Sunday, November 9, 2008

First weekend in Moscow

First Weekend in Moscow

My first weekend in Moscow also marked my first “real” hostel experience. (In St. Petes Jaime and I just shared a double that was pretty similar to our hotel room in Yaroslavl). My first weekend when I went with the three other volunteers (Megan, Liz and Jaime), we stayed at the biggest hostel in town, appropriately named Hostel Godzilla. There were multiple co-ed dorms of 8 on each floor, meaning that on some busier weekends 30-40 people share two bathrooms and one shower. Luckily, the hostel wasn’t too busy. We still were able to meet some interesting people.

In no particular order- we met a New Zealand couple in their 20s who had just finished traveling through Europe and were leaving on the long Trans-Siberian railway. Basically you sit on a train for six straight days and watch as barren Siberia passes outside the window. Then you get off for a break for a couple days and get back on to finish in any number of places such as Beijing or Vladivostok. (Russians say they don’t get the appeal of the trek. I agree with the Russians).

Staying in our dorm was a world traveler from Vancouver who frequently goes on long trips to a number of places for up to two years, living and working in different places. He named India as the toughest place to live in because of the dirty squalor and the profound cultural differences. He also mentioned that he hasn’t known any foreigner to stay longer than a month and escape without getting sick. Also in our dorm was a group of middle-aged Belarusians one of whom had an impressive collection of beer labels from around the world. Unfortunately one of the Belarusians both snored like a walrus and reeked like he ran into bed straight from an hour on the treadmill.

Finally there was the gay Cuban dancer who now makes his home in Moscow. I practiced some of my rusty Spanish with him, and he offered to get Jaime and I work visas, not twenty minutes after meeting us. I was intrigued but decided I better save any shady business deals for my second trip to Moscow.

We spent our first full day in Red Square and got to go see Lenin’s Mausoleum, where Vladimir Illyich Lenin’.s body has laid embalmed in state since his death in 1924. This is the case despite the explicitly expressed desire by Lenin before his death, and his widow afterwards, to be given a proper burial with his mother in St. Petersburg. (Pretty loud and clear example of the power of the state over the individual during the Soviet-era, especially when propaganda purposes could be served).

Before entering the mausoleum we had to first wait in a long line in order to get in another line to check cameras, purses, phones and bags. I decided to be productive while I was in line and give my mother a call. We were talking for a while when the line started moving, I talked distracted on the phone, people started pushing and shoving ahead of me and I found myself stuck on one side of the crowd control fence, with Liz, Megan and Jaime on the other. I pointed them out to the guard and tried to explain that they were my friends, he yelled “Nyet!” at me, I yelled back at him, and then with no hesitation he gave me a slight lovetap on my upper thigh with his flat nightstick. I was absolutely furious, but all I could do was stand and stew there until they let more people in.

As for the mausoleum itself, it was beyond impressive. First we walked past graves of men who contributed significantly to the Soviet cause, and then we were led into the actual mausoleum. It’s very well designed to impart upon the viewer the austerity and solemnity of it all. The interior of the building is all floor-to-ceiling black linoleum, sparsely lit with expressionless guards posted at every turn to point you (silently) in the right direction in case you have trouble following a slow, large crowd of people.

And then finally after quite a few turns as you progress slowly underground, there’s V. I. Lenin himself. He’s dressed in a smart suit, tucked into bed so only his torso and up is showing, all in a see-through glass case that the tour makes a lap around. My first reaction was the predictable feeling that “this can’t be real. He can’t be real.”

It was hard to fathom first that here lay the body of a man who once thought and breathed and lived as simply as any other person. And even more, this man was so important in the course of history, sparking a revolution and changing the fate of nations.

On the way out we passed by more guards whose job it is to just stand there. This might honestly be one of the most boring jobs in the world. At least the guards at Buckingham Palace get to stand out in daylight, and have people try to distract or entertain them, but these guys spend their shifts in dark corners underground and unacknowledged, serving a man and a cause that was swept from this country 17 years before. We then headed back outside and walked past the graves of Soviet heroes and former premiers including Andropov, Chernenko, Brezhnev and good ol’ mass-murdering Joe Stalin. (Nikita Khrushchev is buried in a less respected cemetery elsewhere in Moscow, because he was forced from office by a coup).

Other highlights from my first weekend in Moscow:
• In Red Square (Krasnaya Ploschad)
o Walked around the majestic St. Basil’s, practically every inch of which was painted in a dizzying array of colors which for some reason reminded me of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory
o Walked through G.U.M., (pronounced goom and stands for State Dept Store) which has upscale stores like Louis Vutton, Dior, Zara and my favorite- a gigantic chocolate store.
• In the Kremlin Jaime and I walked around Cathedral Square and hustled through the Armoury museum, the treasure trove of the tsars.
• Went to Gorky Park and rode a roller coaster in the amusement park there
• Ate a delicious dinner at a Georgian restaurant
• Upon the recommendation of a Londoner staying at our hostel, went to a bar/club behind the old KGB headquarters appropriately named Propaganda. Taking his advice, we approached the bouncers speaking English. Here’s the actual transcript of our conversation.
Bouncer has just bounced the two guys in front of us. He says something to us in Russian somewhere along the lines of, “You can’t get in/ We’re full/ You’re underdressed/Leave.”
Me (in English): What?
Bouncer (also in English): Where are you from?
Me: Los Angeles.
Bouncer: USA Today?
Me: Los Angeles Times.
Bouncer: Go ahead.

• On Sunday we went to Ismalovsky Park which has an amazing swap meet, open air market. Spent the entirety of the morning, walking around and enjoying the atmosphere. I bought one fur hat.
• Jaime and I separated from Megan and Liz to check out VDNKh, the old Soviet propaganda mall, which is now just a boring old, regular mall.
• We also squeezed in a visit to the Museum of Contemporary History which might’ve been more enjoyable if there was more English. I still was fascinated by the little bits of propaganda that remain almost 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
o The one example that stuck with me was from the exhibit on World War II (the Great Patriotic War to Russians), that spoke about how the victory of the Red Army over the Nazis was due in part to Stalin, the bravery of the Red Army and the spirit of the Soviet worker back home.
• Finally before leaving, Jaime and I, after a mix-up, ended up with a whole rotisserie chicken wrapped for some reason in a tortilla and no utensils. So we did what any two sensible young men would do. We sat underneath the statue of Lenin at our train station and between chilling gusts of wind, ate the entire chicken with our hands.

1 comment:

McG said...

a) that sounds like an amazing time
b) it reminded me of a movie I saw over the summer starring Ben Kingsley called "Transsiberian" about the railroad trip. It gets pretty bloody in the second half.