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Railaway!

July 3, 2011
By Asmodeane in Posts, Travel

Day One & Two, 1 - 2 July
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Lenin and Stalin at the fountain

Lenin and Stalin chillin' at the fountain

I wish I could say that we left Helsinki on a dark and stormy evening, lashed by cold rain and occasionally illuminated by lightning and deafened by peals of thunder. Or even that we were greeted by a scene worthy of an Evil Empire once we crossed the Russian border, Mordoresque and forbidding. But no, we set off on a hot and windless summer day, perfect in its blinding luminosity, all harmless fluffy clouds and friendly sunshine right off the cover of a childrens book. And it stayed that way even as we arrived at Vyborg, where we got our passports back from the surly customs officers, visas thoroughly thumbed and stamped, managing to avoid a body cavity search, much to my girlfriend’s regret.
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The train trip itself was equally uneventful, we had a bite to eat and a few beers at the restaurant wagon, where the prices were apparently raised to equal those of their Finnish counterparts since I’ve last took a train to Moscow. We weren’t particularly lucky with our cabin neighbours, the cabin was shared by some annoyingly retarded family (dad slept in a separate cabin) from Helsinki, Russian finns by the sound of it, and mighty proud of the fact, since getting a complete sentence out of them in Russian alone was impossible, they saw it as some sort of a badge of honor, a proof of their cultural belonging to cram into it as many Finnish words as possible. The daughter was an infantile cretin of about thirty, with a nauseatingly piping voice that made me want to snap her neck whenever she opened her mouth. And to think that she was an MD! Lately I’ve been becoming more and more convinced in the old truism that titles mean very little when it comes to relating to others around you and contemplating things outside your sphere of expertise. Or maybe that’s just something those of us without titles say.
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VDNH Park

VDNH Park

The train arrived at the Leningradsky Train Station obscenely early for our tastes, at about  08:30, meaning we were woken up by the wagon hostess already around 7. Moscow’s environs, the so-called “Podmoscowye” were already crawling past our windows. Arrival to Moscow is nothing to write home about. First you see tons of small and occasionally cute dachas, which then gradually swell into hideous apartment blocks that differ a little from one communist era to another (generally becoming shabbier the closer to Perestroyka they get), interspersed by  vast industrial areas that invariably look gutted, looted and abandoned, decrepit powers stations and vast car parks surrounded by wicked barbed wire fences. Fairly exotic fair for a Russia virgin, but dull and dreary for those of us that have had ample experience with Russian Realism.
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Being seasoned travelers and armed with a fluency in Russian we of course took the metro to our flat. Yes, we have a flat in Moscow, although by “we” I mean the company my mother works for, they had no expats at the Moscow office at the time so were kind enough to let us use the place. Luckily work traffic flowed in the opposite direction, from suburbs to the center, otherwise navigating the metro while strapped to a gigantic backpack would have been a much more daunting experience. We even managed to secure a couple of seats for our burdensome belongings. Once at metro station Alekseyevskaya we quickly found our apartment block and, sped on by a prospect of a thorough hot shower, flew up the 8 flights of stairs as if our backpacks were filled with helium, the elevator being conveniently and predictably out of order. Our excitement quickly turned to dismay, however, since apparently the whole city block to which our house belonged was targeted by a mysterious procedure called “prophylactic shut down” that afflicts Muscovites every summer, think rolling blackouts but with hot water instead of electricity. My cousin later told me that they used to last two weeks or more, but only about a week tops nowadays. That did little to console us, though. We had to boil some water in a kettle, plug the hand basin and fill it with the boiling water, then mix it with cold water to make bearable and use that after the general shower with freezing water that made breath flee and my cold urticaria flare up. We tried to console ourselves with the thought that it made our travel experience all the more realistic and vivid, but failed. Russia, goddamnit, quit stealing from your own people! While your kleptocrats drive around in million dollar cars on the most expensive roads in the world (that doesn’t stop them from also being amongst the worst roads in the world) your citizens suffer from decaying infrastructure and power failures, and that in a country making its living almost entirely off hydrocarbon export! Russia, you disgust me.
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But I digress. After a bracing shower we decided to head out to VDNH park, about 2km walk from our flat, since gf’s never been there and the weather just begged for an extended outdoor excursion of some sort. The park itself was set up at some point in the fifties, wiki it if you care to, to showcase the achievements of Soviet Republics. There were pavilions for each of the republics, in which they bragged about, say, their agricultural production in case of Ukraine and superb dairy products in case of, say, Estonia. There were also themed buildings dedicated to things like consumer electronics, furniture, textile manufacture et cetera. The heart of the park houses a real Vostok rocket, the kind that carried Gagarin into space, or was it the one that propelled Sputnk to the orbit? I think it’s Gagarin’s… I forget, and am writing this offline, so yeah, wikipedia is your friend. There is also a parked Yak 42 passenger jet, used to be in its original Aeroflot livery just a couple of years ago but is now garishly airbrushed to commemorate, surprise surprise, the victory of the Soviet Army over the Fascist Invaders. Nowadays the VDNH pavilions are all in various state of decreptitude. Once Soviet Union fell apart and its republics gained independence the pavilions were gradually rented out to various enterpreneurs. There was also precious little money left for upkeep of the park itself, its green alleys and gilded fountains, so it all pretty much became a huge unregulated bazaar, with all sorts of peddlers lining the avenues and more affluent merchants renting whole pavillions to peddle wares that ranged from kitties to cars and cameras. It still is that way, although they have been cleaning the place up somewhat, there is almost no corner peddling and some pavilions, like that of Belarus, are actually being used as intended, showing off the produce of its various industries.
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We were caught out by a quick but ferocious summer shower while admiring the phallic proportions of Vostok rocket, so dived into one of the numerous shashlik joints and had a pint while resting our weary feet, and then continued on to the center of Moscow, catching a metro to Okhotny Ryad station and then making our way up the Tverskoy Bulevard to see my relatives, a couple of fairly well known illustrators, to pick up the tickets for the Irkutsk -Ulanbaator leg of our train journey. It was thus arranged by the RealRussia.co.uk through which we bought our tickets for the Irkutsk - Ulanbaator - Beijing legs.
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Here I must insert a word about Real Russia and our ticket arrangements in general. Real Russia seems to be a fairly efficient and inexpensive agency, but our relationship got off on a wrong foot, since when we preliminarily booked our whole trip through them they mixed up our orders with those of some Dutch couple, sending us their passport number and various other personal details along with their bill and itinerary. I was aghast and sent a scathing letter to their office, got back many apologies, but decided then and there to get our tickets through RZhD (Russian Rail Roads) directly, complications be damned. It turned out that it was possible to buy some of the tickets from the Helsinki train station direct, right at the foreign departures counter, but with one caveat: the train had to leave from Moscow, allowing for no longer stops along the way, i.e. we could, were we so inclined, buy a ticket for the Moscow - Beijing train, but not, say, one for the Ulanbaator - Beijing or Irkutsk - Ulanbaator legs. So we gave up the plans for visiting Ekaterinburg (thank God, I was never in favor of that) and bought tickets for the first two legs, Helsinki - Moscow and Moscow - Irkutsk from the counter with no hassle and no credit card bills. Getting the rest of the tickets, however, proved to be more problematic. It turns out that as soon as the tickets come on sale (45 days prior to departure in Russia) they are snapped up by various agencies like Real Russia, who then mark them up by various degrees and sell them on. So we had to go back to using Real Russia… And they didn’t disappoint. No more confidentiality breaches, the service was always punctual and efficient, the tickets delivered to my relatives in Moscow for a pittance, and the tickets for the Ulanbaator - Beijing leg delivered to our Mongolian hostel for free (we’ll see how that works out once we get there).
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Cousin & Wife

