Ice and ice and ice. Frozen lakes, fields and farm houses.
I watched these as our flight, which was moments from touching down, lurched sharply back into the air without explanation. Moscow playing tricks on us. After circling at Domodedovo a while longer the runway was cleared and we were able to land.
My travel companion on this little adventure was an inquisitive sort who happily speaks to anyone. Everyone she asked about Moscow on the plane warned us to be careful. She didn’t ask of what.
As we wandered the airport looking for the express train people stared. We got on the wrong train, were immediately identified as tourists and ushered in the right direction. Then we began to notice the other passengers duty free items. All around us people began drinking spirits on the train into the city. We began to notice children with eye patches and completely joyless faces.
Without further ado we threw ourselves into Moscow’s metro. Stunning Soviet art deco designs, stained glass and police officers that we were too frightened to take photos of. No maps.
That’s right, NO MAPS.
We had squirrelled away a copy of the metro map in English that we found in a magazine, just in case. Mighty fortuitous. I feel confident that we would have been completely and utterly fucked without it, even with it, we stopped six people for directions over a twenty minute journey. The warnings continued. One man very pointedly told us to ‘Be Accurate.’
There was no sign marking the hostel door, by chance a woman passing who lived in the same building directed us. We sourced supper quickly and turned in.
Did I mention that we were sharing a bed? I may have also broken the window.
One cold, thrashy, blanket tugging, sleepless night later we took on the city. We breakfasted and worked out how to say thank you, appeasing the waiter.
We trudged the streets of Moscow for six hours, circling The Red Square, visiting historical museums and The Kremlin, which is not one building as I had imagined but everything confined within The Red Square. Both of us most excited about scoring some kitsch propaganda art, becoming more confident with the metro, trying to not fret about the frequent warnings of strangers.
It got dark whilst we were trying to find The All Russian Exhibition Centre. We had thought it would be the best place source propaganda art. As an aside, don’t ask everyone in Moscow where to find the propaganda. They don’t like that.
The All Russian Exhibition Centre is certainly kitsch. It is also a general purpose trade show housed in a huge number of pavilions built by Stalin to glorify communism. It took us an hour to walk round it in the dark amongst the cars with heavily tinted windows, before realising we were not going to find a poster of the Russian peasant woman with her finger to her lips.
Exhausted and disheartened we found a dumpling house, burnt our mouths and drank some beer. People stared and when I say people I mean men. There wasn’t a single woman in the dumpling house. Russian take a very traditional view of gender, the women are painstakingly feminine and the men respond with overt chivalry, constantly greeting women with flowers, lifting them from their seats and helping them with coats, couples so overly tackle I had to look away.
The window fixed and a second blanket obtained we slept well and woke early to visit Lenin.
He’s been embalmed since 1924 but looks as if he might sit up on one elbow at any moment. Talking isn’t allowed inside the mausoleum and the guards click their fingers to usher you round. This silence in contrast to the cathedral bells outside, which ring in minor key, left us somewhat disturbed.
We took our disturbed selves off to the Banya. My companion, who was a bit tired of asking directions by this stage stopped speaking in full sentences and just repeated the word Banya over and over until we were finally escorted by an English speaker. I panicked about getting naked in front of the Russian women and what kind of attention all my tattoos would garner. My main concern being that it all might end up like that scene in Eastern Promises.
No one took any notice of the tattoos. They were much more interested in why I didn’t want to flagellate myself with birch branches. Alternating between a scorching sauna and buckets of ice cold water they took turns to beat their naked bodies with birch branches in a completely uninhibited and to be honest, homoerotic fashion, the leaves from the birch sticking to their wet skin. Perhaps I should have looked away.
That evening finally brave enough to venture to a bar in close proximity to out hostel we listened in awe as a band of heavy russian men belted out ZZ Top covers, often doing each song more than once as no one knew the words. At midnight, the smoke filled bar rather unexpectedly transformed into a strip club at which point we stumbled back to the hostel.
I’m pleased to report that the worst thing that happened during our ominous trip was not gaining entry to The Pushkin Museum. We waited in line for an hour and half and then got a hotdog instead. I’ve still no clue what we were meant to be careful of.