I am not sure if you’ve ever walked beneath an archway created by a straddling pair of live human legs. It’s an unsettling experience, especially when the human is a complete stranger. It’s one of many unique experiences I can now claim since traveling on the Trans-Siberian. The legs belonged to a teenage girl in lycra leggings who was doing some ballet practice on an upper bunk. She and another teen seemed to be on their way to some kind of ballet competition, accompanied by an older instructress who would bark instructions at them whenever we had the chance to stretch our legs on a train platform. They would pirouette, and fling themselves into the air, long blonde ponytails flailing into the faces of fellow passengers sucking on cheap cigarettes and shivering off vodka hangovers in the July heat. It was very weird to watch.
It’s the final overnighter of our mammoth journey and I’m feeling a little wistful in spite of the wet wipe washes and smell of feet. We won’t be coming this way again any time soon. Russia is still defying our ability to process scale – the scenery has barely changed in five days of travel – birch tree upon birch tree upon birch tree. It makes me think, what the hell is this place?
Preconceptions are generally silly
We arrive in Moscow in the morning, happy legs crooked and twitching with joy at their new found freedom. We have a city to explore. And what a city.
I don’t know what I expected from Russia’s capital. Or maybe I do and I’m a bit ashamed to say. I might have expected severe soviet architecture and lots of glaring. But then again, I’m an idiot. Moscow is a city to rival any I’ve been to in the world (and I’ve been to a fair few). Gorgeous cathedrals peek past finely crafted historic houses, the buzz and the rush is like London but calmer, enter the tube and the grandeur almost feels a bit silly, but it’s undeniably enjoyable too.
We spend our first day doing the obvious stuff, like the Kremlin. It’s as much of a statement as you’d expect it to be, and heaving to the brim with tourists. At the point when I almost have to break up a physical fight between Matt and an elderly Italian woman, I call time and we head off into Red Square. St Basil’s is suddenly in front of us, all candy coloured like a fairy tale theme park. Apparently it was nearly demolished during the Soviet Union. But the architect charged with the task, Pyotr Baranovsky, refused to carry it out. He spent five years in prison for his trouble which seems a remarkable personal sacrifice to me.
We step into the beguiling Café Pushkin for lunch. It’s not yet 20 years old but is a faithful recreation of Pushkin-era Moscow. It’s dark and brooding and luxurious all at once. The waiters are immaculately dressed and ruthlessly efficient with eyes like coal bricks – impervious to smiles. There’s a lunch set menu which is excellent value. I feast on salmon blinis and dumpling broth and imagine there’s a horse and cart waiting outside to jiggle me home. It’s not hard.
In the afternoon we cross the Moscva river, through the Muzeon Park of Arts to Gorky Park. It’s a very scenic walk along the river, with bulbous cathedrals on the far side, and lithe rollerbladers shooting past. Gorky Park is green and busy, couples languishing in shady groves and teenagers with dip-dyed hair sipping fervently at bottles of booze.
Is that a turtle’s head?
In the morning we head to Ismailovsky Market. When we get off the tube at Partizanskaya metro station it’s easy to find it, following the crowds.
Here is a market where you can buy Russian dolls of pugs or cats or Russian rulers from the past 200 years, with Putin enveloping the rest triumphantly. You can buy Soviet propaganda posters and ponder them over exceptional kebabs. You can buy real fur or fake fur, or 50 year old fur. You can buy weather beaten trinkets sold by weather beaten men with furrowed brows and pipes. It’s a great place to kill a few hours. The weirdest thing we see is a mounted taxidermy turtle’s head, which of course leads to a lot of sniggers, especially given the size of it (for anyone who’s not as infantile as us, we’re laughing because turtle’s head has a double meaning which you can find on the Urban Dictionary. Not because we find dead turtles funny. We don’t).
We come away with a horrifically kitsch decanter shaped like a fish, a Soviet poster which uses lobsters to advertise chocolate, and of course, Russian dolls.
Feasting Georgian style
In the evening we sit down a very central side street at Hachapuri, a Georgian restaurant. It’s not that chilly but we drape their blankets around ourselves nonetheless, enjoying a cool evening watching immaculately dressed locals pass in the fading light. There’s a lovely vibe at this place, chilled out but attentive service, with excellent food. I’d forgotten how delicious Imeritian khachapuri actually is, the saltiness of the cheese and the doughiness of the bread.
We’re swallowed by a chandelier lit tube station and swept home, one eye on our next destination: St Petersburg.
We booked our Trans-Siberian tickets via Real Russia which has a handy route planner and assigns you a dedicated agent on hand to answer any queries.
We stayed at Lime Hotel which was fine. It’s a pretty big hotel with decent breakfast buffet and a clean and spacious room. It’s not in the most exciting part of town but pretty close to the major train stations and a 10 minute walk from two tube stations.
I would recommend buying your Kremlin tickets in advance online. We didn’t do this and there was a big queue when we got to the box office.