A June 2005 trip
to Moscow by 80 Ways Tim
Quote: Travelling the world in seven weeks using eighty different methods of transport is my goal - www.80ways.co.uk.
A quick piggy-back ride past St Basil’s Cathedral, and we marched off again through the rain. I decided to save weight by not bringing a waterproof (inspiration that Thom is no doubt thankful he didn’t receive), and thus my hoodie is getting damper by the minute. We’re heading south and decide our route would be far nicer if we could walk through some of gardens surrounding the Kremlin.
Lining the streets are some dodgy-looking military characters. Clothed in long, dark ponchos, with their hoods up and their heads down, they look like Ringwraiths from Tolkien novel. Two of them are guarding the entrance to the park, so we head in their direction to see if we can gain access.
Their English is not better than our Russian, but we manage to work out that they want 10 dollars for access. I figure this isn’t an official toll, so I decide to barter:
"I don’t have any dollars, I’m afraid, but I do have something better than money..."
What, you may be wondering, could I be offering?
"An exclusive 80 Ways badge!"
The guards instantly recognize the international currency of the 80 Ways badge and let us pass.
Inside the gardens, we suddenly realize that they are rather deserted. Deserted, that is, apart from a large procession of people dressed in pink frocks, suits, and brightly coloured umbrellas. Unsure of what exactly we should be doing, we decide to join the parade.
It was all fun and games for a while, until we reached the end of the park. Tickets were apparently required for us to proceed any further, which was a shame, because we could see a big carnival in the distance with fairground rides and giant inflatable clowns. For a moment, we considered trying to blag our way through with a combination of the 80 Ways badge and the top hat as a carnival prop but decided better of it.
Thus we headed back to our border guards, one of which I was pleased to see wearing our badge.
Came the reply once more. Now, I know there is no fee for getting onto the streets of Moscow, and I told the man as such. Suffice it to say that, with no common language, the message was not relayed, and he repeated his fee. "Ah," I thought, "this guy’s playing hardball." I offered him another badge, this time a blue one, which I explained was far superior to his friend’s red version. Again, "10 dollars" was the response, and he was looking quite serious.
It wasn’t funny anymore.
I told him that we weren’t going to pay and that we had to get out, but obviously the words were wasted (even if he had spoken English). He was staring at me rather intensely and grabbed my arm when I tried to walk past. He seemed quite stern, but I noticed his friend looked rather more hesitant. There was something about their half-hearted effort to charge us on the way in, and now this similar attempt on our return made me think these guys weren’t as serious as they made out, so I decided we should just push past. Thankfully, just as we were about to go for it, two partygoers from the parade approached. We took the chance and walked past as the guards were distracted.
Dubious policework, but it certainly added a bit of entertainment to our rainy day!
The options, however, were 3mm, 6mm, or 12mm. Now, I thought that ‘mm’ might correspond to grade, but I also didn’t want to get the shortest one. The 12mm sounded like a lot of hair, so I opted for the middle ground—6mm. It was shorter than expected, but then, I could always cover it up with the top hat to avoid looking foolish, right?
Two years prior, Thom and I had made two daring attempts to be the first British people to climb a mountain in Kyrgyzstan called Peak Gorky (there’s a bit more info in my other journal, ‘Good Morning Kyrgyzstan!’). Named after the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, we were particularly keen to find Gorky House. Conveniently, it was just around the corner, and with the exception of a large-scale road block and a parade of black limos in our way, we got there quickly.
It really did just look like someone’s house, and I wouldn’t have thought otherwise, had our guidebook not said so. A series of quirky little red arrows directed us inside, through a maze of corridors and down some creaky wooden stairs. A burly security guard directed us to a cloakroom that was largely empty except for a little old lady rocking on a chair. She didn’t respond to either my Russian greeting or my "Hello" in a Russian accent. She might have been asleep, but then, her newspaper seemed to be moving in her hands. Asleep or deaf, though, she really should have noticed us as we banged on the desk, spoke loudly, and ultimately fell about laughing as filmed the scene. The guard upstairs suggested we hit her on the head, but she had arisen of her own accord upon our arrival.
Gorky’s House was not as exciting as his 6,000m mountain, but it proved to be far superior to his park. Aside from the mountain link, I’m a big fan of the Martin Cruz-Smith novel, so Gorky Park was a definite on the Moscow hit list. However, I had assumed it was a nice green park that we could wander through, but it was in fact a rather cheesy theme park filled with screaming kids and fairground rides.
All we had left for the day was to catch the train. THE train. The train to Beijing via Ulan Bator, over about 6,000 miles and 6 days. It left at half-past eight, and we made sure we were back at our hostel with plenty of time. We had toyed with the idea of one last meal in a Russian restaurant but stuck with our hotel to save time.
We had given our guidebook to the helpful hostel staff and were thus left clueless for our journey to the station (though the staff, proving their helpful status, had given us directions). On the underground ride there and throughout dinner, in fact, Thom had seemed a little distracted. He was, like me, excited about our Trans-Mongolian train ride—what he referred to as "the end of the beginning" of our trip.
