Saturday, October 1, 2011


Four straight days on a train can kinda get to you after a while. I didn't feel completely terrible, but when the closest thing to a hot shower is throwing cupfuls of warm water onto your head inside a cramped, bouncing restroom and your only food consists of cereal, bread, and instant noodles, you enter this weird, grimy altered state that you're not fully aware of until days later.

This time, our train was mostly occupied by Mongolian traders, who use their cabins as makeshift warehouses to house cheap jeans, hats, track pants, jackets, and purses. At each major stop, a mad horde of Russian shoppers will come to the train station simply to buy up dirt-cheap Mongolian merchandise on the platform, then go home.

Apart from looking out our window to endless forests, innumerable little wood shack cottages, and the pristine waters of Lake Baikal, we mostly passed the time by playing games, watching movies and TV on Andrea's computer, and hunting for the few-and-far-between power outlets on the train. Half of them didn't work at all, some required bribing the carriage attendant, and the rest almost always had somebody else's cell phone plugged into them. I finally found an open one, and while sitting waiting for my stuff to charge, this little Mongolian kid walks up to me, grabs my iPod touch out of my hand, and proceeds to try out every single game and app for the next 45 minutes. He occasionally asks for help when he can't figure a game out. I was captive, as I needed the charge and didn't feel comfortable just leaving it there.

Finally, we pull into Moscow. With a population of 11 million, it was by far the largest city we had visited, and the most European. I was picturing endless gray apartment blocks encircling the Kremlin, but was pleasantly surprised by its rich, varied architectural styles and (usually) modern infrastructure and amenities. Most impressive of all was the Metro, which consisted of rickety old 1940s trains surrounded tunnels carved out of pure marble and decorated with bronze statues and fancy paintings everywhere, deep underground, with escalators that sometimes take 2 and a half minutes to reach the platform from the surface. Stalin clearly spared no expense, as each station resembled an art museum or sculpture park. Too bad he made the rest of the Eastern bloc so butt-ugly!

Speaking of costliness, Moscow is not a cheap place. It makes Tokyo look reasonably priced by comparison. The cheapest black Starbucks coffee goes for 6 US dollars, and flavored drinks are even higher. Despite high poverty rates, the city also has the highest concentration of billionaires in the world. The whole city had this weird mixture of scummy cheapness alongside Ferrari dealerships and luxury watch stores.

It's also the least tourist-friendly big city I've ever been to. If you can't read the Cyrillic alphabet, you're completely lost; most signage is exclusively in Russian, even on public transport. I know no Russian but can read enough of the alphabet to get by, so we were never completely lost, but the act of simply figuring out where you are and where you're going can be pretty frustrating.

Our first day was devoted to a personal walking tour, led by a pleasant Russian lady who showed us around Red Square, the Kremlin, and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. I was excited to see the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral, which I had previously seen only in photos and on the title screen of Tetris.

Our guide told us about growing up in Moscow in the era of Khruschev and Brezhnev, and told us that the huge, impressive reconstruction of the Cathedral was the site as a large public swimming pool when she was a kid.

The next day we spent going to some interesting specialty tourist sites that we'd been looking forward to for a while. First up was the Cosmonaut museum, devoted to the history of the Soviet space program, which included a full-size reproduction of Mir that you can enter. After that, we found the Soviet Arcade museum, which housed some hilariously primitive (and occasionally fun) ripoffs of the American and Japanese games of the 70s and 80s. My favorites were the submarine games that used a combination of scale models and light guns through a little periscope. We also had fun with a basketball game that consisted of about 16 hexagonal holes, requiring you to push the correct numbered button to shoot the ball toward your opponent's basket.

Owing to restrictive Russian visa rules, we had only one more day, which we opted to spend at Gorky Park. The park itself was pleasant enough, if mostly unremarkable, but it had this peculiar kiddie area with some really strange attractions. My favorite was this, a spinning chicken spitting out plastic eggs that you're supposed to catch with a net. The best part was the music it played, which was this demented version of Old MacDonald that will stick in your head forever if you hear it even once. This bizarre carnival game lifted my spirits greatly after a disappointing visit to a Statue Park that ended up being a waste of time.

Moscow is a very cool city, but it has this intimidating quality that makes exploring it for a couple days feel a little like you got your ass kicked in a bar fight. I feel like we only scratched the surface, so I do think I'd like to return one day, as well as see other places in Russia we didn't have time for, like St. Petersburg. Hopefully, next time, the Visa won't be so expensive, or require filling out an incomprehensible form with questions asking if I've ever operated a nuclear device or have had weapons training, or basically asking me to list every school I've ever attended in my life.

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