It’s more than four days since I arrived in Moscow but I’m hardly keeping up with my travels and sightseeing, let alone writing them up. I’m writing this on the train from St Petersburg to Helsinki.
I awoke on day 6 of the Trans Manchurian with a head cold. I planned to take it easy for the day. My sprained ankle was fine to walk to walk around on now but still weak and bruised. The Chinese doctor checked up on my cold and offered to do some acupuncture. He was on a business trip to Moscow and had brought thousands of needles with him which Russian Customs had taken exception to. It turned out he still had some tucked away in his vest pocket. I didn’t really feel a great need to do anything about my cold but I wasn’t looking forward to it getting worse when I was about to start jumping between cities again so with the encouragement of my cabin mate and in the spirit of adventure, I agreed to the acupuncture.
He put the first needle in near my thumb on my left hand, one near my elbow and then the same on my right arm. I didn’t much like the feel of the needles and then started to feel a bit off and told my trusty cabin mate that I thought I was going to be sick. Later I found out she thought I meant I wasn’t sick yet, so I then explained for her future reference. I felt the need to close my eyes and saw stars. The next thing I was aware of was something of a dream state, I suspect that I was having a conversation with the wolf in grandma’s night cap from an illustrated book of fairy tales I had as a child. I woke seemingly into another dream with Chinese people crowded around me who gradually resolved themselves into my travelling companions as I remembered where I was. Clearly I’d fainted, and apparently I’d started talking very formally and hadn’t really wanted to lie down. I took a good while to come good again and was fed sweet pancakes and given well-meant advice from each member of our little group. After my little episode I ignored it all and did my own thing. My cold didn’t get worse and may even have got better.
Not much else of note happened on the train. Six days was actually a nice length of time to be on it for. It was more a whiff than a taster of Siberia and Russia, and there were spots along the way that I’d like to have stopped. Hiking between the fairy tale villages like one couple I saw from the window. Mowing grass for the winter. Picnicking or camping by Lake Baikal.
When we arrived in Moscow we said our goodbyes on the platform. My cabin mate was going to be in Moscow for a day longer than me and we were going to go sightseeing together the next day so I decided to pay the extra $10 to stay in the private room that she had booked. Before we left the station I went hunting for the ticket for my onward booking. It was a confusing place. There were three or maybe four stations together plus the Metro. One set of ticket counters and platforms was clearly not what I wanted. There was sign for information and tickets but that required going through security so it didn’t seem right. After wandering backwards and forwards I gave up and went through security to the information desk. She didn’t speak English and I hadn’t magically learnt how to speak Russian. Once she figured out what I was after from the booking information she disappeared. When she returned she had my ticket. I’m pretty sure that’s not how it’s usually done.
With that sorted we descended into the Metro. Halfway down the stairs to the platform a large man rushed past. He clipped the arm of the man in front of me and I wondered whether he was off balance and going fast to try to keep ahead of falling. Then he picked up more speed, went over, and took out two other men. Luckily they were nearly at the bottom and there weren’t more people in front to get knocked closer to the incoming train. The old man who was last to go down threw off the helping hand of the middle man with a loud upset voice. Middle man indicated that the large man caused the accident. The old man had a cut on his head and the large man looked like he might have been drunk. Middle man grabbed large man and dragged him over to apologise to old man. Everyone else stood or skirted around. The train raced loudly to the platform.
On the train a couple moved quickly away from where they were sitting, looking back with disgust towards another fellow who looked drunk. I don’t know if he tried to grope her, drooled on him, or simply leant heavily against them. At the station where we got off there were escalators to get back to street level. Part way up I realised they were the longest and highest escalators I’d been on. Half way up I took hold of the hand rail. I was top heavy and not very secure with by bags and still slightly on edge from the fall at the first station. I started to feel a little like the way I did going up the hill in Guilin.
While checking in at the hostel I organised registration of my being in Moscow. My understanding before leaving home was that I wouldn’t need to register because I was only staying a day here and two days there. The immigration arrival card said that if you’re staying in commercial accommodation you need to register even if you’re only staying one night. The American bloke running the hostel strongly encouraged me to register because I was leaving at a land crossing instead of flying out. I wasn’t expecting it to cost so much but he said it was pretty much impossible to do at the post office.
With that sorted we went out looking for a late dinner at a deli recommended by the American. It rained. In the dim light and with pretty average directions we missed the deli until we’d gone 10 minutes too far, given up and almost got back to the hostel. Along the way we checked out a supermarket and picked up some muesli and a bag of milk for breakfast, wandered around a super expensive looking deli complete with security, luscious dried fruit, not so luscious dried fish, and sunflower seed heads that must have been 35 or 40 cm in diameter. The Russian phrasebook got me a vegetarian lasagne and roast vegetable salad. Except for the expensive deli, the other delis I saw in Russia were a different set up from what I expected. They didn’t have cured meats, cheeses and jars of obscure things. They were more like a cafe or buffet but where your meal is priced by the weight of what ends up on your plate.
The next morning the milk turned out to be thick and sour. Not milk at all, but kefir and pretty good. We made up some lost time on the internet and didn’t get going until almost lunchtime. The fancy looking bakery turned out to not be too expensive so to continue the bread tasting tour of Russia I bought the strangest looking loaf. Black with bits of something in it. At the supermarket we picked up a random cheese, a punnet of tomatoes and plums. The woman at the counter told me there was some problem with the plums. I realised there weren’t any scales at the checkout but still didn’t know what to do. She took me back to the fruit and veg section and showed me the scales to weigh and label them myself. Seems ripe for dodginess.
Laden with supplies we finally stared on our tour of Moscow. There were shiney domes, wide streets, grand old buildings. The street our hostel was just off was swathed in cloth and under renovation. The whole street. Even the footpath was being redone and the main intersection near the end was a mess of road works. We couldn’t see our way round the road works to the other side of the intersection until we figured out with a bit of assistance from the workers that we were supposed to walk right through. Is there no such thing as public liability in Russia?
Approaching St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square, another block was hidden behind billboard sized photos of Moscow’s sites, obscuring most of them until you step round the end and there, St Basil’s is completely revealed. That first moment was the best, after that, I don’t know, it seemed kind of dirty under the heavy clouds. Most of Red Square was cordoned off with temporary grand stands behind cyclone fencing. A ratty old door round the corner was more interesting, though a local on a bicycle couldn’t understand our interest.
We ventured in to GUM, the old state shopping building now full of modern expensive department and chain stores, capitalism in full swing. We found a seat outside in a pretty back street busy with tourists and had our lunch. The things in the bread turned out to be sultanas, making it a sweet bread even though the bread itself was neither sweet nor sour. The clouds and wind had turned the day cold so we went back into GUM to warm up and have an ice cream since that was the thing to do. Mine was strawberry and it was good.
From there we wandered over the bridges and across the way. We found wedding photo central full of bridal parties and their expensive cars. And a park that may or may not have been part of Gorky Park. People were out riding and skating around, laughing in the fountains of water spurting out of the ground or sitting and chilling out with friends. We too sat for a while then wandered through the art stalls and looked on with mouths watering at the bakery fair. That was enough for the day but it didn’t really feel like I’d got a real feel for Moscow, only seen the sights. We did do some station hopping on our Metro line on the way back to the hostel where I packed up to get myself to my train to St Petersburg.