The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Heart of Empire

Not for the last time on this or other trips, my fondness for overnight train journeys dropped me off in an unfamiliar city somewhere around dawn, when only fools and insomniacs are up and walking around. I’ve rarely had much problem sleeping since I was a teenager, so I must have fallen into the former category.

My fuzzy-headed recollection of that first morning in Moscow has a few clear spots. A somewhat unfriendly cafe where I found some breakfast, the westernised precincts of the GUM shopping centre, and Red Square right next to it, with its unapologetically Russian architecture, the tomb of Lenin, and St. Basil’s Cathedral. I was way too early to even think about checking into my hotel, so I found a nearby museum to wander around for a few hours, and more importantly to drop my rucksack into the left luggage room.

Moscow’s State Historical Museum, good for red bricks and the occasional pointy tower.

That first day was a jumble of impressions. High points included that initial period of roaming around Red Square and seeing the local sights, as well as finding a full-size prototype of the Soviet “Buran” space shuttle in Gorky Park. The main low point was making my way to the outskirts of the city to the Ismailovo Beta hotel and spending an hour or two persuading staff of my existence and subsequently the existence of my room reservation. (Not the last time I’d face this problem in Russia.)

The hotel itself was an anonymous block, and I didn’t even notice the casino on the ground floor until I checked my photos. But I had a great view of the local forested park, and I was only a short walk from the Partizanskaya metro station (the main reason I’d ended up in this location). So on my ventures to and from the city in the next couple of days, I would at least have the pleasure of inspecting Soviet subway architecture.

Soviet subway stations are heavy on the revolutionary sculpture and statuary.

Day One continued as it had started, with a lot of walking. There was sunshine aplenty, so that worked out well enough, and I did my best to get a feel for a city that seemed more reluctant to open up than most I’ve come across before or since. The Moskva River was my main point of navigation, with its frankly surreal statue of Peter the Great aboard a ship much too small for him and the nearby Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, far larger but much less attractive than St. Basils.

If Day One was wandering, Day Two began in a more structured way. Structured around museums, admittedly, but the Kremlin has its fair share of those. Amid intermittent showers, I visited the Tsar Bomba cannon and Tsar Kolokol III bell, both the largest of their kind. I wandered past stacks of cannons, perhaps retrieved from Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, and watched stern-faced Kremlin guards remain impassive in the face of local cats taking shelter between their feet.

A mammoth exhibit. Some ice-age tusks retrieved from the permafrost.

Mostly though, I appreciated the chance to get to know Russia better. St. Petersburg had been a decent introduction, but Moscow was a tougher nut to crack, and I had weeks left before I left Russia behind for good. Roaming through Russia’s history, military and otherwise, under the watchful eyes of Russian grandmothers serving as security, helped. But simply roaming the city helped even more, and the latter half of the day saw me make my way through Moscow until sunset and beyond.

By the time the day was over, I had a decent feeling for the physical layout of the city, but the spirit of it was something that I never quite figured out. I never did get to feel comfortable in Moscow, probably not helped by the fact that I can’t recall a single conversation I had while I was there. Even at a distance of ten years, that lack of recall speaks of a failure on my part. Fortunately, I had a lot of Russia left to experience.

Dancing fountains in the Moscow sunset.

The last vestiges of my time in Moscow faded into a kind of strangeness. I walked uneasy through the darkness, coming across a statue of Frederick Engels and a museum exhibit of colourful Lego. I woke the next morning and said my farewells to the Ismailovo Beta hotel, only to come across a woman on the subway who was using an Irish Dunnes Stores carrier bag. I made my way to the train station to catch my Trans-Siberian connection, only to find myself fascinated by the number of cigarette stubs tossed between the platform and the train.

Perhaps I just felt odd because I was doing something I’d thought of doing for years. Something that was the centre and the entire point of this trip. My Trans-Siberian voyage would have some breaks but the first section would be a full four days. Far more than the overnight train journeys that had been my previous limit. Even with my chunky guidebook, I had little notion of what to expect and Moscow had not been helpful in guiding me.

Cigarette butts discarded on the Trans-Siberian train platform.

So now I’m more or less caught up with my ten-years-ago journey. Still a couple of days behind (I left Moscow on September 4th), but that’s covered by that first four-day stretch. I’ll resume in a few days with some reminiscences about my time in Irkutsk and Lake Baykal and just how that first few days on the Trans Siberian felt.

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