Moscow Stories and Tips

Moscow, Much to Do

There's a lot to say about Moscow and I won't be able to say it all here, naturally - but I'll do my best to give an informative glimpse of this fantastic city. I can't comment on hotels because we're lucky enough to have friends who own a flat in Moscow, and that's where we stayed. Let me try to tempt you, anyway!

I guess the first thing to say is that the currency is a little confusing - in the sense that you're never quite sure whether to use US dollars or Russian roubles. Most of the time it's fairly obvious but it helps if you have a companion who is "in the know"!

We arrived at Sheremetyevo airport, late, after our flight from London with Aeroflot and got through customs remarkably quickly. Our friends were waiting for us at 5am, with a taxi. Wow! Forget the roller-coasters in Florida and just go for a ride in a Russian taxi instead! They make dangerous driving look so very easy!

Having refreshed at or hosts' flat, we decided to head off to see the Kremlin and Red Square. Another exciting taxi ride.

If you decide not to take a taxi, the metro station at Red Square is well worth a visit; it's got loads of interesting marble statues of revolutionary figures. Don't take photos at metro stations, by the way! It's illegal. We did (but please keep THAT a secret!!) and lived to tell the tale, although our host was certainly more than a little nervous!

Red Square is staggering. I'd often seen news pictures of steely-faced communist leaders braving the bitterly cold snow to see thousands of tanks drive through it, but today it was hot and sunny and somehow extremely welcoming. GUM, the huge department store is to your left and has some very up-market shops; we bought a Russian version of the famous board-game, "Monopoly" there. It'll be fun trying to fathom that one out! St Basil's Cathedral is in front of you, with its brightly-coloured spiral spires, and on your right is the Kremlin, with its golden domes, and Lenin's tomb. There's an awful lot to see and do. Getting into the Kremlin involved fairly tight security and we were glad to have had a native Russian speaker with us. My wife was pregnant at the time (my fault!) and was not too keen on walking through the security scanner. Anna managed to negotiate an alternative with an extremely officious security guard - the only really unfriendly person we met during our stay. The Kremlin is, anyway, well worth a visit and you should take your time. It's a jewel.

You'll undoubtedly queue if you want to visit Lenin's tomb but it's well worth the wait. No cameras are allowed. It's a strange and very serene experience and I'll let you decide for yourself whether it's really him or not! As you leave, you walk past the tombs of many other (in)famous Russian leaders such as Brezhnev, Kruschev and Stalin. It's a superb experience and I'm glad I queued up!

Not far from Red Square is a really nice park where you can sit and enjoy the sun, people-watch and enjoy an ice-cold beer or three. Note, incidentally, that the Russians don't consider beer to be an alcoholic drink! That accolade is reserved for the more serious stuff. Yes, I'm talking about Vodka! Vodka with a "W". Don't sip it - just knock it back in one go and you'll delight your host! Just make sure that you brace yourself first! Drink is readily obtainable and represents very good value.

We had booked tickets on the "Red Arrow", a sleeper train from Moscow to St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). It's a truly great and thoroughly memorable experience which really shouldn't be missed. First class tickets get you a great twin-bedded compartment and, at about US$100 return, offer absolutely superb, unbeatable value. You get the transport and two nights' comfortable accommodation. It's quite an adventure! You just cannot go wrong! Sit in the restaurant car for an hour or so, with its lace curtains and elegant table decorations, and you could be on the Orient Express, but at a mere fraction of the price. The caviar is cheap (if you like it, that is - personally, I can't stand the stuff) and the Champagne is about $3 per bottle (and I love it).

Anyway, the train leaves at midnight (in each direction), so we needed to find something to do for the evening. Now don't get me wrong - I am NOT into ballet at all(!) but we just HAD to go and see "Swan Lake" at the Bolshoi Theatre. The experience was captivating. Don't try to get tickets at the box-office unless you're booking way in advance, because all the tickets will already have been sold to (hush!) the local Mafia, who then hang around outside, making a handsome profit selling tickets with a face value of a couple of dollars for about $50. It hurts, but it's about the only way to get in! We enjoyed the show, then got a "taxi" to the station, bought some food and some vodka and toasted the night away on the train to St Petersburg!

When we got back to Moscow, there was yet more to see. Gorky Park, immortalised in the film of the same name, is apparently really nice. We turned up to find thousands of guys in Green hats wandering around looking drunk and decidedly dangerous. Apparently it was a national holiday for the National Guard and they'd decided to descend on Gorky Park to party the day away. We decided to go elsewhere! Onto a bus and off to the Arbat....

The Arbat is a long street of some repute and it's now crammed with souvenir sellers. I love it; it's crazy! You can buy hats, flags, KGB ID cards, Russian dolls - anything at all; even a cosmonaut's outfit, with helmet, if you want to. My friend settled for a "Bleck lyeckered borx" or black, laquered box (all the more expensive because, as the vendor pointed out, "Look! Nyem of artist!") and, for some reason which totally escapes me to this day, a pair of "binoculars of high myegnification". They have not been used since! Mind you, I haven't flown my red flag either, so I shouldn't criticise.

Here's a useful tip. Don't EVER point at the President! We were just descending into a metro station when I noticed a police car hurtling down the street. It did an impressive handbrake turn, stopping in the middle of the road and blocking off the traffic. Moments later, a fast-moving cavalcade of black cars and President Putin's limousine tore down the street. "Look!" I said, and pointed. Potentially huge mistake. I was spotted by a bodyguard and, for a moment, was very worried. Nothing actually happened but I must confess that I did feel a little uneasy!

There's so much else to do in Moscow. Visit a church and experience the sights and fragrant smells of a Russian Orthodox service. Eat out - there are loads of places to choose from. You can even get a McDonald's - if you must. The military museum is superb and well worth a visit. One thing that you will find is that virtually everything has a two-tier pricing system, whereby tourists pay considerably more than locals. Whilst you may complain that this is unfair, bear in mind that local wages are generally extremely low (unless you're in the mafia). This also explains the eagerness of private motorists to act as unofficial taxi drivers! At one museum, Anna's brother tried, rather enterprisingly I thought, to get us in as native Russians. "Just don't speak!" he said. We didn't.... And we still got caught! I guess we just didn't "look" sufficiently Russian. All a bit embarrassing really - so don't try it yourself!

A really fantastic trip to a city which I'd heartily recommend and will NEVER forget (although I'd avoid it during the football world cup!) And by the way - you certainly don't HAVE to drink like a fish; it just helps! Enjoy - and take care!

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