Monday, 13 June 2011

Mosquitoes and the Pursuit of Happiness.

This is the last blog.
This is a long blog.
This is a blog about Russia.
This is a blog about places.
If you don't care then don't read.
If you do then welcome to the tour group.

I haven't written a blog in so long. I have been travelling every moment I have been free. The presence of a deadline - me leaving this labyrinthine culture - has, as it always does, fuelled a desire to visit as many places as I can before the only destination would be home.

I shall split the visits thematically, to allow breathing room. Lest you get bored you can off for a pie and vodka before returning.

Local forays - as is the template
I carried on my weekend trips with a trip to Yaroslavl and Rostov Veliky. This time I was accompanied by an old university friend, Sarah, to whom I had promised one of my couchsurfer trips. After a four hour train ride through the greening land north of Moscow we arrived at Yaroslavl and were greeted by a wiry Russian guy, lightly stubbled and wearing shorts and a sports jacket. He was Evgeny and we stayed with him in his one room, shabby little flat. Shabby but that wasn't a problem. In Russia it never was.

Yaroslavl has a historic centre that is protected by UNESCO. It starts with a large area of low, manicured streets - pastel colours and with no peeling paintwork - that hugs the side of the mighty Volga river; on this day choppy and inky blue. Throughout are churches and temples and monasteries that belie the city's 1000 old age-tag. The wander through the cutesy centre culminates in the GAZPROM donated peninsula; a green and promenaded finger of green that shoots out into the water and is dotted with fountains and monuments. The sun shone and the city glowed. I groaned inside that I had spent four months in Voronezh instead. I came so close to going to Yaroslavl. Sedate, well-located and full of glittering, pretty things.

After some beer and dried fish - an age old tradition - we were back at the flat with some of Evgeny's friends and his brother, a dashing, silver-haired doctor. The gathering fell into the same never-problematic format they always do. Beers, snacks, maybe some cheese and meats, then singing and vodka. Then fuzziness. Then bed.

The following day, slightly groggy, Sarah and I caught a local bus to the overcast town of Rostov Veliky, about an hour away. It is one of the oldest towns in Russia, first mentioned in the year 862! The town was the most dichotomous of all the places I have visited. It was a small settlement of around 35,000 sitting picturesquely on the grand Lake Nero. It contains the two most bodacious and over the top kremlins and monasteries I have seen outside of Moscow. It is also the dirtiest town I've seen in Russia.
Through grubby streets strewn with litter - plastic bags and empty bottles of beers - we found the kremlin. A huge, fairytale, Disneyesque jumble of domes and towers and ponds that stands, overblown facing the town's lake. The lake itself, despite the grey sky, shone. It was full of tufty bits of vegetation and whirling birds. Off to the right, about 2km away, the Spaso-Yakovlevsky monastery lumbered out and glinted on its bank - seemingly floating. If we had only visited this part, it could have won the award for most precious place. Despite the miserable shite that was the town itself, the view was breathtaking and forced the eye to be a glutton.
That evening we were invited to dinner by Evgeny's friends as he was indisposed. Oleg continued Russia ritual by bringing out the vodka as we ate seafood pasta and then sausages and salad.
'Davai, vipyom!' 'Let's drink!'
'Luke, you drink like a real Russian man!' Oleg smiled slapping me on the back after our God-knows-how-many-teenth shot. I was half proud to have been accepted and, in this culture, complimented. But I also worried what that meant for my insides, not to mention my return to the UK's pubs.

