Hiking in the Cinque Terre

Monday, April 14, 2008

Russia, Day 1



Day One 
We arrived in the afternoon.  We got through customs unscathed, although it took a fair amount of time.  We easily spotted Rasilev, the taxi driver sent by Godzillas Hostel.  After getting some cash from an ATM, we followed him to his car.  We got into his reasonably late model car.  There was no sign of a seatbelt.   The heat in and outside the car was bearing down..  When I asked Rasilev if he could slow down or if there was a seatbelt, he took a pause from his cigarette and said, “This is Russia.  No problem.”  He then sped on.  The drive from the airport into the city was uneventful.  I did observe a lot of apartment blocks that seemed to be in very poor condition.  Mile after mile of highway also didn’t make a very good first impression.  We did notice a nice Ikea furniture store, but that was the early highlight.  As we approached the outer ring of the city center the traffic congestion worsened.  I recall thinking that Moscow had more in common, aesthetically speaking, with what I envisioned Southern Europe to be.  It didn’t have a sophisticated, clean feel to it. 

Backing up a bit, on the descent into Moscow, the landscape was quite nice - a lot of forests and some pretty lakes.   I also had my first view of a combination of housing.  I could see the outlines and shapes of large apartment block housing in the distance as well as beautiful dacha subdivisions.  Some of the dachas were exceptionally large and obviously very expensive.   

We reached Godzillas, the pink hostel that would be our home for a couple of weeks.  We checked in and found our room.  The room had a double bed, new-looking furniture, some nice light fixtures and fresh coat of paint and wallpaper.  It was a second floor room with a not so impressive view of backyard garages and some trees.  Our goal was to stock up on a few essentials like water, juice and some snacks.  We walked down the street and found a local supermarket.  I felt relieved that a well-stocked market, open most of the day, was just a minute or two from our hostel.  We bought water and cookies. 

We took our map and walked out to the main street (Tsvetnoy Bulvar).  We walked towards the center of the city until we reached the boulevard ring.  We noticed the divided road, flanked on each side by lovely buildings and partitioned in the middle by a pedestrian park.  The park runs the entire ring around the city of Moscow.  It was impressive.  We walked along the dirt pathway, admiring the trees and the landscaping and occasionally eyeing people milling about in the park and sitting on park benches.  It was the start of a very stimulating day.  We grew more and more tired as we walked, knowing that soon we would make our way to Pushkin Square.   Eventually, we followed the park path until we reached an area where a park art exhibit was.  It was then that we got our first real look at scores of young fashionable Russians going about their everyday lives.  The exhibit showcased photography of animals doing fascinating things in their environment.  It was really intriguing. However, my personal focus was heavily on the wave and after wave of people who were drawn to this exhibit.  I noticed very fashionable-looking young ladies with their friends and boyfriends.  The place was abuzz with activity and was a perfect introduction to the city.  Eventually, after passing beer gardens, ice cream kiosks and then a casino and theater, I noticed fountains and statues.  We were in a park that appeared to be Pushkin square.  Young people sat at the base of monuments, on park benches and around the fountains.  Many more were walking by and standing around in groups, having fun and enjoying the sunny day.  Soon we approached Pushkin Monument, which was to be our meeting place for our first day with Jon.  From the monument, we used one of the underground walkways to cross the street.  From there, we could see the Kremlin walls and towers in the distance.  We were on Tverskaya Street (Moscow’s Madison Avenue) and we decided to take off walking.  We had that adrenaline rush that comes from being in a new, exciting place.  The walk down Tverskaya was remarkable.  It seemed surreal.  Suddenly, we were one of thousands – and many thousands – walking the busy sidewalks of Moscow’s most glamorous street.  Sidewalks were very wide and largely used only for walking.  There were occasional kiosks selling cokes, pastries, newspapers, souvenir items, etc.  But, unlike in Bangkok, they weren’t blocking the sidewalk, prohibiting pedestrians from enjoying a nice stroll.  On Tverskaya, we got our first taste of Moscow fashion.  It was common to see women wearing sexy miniskirts and low cut blouses.  You could see the outline of g-strings through women’s skirts and pants.  It also was incredibly evident that scores of young men and women smoke.  That, in itself, was quite shocking.

After walking what probably was a mile or more down Tverskaya Street, the Kremlin and the gates to Red Square grabbed our attention.  And I mean grabbed!  I would say that of all the countries I have visited and cities I’ve seen, this presentation of architecture is arguably the most attractive.  Perhaps it’s the color scheme. Perhaps it’s the sheer size. Perhaps it’s the design and layout…something about the view approaching Red Square from Tverskaya Street really amazes you.  I was very impressed.  As we exited Tverskaya Street and approached the brick-paved square leading to the side entrance of Red Square, we noticed beer gardens and restaurants on the left and the Manage Square (adjacent to Alexander Garden) on our right.  We walked over to the right, made a short stop at a fountain with horses and then went inside an underground mall. This mall was built in the 90’s and is now one of the most luxurious places to shop and be seen.  Our goal was to find something to eat.   We did.  The bottom floor of the six-floor deep mall was a fabulous food court, lined with franchise names I didn’t recognize.  We walked past several of the food stations and eventually found one towards the back that had Russian fare.  I got some beet salad and together we got a chicken dish.  It was enough to give us a quick burst of energy and rest our weary legs.    

After eating, we exited the mall and walked towards Red Square.  Before walking through the gates, Kade stopped to toss a coin over her shoulder at the “center of the earth.”  Then, we walked through the gates and out onto Red Square.  The brick-paved square is actually more rectangular.  It’s bookmarked on one end by St. Basil’s Cathedral and the other by the State Historical Museum.  Lenin’s Mausoleum centers the wall of the Kremlin.  Behind the wall and overlooking the square is the gorgeously dark yellow Grand Kremlin Palace with the nation’s flag flying above.  Opposite Lenin’s Mausoleum is GUM, the first state department in Moscow and now one of trendiest places to shop in town.  It runs the length of one side of the “square” and the design is quite remarkable. 

At this point, fatigue starts setting in big-time.  Our legs were getting sore and jet-lag was setting in.  I could sense we needed to return to the hostel.  So, after getting slightly lost for forty-five minutes, we made our way to the Kitai Gorod area, within a few minutes of Red Square.  A young lady pointed the way to the metro.  After actually following her there, we bought our first metro pass and used the subway.  The escalator descended deep into the earth and finally we found the platform where we needed to be.  After some confusion and feeling a bit dazed, we exited at our metro station (Tsvetnoy Bulvar) and walked ten minutes back to the hostel.  Exhaustion set in and we went to sleep. 

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