Cousin & Wife

So, back to Moscow. After a huge and extremely tasty lunch at my rels  place we headed off to survey the Red Square, armed with a cousin and his wife for guides. I foolishly told my cousin that I was tired of traipsing back and forth along the Tverskoy Bulevard with its posh shops and posher restaurants, that I wanted to go to the Red Square through “courtyards, gardens and cabbage patches”.  I was speaking figuratively, but he took it mischievously literally, and we weaved our way “around the back”, through dumpster infested little inner courtyards, scaring rats and bums, through divine little gardens secreted behind forbidding facades, through playgrounds and sand boxes, with my cousin constantly lamenting the fact that many of the courtyards are now private property and so fenced off, which differed from his gilded Soviet childhood memories, when he (and I, occasionally) roamed the hidden

Amateur photoshoot at the park. Cheeky!

Amateur photoshoot at the park. Cheeky!

labyrinth of Moscow yards practically uninhibited, if you discount the occasional irate and hungover street sweeper that doubled as a house handyman in some of the more affluent buildings. Ahem. Yes, get to the Red Square we did. Took the obligatory photographs, and then were off to the Kolomensky park, to check out the church built by Ivan the Terribly in the 1530s. The park also hosted a little festival called Sabantui (-stan themed, tons of Kirgiz, Kazakh, Tadjik and Uzbek stands and people), and about a million cops and OMON operatives preserving the peace, especially around the metro station where the whole wretched mass of overheated humanity eventually ended up. I guess they were also on the lookout for extremist actions of any kind, since those are getting more and more frequent as the years pass and the “guest worker” population of southern minorities increases. We neither saw nor heard any violence, just took a walk around the delightful park, my girlfriend getting her first mosquito bite.
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Afterwards, tired and sore, we headed off towards home at the Alekseevskaya station, and had a late dinner at Grabli, a quaint self-service joint of the kind popular in major Russian cities, and then were off to sleep in our kiln of a flat, with no air conditioning and hot water, taking cold showers to the point of hypothermia just to make the hear bearable. We did find a noisy old fan standing forlornly in the corner, and managed to start it up despite its stubborn resistance. It stood squeaky guard over us through the night, making sleep bearable, if not actually enjoyable.

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Phew, that’s done. Try having a toasty laptop for a bed buddy when the ambient room temperature exceeds 28 degrees. Will try to find my girlfriend an affordable hairdresser, me a well equipped books store, and then try to arrange for a sight seeing cruise on the Moscow river.

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