The Venice of the North - two groups were bold

Both my Spanish friends and my parents were daring, and financially capable, enough to visit me. As well as the customary tours of Moscow and Sergiev Posad, both groups were ferried up to the blistering beauty jewel in the crown of Russia - Saint Petersburg. A city for whom my love is thick and palpable. A city whose beauty is boundless and whose sweeping grandeur verges on the absurd but remains, just, on the dramatic and graceful.
Both visits were greeted with the bluest skies imaginable. Nevsky Prospect, a most fascinating street and written about by Gogol (check out the story), cuts the UNESCO centre in half and is so crammed with goodies - cathedrals (the wide Kazan and the colourful Church of the Saviour on the Blood), canals, grand buildings, theatres and shops - that a day can easily be sacrificed just there. Colours; pastels. Sculptures and bridges. Strolling people and workers.
'The moment you enter Nevsky Prospect, it already smells of nothing but festivity. Though you may have some sort of necessary, indispensible business, once you enter it, you are sure to forget all business. Here is the only place where people do not go out of necessity, where they are not driven by the need and mercantile interest that envelop the whole of Petersburg.'

And how that street ends! At the Admiralty and its golden spire. To its right Palace Square and the immense green and white Winter Palace - sometimes erroneously called 'The Hermitage' (which is actually a complex of six buildings). A building that puts Buckingham to shame. To its left a grassy path that winds down Isaac's Cathedral, the largest in the city. A columned and colonnaded block of brown and gold opulence that is only surpassed in beauty by its innards. In front of Isaac is Peter the Great on his horse facing the Neva.

And the Neva! Whose embankment is the luckiest of any river in the world! An endless line of neo-classical and romanticist styles. Apartments and palaces that trickle away from the main waterway and into the canals; the Fontanka, the Moika and the Griboyedov. Its poetry is in its buildings. Smolniy Cathedral, big blue and like a wedding cake sits in the East by a kink in the flow. A less visited area, with no metro, that tastes of Paris.

Out of town is Tsarskoye Selo - a village/palace for the Tsars to escape the confines of the city. It contains a palace, Catherine Palace, that is the hermitage but this time sky-blue, white and gold. It is surrounded by acres of manicured gardens, greener than anything, and yet more palaces. It is how I would spend billions if I had them.
'You can see why there was a revolution...' says my dad.

May the 9th is Victory Day. I stand with my parents on the banks of the river. A mauve and burnt orange sky is flowering over the old stock exchange building and its blood red Rostral columns that are now topped with fire. The golden Peter Paul Fortress sits on its hexagonal haunches with a line of cannons pointing to us over the water.
'Tri, Dva, Odin, OGON!'
The shots resonate with a wind blast and fireworks splatter the air.
'URAAAAAAAAAAA' shout the St. Petersburgers as they laugh and drink and smile.

It really is the very best of Russia and quite the most lovely city.

Small town Russia - summer arrives
I returned to Obninsk. I had some classes cancelled. (Crazy) Ivan found me at the station. It was 27 degrees. The air was thick, grassy, and full of pukh. The city had changed. They all had. When the snow left and the slush had dried up the green came back. Grasses and bushes and trees simply popped and exploded into life, like they had forgotten what is was like. Chlorophyll paradise. In the lowering light of the evening a small group of us found a mosquito peppered corner of forest with logs and a an old armchair. As the rays flooded in through the trees we cooked meat on a fire, munched handfuls of parsely and drank tequila and whiskey. The gang came, Sasha and Masha - the beautiful sisters, Lyosha and some others. We were just missing Laura and Boris. We ended the evening, as like the first I visited the town, by the shopping centre with a couple of beers. In the morning my groggy head cleared quickly as Ivan's mum, in the sixties tye-dye wallpapered flat, cooked me some eggs and the hot morning sun fed me my vitamin Ds.

