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All aboard for the Trans-Siberian Express

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they find the irresistible inclination to do something entirely out of the ordinary.  Some go sky diving, others prefer to buy ostentatious sports cars, or make sudden career transitions.  As for me, a railway journey across the Russian steppes with a couple of friends topped the list.  At first it was merely a thought, but, after six months of preparation, what initially seemed a monumental task had finally transpired.  With passports current, visas and tickets purchased, and credit cards in hand, we thought we were adequately prepared for what lay ahead.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Babushka lunch

Of course, you can’t simply saunter down the street and hop aboard the Tran-Siberian Railroad wherever you jolly well please. It begins in Moscow. So, after flying from Dallas to Atlanta for a transfer at Delta’s hub, we were on our way across the Atlantic Ocean before you could say “peanuts and a soft drink”.  The latest Steve Martin film helped break down the monotony of a ten plus hour plane ride, but left entirely too much time remaining to think of it as short.  Aside from Mamo accidentally spilling his luncheon tray on the woman in front of him and me being unable to sleep a jot due to my neighbors’ insistence on keeping the reading light blaring through the entire flight, this leg of the journey was fairly uneventful.  Landing at Moscow’s Sheremetvyo International Airport was another matter.

Directions for international immigration were anything but clear as the several hundred passengers of our flight swarmed out.  After seeing virtually every pathway blocked off with unintelligible Cyrillic script signboards, the mass of people eventually decided to circumvent a good third of the terminal, finally happening upon customs and immigration.  Observing what would prove to be typical “line rearrangement” (go wherever you like, whenever you like), we finally made it through to the other side and walked assuredly to the waiting ATM machines for our first round of roubles.  Mamo navigated the machine first, then stepped aside while I followed his stellar example.  As Robert attempted to withdraw, however, the machine suddenly balked.  A few more attempts summoned only the same sickening reply, and so I withdrew a bit extra to hold him over until we made it into the city.

Having landed safely, and now armed with the one language that crosses all borders (cash), we attempted to find our way out of the airport and into Moscow proper.  We quickly discovered, however, that airport taxi drivers were the only people who spoke English.  Even the information desk was useless for foreigners.  While I was attempting to ascertain the bus departure schedule from the woman behind the counter, a cab driver came alongside me and assuredly informed us, “You know Moscow!  It will take 3 hours by bus to get to Rechnoi Vozkal Station.  Now is rush hour!  I take you there in only one hour.”  At this point, I glanced at my watch and noted that the local time was precisely 11:30 a.m.  “Interesting time for rush hour,” I thought.  So, rejecting the taxi drivers and their overpriced fares, (40 USD) we eventually found the correct bus, queued up with the others and forked over 15 roubles each (about 60 cents).

Our bus driver nonchalantly ruled the road, going off the highway onto the shoulder or cutting off smaller cars as he pleased.  For our part, we stood up in the bus with dozens of other passengers, staying naturally wary of pickpockets.  A few minutes into the ride, though, the vehicle jerked back and forth, causing Robert to bump into the gentleman in front of him.  He furtively checked to make sure Robert hadn’t stolen his wallet!  All a matter of perspective, isn’t it?  After almost exactly one hour, we arrived at Rechnoi Vozkal Station.  I recalled the prophetic words of the cab driver and suddenly felt profoundly sorry for him.  He had by some stroke of sheer miscalculation, misinterpreted both “rush hour” and “bus driving time” entirely.   Apparently he didn’t know Moscow.

Ready to be done with the bus and on our way, we grabbed our luggage and exited with the others.  Map in hand, Mamo announced that we would take the green line to Pushkinskaya, then the red line to Tsvetnoi Bulvar.  After entering the metro station, I stepped to the window and confidently handed the woman a 100 rouble note saying, “Tsvetnoi Bulvar pajalusta.”  She handed back 85 in change.  As we quickly discovered , 15 roubles is the standard price to go anywhere by means of public transport in Moscow.
The trip to Pushkinskaya went smoothly enough, the metro not unlike one you might find in New York city except much noisier.  The switch from green line to red, however, involved a bit of confusion in which I, upon entering the red line car on my own, was inadvertently separated from Robert and Mamo.  Looking out the closed doors at their surprised faces while the subway pulled away, I was comforted by the fact that they would be sure to find me at the next station since I had the only map to our youth hostel.  And, of course, that’s precisely what they did.

