July 12, 2006

Moscow - better late than never

Oops, I realized I hadn't written a long-promised report on my weekend in Moscow last month. So here goes.

I think I mentioned before that the city feels megalomanic (is that English?). When I tell people how overwhelming the city felt, how HUGE it is, the standard reaction is: “But you lived in Tokyo – how can anything be bigger than that?”. Well, Moscow is one of the places that does. It is big in a very different way though. It's a city built for giants. Especially in the city center (where I spent most of my time) you can feel the power and money – and you can fully imagine the roads full of tanks and military parades as we've all seen on old pictures of the Soviet Union.

The overwhelmingness of it all took me a bit by surprise. The first night I spent in the city I spent walking around the Red Square and the river and it gave me a very good impression, despite all the hecticness.

However, coming back after three weeks for the weekend was quite different. Despite (or because of?) having a very good guidebook I felt I couldn't really make up my mind and I ended up wandering around the city a lot. Also good and interesting – and it made me end up at interesting places – but in a sense it also felt a bit like a weekend of lost opportunities.

The highlights of the trip:
* a guided tour around the Kremlin – me and a colleague were shown around privately for three hours by a non-stop talking guide. The Kremlin is huge! Despite my expectations of it being a lot of buildings for government, it is almost a walled-in town. The main attractions are the palaces (which we didn't enter unfortunately) and the cathedrals. It's very park-like because of all the green. Did I say it is huge? Some knowledge of tsarist history is quite necessary though! I can't remember how many different stories we heard about Peter the Great, the great-grandmother of Catherine the Great, the long lost cousin of someone else, etc. etc.

* the Metro – it wasn't so much the stories about all the marvelous stations and such. Yes, they are big and wondrous with marble halls and so on. It was more the shock when I realized that everything was written in Cyrillic! No English, not anywhere. I'm quite used to travelling by subway but it gets a bit more adventurous when you realize that you do really need to stare at the (small) signs to work out what line you need to take to get to what station. And if that wasn't enough: they need to re-do the colouring. Distinguishing the orange line from the red line from the brown line was quite a challenge at times.

The metro is fun though. Riding back into the center on Saturday night was especially fun! After having spent the evening at a horrendous tourist trap dance show (caused by the lack of proper classical ballet performances that evening in the city) I was treated to another performance underground when some passengers spontaneously started playing music and dancing in the traincar. I love that, just watching people do their own thing.

What I should do differently next time:
* go to the New Tretyakov Gallery instead of the old one. The old Gallery has indeed an interesting building and all of the Russian classic artists up until about the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, most art that I find interesting is after that time! After my Russian colleague had convincingly persuaded me to go to the old one (“No, it's not seperated in time, that's not true, it's all together in the old Gallery, the New one is for temporary exhibitions.” – hey, I can't exactly argue with a local if the guidebook says otherwise, right?) I did have a good afternoon. But I still desperately want to go to the New Gallery!

* skip the Arbat. The guidebook said it was one of the most pleasant areas of Moscow to walk around in. Uhm, yes. If you like aggressive souvenir sellers, souvenir shops and tourist haunts. I don't know where the Russian shops are in this area but the Arbat is not the place to be.

All in all, it's a fascinating place. So much power, history, money. Although Moscow is not immediately on the top of my list of places to go back to I think there is still much much more to see. For now, next up in Russia is St. Petersburg. Preferably in winter!

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