The sun didn't stop for my next trip. Dmitry and I caught a 45minute train to Chekhov, then a 30minute bus to Proletarsky, and finally - laden with bags of food - a 25minute walk through eastbumblenowhere to his village of Stankovo. There is no public transport there. It sits, a scattering of a few dachas, surrounded by luxurious, verdant fields and hills. All is trees, slopes, wooden houses and distant spires. We walked to the river and jumped in. I laughed out loud and my situation. I was thousands of miles from home in a particularly tricky place to get to way out of the city swimming in a wild river. I caught a river mussel with my feet and dived down underwater away from the biting insects. We dried off and walked barefoot through the chartreuse and mossy green of rural Russia and ended up back as his ramshackle dacha. In the garden we cooked turkey sashlik surrounded by yellow dandelions and bold, heat-freed mosquitoes.
I visited Dasha in Balashikha too. A nothing-but-not-too-bad suburb town of Moscow. With her friend Eleonor we wandered round the woods for an afternoon and played by the river, enjoying the sun. With the removal of winter the pleasures become base in Russia. To gulyat (stroll) is a perfectly commonplace and popular pastime. Less Playstations, more 'let's use this weather while we've got it'. I also celebrated a birthday. Around 34 people came and joined me for a picnic in Izmaylovsky park. I was touched with the number of guests. We ate, drank, played volleyball, football and Frisbee. It was the last time I saw many of them.
Karelia - a man in the woods

After quitting my job on the 27th, I granted myself a holiday period for two weeks. I had always wanted to visited Karelia. A land of lakes and forests put to music by Sibelius - albeit that was Finnish Karelia. I took a train 13.5 hours north of Moscow to Petrozavodsk, a pleasant town sitting on the banks of Lake Onega - the second largest lake in Europe. There wasn't much conversation to be had with my trainmates: an engineering lecturer, a nun in full habit, and a quiet Caucasian man. I slept well.
In Petrozavodsk I was met by a couchsurfer, Maria, who briskly took me home, let me wash, and showed me to the lake terminal. I took a ferry, fat with Finnish and Russian tourists, to an island that contained Kizhi Pogost; a UNESCO site.
'The pogost is the area inside fence which includes two large wooden churches (the 22-dome Transfiguration Church and the 9-dome Intercession Church) and a bell-tower. The pogost is famous for its beauty and longevity, despite that it is built exclusively of wood'
Escaping the tourists I ventured around, with my enthusiastic little tour-guide, and sucked in both the glorious views and the fresh northern air. The brown wood of the churches and their silver-fish domes offset dramatically with the green and yellow of the islands and the blue of the surrounding lake. I left the sheep and my guide and followed her directions to the top of the island. She shared my opinion that it was better not to travel in hordes. Alone, surrounded by majesty and wood. Kizhi was a very special place indeed. I whimpered a little that I could only stay a while.

In the evening of that same day I caught yet another train, this time 14.5 hours north to Kostomuksha, a 28,000 strong town by the border with Finland and deep in Karelia - further up than Reykjavik. I shared my near empty sleeper train with a 52 year old railway worker called Sergei. We ate Russian sausages with black bread and drank vodka as ghostly lakes and endless forests flitted by the window in the half-light of the 'white nights'.

Roman and his brother Sasha met me at the dinky station. After a shower, a conversation with his grandma and a cup of tea - they drink a lot of tea with a lot of lemon in Kostomuksha - we set off on our first adventure. No time to sit and fester in this part of the world. If you aren't outside doing something, you're wasting your life. After feeding a wild, caged grizzly bear some chicken in the woods we went down to the Kontiki lake that the town is stuck to and looked for worms in the dirt. Roman was taking me fishing.

Sasha dropped us off at their dacha - a 3x3m hut near a small lake and surrounded by pine trees - and we set off on our trek, armed with a jar of worms, some fishing rods and a bottle of kvas. We trudged for a couple of hours through Taiga forest where there were no paths. Roman had an internal Google maps thing going on. Sometimes we were stuck thick in the green, surrounded by enormous trees and trunks, mosses and puddles of still water. Other times we broke through the treeline to find an azure lake whose near treeless banks were spongy and boggy and yellow. We ate cranberries from vegetative clumps that peppered the moist land. Bugs and insects flurried round us. Finally we made it to our lake, stood firm, cast our lines and spent a couple of hours bringing in fish. It was a moment of pure serenity. I pulled up my hood so the elephant-sized mosquitoes had nowhere to drink. Fzzzzzh plop, went the line. We caught over thirty fish. I just hoped no bear would smell them.

In the evening we relaxed in the tiny town's central square with Roman's friends. It never got dark there. 12:30 and it was light. White nights in the north of the world.

