Trans-Siberian Railway: Three Days in Moscow
After the enduring rural spread of Siberia and the Urals, our train pulled into the Russian capital and one of my favorite places in the route, Moscow. The city is immense, but so much is concentrated in the center that it didn't seem that way. It's a city of architecture reaching sharply toward the sky, women in towering high heels and metro stations decorated with chandeliers. It's a complaint you hear about frequently while in Russia, the juxtaposition of the wealth and urbanity in the big cities compared to the poverty found in the most rural places.
Moscow is mixture of the old and the new. There's an extraordinary amount of history in the city, a capital on and off throughout history. There are churches and museums, governmental structures, and residences of Russia's famous creatives. But it also has plenty of contemporary art and culture. It was the perfect place for my sister and I to compromise — her interest in the history and particularly the epic structures stocked with beautiful shiny things, while my jam was the unintelligible contemporary art. The three day we spent on basically one lightning-fast tour around the vast and largely un-walkable city, to see the major sites.
The first day was the most crowded of all, a tour of the city by car — driving past to glimpse dozens of famous structures throughout the city.
We started with The Kremlin and Red Square, Lenin's Mausoleum and Kitay-gorod, GUM and Kazan Cathedral, The State Historical Museum, and of course the most recognizable of all, St Basil's Cathedral of the gumdrop roofs. We drove past the Bolshoi Theater and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Lubyanka Square, and Pushkin Museum.
One of the best parts of the day was the Moscow State University, resplendent on the tall Sparrow Hills from which you can see the entire city beneath you. The city's Stalin-style architecture juts out in off-white splendor, and the Moskva River carves its way through the accompanying
greenery. Everything that seemed so ginormous as we drove past it in our car shrunk into tiny detail.
One of the last on our tour, Novodevichy Convent, was also particularly fascinating for me. The father of Ivan the Terrible founded it, a beautiful construction well-maintained as a World Heritage Site. It was the location where the rulers disposed of pesky noble ladies, imprisoning the women by forcing them to take the veil. The cemetery there is also fascinating, housing Boris Yeltsin and Nikita Khrushchev, Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol, among others. The famous remains housed in huge sculptural crypts, shaped like flags and books and ballerinas.
I wasn't expecting it, but the Armory in the Kremlin has one of the most amazing collections of historical artifacts that I've ever
seen. The amount of beautifully detailed metalwork and jewelry, Faberge Eggs, royal clothing and carriages, even a room dedicated to detailing the nobility's horses finery. Yes, the horses clothing and jewelry. The place is insane, and a required stop for any human raccoons who can’t resist the allure sparkly things hung up en masse in huge lavish rooms.
We followed through to the cathedrals of the Kremlin. Full of tombs with beautiful paintings and so very very many people.
From the Kremlin we took a leisurely route to Arbat street, a pedestrian shopping center that from reports we heard, I expected to be quite interesting. But it was full of a bunch of look-alike stores selling the same cheap tchotchkes, and chain restaurants. The one plus was that there was a salesman dancing around in a creepy blue bunny costume, wearing a tutu. Fascinating, but not Moscow’s best effort.
This was my day! We started off wandering through the Chocolate Factory before it opened for the afternoon, a converted — you guessed it — chocolate factory, right in the middle of the Moskva River. It's a red industrial giant packed with galleries, shops, and restaurants, including a Bruce Lee-themed bar — yes, please. It’s also the home of a massive Peter the Great statue made to look as he would look if he were a pirate.
We followed through from there to Gorky Park, an eco-friendly former amusement park, now filled with precisely designed gardens and contemporary statues. It's also home to the the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
The museum was amazing. The entryway and cafe has a glorious warm wood and gold interior design in the mid-century modern style. The gallery was strikingly red and white all over (like a sunburnt penguin?) and it was full of key word here —interactive — exhibits. There were two best:
The Sweaters: A rack of matching patterned sweaters hung in a part of the museum, and the goal was to put your head through the neck hole and your legs through the arm-holes, then try and stand up and walk around all crouched in half, like gollum.
The Confetti Broom: A bucket of silver confetti lay in the middle of a bare floor next to a single bar chair. The idea was that you throw yourself a party, making it rain with the confetti. Then, of course, you clean up the confetti yourself with the handy brooms included in the exhibit.
Food was a delectable adventure in Russia, so when we were in Moscow I wanted to find a special place for us to eat, and I thought I found it — Café Pushkin. It was at the top of every "must visit" list.
We walked to the place from the Kremlin after an entire day of touring. We were unkempt, wearing t-shirts and tennis shoes, big cameras
around our necks. Contrary to what I was expecting — this is not the norm at Café Pushkin. We pushed through the heavy wooden doors to find women in full cocktail attire, meticulously uniformed waiters, a four-string quartet right next to our table.
We couldn’t just turn around and walk back out, so we let ourselves be seated. We took a glance at the menu, each item priced far beyond the budget we had set ourselves for the evening. I thought my sister was going to have a heart attack, she looked about ready to punch me in the face for getting us into this as the frustrated waiter loitered around our table, waiting for us to pick something. I was laughing under my breath the entire time we were there.
We ordered a couple of the cheapest things on the menu, hand-held pies, which ended up being bite-sized and probably $20 a pop, and then paid our unhappy waiter so we could get out as quickly as we could, which felt epically slow. We ended up at a pizza restaurant on the block over, enjoying wine and the much less nerve-wracking pie.