|Arrived in Moscow safe and sound and have had a good time - the weather has been great and the sights have been interesting. I even managed to get Elizabeth to an ice hockey match!
Sorry for only a brief update; we leave Moscow tomorrow for our trip on the Trans-Manchurian train which will take four days for us to get to Irkutsk. Unfortunately, internet use has been surprisingly hard to come by in Moscow and now we've found it, it's expensive!
So you'll all have to wait for more details and pictures, hopefully when we get to Irkutsk in a few days or otherwise you'll have to wait until we reach Beijing in nearly two weeks time!
Thank you for the messages, glad to head that some people are still keeping up and we haven't bored everyone yet!
OK, had more time so here's some more stuff!
Having got to the airport in St Petersburg without problems, we checked in and boarded our tiny plane for our flight. We had bulkhead seats which usually means less leg room but in this case we had more. After our Egyptian adventure, we thought we were clear of Arabs but we had an obnoxious girl and a crying baby behind us for the hour flight to Moscow. It was almost comical...
In Moscow, our pre-arranged taxi collected us and we headed into the city. It was the middle of the day and the traffic was very bad - it took us well over an hour to get to our hotel. It certainly reminded me of central London, if only for the congestion!
Our hotel itself was in another one of these random buildings, but at least this one had a sign by the door to show it was a hotel. After climbing up four flights of stairs with our packs up a dingy staircase, we entered the bright, clean reception and left our bags in our room.
Our main plan for the afternoon was to collect our Trans-Siberian train tickets so we headed out and onto the Metro to go to Ryanzansky Prospekt, or something like that. When we got there, we walked around for about 20 minutes trying to find the right building. The trouble here is that the street number might relate to multiple buildings - one of which will be on the main street itself and the others tucked around little back alleyways. Our address was number 3, building 2. We found number 3 easily enough but building 2 wasn't exactly next to building 1 or anywhere else to be seen in fact! Eventually, we found it and realised it was right by the Metro station - we must've walked right past the entrance!
Inside, we collected our tickets and I was relieved - we'd paid for these tickets ages ago but our contact at the travel company wasn't too forthcoming confirming he actually had the tickets!
In the evening, we headed to Hard Rock Cafe - we're trying to visit these in each city we go to so we can collect the magnets but, Cairo apart, we've not had much luck finding any!
We also managed to get tickets for the Dinamo v CSKA ice hockey match in Moscow on Friday night - Elizabeth's first match, the first match of the season and a local derby too!
Today we headed out of the centre to do some of the smaller things we wanted to do.
We first took the metro to VDNKh and visited the Cosmonauts Museum - this was an interesting little place which had just been refurbished but the majority of signs were in Russian. They had two models (or stuffed, I don't know) of the two dogs who first went into space - Strelka and Belka I think they were called - and had a video about them showing them being "trained" and put into little space suits, floating around in zero gravity and sitting in their little shuttle seats! It was quite funny and even funnier if the two animals in the display case are really the stuffed dogs themselves!
After there, we walked for about half an hour to get to the Oskantino TV Tower, another sight which had recently re-opened to the public. When we eventually found the entrance, complete with "Welcome to our guests" sign, we struggled to find the cash desk. We spoke to one woman who told us we needed to book a tour but might get lucky to get on one today if there had been a cancellation. Then she asked us if we had our passports. We of course said no and she said there was no way we could go in as we needed passports to go inside such a "strategic" place. What a pile of crap and what a waste of time.
Annoyed, we headed back towards the Metro station, another half an hour back, muttering many expletives towards the TV Tower!
Back on the Metro, we headed to Dinamo station and the Dinamo Stadium where I wanted to go and see the football on Sunday. When we got to the stadium, we found the shop and a security guard took us to the ticket windows. He claimed they were shut and then magically offered us two tickets to the game as a present. Of course, he didn't have them on him and his friend would bring them in an hour or so. We told him we'd go and get lunch and he even drove us around to the Dinamo bar to get something. Both wary of his claims of free tickets, and overwhelmed by the completely Russian menu, we did a quick escape! Back at the ticket window, they WERE open and had tickets available - however, the game had been moved due to renovations and the game was being staged at a ground about an hour outside the city. We decided not to bother as it would end up taking up the entire day. Nevertheless, it was another experience but today wasn't proving to be very worthwhile!
In the evening, we headed out for a nice pizza before heading to the ice hockey. We had no idea where the stadium was but the venue was right next to the Luzhniki National Stadium - surely even we could find an 80,000-seater stadium! Thankfully, we spotted some men in Dinamo shirts and we followed them, finding the arena and taking our seats a couple of minutes after the start. The arena wasn't completely full but the large contingent of Dinamo fans to our left with large flags and the CSKA fans to our right were making a lot of noise and the atmosphere was good. The guys around us were really into the game too which made it much more fun watching. We stayed for the first two periods but decided to leave early - we'd both enjoyed the game and our taste of Russian sport but wanted to avoid getting caught up in the crowd as we left. At the end of the second period, Dinamo were leading 2-1 and we made our exit. Of course, CSKA won 3-2 in overtime so we missed a couple of goals. Still, we both really enjoyed the experience.