We had left Tuesday morning Dallas time.  Now it was Wednesday, about 3 in the afternoon Moscow time and we were all rather exhausted.  So, there we stood at Tsvetnoi Bulvar station, what should have been at the most, a ten minute walk away from Godzillas youth hostel, and in that moment, both Mamo and Robert made their first obvious error: they let me keep the map.  Compared to navigating an unknown bus and two metro lines, I knew that a few minutes of foot travel would be no trouble at all.  So, reaching into my bag with a great deal of certainty, I pulled out the map, scrutinized it briefly, and then set out across the street.

About 15 or 20 minutes later, and having gone in a complete circle, Robert dryly suggested, “Maybe we should have a look at that map!”  I sheepishly gave it to Mamo while Robert, looking on, immediately commented, “We went in the exact opposite direction!”  Like clockwork, Mamo led us back to the station and from there on a direct route to Godzillas hostel.

We arrived only to find it dead bolted from the inside with no bell or door knocker.  Undaunted, I strolled across the street to a payphone.  As luck would have it, it only accepted phone cards.  Naturally, there were no phone card machines or stores to sell them anywhere in sight.  So, beginning to feel tinges of despair, I entered  a local restaurant and managed to use their phone free of charge.  Naturally, the number Godzilla’s had posted on their website was no longer working.

David finds crazy cola seems to work

Reluctantly, I moped back to Godzilla’s only to discover that Mamo, Robert, and all the luggage had disappeared.  Coming close to the end of my rope at this point, I gloomily wondered if my friends had been accosted by the Russian Mafia in my short absence.  Never one to give up, though, I tried the door again.  It was locked as sturdily as ever.  Then, suddenly, I heard muffled voices from inside, and a few moments later Robert opened the door.  Flooded with relief and sure that we’d finally made it, I walked upstairs to check in.  The man on duty spoke English, but of course, this was no surprise, since I’d chosen this place with that in mind.  Most other low end places (this one was 25 USD each per night) did not have English speaking staff.  Thank goodness we would spend the night here!

My jubilation was premature, however, as I could see that Mamo was having a heated discussion with the hostel employee.  He wanted to see our reservation #, and Mamo did not have it.  Thankfully, I had printed out an email with this # on it and gladly showed him.  He proceeded to look it up on his computer, then glanced across the room at me and casually commented, “Oh yes, that was cancelled.  Sorry, we are full.”

While I attempted to recover from the shock of this unexpected development, the clerk suggested another place to the tune of 40 USD each, per night (recalling the cab driver once again, I noted that apparently 40 USD is the magic number for everything in Moscow).  So, having no other choice, Robert, Mamo and I set out once again with a hastily drawn map to find our new residence on Tsverskaya street.

About 20 minutes later, we finally reached what would prove to be the Broadway of Moscow.  I had no clue, though, what we were looking for, nor could any of us translate the Cyrillic script signs lining the street.  In an act of desperation, I somehow convinced a worker at another restaurant to come show me precisely which building the hotel was in.  We must have looked a pathetic lot by this time, causing his sympathy for three bewildered travelers to get the best of him.

The staff at the Tsverskaya hotel were all over 40 (there’s that number again!) years old and as a result, none of them spoke any English.  We wondered, of course, how feasible it would be to stay there since our communication ability was at an all time low.    Then,  after a few heated remarks in unintelligible Russian as the clerks grew more frustrated, we held a quick conference and decided to stay.  Naturally, we had to pay in cash up front before obtaining a room.  Then, finally, with key in hand, we attempted to board the hotel elevator.  Unfortunately, we observed that the three of us could not fit inside what  should have been properly called a dumb waiter.  Instead, we climbed up the stairwell to the fifth floor and looked around for #569.

By now, we realized that the hotel itself was a complete wreck and had probably not been renovated for at least 50 years.  Our room came complete with a broken window, a small t.v. that did not work, and a rotary phone.  Then there were the ashtrays scattered throughout the lobby, hallways, and rooms.  This was essential, of course, since as we soon discovered, most people in Moscow smoke constantly.  “Safe” at last, Robert crashed on his bed for some much needed sleep while Mamo and I deposited our luggage and went out in search of food.

Walking through the hallway of our floor on the way out, we had a brief run-in with a few of the custodial staff.  Two maids stopped Mamo in passing and insisted that we follow them back to their room. The situation seemed rather questionable to me, but remembering that there were two of us, and that Mamo knew a bit of Judo, I went along.  I was rather amused when I discovered what they wanted him for: to inquire about some Korean liquor they had discovered, likely left over from a previous guest.  I of course, as people would often disappointedly realize, was not Russian and could not understand a bit of what they said.  In this case, the disappointment was doubly hard on the poor cleaning ladies as they finally ascertained that Mamo was not Korean and thus could not enlighten them concerning their precious beverage.

