Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Friday, July 13, 2007

MOCKBA (that's MOSCOW to the uninitiated)

Our hotel in Moscow was housed in a characterless building in an equally characterless neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. After trudging up three flights of stairs and through a long, dingy warren of corridors, we turned our huge brass fobbed key in the lock of room 350. We were greeted by a musty smell, revealing a long history of smoking guests and the antiquity of the curtains and carpets. The lumpy twin beds were even less comfortable than they looked and the bathroom pipes shuddered and groaned ominously when the toilet was flushed. So profound was the sense of stepping back in time that this Soviet era hotel room wouldn't have looked out of place in the city's Contemporary History Museum. Spending 74 euros a night at historic Hotel Sherstone was a fitting start to our stay in a city that turned out to be full of surprises.

Trying to escape

Thankfully, the next surprise was a pleasant one. We weren't sure whether the hotel management decided we were nice people, or simply took pity on us, but they offered us a room in the home of one of their employees. We accepted without hesitation and left bound for our new homestay accommodation in the Semyonovskaya neighborhood the next morning. This unexpected move landed us in a well located, comfortable place with an enigmatic Russian host named Anya who looked after us from the moment we arrived.

As far as exploring Russia's mighty capital was concerned, predictably we made a beeline for the Kremlin.

Red stars of glass and gold were commissioned by Stalin to adorn each of the Kremlin towers

We spent an enjoyable afternoon admiring the government buildings, fortified towers and numerous gold domed cathedrals. However, our interest in the golden domes quickly waned when we spotted a familiar looking blond dome moving across the Kremlin grounds. Mr Vladimir Putin himself walked by with a bodyguard, just feet away from us, providing a particularly satisfying twist to our day.

Beautiful gold domes on one of the Kremlin's several cathedrals

More unmistakably Russian gold domes

An unmistakably Russian, undeniably important, undoubtedly suave Mr Putin.

Jason got tired of waiting for this gentleman to vacate the steps so he could photograph the doorway. His shirt seems to blend in nicely, as it turns out.

The east wall of Moscow's fortified Kremlin

Next on the 'must see' agenda was Red Square. Although imagining tanks rolling and armies marching through the massive cobbled expanse tingle the spine and baffle the mind, it's the surrounding buildings that really provide the square's splendor.

Jason poses on the cobbles, dressed in red in honor of the occasion

The gaudily photogenic St Basil's catheral sits on the south end, with the domineering red brick State History Museum and the Resurrection Gate overlooking the square from the north. Lenin's mausoleum enjoys a prominent spot on the west side of Red Square, next to the Kremlin wall. Since Stalin so adamantly insisted that Lenin's embalmed remains be on permanent view, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to pay our respects to the comrade of comrades face to face.

Although it looks like it might belong in a theme park, this brightly colored building is St Basil's Cathedral, a prestigious Moscow landmark.

The unsmiling soldier on guard at the entrance to Lenin's mausoleum didn't phase us, but the row of six somber soldiers waiting for us inside did take us by surprise. In cold silence, one of them directed us down a dark marble staircase and round a corner, where we encountered another row of soldiers staring blankly at us. Lenin has more officers guarding him than Putin, I noted. Not bad going for a dead guy. The soldiers did enhance the dramatic effect of an already dramatic experience, and provided yet another twist in our Moscow tale.

Lenin's body lies behind the doors of this marble and granite mausoleum, even though his last wish was to be buried in St Petersburg next to his mother

Lenin was in fine form, his right hand clenched into an ever defiant fist, and his beard neatly trimmed. I wished Jessica, my funeral director friend, was here to admire this stellar embalming job. I also wondered what Lenin would have made of being laid to rest directly across the square from GUM, the high end shopping mall, and a true beacon of capitalism.

These soldiers at the Kremlin could be chatting about sports scores or perhaps the weather. They're certainly more chilled out than the officers presiding over Lenin's precious remains.

The remainder of our time in Moscow seemed to be spent being drained of energy and trying to regenerate it. The Metro, for example, was a claustrophobic, under ventilated, subterranean world of misery. It wasn't unlike London Underground really, except on the upside, trains really did run every minute in Moscow and the stations were beautifully built and maintained. On the down side, all signs were in Cyrillic, which made navigating difficult and stressful.

This familiar brand is easy to decipher in Cyrillic (the golden arches kind of give it away). If only the names of Moscow's metro stations made as much sense.

We found each life sucking stint in the intestines of Moscow's transport belly needed to be immediately followed by a good rest, preferably accompanied by a cold beer. Relaxing strolls around Patriarch's Pond, a tranquil aqua space where the opening scene of Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "Master and Margarita" takes place, proved the perfect place to unwind from Metro madness.

Patriarch's Pond became one of our favorite places to relax in Moscow.

Dealing with the Mongolian Consulate regarding a tourist visa drained almost as much of my will to live as riding the Metro. Evidently a job as a government bureaucrat and a large bunch of keys can turn a sweet, petite woman into a stubborn control freak. But once "the nice lady at the consulate" finally issued me a visa, we bolted to Gorky Park to decompress watching the fairground rides and musical water fountains.

Sunshine & smiles

We countered long sessions in oppressively hot, dark Internet cafes with serenely civilized window shopping in the GUM mall. Hectic supermarket and stressful deli queuing experiences were followed by conversations over cheap lager and dried salted calamari bits at the local market bar.

This young Russian cashes in on the universal human impulse to make a wish while throwing money into a public fountain.

After several long days breathing Moscow's thick urban air, intensified by the summer heat, we'd collapse at Anya's kitchen table and chat about her life, our travels and the hardships of Moscow living over tea and jam. It was Anya who provided a final pleasant surprise, putting us on a train to Yaroslav station, helping us with our bags and tickets and waving us off on our Trans Siberian Railway journey.

Who needs a hotel when you have Anya's place? Here she is.

There's no denying that Moscow sucked us in, chewed us over, then spat us out. I'm glad we visited (it was worth it for the dead Russian leader/living Russian leader sightings alone), but the only thing calling us back would be Anya's Russian hospitality: her good tea, homemade jam and refreshingly open friendship. Farewell, Moscow. Time to ride that train to the horizon.

Check back soon for tales of dumplings, turkey legs and cantankerous provodnitsas on our epic Trans Siberian Railroad journey.


Blogger Matt said...

Hah! Your Moscow hotel experience sharply echoes my own post-Soviet living quarters in Prague, except my hotel had the apt name of Hotel Dum ("dum" meaning home in Czech).

You've nailed it with the public transport here: If there's one thing that the Soviets did better than "Capitalist" countries, it's public transport, at least the on-time bit.

Major courage points for snapping photos of Vladimir, and extra bonus points for mentioning "Master and Margarita".

But where's all the music?

4:46 AM  
Blogger Druzhba said...

I like your take on Moscow- actually I never realised it but thats it-the metro is so poorly ventilated! I pity the poor souls who Stalin thought could use it for shelter in the event of a hypothetical emergency. I think I would lose my mind after an hour. Very jealous of your Putin sighting, all I got was a photo of a photo on a shop window!

4:31 PM  
Blogger Donkey Crossing said...


Who is Druzhba?


10:42 PM  

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