Strasvitzya friends and family!
I have decided to keep this blog rather than email. This way you can read what you want -- or not!
Let's see, has it been only 2 or 3 days since I last wrote? Seems like a week!
Random thoughts/observations on Moscow:
* There are SO many police/military/law enforcement people here! I swear there must be one for ever 2 citizens in Moscow. It's unreal!
*Everyone over the age of 13 smokes - everyone! I'm told this is because cigarettes are cheap - Marlboro is $2 a pack
*Every woman under the age of 75 wears stilettos - like 5"!! And they don't take them off to ride the subway or walk home like the women in NYC.
*Everything is gigantic. The buildings, the signs on buildings, the trucks, the jewels. Large and overbearing seems to be the Moscow motto
*Moscow is HUGE! I heard it was the largest European capital and it must be by a long shot!
*Moscovites have very odd taste in vehicle decorations. I took a picture of a prime example with my iPhone and will send it under separate email because I can't upload
*Everyone under the age of 90 has a job. I can't tell you how many people I saw in various uniform dress sweeping the streets, repairing buildings, cleaning windows, mopping the roofs, mowing the lawn, painting gravestones at the Kremlin wall..... EVERYONE has a job!
So, more about my journey. Tuesday morning was spent doing step one of obtaining the registration for the visa - yes there were two steps that involved returning again the next night between 7-9pm. Then we did the Moscow walking tour. After going to the train station to help a CSer buy her ticket, we wandered in what we thought was the general direction of the Kremlin. Looking at the map proved to be more confusing than helpful and everyone we asked seemed to want to send us in a different direction. We did find our first МАКДОНАЛДС - that's Cyrillic for McDonald's. And why you ask, would I choose Russia as the first place to enter a McDonald's in over a year? Three words - 'Coca Cola Light'. It was almost impossible to find anywhere else in the city, a least under 1 liter.
We continued to wander and enjoy exploring Moscow and we did eventually find the Kremlin and Red Square. I also bought my first matroyska doll that goes *ridiculously tiny*. I took pictures and will also send that via email. We also went to the largest and poshist shopping mall in Moscow, which borders Red Square. Then it was on to St. Basil's which is so vibrant in color and architecture, it looks cartoonish. It's very, very beautiful. By this time we had been walking for 7 hours and I didn't think I could make it one more step. I went back to the flat and promptly fell asleep for 1.5 hours. Of course, this screwed up my sleep schedule and time zones and I was up until 2am visiting with the other CSers.
Oh, I also went back to the supermarket that night and found a handsome security guard that was very friendly. I was trying to find a 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioner and the comedy of charades and iPhone translations that ensued was very funny. Once we finally figured out I wanted 'shampoo plus conditioner', didn't care what 'braand', wanted for a woman not man and wanted to spend the 'little money' I had what I needed.
Then I decided I wanted a good beer. So I motioned my new friend over and asked for 'good beer'' and 'brown/dark'. He pointed to "Michelob Midnight' and I gave him a thumbs down and said 'American beer bad'. He thought this was hilarious and evidently relayed this to the stock boy who was nearby and they both had a good laugh. (I ended up leaving with a Czech beer that was delicious!)
One thing he couldn't help me with though was eyeliner. Evidently that is sold in the pharmacy that was already closed. After this trip I *dare* anyone to beat me at charades. Just think how you would mime 'eyeliner'. I tried it all and finally he understood.
Wednesday morning we got up early to see Lenin's Mausoleum and the Armory with a CSer. Lenin's tomb is quite the experience in Soviet militaristic control. You must check all cameras and video recording devices (including phones with cameras) at the left luggage desk. Then you must have your bag searched. When you enter the tomb a military guard is standing there. Notice I said 'is standing there' and not 'greeted by'; military/police in Moscow do not speak to you. (With one or two nicely surprising exceptions.) You enter almost complete darkness and run the risk of tumbling down a flight of stairs because our eyes haven't adjusted yet.