Thom was still recovering from his playground incident, and whilst he managed to carry his rucksack, I was burdened with his man-bag and all food bags. When the train finally pulled into our stop, Thom headed straight out the door and started powering up the escalators. Due to muddy ground (or something similar), the subway system in Moscow is particularly deep underground, and its escalators are correspondingly long to the extent that no one ever walks up them—apart from Thom and, apparently, me. I was huffing and puffing behind him under the weight of about six different bags, without enough breath to shout, "What’s the hurry?"
Outside, Thom was looking back and forth, eyes wide and looking slightly flustered. I pointed to a sign that had our station’s name (one of four different train stations) printed on it. We hiked down there, matching pace with the escalator from a minute ago, and realised our guiding star was in fact a restaurant. Thom looked more frustrated. He wasn’t excited about the train, I realised, but worried we were going to be late: "If we miss this train, we’re screwed."
He was right, of course, but we did have about an hour before it left, and everything had worked out well thusfar, so I hadn’t really been worrying about it. Inside the first station we could find, we pointed to our desired station’s name on a piece of paper (written out in Cyrillic for us) and gave the international shrugging/confused look to say, "Where?" "Here!" came the reply as the lady pointed to the floor. She was clearly confused. We tried two other people, but they all said we were in the right place.
A large electronic display board outside confirmed that we were in the right place and that we were sufficiently early for our train to not have arrived yet. And even when it did, before we could work out where our platform was, a helpful attendant, presumably upon seeing our big backpacks, pointed us in the right direction, and we boarded with plenty of time to spare.
The Trans-Siberian (or Trans-Mongolian actually) was the only leg of the journey that we had really booked in advance and one of the very few parts that we had always been resolute about. I had personally been looking forward to it for months, if only because it would give an enforced opportunity to relax. No rushing around; no need to do anything during the days (indeed, not much opportunity); no Internet, so no chance to organise things; just time to kick back and relax.
One of the (many) unknowns about the train, for us, was who our roommates would be. Five days straight in a room with two strangers leaves all sorts of possibilities open. Our first companion arrived, and after a few tentative exchanges, we worked out that we both spoke English, and things were easy from then on. Her name was Zoe, she was from Australia, and like us, she was headed for Beijing via Ulan Bator.
Our next arrival was quiet little Mongolian girl. We said hellos and exchanged names (Aza was her name, I think), but the language barrier kept things at that to start with. A friend came into the cabin with her, and they set about sorting things out. Whilst we were happy to just sit back and stare out the window (the train wasn’t moving yet), they were keeping themselves busy. First, they flicked down these metal bars from the walls that they used as steps to gain better access to the storage compartment above (we were aware of neither the purpose of the bars nor the existence of such a compartment). They flicked a switch and lowered one of the overhead bunks, then lifted up the seats that we were on to reveal yet more storage and also our bed linens. This wasn’t their first time.
As the train jerked to a start, Thom and I cracked open a celebratory beer (a fond favourite brand we hadn’t seen since being in Kyrgyzstan) and revelled in the elation of having gotten this far. But our Mongolian companions were not done. They returned in numbers, piled into our tiny cabin, and closed the door with a (not entirely) reassuring grin.
The girl climbed onto her bed whilst a woman—we presumed her mother—passed up a screwdriver. Off came a hatch in the ceiling and down came some more packages. Yet more secret compartments we weren’t aware of! But hold on a second—why would you need a screwdriver to access a cupboard? Why were they bringing things out of the ceiling? They then proceeded to remove the main ceiling fitting and bring out more bags of stuff: deodorants, jeans, jumpers, etc. The three of us exchanged bewildered looks of amusement as thoughts of smuggling operations ran through our heads and our level of entertainment, already high from having just made it onto the train, reached a peak!
This was too good to miss, so Thom dug out the camera and started to film. There was the young girl up on her top bunk, the mother piling up parcels that filled the cabin, sprawling over the seats and our knees like a room filling with water, and various accomplices opening and closing the door to shift the goods elsewhere down the train. The mother didn’t appreciate us evidencing their acts and shook her head. We complied with the request, of course, but it only further sealed in our minds the idea that we were sharing a cabin with a quiet little Mongolian girl who was, in fact, the head of an international smuggling network.
That day, we filled out a church hall with books, CDs, games, clothes, cakes, and general junk ranging from garden gnomes to hairclips, crockery to a wheelchair. Unfortunately, what we were lacking were customers, so I took it upon myself to wander the streets of Esher, carrying cakes baked by mum in an attempt to draw customers. The greedy pedestrians soon devoured the first cake, and Thom and my brother joined me for a second round.
The goal was not just to sell cake but also to draw people into the hall so that they'd buy more goods. One of the few people that fell for our sales pitch was a guy called Paul who was wheeling his daughter down the road and agreed to have a look around (albeit only because we didn't have any change for his ten-pound note).