The following day I walked around the town - visiting the little wooden church complex, all brightly coloured and full of strange wooden statues of bears and other animals. Roman was working so I went with his friends out of town to another dacha. There we had a Russian banya. Four guys: Kiril, Yuri, Vasya, Kostya, a girl: Alisa, and me. It was hotter than my previous one. These were real Russians. 85 degrees. It hurt. I was leaking. We beat each other with the venik and breathed deeply from its leaves. After a few minutes we ran out, laughing, to the end of the garden and jumped from a wooden gangway into a small, ice-cold lake. Out here in Karelia they were ten-a-penny.
'Don't put your feet down too much or swim out too far'
It was very cold.

In the evening we illegally entered a giant quarry with Roman's uncle who knew a guy who worked there. He took us around it in a giant bus/crawler vehicle that was quickly dwarfed by the titans that worked the artificial canyon. In the evening we walked around Kostomuksha's lake and got caught by an electric thunderstorm. Soaked to the bone Roman decided the state of his clothes no longer mattered and dived fully-garbed into the water. Lighting crashed over the water and thunder cracked across the sky.

The last day was spent relaxing, playing tennis and walking around. I was to get the evening train back to Petrozavodsk. There wasn't one. A mistake in planning by my dear Karelians. Instead I spent 9 of the most uncomfortable hours of my life on an overnight, packed out minibus that shuddered and juddered through the prettiest, most soporific countryside back to the more southerly city.
I spent a day in Petrozavodsk with two of Maria's friends. Beautiful girls: Polina and Alyona. The city is fairly handsome, nicely designed and much helped by the presence of Lake Onega. In the evening we went rock climbing, and then partied, first at home and then at a club with a few of her friends. Exhausted and tipsy, Maria and I got home at around 4am. Despite our tiredness we all got together again the following day and went round the lake to a suburb village called Solemennaya; a community of wooden houses that filter down from a rock 'peak' called the 'Devil's Chair' down to the lake edge. We picnicked in the sun up on the hill and enjoyed the fine weather and views. Karelians are lovely people, Maria and Roman truly so. They are like all Russians; roughly-hewn but with all the goodness of the world.

Going East - Tatarstan

So I was on the train to Kazan. 13 hours. Reading/translating Yesenin's poetry with a 70 year old Russian woman as the sun set. I never got tired of Russian trains. Kazan welcomed me with cloud and rain. After a breakfast I was also formally introduced to the city by a couchsurfer called Svetlana who had agreed to show me around a bit until my main host was free to meet me. As in Yaroslavl and Moscow, in Kazan they have a smart pedestrian street. Bauman Street - lined with attractive shop-fronts and a couple of churches. Then there was the Peter Paul Cathedral, bright peach-orange and baby blue and covered with floral designs. Also scattered around were half-moons. Kazan, being Tatar, has a strong and peacefully integrated Muslim side. Mosques are all over the place. In the evening I met my main host and swiftly became smitten. Evgenia - Zhenya - has three jobs: she works in Tatar Tv, occasionally sings professionally and in the evening is an English teacher. Short, blonde and with Hollywood good looks she was delightfully funny and deliciously quick-witted. We went out with some of her friends in the evening. Masha, a bubbly Russian; Aidan, a toothy and expertly humorous Glaswegian; Marina, his girlfriend, a dry-witted Russian; and their couchsurfers, the wonderful Tree and Christine from Utah. I instantly formed a bromance with Tree.