In the morning, we headed to the State History Museum, which borders one side of Red Square. The museum was once again mostly in Russian - while the exhibits were quite cool (some of them anyway), it makes it difficult to understand the meaning of certain items when you can't read about them. Some of the cooler items in there inclued a large globe which was made in the 1700's which was surprisingly accurate but a little out of proportion (the Caspian Sea was massive!) and some displays of the gold medals which were awarded at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Seeing those made me even more keen to try and get to London in 2012 and see some of the events.
Across Red Square, is the amazing cathedral of St Basil's. The brightly and extravagently painted domes loom large across the square and from closer up they are even more brilliant. Similar to the church in St Petersburg, I got some great pictures from outside but we both decided that there wasn't anything worthwhile inside that we wanted to see, let alon pay for! We were learning our lesson when to skip stuff!
The Gorky House was next and this featured some amazing architecture. After entering and putting our "slippers" on (to protect the floors), we entered the main house. The art deco decor was stunning and the staircase was ridiculously detailed and brilliant. Words can't do it justice so you'll have to wait until I can upload the pictures! Other items included some lovely stained-glass windows, intricately carved door-frames and some various statues, ornaments and other such like. Considering this was free, and just 100R to take pictures, this was a bargain!
As we had some time spare in the day, we headed to the zoo. What a mistake, not in every way though. The place was packed as a city zoo on a weekend would be, screaming brats running wild everywhere. In fact, the phrase running wild is very fitting as they were doing literally that. From one kid with a "laser" gun which he kept firing at the animals to others climbing over the barriers and sticking fingers through holes in cages to people even petting and feeding some of the animals, too! The keepers didn't seem bothered so I guess this is regular practice but I imagine feeding antelope type animals with bread and sugary candy isn't exactly part of their regular diet. Quite honestly, Elizabeth and I were astounded and could not imagine such things happening in zoos in our own countries. Most of these places are so strict with animal diets that they even regularly weigh animals to control the intake of food - obviously not here unless gummy bears are on the menu.
Whilst it was great seeing some of the animals, the big cats especially, the cages were awful. Usually, the big cats are hard to spot as they hide away in the bushes - here they were easy to spot as they lazed on the concrete next to empty water troughs. Similarly, one of the bird cages had a great variety of birds in it but was almost completely made of stone, with hardly a tree, bush or branch inside for them to perch on like in their natural environment. It was quite sad seeing them. The worst was a fox which was in just a concrete box - no grass, no trees, no nothing - just three concrete walls, concrete floor and the cage for people to gawp into.
Obviously, this is how the Russians deem it fit to treat their animals. Didn't someone once say that the best way to judge a society was how they treated their animals?
In the evening, we pigged out. We went to the Starlite Diner and after a couple of smoothies and a chili burger complete with three burgers and chili-cheese fries, we waddled back for some sleep! (That was just what I had - Elizabeth had a big plate of nachos with chili and a blueberry milkshake) Very Russian.
In the morning, we headed to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. There were loads and loads of famous statues here but almost every one was a copy - even one of Michelangelo's David. It's amazing what you can do with a mould and some plaster! The painting section was marginally better but consisted of mostly Flemish and Dutch art, it seemed, so we saw more Rubens and Rembrandts!
From there, we walked a bit futher out to the Tolstoy House - the house where Tolstoy and most of his 13 children lived for around 20 years. Just after his death, the house was purchased and setup as a museum. The good thing about this was that everything in here belonged to Tolstoy and was how it was when they lived there including all the staff and children's rooms as well as the "public" rooms and the dining services and such like. It was also interesting reading more about his children and wife and seeing pieces of art around the walls which some of them had painted. Compared to the other similar houses we'd seen, like Dostoevsky and Jane bloody Austen, this was a million times better and actually realistic!
Having done quite a lot in the last few days we headed back to the hotel and collapsed for a few hours before we headed out to dinner. Having eaten American and Italian food so far, we went for something a little more native - a Georgian restaurant. Now, I appreciate Georgia isn't Russia but it is a former Soviet state!
At the restaurant, we tried a special type of Georgian bread - it was kind of like a naan bread/pizza dough stuffed with cheese and with more cheese on top. We had this for our appetiser and having had half each we were both quite stuffed! Despite that, I tried some chicken shasklik for my main course and was glad of the earlier bread as it came with nothing on the side but a pile of red onions and some pickled cabbage! Yummy!
On Monday, we headed into the Kremlin, the main thing we had wanted to see in Moscow. Due to weird opening times of other attractions, many of which were closed on Mondays, we'd left this until today. The ticket for the Kremlin itself was 350R (about $11) but the ticket to the Armoury was double that! For $33 each in total, we hoped it would be worth it and not another Egyptian Museum!!!
