they're all taxi drivers when they're in the mood and need a bit of extra cash.

So there I was, in the back of a Soviet-era Lada, which the two guys who sat with me laughed was an example of "classic Russian auto style".

To top it off they told the old Muscovite driver, whose skin looked like tree bark, to turn the radio on and find some techno music which he did and played FULL blast as we drove through the Moscow night.

I had a little chuckle to myself as I stared out the window and heard the techno and the sound of them roaring with laughter at who-knows-what. I listened to the big infectious laughter and the awful techno music and as Moscow blurred by the window, felt totally happy.

When the man dropped us off something went bang under the bonnet and there was a sickening ftttuccgghh noise. We got out of the car and walked away leaving him to carry out a roadside rescue on his own engine.

I passed a nice relaxed morning after in my hostel, Godzillas, which is in a great spot for a walk into the centre or a Metro station five minutes away.

Then I spent the day strolling around Moscow, lost but happy, adjusting to the scale and pace of this huge machine of a city. There are more things to see and do in Moscow to name, but the Tretyakov Gallery contains some superb examples of 20th century Soviet art, and the Arbat is a wonderfully unique pedestrianised street in a really hip area full of street art, shops, bars and great people watching spots.

Later that evening after some beers and a loaf on a nearby park with some of the people from the hostel, I decided to take one of my nocturnal walks into town. Perhaps not entirely a good idea but it's all very well lit and busy for that time.

In Warsaw the roads are wide. In Moscow they seem wide enough that a jumbo jet could land on them. You wait for the green man, take a breath and step out into gaping no man's land between the pavements across what feels like an empty motorway in the middle of a city.

Or you hope it's empty. I found out rather nervously earlier that day, that that's never a guarantee.
I headed to Red Square, which is even bigger and more impressive than I'd imagined and the Kremlin is every bit as ominous and powerful.

The coloured stripe-domed roofs of St Basil's Cathedral really take the breath away and I just stood there and stared at them and the whole square for a few minutes trying to absorb the floodlit scene.

Maybe it's just a word to some, but for years the Kremlin was so much more. It was a word armed to the teeth with meaning and rhetoric. The main nerve of a vast high-pressure system, the incubator for malevolent plans and dark machinations towards enemies both inside and outside the walls of the USSR.

Late at night you can almost feel the power of the Kremlin like a vast magnet with energy flowing in and out, and hear the echoes of so much turbulent history still ricocheting off the hard walls of the square.

Beginning The Trans Siberian

I spent the next morning on a failed mission to wash some clothes and buy postcards and prepared for the next tantalising step - my first taste of the Trans Siberian Railway.

I'd booked my tickets from Moscow back in the UK through Real Russia. It's a very useful one-stop-shop that will also arrange all the visas you need and provide emergency support for you if any big problems occur while you're on the trip.

I got to the station two hours early, and in the end that was cutting it fine. If you only remember one thing from my story about Moscow, remember this: there are two stations next to each other, so check which one your train leaves from or you might be walking around hopelessly because your train isn't listed on any boards.

The Trans Siberian leaves from Yaroslavsky, a short walk from the other station, where Komsomolskaya (Комсомо́льская) metro actually coughs you out at. Not that anyone around there will tell you that.

The relief when I found my train was wonderful, and even greater when Anice, my friend in Moscow, showed up on the platform to see me off.

There's something so romantic about waving goodbye from the steps of a train. Especially this one. The king of train journeys begins.

 

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