A local tells me, “there is Moscow, and there is the rest of Russia,” and just a few steps off a slow, four-day train from Siberia, I can see why. The full glory of Mother Russia is on display – grand architecture engraved with hammers and sickles designed to awe the individual with the power of the state. Communism might have collapsed, but the fossils of its power are impressive. Meanwhile, the backwardness of rural Siberia undeniably gives way to a modern European capital of hip fashion and dazzling culture.
With only a few days to explore Moscow, I couldn’t wait three hours in a line-up to see Lenin’s stuffed corpse in Red Square. So I did as the locals do, bribed someone who bribed someone else, strolled to the front of the line, winked at the guard, and walked in. Red Square got its name from old red bricks that once lay there, and holds most of Moscow’s best landmarks. St Basil’s Cathedral looks like giant ice cream sundaes striped with raspberry and blueberry swirls, while the 500-year old Kremlin fort has gigantic brick walls that belie their age. As Russia feverishly embraces a free-market economy, the fact that thousands of tourists line up to see Lenin is somewhat embarrassing to the new government, not to mention the communist paraphernalia available in every street market. When Stalin fell out of favour, his stuffed body was removed from Lenin’s side in the mausoleum and buried outside the walls of the Kremlin. Lenin might join him in the future, but for now, the founder of communism lies peacefully, glowing like uranium in a dark room.
Over coffee, I meet some young Russians who tell me President Putin is immensely popular, and that Muscovites truly see themselves apart from the rest of the country. Growing up with cold war movies, the overall atmosphere here was neither as controlled nor suspicious as I’d imagined it to be. But how could I not get a buzz exploring the ballroom metros of Moscow, pretending I was a secret agent making a drop-off beneath the opulent chandeliers? Built in the 1930’s, each metro stop seemed grander than the next, with huge statues, mosaics, and tall, hand-carved ceilings. Tourists follow guides from one train to the next, while locals look on with stares of classic Russian grimness. The metro’s long escalators seem like they descend all the way to hell itself, and trains pull off with a savage abruptness - the epitome of brutal Russian efficiency. It’s easy to spot tourists because they’re constantly thrown around by the sudden stops and starts of the train, desperately clutching the limbs of unimpressed locals to steady themselves.
I head off to the Moscow State Circus, because tickets are cheap and it’s where Cirque du Soleil finds many of its star performers. The acrobatics were jaw dropping, and a gorgeous contortionist twisted every man’s imagination into knots. After checking out a sensational open-air travel photo exhibition (outdoor art decorates the city), and lining up to see the Kremlin (lining up in Russia appears to be a way of life), I boarded a night train for the jewel in Russia’s crown, St Petersburg.
Combine the striking churches of Prague with the beautiful buildings that sit alongside the Danube in Budapest, add the canals of Amsterdam with the colour of Copenhagen, and welcome to St Petersburg, truly one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Amongst Bohemian bars and decadent restaurants, I ponder that pristine St Pete’s was the scene of Word War Two’s most horrific siege. The 900-day Nazi blockade of Leningrad (as it was known) killed over a million people in the city. How so many magnificent cathedrals and palaces survived is a miracle, more so as post-war communists turned many of these magnificent structures into warehouses. After cleaning up for the G8 summit in 2006, the city today looks the best it has in its turbulent history. The main strip of Nevsky Prospekt bustles, the old town’s canals sparkle alongside bright painted buildings, and the morbidly named Church of Spilled Blood poses for pictures like a supermodel. The Hermitage, arguably the Louvre’s only rival, houses 3 million pieces of art, or six years of your life if stared at every piece for three seconds. I often judge a city by the amount of time I can walk around before getting bored. Discovering one amazing sight after another, I walked St Petersburg until I got blisters.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.