Thankfully, the Armoury was excellent - there was lots of gold icons and religious artefacts first, followed by a number of gold dinner sets and tableware as well as a variety of armour from different eras and locations. Further along, there were also various royal crowns, royal coronation robes and dresses and royal carriages. But the main thing in here were the Faberge eggs - these were commissioned by the tsars and given as presents to the female relatives at Easter and were made by the Faberge studio in St Petersburg. The eggs themselves were quite gaudy, externally, but the gems and stones used to make them were stunning. Inside, each egg contained some sort of gift too, which was also intricately designed with precious stones and metals. In one, there was a train complete with locomotive and about four carriages, all in gold, which was modelled after the first ever Trans-Siberian train. The detail was amazing and it was great to see these at first hand.
Another room contained gold items which had been gifted to the Russian empire across various eras including some large items from England. The audio tour claimed that two of the pieces were the finest examples of English silver.
After we had finished with the Armoury, we wandered around the Kremlin itself. We were not too interested in going into most of the cathedrals there but we did go into the Archangel Cathedral where most of the tsars are entombed. Again, all the inscriptions were in Cyrillic so I couldn't understand any of them but it was cool to see the dates and ages of these tombs going back - the oldest one was from the 13th Century.
Outside, all the cathedrals had amazing domes, mostly gold but some silver too and some with interesting patterned columns beneath them. After walking around to see the tsars cannon and the largest bell in the world (which has never been rung, apparently) we exited the Kremlin.
After the Armoury, I thought the Kremlin was a little disappointing - I imagined it more as some kind of middle-age fort rather than a modern enclosed city with a load of churches. Maybe it was more my expectation of it which was disappointing rather than the actual site.
Outside the Kremlin, we headed to ul. Arbat to get some lunch. Arbat is a large pedestrianised area with cafes and tourist shops lining both sides. The cafes full of locals while the tourist shops brimmed with Japanese and Koreans!
Having grabbed a sandwich and fought through a couple of hoardes of Asians to grab some souvenirs, we headed down towards the river to find the large statue of Peter the Great. Muskovites don't much like this statue, Peter the Great having disliked Moscow enough to move Russia's capital to St Petersburg. However, the statue now stands in the middle of the river - it consists of a large Peter stood steering a boat which is disproportionate to him, being around half his size, let alone "boat-sized"! While the statue is certainly interesting, it is a bit of an eye-sore and a weird design. I wonder if the population of Moscow dislike it more for the asthetics rather than the subject.
Stretching our legs some more in walking back to the hotel, we gathered some stuff together, including my camera and headed in search of an internet cafe. Having finally found one well hidden away and copied my photos from my camera to a separate hard drive, updated a few things and checked a few things, we'd used an hour of time and were getting hungry (hence my earlier message on the Moscow entry and hence no time to upload pictures - sorry!). Jumping on the Metro, which we'd now used quite a lot and had got our money's worth from especially as it was so easy to use, despite being all in Russian, we headed to a Mexican restaurant.
Our last night in Moscow, we headed back to Red Square after dinner to get some pictures of the cathedral of St Basil's lit up. The square looks great all lit up and even though it wasn't totally dark by the time we got there, the sky was dark enough for the lights to highlight the colours of the domes of St Basil's.
This morning, we checked out of our hotel. We are leaving Moscow tonight on the train to Irkutsk which leaves around 9.30pm. We had saved one thing to do today, not sure how long it would take us.
Having grabbed some breakfast, we joined the queue to see Lenin's Mausoleum - this is only open a few days a week and only for a few hours at a time. Each time we had gone past, the queue had seemed really long so we had decided to leave it until the last day when we had nothing else planned. Getting there for just after 9.30am to join the queue for the 10am opening time, we found ourselves inside in no time at all. Security here was so tight - no bags or cameras allowed inside. I knew this so had left mine back at the hotel. I didn't know, however, that they didn't even allow mobile phones in there if they had cameras on them so even with no bag, I had to leave my phone at the left luggage desk. Once through that, the queue moved on quickly and through the metal detectors, with guards stood about every 10 metres along the path to the tomb. Once inside, the number of guards increased, the lights darkened and you headed down the steps. The tomb itself was very creepy - Lenin's body on full display having been enbalmed just after his death. It didn't look real, quite honestly, and the lighting was such that it gave it a very eerie look - it almost looked like he could move at any time. Elizabeth and I were quite slow going through and stopped at one point to whisper something. As we did, a guard moved towards us, almost as if to tell us we couldn't stop and had to keep going! Outside, we saw tombs of other important Russians, including Stalin.
Having left ourselves plenty of time to queue here, we found ourselves done and out by 10.30am with a whole day to spare.
And that is how I found myself back at an internet cafe writing the journal I thought would have to wait!
Still, it's lunchtime now so we'll go grab some food, grab our bags and then head to the train station later before a final stop for supplies at the supermarket by the station (Elizabeth already has teabags and marshmallows and I have vodka and wine!)
Once again, sorry for no pics, they'll come soon!