Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I can't believe I am in Russia- Day 2- Red Square, the Kremlin, NewYear's Eve (Moscow)

I walked from my hotel towards Red Square on Ulitsa Ilinka.  200 years ago this street was the commercial heart of the neighborhood Kitay Gorod (where my hotel is located); it was first settled by tradesmen and artisans in the 12th century.  

This is my first morning in Russia (it wasn't early, maybe around 10am) but I quickly learned that most Russians do not go outside until the afternoon. 

I started my day's sightseeing at the Lenin Mausoleum, where Lenin appears to peacefully lay for the rest of eternity.  In 1924, against his wishes, Lenin was embalmed.  An entire laboratory is dedicated to injecting the body with special fluids and maintaining ideal temperatures.  Every 18 months he gets a makeover, a 30 day bath and a new suit.  
You must go through security (metal detectors and a quick search) before entering the mausoleum, and you are not allowed to take pictures or linger in the heavily guarded area.  
This was never on my list of things to do, probably because I didn't know it existed.  I unknowingly became one of 1.5 million people who have visited the crypt this year.

Lenin died in Saint Petersburg, but his body has rested within the Moscow mausoleum since it opened in 1930; except when he was evacuated during World War II as Germans headed towards the capital (inspiring Weekend at Bernie's perhaps?  'Hi Nazis, this guy who looks like a plastic apple is actually our uncle...').     

Directly across the square is GUM, which stands for Gosudarstvennyy universalnyy magazin, (I wonder if you get extra letters when you play scrabble in Russian), a collection of stores that opened in 1893, selling furs and silks and household items.  Now it is filled with Western stores, like Christian Dior and Estee Lauder, along with cafes and restaurants.  

At the entrance to Red Square is the Resurrection Gate, rebuilt in 1995 as an exact copy of the one completed in 1680, and destroyed by Stalin in 1931.  

I am standing on something in front of the Resurrection Gate that other people were standing on taking pictures.  The Google translate app cannot translate the picture because it is round.  For all I know it is a sewer.  

The Kazan church (on the right) was destroyed by Stalin in 1936, and was also rebuilt in the 90s as an exact replica.

I walked through Alexander Gardens to the caca for tickets to the Kremlin.  
The gardens were designed in 1821, named after Alexander I, the tsar who restored the city after the Napoleonic Wars.


 I entered the State Armoury after going through security to get into the Kremlin (which is mostly closed to the public because it is the White House of Russia).  The armoury is a collection of the wealth accumulated by Russian princes and tsars over hundreds of years, along with weaponry and armor from as early as the 13th century.  

The armoury is the yellow building where I just was, inside the Kremlin walls, but you need a separate ticket to actually walk around the Kremlin and see the churches.  I told the lady selling me my ticket that I wanted to get into the Kremlin and she said I couldn't buy both but I realized she probably just didn't understand me so I had to walk back to the ticket booth in Alexander Gardens to buy another ticket, and then go through security again.  
Which is all part of the fun of traveling and not speaking the language, I suppose.  
It was in this line that I witnessed something that I like to call Russian cuts.  I feel comfortable with this term because I was subjected to it almost daily, in different forms.  In this case I was in line, I hesitated for maybe enough time for an airbag to be triggered after a car accident, and the lady behind me was in front of me, asking questions and then buying her tickets.  
Russian cuts.

One of the many restricted areas...  

This is the Cathedral of the Annunciation (on the left), next to the Cathedral of the Archangel.  
Unlike all of the other churches within the Kremlin that were designed by Italian architects, the Cathedral of the Annunciation was created by Russians.  Both of these churches were built in the late 1400s and early 1500s.  

The Tsar Bell is the largest bell in the world, weighing 200 tons.  A piece of it fell off when, after a fire, cold water was poured over the hot bell.  This was 35 years after it fell from the bell tower in 1701 and shattered, having to have to be recast.  It is almost as if bells were not meant to be this big. 

It is seriously hard to believe that a cannon could have enough force to propel a cannon ball of this size.  Maybe the cannon ball shown was left where it landed after being fired.  

The Cathedral of the Assumption was designed in the 14th century and is full of beautiful pillars, chandeliers, thrones, and frescoes (none of which are to be photographed).  

The church of the Deposition of the Robe.
It is hard to believe how many churches are packed into such a small area.  All of these churches are within what is called Cathedral Square.  

The Kremlin closed an hour early since it was New Years Eve.

I grabbed a bottle of champagne at the store, carefully observing other customers to see what they bought.  

Maybe I chose poorly since people who drink this type of champagne litter.  

After taking a nap, very close to midnight, I walked out into the streets and joined the crowds in order to celebrate New Years Eve.  I wanted to go to Red Square but that area was closed off by the time I was ready to go out.  It was all very organized; the streets were closed, and there was a lot of police and military presence.  
I went through my fourth metal detector of the day.  I think that is a record for me.  

I didn't realize until days later that I walked right by the Bolshoi theater.  

Happy New Year!