The bromance extended until the following day. I met Christine and Tree at the Kazan Kremlin - another UNESCO site. It was an overcast day, but it didn't stop the complex from being impressive. Its history dates back to the 1500s. It's a confusing mess of different era buildings which form a unique jumble that helped earn its place on the Heritage list. The 16th century red-brick Soyembika Tower - built during the time of Ivan the Terrible - stands 58metres tall and slightly leans; the typically Russian Anunciation Cathedral - white walls, blue and gold domes - from the 16th century too; the ebony white Spasskaya Tower with its big clock face; some neo-classical presidential buildings and then the ultra-modern white and blue Qolsarif Mosque, built in 2005 and reputedly the largest in Europe outside of Istanbul. We left the other end and took the cute seven-stop Kazan metro to the other side of the river where we viewed the whole panorama of Kremlin-Ministry of Agriculture-River-Attractive flats that were now bathing in the new sun. Another evening was spent drinking with Zhenya and her friends. Mojitos in Cuba Libre and further deepening of the smitteness.
For my last day I had the sun and Zhenya all to myself. We drove to a tiny island - recently connected to the mainland by a single road track - called Sviyazhsk. It sat surrounded by the Volga and the gentle banks of Tatarstan hiding churches and monasteries with floating arms of yellow grass and hundreds of gulls. The island itself was a bit of a mess. Old churches and monasteries, sure, but the whole place was being renovated. I was content to just look out from the place to the world around us. And share it with Zhenya. We played with local goats, sang songs, got into rusty old boat, and climbed trees. It could have been some Greek island. All it lacked was sun-drenched fruit hanging from the branches. I was sad to leave Tatarstan and Zhenya. There's nothing more to say there.
Heaven on Earth - Suzdal and a pilgrimage

Laura and I were stuck in traffic. It was a 2.5/3 hour bus to Vladimir. We were going to visit Diana again. It was a bank holiday weekend however, and this was Russia. It was a 220km traffic jam. It took us about six hours. It wasn't fun and Laura started to get worried as I planned ways to kill people with pencils and plastic water bottles.
I shan't write about Vladimir and Bogolyubovo again, as I've already done that in a previous post. Safe to say their characters - like the Russian people who live in and around - had completely changed. There is the winter face of the country and the summer one. The snow is gone there and all is verdant. The tiny white church now stood reflected in the 'sacred lake' that pooled below it. It was visual poetry. We gawped a while and then found the river. We, as had become the custom, made a bbq and had a picnic. Then we jumped in the cold water and splashed around as rain pitter-pattered on the surface and swallows whirled and whipped above our heads. In the evening we were invited to Diana's dacha, where her parents and their friends, giggly and welcoming from the alcoholic evening of food and friendship they were having, let us come in, drink their homemade vodka and juice, eat sashlik and garden-grown vegetables and use their banya. I had a eureka moment that morning as the sun started to rise and Diana's dad sang folk tunes with his guitar. The Russian tradition of these base pleasures and processes. People, food, nature and life. That's all that's important. The thought of sitting inside with a game console is, well was in that moment at least, something so stupid as to be sickening. I'll do it agin of course. But in that moment, in that house, with those people, that was why I was alive.
The next day, the last day, I finally made it to Suzdal. Nine months in the planning and I arrived at Heaven on Earth. As if the gods of town planning knew what would be the perfect town for me, Suzdal arrived in view as we four: me, Laura, Diana and her friend Tanya, arrived on the completely full little bus. It's essentially an overgrown village that has spilled out over green fields and rivers whilst allowing itself to be populated by a genuinely ludicrous number of UNESCO protected churches, temples monasteries, towers and chapels. Like some pre-industrial slice of Russia. You look around and wonder where civilization is. Then you realise you don't care and that the modern world is shit and nothing is more marvellous than some old buildings shimmering in the otherworld of a river's reflection while the natural throbs and warbles around you. I could go into detail about each and every different building there but there would be no point and I couldn't even start to do it justice. It's the best old town in Russia, at every turn there is something to see and something to whimper about because you know you'll never live there. Suzdal is just perfect...

And that's it. That's the blog. That's Russia. Spain was an easier year, but this one has built me more as a person and bolstered what I truly believe to be the most important aspects of life.
1. Love people
2. Don't stay indoors
3. Find beauty

Also, for those who made it to the end. Well done. I hope you enjoyed your trip.

Goodbye and do svidanya.
Luke x

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The town of ringing bells; The Coniferous Forest; and the Science City

Madrid was like a younger brother; fun and energetic but occasionally annoying.
Moscow is like the older brother; it'll teach you and reward you but often will be a bully.