Finally arriving outside once again, we noted that the Tsverskaya hotel was right in the middle of downtown Moscow, a mere 15 minute walk north of the Kremlin.  Consequently, the eating establishments were not, shall we say, wallet-friendly.  Mamo and I walked around the area and discovered 12 or 13 sushi restaurants, even more cafes, and a handful of overpriced Italian restaurants.  At our wits end and growing more hungry by the moment, I suggested that we search for a grocery store. Eventually, we happened upon one and promptly stocked up on our first Russian meal.  We returned to the hotel bearing a quality assortment of bread, Russsian potato salad, chicken cutlets, and a 5 liter jug of water.  Note to self, never drink tap water in Moscow.  It’s so bad, they haven’t even bothered to install public drinking fountains anywhere in the city.

After getting a long overdue rest, we woke the next morning and began to explore the city more thoroughly.  Mamo had chosen a restaurant called Mumu that he wanted to try, so we headed that direction to see what would await us.  Mumu turned out to be a local chain that served reasonably priced Russian cuisine.  The restaurant was complete with a large holstein cow statue with eyes bulging that stood out front to attract customers.  Attached to the restaurant was an outside cafe-like setting where we decided to sit down and eat.  I noted that drinks at MuMu cost (here’s that number again) 40 roubles, but knew I could buy a drink from a vendor on the street for 25, so I got drinks and brought them back to the outside seating area.  The restaurant security guard, however (there are security guards, military, and police everywhere!) came over and indicated that we could not drink the water purchased outside of the restaurant.  We complied, putting the bottles on the ground.  Still frustrated, however, he came over with a plastic bag and insisted that we put our drinks inside.  Service with a smile!

On the street outside of MuMu, we stopped for a bit to peruse some local souvenirs.  At the second stand, we met a fellow from Georgia, (Tbilisi, Georgia that is).  He was quite amicable but savvy in his line of work,  able to speak several languages including English.  After a few minutes of haggling, Robert and I bought some matrioshkas and a Russian hat.  Bargaining was quite a game, but I finally got precisely the price I originally wanted.  Of course, later, I wondered if I had gone low enough.  Probably not!  While at this stand, Robert noticed a Putin matrioshka doll with all of the Russian presidents, dictators, and czars inside.  The vendor from Georgia commented, “Putin go home!”  Our next stop, on the other hand, was the Moscow River.

Our provodnista…

En route, we became stuck at a busy intersection and I half jokingly commented, “Let’s just go for it!”  Another girl also wanting to cross the street overheard me speaking English and said, “Oh no!  You can’t cross here!”  Having discovered a common goal, the four of us looked around and found an underground passage, safely making it across.  At this point, the girl wanted to know which one of us spoke Russian and why we were in Moscow.  I replied, “None of us speak Russian.  We’re here for tourism!”  There was a puzzled expression on her face as she quickly replied, “Why?”  I suppose, of course, that this would explain why we did not run into many non Russian tourists during our sojourn there.  The country, fascinating as it is, simply doesn’t appear to be interested in hosting visitors.

Parting ways with the befuddled young lady, we walked on until we reached the Moscow River.  Mamo had done his research as usual and found a boat that we could ride straight through the most interesting southern sector of the city.  This afforded plenty of excellent photos of famous sites including the Cathedral of Christ our Savior, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Russian Foreign Ministry building.  An unexpected bonus of being on the river was that we were free at last from the constant barrage of fluffy white tree pollen which was literally all over Moscow.  We asked about it later and discovered that it apparently only falls for about one week every year.  As usual, our timing was impeccable.  After about an hour’s journey, the boat docked and we headed north to Red Square.

On the south end of Red Square we went inside St. Basil’s Cathedral, which was the highlight of the entire city for me.  St. Basil’s was a castle-like classic Eastern Orthodox church.  There were souvenier shops inside, but no parishioners or clergy.  As with many churches in Europe, it was clearly a “tourist only” building but still rich with Biblical art and about 5 or 600 years old.  Besides St. Basil’s, I’m told that Lenin’s preserved body is another popular attraction in this area, but I can’t imagine why.  Red Square itself was rather large, but all the cobblestones there were a drab grey color.  Obviously, the square is so named due to the red buildings flanking it, particularly the northernmost one.

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