MOSCOW HATES YOU!
That’s right, Moscow hates YOU. Don’t take it personally, as far as we could tell, Moscow hates absolutely everyone… OK, perhaps hate is a strong word, but Moscow certainly found us utterly inconvenient, and there was no way our soft, liberal, Western arses were getting an easy ride. After a relatively pleasant (apart from the Belorussian border) train journey, we arrived at Moscow’s Belorussky train station to be greeted by one of the worst blizzards we’ve ever seen. Granted, hailing from drizzly England as we do, our usual experience of snow is the annual one inch of snowfall that manages to bring the country to its knees for an entire week. In Moscow the snow was falling hard and fast, with any surface not been walked or driven on already holding at least 3-4 inches of the white stuff… You may be thinking, snow in Moscow? No shit, what did you expect, stop moaning! But the harsh weather was the least of our worries.
RPHJY KJVVGCFD! SGKHIDFHJ! SHGKSKJ! Confused? Yes? No, I’ve not lost it, this is just a little illustration of how we felt after being repeatedly punched in the eyeballs by the Cyrillic alphabet. Moscow is an modern international capital city, of course it will cater to a huge non-Russian speaking tourist trade wont it?… No. No it won’t. The guidebooks all said it’s worth taking a bit of time to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. They were right. We had thought that some of the Eastern European languages were hard to decipher, but now how we longed for the warm embrace of those friendly Latin letters, we could even overlook the diacritics. At first, not only does it seem impossible to understand the myriad of visual communication being directed at you from every angle, it also seems like this unknown language is constantly SHOUTING AT YOU, BECAUSE TO OUR IGNORANT EYES, CYRILLIC APPEARS TO BE MADE UP OF MAINLY CAPITAL LETTERS!
Also, not many people speak English, so finding a cash machine so we could by tickets for the metro took about 45 minutes of bumbling around in the blizzard with all our gear, getting pointed around in circles, only to eventually find there was one in the exit section of the metro station. After a cramped but fairly standard metro journey, we arrived at the station that was purportedly 10-15 minutes walk away from our hostel (true if you knew where you were going). The directions we had been sent by the hostel were totally appalling, and one hour later, we arrived.
Our hostel, the appropriately named Chillax, was both chilled and relaxed. The staff spoke decent English and were friendly and helpful. The strange thing about Russian hostels is that a lot of the time, locals live there too. You can tell the ones who live there, as they are the Russian guys who stroll around in just their underpants with a can of beer at ten in the morning. We had read that they often act like they own the place and can be rude and bossy to temporary guests. We didn’t experience this, and our permanent residents seemed perfectly pleasant, although I certainly wouldn’t describe them as friendly. One of the negatives to the hostel were that there was only 2 male and 1 female shower. The girls got a worse deal as you had to walk past reception to use the toilet or shower. The place potentially held 30ish people so this many showers and a few toilets could get seriously crowded. All in all it was a decent place to stay, with a large comfy common room, a fully equipped (if small and crowded) kitchen, and an overall very relaxed atmosphere. (Checkout was 12.00 but if you’re train wasn’t till late the night, you were welcome to hang around and use all the facilities till you left).
Moscow is a big, busy, and brutal looking city. A mixture of the imposing grandeur of the old Royal buildings like the Kremlin and the Red Square, and the cold, immense, utilitarian, brutalism of the Soviet era government buildings. The crowds and general public at large appear to mirror the atmosphere of the city. Nobody smiles, and it initially feels like the entirety of Moscow and its inhabitants totally hates you… Despite our initial impression, and the title of this post, this isn’t entirely true… What we found was that despite the hostile vibe given off by the public as a whole, most individual Russians we had transactions with, or asked help of, were very friendly. Although, we discovered that the term ‘friendly’ is a culturally relative term. In the UK we’d generally expect some smiles, handshakes, nods, and eyebrow movement when someone is being friendly. In Moscow they will certainly assist with your query, and even go well above and beyond what is needed to help you, the only difference is that if you looked at their stern face and general demeanor, you would never guess that it was help that you were receiving I suppose the smiles and nods we use are really superfluous, you don’t need them in order to give someone with assistance, its just an extra signifier that help is being given. The Moscovians (Moscovites?) possibly feel that just providing the necessary help that was asked for is enough. Smiling and such is just an unnecessary bourgeois extravagance maybe?