Spring is struggling to arrive in the city. Winter won't let him in. She's having too much fun buttoning up coats, blowing away joie de vivre and reddening faces.
'I can't remember ever having an April like this' Dmitry said to me
Overcast, snowy, rainy, grey and hovering around zero still. It's April the 12th for the love of all that's holy. Everyone is getting grouchy. I'm getting pasty. I'm always tired. Richard flings two middle fingers at the sky one morning and I cry 'oh for f***s sake!' as some spring snow sticks in my eye.

I haven't got enough time left not to visit places. Russia - a country in which my love and hate for a place have never been so entwined - is temporarily forcing me to step away from my maxim of only doing tourism when it's sunny. I have a list of towns to visit and not long left to do it.

* * * *

One blustery, slushy and steel-grey Wednesday morning I boarded a rickety old electrichka local train to the town of Zvenigorod, 1hr 20mins west, at the absurdly complicated Belorusskaya train station. The ground around the station was a gloopy, muddy assault course. It was a 2km walk into the town. I psychologically patted myself on the back for having prepared so well. I was wearing boots.
In the centre of the rather ugly little town I kicked down my feet, sending slabs of mud onto the pavement, and followed my nose north and then west along the river - whose banks flashed brown with newly emerging grass. Over in the distance - another 2km away - were the spires of the Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery. The town itself, not that you'd know, has been hanging around since the 12th century. So it's old. The monastery was built in 1398 and was set on a hill overlooking the Moscow river. A colourful, twee jumble of spires; an old cathedral containing icons from Andrei Rublev; and a view to the town below helped form a very quaint and peaceful place. Cats milled about - for every cat has its monastery - and monks shuffled about in fleeces shooing away crows.

A lot of monasteries have their own bakeries, and Zvenigorod was no exception. A lady with a scarf around her head stood behind a till in a small kiosk that smelled of bread. I bought an onion loaf, some squidgy little cabbage pies and some iced biscuits. Dogs were scratching around outside the monastery walls while visitors padded up to the entrance. The women wrapped their heads in scarves while men doffed their caps. Both genders crossed themselves.

I took a marshrutka back into the town centre but accidentally alighted too early, realising the little minibus would have taken me back to the station. I was left waiting for almost 45 minutes for a smart coach to arrive. It hauled into view, oversized in the small town, and took me back to Moscow, blasting across snowy plains dotted with spires and villages and up through overgrown hills that concealed minuscule dacha towns.

* * * *

'They are...' Boris searched his memory bank for the most apt description of what the seller had in her hands ' big gypsy needles'.
Everyone burst out laughing. Everyone being me, Laura and Natasha. Natasha is a tall brunette Russian, quick to laugh and quick to take the piss. Boris is a wiry guy with mousy features and wild, curly hair. We were in good company. On the local trains a constant, illegal, but unstopped flow of sellers slide through the carriages. A word, yarmarka - travelling market, is the most appropriate description. From pens to branch cutters and from socks to magnifying glasses, seemingly every utterly specific, normally useless, occasionally lifesaving piece of technology was available.
'Oh look, the potato peeler lady has left her test cabbage on the seat' I noticed as some rough looking Russians turned away, not wanting to share the next hour with a naked vegetable.

In Balabanovo we got off the train, splashed through the epic slush, brushed the blizzard out of our eyes and caught a marshrutka to Borovsk - the only way to get there. Borovsk possesses a revered and beautiful monastery. The importance of both the place itself and the men running it are reasons for why the town appears different to most places of similar importance. They protected the settlement against development, insisting that it remain a calm haven for believers. The development therefore passed on to the town of Kaluga, which became the city of Kaluga, which finally became the provincial capital. So modern day Borovsk is quiet and none of the buildings exceed a few storeys. The main central area is twee and small and yellow, with little buildings, a little statue of Lenin and a smattering of little churches.