After we gave him the whole story (excitedly showing him the day's Guardian, whose pages we had graced with two sentences describing our project), he told us he had taken the Trans-Siberian himself and had a great time. He also gave us a little tip.
When he went on the train, he took a bottle of whiskey from home and gave it to the chef in the restaurant car as a gift. For the rest of the journey, he maintained, he received extra large portions and particularly attentive service. He recommended that we do the same, and we did.
From the duty-free store on our ferry across the Channel, Thom picked up a bottle of Scottish whiskey. I had envisioned a small, hip-flask-sized container, but Thom brought back a great big bottle containing the best part of a litre of spirits. He had to carry the thing in his backpack for over a week, but now that we were onboard the train, the time had come to deliver our present.
It had always seemed like a good idea: buy a bottle of whiskey, give it to the chef, get extra food. But the reality suddenly seemed different. Who was to say the chef would appreciate the whiskey? Who said he was a whiskey drinker? Who said he was a he? Who said he wasn’t a petite little Chinese women who made a mean chicken chow mein but wouldn't touch spirits with a barge pole? Naturally, we did some reconnaissance first.
"He's this big Russian guy with a big moustache and a funny leather waistcoat that looks like a gun holster," Thom said excitedly. "He looks like he'll appreciate the whiskey."
Now we still had to present him with it. It wasn't a normal social situation, walking up to a complete stranger and giving him a bottle of whiskey. What did we expect, that he'd welcome us with wide-open arms, thank us in perfect English, knock back some whiskey, then give us a mountainous portion of food for free? Well... yeah. But now that we were there, the likelihood of him giving us such a response seemed all too unlikely, and we were a bit hesitant as to how to proceed.
We figured we should introduce ourselves first, so we went down for some lunch, and whilst he was serving us, I looked up. "What is your name?" I asked in Russian. Kak-vaas za-voot is how I remember it and how I said it. To my surprise, it worked, and "Victor," came the response. "And you?" he asked with an upward nod of the head. Brilliant! We had broken the ice that would soon be filling our whiskey glasses. That was, of course, the other problem, as Thom pointed out: "You realise he's going to expect us to drink some of this with him."
So, armed with our Russian phrasebook and the translation of what our trip was all about, we marched into the restaurant car and handed Victor his prize. I feared a look of complete bewilderment—a look that said, "Why the hell are you guys giving me a litre of whiskey!?"—but instead, because he wasn't going to drink while serving, he told us to come back at six o'clock .
We had a date with a Russian guy and a bottle of whiskey.
...to be continued...
I'd heard so much about Russia, and since reading Martin Cruz-Smith's Gorky Park, I'd become a big fan of the Soviet Union, so I was anxious to get to Moscow.
Moscow has the biggest population of any European city and boasts plenty of cool sites. The most obvious one is probably the The Kremlin, a big Russian citadel in the centre of town where the President hangs out. In its centre is Red Square (also the title of a Martin Cruz-Smith novel), which is surrounded by Lenin's Mausoleum, the luxurious GUM Department Store, and the photogenic towers of Saint Basil's Cathedral.
Having read the book, I was keen to check out Gorky Park. I had pictured expansive greenery that would make for a pleasant afternoon stroll and was thus rather disappointed to find it was in fact a children's theme park that required paying to enter. If you're looknig for a big ferris wheel, then Gorky Park's the place to go, but don't expect tree-lined avenues!
During our stay, we read a newspaper article claiming that Moscow was the fourth most expensive city in the world (Tokyo, Osaka, London...) and the most expensive for a cup of coffee. Naturally, our next destination was a swanky cafe for just such a beverage. I found it to be pretty reasonable (I'm a Londoner, but I've been to plenty of cheap places). Costs on the metro are rock-bottom--somewhere around 20 cents a go. We even ate some really tasty, inexpensive Georgian food on two occasions (although we did deliberately follow our guidebook's recommendation of low-priced restaurants). There are plenty of cheap stalls selling most things you could think of, from snacks to batteries to clothes and more. If you take the time to look around, it shouldn't be too expensive a city to stay in.
Accommodation might be a little harder to get on a budget. I don't think there are many hostels in Moscow, but we found a good one: G&R Hostel International (or 'Hostel Asia'). It's quite a ways out from the centre, but with the underground as cheap as it is, it wasn't really an issue. In fact, the subway is a tourist outing in itself. Some of the architecture is quite special—by far the most impressive platforms I've stood on underground. The main circle line is particularly exciting (we went the long way around on one occasion just to see some more places!), with many of the stops looking like palaces. Apparently, it's illegal to take photos down there.
Another highlight of Moscow, and no doubt the primary reason for many a tourist's visit there, is that it is the departure point of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The longest railway in the world (some 6,000 miles) stretches all the way to Vladivostok on the east coast or, alternatively, down to Beijing. The five-day journey is without doubt one of my fondest memories of the whole trip.
80 Ways Tim
London, United Kingdom