Another thing that adds to the initial impression of hostility is the sheer amount of police/army/militia everywhere. There seems to be no particular distinction between police and army, just many different types of really badass guys with truncheons. Some wear camo, some wear combat police gear, some wear long, official looking grey trench-coats. All wear big furry hats. They tend to walk around in pairs, often swinging round their batons – which seems unnecessarily oppressive. They also seem to be on every street. Moscow apparently has a very low crime rate. I can see why. (They also have walk-through metal detectors in almost every shop and subway, which are constantly beeping as people walk through, but the security guards just ignore them. I had my penknife in my bag, which sometimes made be a bit nervous wandering about. I wanted to avoid a trip to a Gulag).
St Patricks day we thought we’d go for a few bevvies at the nearest Irish Bar. The bar was packed and 90% Russian (as you would expect) however many were all bizzarley painted in the Irish colours and wearing novelty hats. After accidentally spending £6 on a Guinness (I drank Russian lager after that, but even the cheapest pint was about £3.80) We got chatting to the only two Irish guys in there and had a generally nice time. We also made a new Siberian friend called Slava. Slava is an Officer in the Russian Army, posted in Siberia (and possibly from Siberia too). We had a good piss up as you do, and then Slava proceeded to come home with us, and stay at our hostel for the next 2 days till his flight back to Siberia. (Where he was going stay had he not met us we’re not sure). It’s amazing what alcohol can do to the language barrier. The night we met, we discovered Slavas name, profession (I think he’s studying to be a comms engineer in the Army), and his penchant for 70’s American punk. We even discussed me recently starting to read Crime and Punishment. (He also gave us a gift, see the photos). In the sober light of day, it turns out we don’t speak ANY Russian, and Slava only spoke very little English (one English word per Russian sentence). So next day we ate together and had a walk around the red square, it was all very amiable, but with minimal verbal communication. It was very difficult without alcoholic lubrication. As Amy correctly pointed out, only we could go out for a few beers and end up coming home with a Siberian.
Reading back the above ramblings, it seems at times quite a negative description of Moscow. Which I suppose it is, however that’s not to say we wouldn’t recommend it, or come back. We had a top time overall. It’s certainly not a backpackers haven, but its an incredibly interesting place, and to come back and spend some time and (perhaps more importantly) money really getting to know the place would be great.
Other things we’ve learned about Moscow
Cars rule. Above ground pedestrains are second class. There are huge 8 lane (all same direction) roads with no road markings. Its absolute chaos. If you’re lucky enough to find a pedestrian crossing, they give you about 10 seconds to get across 8 lanes. What about the old ladies?
Going deeper underground. The best way not to die in Moscow is to use the huge network of underground pedestrian subways. You soon find there’s a whole subterranean side to Moscow with shops, sellers and beggars all residing under the cities streets. We even stumble across a whole underground shopping mall when we were crossing one road via the subway.
Park life. When travelling on the cheap, one of the free things you can do in a city is visit it’s park. We realised we are inadvertently compiling a list of best city centre parks, and Gorsky park doesn’t rate very highly. It does rise a place or two due to the fact there is an actual soviet space shuttle plonked in it, but other than that it seemed pretty small and dead. To be fair, we did go in sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow fall. Most Russians are sensible enough to realise these are not ideal conditions for a day trip to the park. We may need to revisit in summer.
Oh dear. Moscow is very dear, especially if you don’t hunt around for places locals or backpackers use. Even then its similar cost to the most expensive European capitals. The only cheap way for backpackers really is to just buy beer and food from supermarkets and cook your own stuff. This is pretty much what we do anyway unless the place is renowned for cheap beer or cafes (Eg Czech or Poland).
PS – We realised we accidentally smuggled a joint into Russia. This was even more alarming when a friend we made on the Trans-Siberian said he had sniffer dogs check his cabin on the Belorussian border crossing. Anyway, HAHA. Sam and Amy – 1, Russia and the Belorussian Border guards – 0.
– Next post will be about our first leg on the Trans-Siberian. Its nearly done, but we are going out living in Mongolian Gers for a couple of days, so if I don’t manage the post with this dodgy internet, we won’t be back online for another 3 days or so.
Moscow, Russian Federation
15/03/13 – 19/03/12