Speaking of churches, the town is full of them. According to our massively obese taxi driver, who ferried us through the wet to the monastery, there are 17 just in the town - impressive for a place with a population just over 10,000. The other thing that lifts Borovsk's image from just 'town with churches' is its many painted walls. Old, dilapidated buildings; schools; fine, classical structures; buildings everywhere, are spiced up with painted scenes. Some are from classical novels, some are in lieu of information panels and some are just there to look colourful and pretty. Even in the rain/snow they added a little something to the atmosphere and it became a game to try and find new ones.
At the entrance to the Pafnutiyev Monastery a man with a crutch stood blinking next to a legless man in a wheelchair. Little tins rattled around their feet hoping for coins. A dog was nearby, wet and motionless waiting, instead, for scraps. Or love. Old ladies on the other side of the entry track were manning stalls selling salted cucumbers and biscuits, while a man optimistically looked after a surreal table offering both a bag of fresh eggs or various pieces of armour which a visitor could be photographed with.

The monastery itself, perched by a little pond, was a standard affair, only this time the girls not only had to cover their heads with a scarf (platok) but had to put on a cloak thing round their mid section and legs (ubka). Probably to cover their jeans. A cat ran out of the rain, was denied entry into the toll-booth and jumped into the pile of ubki.
'Luke, you shouldn't take photos of monks. It's illegal' said Boris
'Boris, my good man, I literally don't care' I smiled as I took photos of a heavily bearded man in a black robe.

* * * *

Boris' mum, Galina, picked us up from Borovsk and drove us to Obninsk. Obninsk was the first Naukograd - Science City, built during the fifties as a centre for research and scientific development. It houses the world's first nuclear power plant as well as the training base for the Soviet Union's first nuclear submarines. It is not an attractive place, but it was interesting. It felt artificial or 'made'. Something akin to Milton Keynes. I had rarely been somewhere with no history. There was one place of age though and that was the first place that Galina took us.
A tiny village that was swallowed up by Obninsk, Belkino was the estate of a wealthy landowner of the same name. His two-storey mansion, once the subject of high-art and paintings, now stood, decrepit and wasted away to brick, splitting apart into two and held together by iron girders. Near it was the salmon pink Boris and Gleb church and a park with artificial waterfall cascades. It would have been lovely. Would have...

In Obninsk we passed the 315m meteorological tower, the main street that was built by German prisoners of war, and the submarine memorial - a submarine tower poking out the ground - next to which a young cadet in uniform was having his photo taken.
At Boris' flat his mother treated us to a feast of roast lamb, pork cutlets, feta salad (prepared by yours truly), potatoes, cakes and chocolates. We collectively collapsed in the chairs for the remaining part of the afternoon. Galina made pirozhki in the kitchen, for us to have in the morning for breakfast. We digested and waited as night fell in Obninsk. Then, over tea and cheese, we looked at photos of Boris as a young boy with his mother. He wasn't particularly amused but he wasn't really bothered either, so we carried on laughing. She then showed us photos of flowers. The whole flat was full of plants and pots and greenery. I supposed it was necessary to brighten up the place given the often bleak nature of the city.

'To new friends!' and chink went the vodka shots.
We were in a nice bar with some of Boris' friends. Three guys; Ivan, Vasya and Lyosha. Vasya and Lyosha were part of a fairly successful Bluegrass band called BandJammin. Indeed, over the course of the night, we saw that they seemed to be known to quite a few of the young of the city who would come over and shake their hands.
The bar we were in was depleted. It stocked one type of beer, a couple of varieties of snacks and we had just finished its last bottle of vodka.
'Right, let's move!' bellowed Ivan

In the next place we had more vodka and some nuts. The attractive bargirl seemed fascinated that at this table were sat an Englishman and an American girl. I shan't lie, I played up my accent and made sure I was heard. Later, some people at another table - some guys who thought they were God's gift to the male species - picked us out, thinking we were German and made some jokes by saying some Deutsch words. Knobs.
We finished the night in a cold flurry of English and Russian outside on the streets clutching beer cans with frigid fingers. It was Spring and it was zero degrees. The band were to play a gig in Moscow the following weekend, so Laura offered them to stay at hers. We parted around 4:00 in the morning and exclaimed how much of a joy it was to meet each other and how much we all looked forward to seeing each other again. Russians are lovely.

