Moscow 04 p1

Getting my bearings

This was going to be an unusual trip. Originally I had wanted to tag along the Lebanese Wushu team when they went to the European Championship that would take place in Moscow that year. I was told it wouldn't be possible, however, and that they were not even sure they'd be able to go themselves, so I booked my own plane ticket, secured my visa, and found myself a youth hostel. When they finally booked themselves a month later, it turned out we'd be on the same flights both to and from Moscow, so we met at the airport. Most of the team did not expect me and looked somewhat confused and seriously worried as to my survival, alone out there. How little they knew me...

Wednesday, September 1

We arrived around 9:30 and waited forever to get our bags. I guess there was some extra security measures because there'd been a car bomb the previous day – as it turned out, just up the street from my hostel, Traveller's Guest House, but I didn't know this yet. I left them when my suitcase arrived because someone was waiting to pick me up, with a promise to come down and watch the opening ceremony in the evening. Once there, I had a much-needed nap while waiting for check-in time, showered, took my bearings around the neighbourhood and made for Luzhniki, the Olympic complex where I would find my friends.

My dorm room at TGH

TGH is one street off the insanely long avenue of Prospekt Mira. I immediately named it the Street That Is Not To Be Crossed, as on that first day I couldn't find any way of getting across it and it's way too wide to try one's luck at jaywalking – wider than any city street I've come across before. Moscow is filled with Streets That Are Not To Be Crossed, as I would later find out. Getting to the other side is a hike in its own right. The city's architecture does make it clear that the Soviets thought big.

A facade on Prospekt Mira
What was also very obvious was that not taking the time to at least learn to read Cyrillic before going to Russia is a mistake. I did take the time, and tried to ingest as much of the language as I could (which was not much, as my brain seems to resist such consonant-rich words). That was rewarding not only because I could make out the names of the metro stations, but because Russian is so filled with borrowed words from Indo-European languages that I could recognize a number of them on billboards and get a certain idea of the topic. Sitting in an airplane for a few hours also taught me the word for "exit", which came in handy, as did my habit of deciphering everything my eyes fall on while I walk, such as upon entering a station: "Hmm, niet something… oh, no entry!"

I managed to ask for a 20-entry pass; the lady at the counter was quite patient, unlike the guy behind me who rudely shoved his money through the window when I wasn't fast enough for him. But, she shoved it right back at him, as if dealing with an ill-mannered child.

The metro (pronounced mietro) in Moscow is memorable. The stations that were built between 1930 and 1950 were designed by great architects, and though the propagandist agenda could not be any more obvious, they are splendid. Two other things I noticed about the metro: it's frighteningly deep, and really hot the moment you pass the heavy swinging doors. The system was one I had not encountered before, and it makes it doubly important to know how to read: each station is assigned just one line, so that where in say, London, lines would cross within a station, here crossing lines mean different stations connected together. Suppose you're in Lubyanka (red line ) and wish to go to Smolenskaya (green line): you need look out for Okhotny Ryad to get off the train and catch a correspondence. On the way back however, your change station is Teatralnaya! The names of the stations are also not readily visible when the train stops, so two solutions: memorize the number of stops necessary, or pay close attention to what the announcer says. The very first couple of words are the station where you are, then follows more talk that is doubtlessly info of the "change here for the … line" sort, and the very last couple of words are the next station.
I found the periodically failing lights in the trains to be an amusing detail.

I can't remember which station that was...
I came out of the Sportivnaya station to the confusing sight of an enormous market for clothes, shoes, handbags etc. I walked straight through and found the monumental Luzhniki. My coach had said in passing they'd be in a place called Druzhba. I'm surprised I remembered it, but it's a good thing I did – I asked my way and had to walk for several minutes before reaching the small structure, that looks every bit like a docked alien jellyfish. I thought the team would be there until the evening, but as it turned out the ceremony had been postponed and if I had arrived only 5 mn later, I would have missed them and not had a clue what to do. As it were, I arrived there only to find a bus loaded with the team and a very flabbergasted head of the federation, seeing me show up out of nowhere. I climbed into the bus and accompanied them to their hotel, where I kept them company until, at long last, they were given keys to their rooms — they had come straight from the airport and not been able to rest yet! The hotel was 15 mn away from the nearest station,  and that was the terminal of the line. I was not really upset to not be staying with them...

The market at Sportivnaya

Having had only 2 or 3 hours of sleep, I was in a state of drunken exhaustion but went to Kitai Gorod nevertheless to make the most of my day. Kitai Gorod is the city's oldest neighbourhood; it was Moscow's great commercial district till it was largely destroyed by fire in 1812, and after that it slowly turned into a business centre. It's a lovely place to walk around and discover architectural styles. When I came out of the station a couple of drops were falling, that quickly turned into torrential rain just as I was trying to shoot a church. I sought refuge under its porch and for the longest time I thought this was the venerable Church of the Trinity in Nikitniki, from 1630, so I might as well tell you something about the latter. It is unusual in that it was built with a square plan, a pillarless nave and three rows of kokoshniki (ogee-shaped arches, renamed in Russia after the kokoshnik, a similarly shaped female headdress) crowned with 5 bulb-topped towers – a number hitherto reserved to the Kremlin cathedrals. Due to its innovation it became a model for most churches built in the few decades after it. Amusingly, it was built in the courtyard of the rich merchant that commissioned it, and he used the ground floor as a warehouse.

As it turned out, my shelter from the rain was the Church of All Saints of the Place Said Kulishki, built in 1380… The cross and crescent combination you can see in the picture was a mystery to me until I returned and my highly cultured grandma enlightened me: back in the days of the Tatar invasions, the occupying army removed the crosses from all the churches and replaced them with the Muslim crescent. When the Tatars were defeated, it was decided not to remove the crescents but to put the crosses back on top of them to commemorate the victory of the latter over the former.

Church of All Saints of the Place Said Kulishki,
with the cross-over-crescent.
When the rain subsided I walked a little further, and my eye was caught by another church, so I made my way to it. But when I reached it I found another one behind it, then another, and another – until at the end of this line of painfully pretty structures I found myself staring at Basil's Cathedral itself, and decided I would stop right there and return when I could give it the attention and time it deserved.

Starry domes!
Scaly domes!
Rooftop texture

I returned to TGH where I collapsed in the common room and chatted with other travellers until it was a decent hour for me to go to bed. That evening there was Brian, a young British who'd been not far from the car explosion, and David, from Hong Kong living in Toronto.
"I once tried to learn Russian by rote", he said, "writing words thousands of times to memorize them."
"Did it work?"
"Mmm… No."