Even though I wasn't in Red Square I was right next to it, and got to view the fireworks.  

Soon after midnight people got really pushy and I started to get really nervous about the crowds so I decided to head back.  

Along the way I saw this group of rich people smoking at the entrance of the restaurant, probably not too happy about the recent ban on smoking indoors which started in summer of 2014.
In my opinion, the fact that smoking was so recently banned is an indicator of how behind the times Russia is in comparison to other countries.  

Happy new year, and happy traveling.  

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I can't believe I am in Russia- Day 1- St Basil's Cathedral (Moscow)

Ever since May, when I spontaneously bought my plane ticket for Russia  (750$ round trip was too good to pass up) I had been debating whether or not it was the right time to go.  Russia has been in the news a lot more than usual lately, and I could not help but wonder if I should go to the source of so much controversy.  
Thankfully I quieted my apprehensions; because Russia is nothing less than phenomenal.  

I witnessed two sunrises and a sunset before arriving in Moscow in the early afternoon.  It was 1°F, much colder than said it would be.  As I came to find out, Russia and are incommunicado.  The predicted weather was off daily by 20°.  

When I arrived at the Sheremetyevo International Airport and looked up and saw this ceiling, I became even more excited about my trip.  

It was simple to find ticket booths for the aeroexpress, the train that runs twice an hour to and from the airport.

Before I knew it I was at the Belorusskiy train station following people who looked like they had purpose, arriving at the nearby Belorusskaya metro.  I had read that the metro stations are very elaborate, and before even entering my first metro station I was not disappointed.
It was directly after walking through these doors that I became intimidated; there was a line to buy metro cards, and at the front of each line faced employees who did not speak English.  I researched the cards but forgot to write down words that would help me with the transaction. What to do, what to do.  
Staring at the information surrounding the Kaccas (the ticket booth, not prouncounced like caca but like casa, even though I personally enjoyed calling them cacas) I thought I could find something to point to.  No.  Or maybe yes, it is in Russian so who really knows?
2-Not me.  
I guess I looked just worried enough because a nice Siberian man named Denis (in Moscow for a yoga retreat) approached me and in very broken English asked me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, used his metro card to pay my way, and took me with him on the metro, showing me where he would get off and what I would do next.  He also gave me his email, explaining that his girlfriend spoke English very well and if I needed anything translated I could write.  
He looked a concerned when I said I was there alone, and needless to say without Russian language skills.  I quickly learned why he was worried, pretty much no one speaks English, a huge difference from anywhere else I have been in Europe.  

Metro stations are a rightful tourist attraction.  Not only are they beautiful but one of the most efficient metro networks in the world.  I have to say the most efficient that I have ever experienced.  Trains come every 1-2 minutes, which makes it nice when traveling because you can take your time determining direction (which platform to wait by) knowing there will be another within moments.  
The metro carries 8-9 million passengers daily, more than London and New York combined.  The system was constructed in the 1930's, during Stalin's reign.  Some of the Soviet Union's finest artists were hired to decorate the metro, focusing on themes such as national defense, the Revolution, and the Soviet way of life.  There are chandeliers, mosaics, statues, and marble pillars.  
It is exquisite to say the least.  

It took me a little while to find my hotel because at that time I did not understand what a subway was.  I quickly learned that a subway is an underground walkway, connected to the metros; it is a way to avoid entire blocks of vehicles and traffic lights and the cold.  The problem with them is they are very disorienting and the exits (выход, blixoa as I pronounced it but formally known as vykhod) are all written in Russian which you know is a crazy language since it has an Eiffel tower symbol in the word exit, not to mention numbers like 3 and 6, and backwards Rs, and upside down 'h's, and letters that look like 'p's but sound like 'r's.  It is like they don't want it to make sense.  
Anyway, after I found my hotel I used this little church as reference.  

The church wasn't on the map, and this informational placard was not very informational.  

I slept for a few hours, forcing myself out of my warm bed to explore Moscow since I am in Russia and I cannot believe it.  
I left with the goal of becoming oriented, so I could efficiently use my map.  

The building in the background is the Palace of the Romanov Boyers (noblemen), built in the 16th century.  

The building in the foreground from the above picture had this tea set outside in the window for reasons unknown.  

I could not believe it when I realized that I wandered right into the most famous church in Russia, and one of the most famous in the entire world, St Basil's Cathedral.  But I could not believe I was in Russia period, so I guess this is not surprising.  

St Basil's Cathedral was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, completed in 1561, to commemorate the capture of the Mongol town Kazan.  It is said that upon its completion Ivan the Terrible was so impressed that he had the architect blinded so that he would never design anything as beautiful as long as he lived.  

The cathedral was originally called the Cathedral of the Intercession but Basil the Blessed's remains remain inside, and so the name remains.  

After exploring the interior, filled with art, wonderful chandeliers, floral tiles, and
more scrupulous detail I walked to Red Square, and enjoyed the Christmas decorations and festivities. 

I soaked in every last detail, helplessly repeating, "I can't believe I am in Russia".