Following Thom’s lead, I had decided to get a haircut—a shaved head, no less. Our Rough Guide listed a place with English-speaking staff that might help to avoid embarrassing mistakes. We set about finding it, suffering from the usual problem of trying to read road signs in Cyrillic. A hairdresser’s came into view, but soon after walking through the door, I realised it wasn’t the international haven I was hoping for. No problem—I only wanted a grade 3.
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.