At the bottom of the stairs there is another guard who doesn't speak to you or even look at you. Then you go down another flight of stairs and another guard is there. Then you come into Lenin's chamber where he lays under glass and looking exactly like a wax mummy. (I read in the guidebook that is actually how they preserve him - every year they dip him in wax. Can you imagine being the one that has to undress him for that process? Yikes)
The woman in front of us stopped for a moment to gaze upon his waxiness and immediately the guards (oh yeah, there are 3 of them in the chamber) told her to keep moving. At least that's what I assume he said because he snapped his fingers and motioned her forward. Oh and there is no speaking once you set foot in the chamber. That draws loud "shhhhh"s from the guards.
So as you maintain the slowest possible momentum, you gaze upon Lenin in wax and I guess are supposed to be awed? Interesting indeed. On the way out there are two more guards. Now why I ask did I have to leave my camera when had I even attempted to adjust it on my shoulder, I would have been tackled and shackled by 8 military guards? The answer, as with everything in Russia - money. It costs 20 rubles (about $0.63) to leave you camera, but multiply that by the tens of millions that I'm sure visit Lenin's tomb every year..... yeah.
The Armory was at first impressive, then overwhelming, and then mind numbing in the amount of gold and silver and precious and semi-precious stones it holds. Because Russia has such a wealth of natural resources, and because in Moscow 'bigger is better' the decorative covers of all their religious texts are covered with stones 3 finger widths by 2.5 finger widths, haphazardly thrown around.
After this I continued to walk around while the CSer returned to the flat. That night I was again wrecked and exhausted, but there was a Moscow-wide CS get together at a pub and I couldn't say no. After all, you can sleep when you're dead right? That tuned out to be a 3am night also. But I met a great girl named Katia at the CS gathering and she said she would help me get to the train station the next night. She speaks perfect English and even understands slang like 'twist my arm'. This is *highly* unusual in Russia where most people speak very little or none.
On Thursday morning, even though I was dead tired and somewhat hungover, I got up at 8am, washed and hung clothes and went to buy my train ticket and see the Kremlin and St. Basil's. The train ticket story would take way too much time to explain and would be boring to recite, but let's just say that the CSers and I came up with a new phrase: "This is Russia." For example: Question: 'Why is this car parked in the middle of the sidewalk/street?' Answer: "This is Russia" Q: Why does it take 4 minutes to get the extra 50 rubles the metro woman short changed me?' A: "This is Russia." Q: 'Why did I pay for 4 metro rides but after one my card says invalid... and no one cares to try and help me except 'buy new ticket'?" A: "This is Russia." You get the idea....
After securing my train tickets 1.5 hours later (and that's with native Russian CSer doing all the talking!) I was off to speed walk through the Kremlin to say I had been there. I also really wanted to experience a banya and had read it takes at least 2 hours. My thoughts on the Kremlin: Unless you read Russian, there's not much to see; the militaristic regiment is high (I was whistled at and given a stern 'Neit' when tried to cross outside of the walkway and was approached in person and told I was not allowed to sit on the steps of the Kremlin grounds. ); and the toilet is the wost thing I have *ever* smelled.
The banya however was a whole different story. It was everything I had thought it would be and more. After some 20 mins of miming and negotiating prices I had paid $30 for the privilege of staying in the banya for 3 hours, $45 for a 35 min neck and foot massage, $20 for a naked Russian woman to beat me with oak leaves soaked in essential oils, $2 for a towel and about $20 for tea, water and snacks. But it was worth every penny and more!
I will write more about that later as I only have a few mins of internet left and I can barely keep my eyes open. (It's only 7:30pm here - so much for adjusting time zones. Although getting only 6 hours of sleep on the train last night didn't help either.)
Signing off for now from Kazan - will write more from Irkutsk in 3 days. I'll be on the train until then!