Galina's pies did the trick in the morning and that was it. Three towns in one week. I was shattered.

I'm addicted to travelling. Addicted to seeing as many places as I can before I leave. I have a magnet collection. I have a job that is killing me. I live in a country where I don't want to live much longer but where I want to travel eternally.
To live, Spain is simply better. To see, feel, experience and understand it takes a hell of a lot to top Russia.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The Third Rome; Whitestone; The First Throne; The Forty Forties = Moscow

Four city slicker wankers were stood, cawing and joking around a strikingly beautiful woman in a business dress. The loud one was speaking English - I think he was Dutch - and had slicked back hair and glasses. The others were Russians, but weren't endowed with the same looks. Some receding hairlines and badly toothed smiles. They either cackled like idiots at every word that glamorous woman said or threw cocky eyebrows around as they no doubt droned on about how much money they were able to fill their vacuous little lives with. Maybe the woman loved it. Maybe she was just entertaining these suits and black coats until she could get rid of them.
I sat, reading my book, waiting for my class. It was 8:30 in the morning. Dirty shoes, jeans, grey t-shirt, black cardigan, no sign of monetary value. But I felt better than them. I didn't need to prove myself with designer labels and hours of grooming.
'Hello, do you speak Russian?' said a blonde woman who had invisibly sidled up next to me
It was my student's co-worker
'Ruslan can't come today. He's busy and didn't have your number'
'No worries'
Shit. It took me 40mins to get there. Back home I go. Leaving my seat, I handed out a haughty face, trying to look important as I headed back to the metro. The yuppies had won this one.

* * * *

My weeks have slid into an intolerable routine - here you go Laura - with classes spread out at horrid times. Business English teachers are the working world's bitches. We work before everyone else, often do nothing in the days - apart from sporadic private classes, and then work again after everyone has finished. Four of my mornings see me up and around before Moscow has fully bothered. At least the metro is marginally quieter then.

I suffer a weird sort of cabin fever. A self-imposed madness. I could go out, but to do what? with whom? and in this weather? March has been a bit underwhelming - still flirting with minus numbers and with weather more erratic than anywhere I've known. Today - the yuppie depreciation day - I had snow, wind, sun, heat and freezing cold below zero temperatures in the space of a few minutes. It's getting tiresome. I have been in a big coat since mid-October. The snow that still lingers on grass and buildings is dirty. A browning, gritty mess which, as it melts, is slowly revealing the five months of buried dog turds and yellowed urine strata. Moscow's not looking pretty at the moment.

My friends, with normal jobs, work in the week, so I am left to my own devices. It's quite a lonely existence without a 'staff room'. Lots of hours and days are spent in my room. Entombed. Sure, I could go out, but I've seen so much already that it's hard to find new things to do. Tourism is reliant on the weather and I refuse to see 'sights' when it's grey and squally. Museums are more fun with a friend. So, I go crazy. I watch films, I read, I write, I snooze, I dream about Spain and I skype people. Yesterday I spent the whole day drooling at the memory of, and the hopeful return to, Segovia. That's how bad it's got.

It's not all doom and gloom though. I still love the city, in many respects. And it still yields surprises. The other day Dmitry took me, along with his girlfriend, to an apartment building in the west of the city, just off the centre.
'We'll go to the roof' he said nonchalantly 'If the police catch us, it could be a problem...'
Code for 'it's illegal'
'Oh, and when we go in, don't smile'
We walked in to the swish entrance hall, glumly passed the concierge who greeted us, blagged the floor we were going to and entered the lift. Dmitry pressed the number 35.
On the 35th floor we climbed the fire escape stairs up to the 37th floor.
'Thank God there are no cameras'
On the 37th floor we left the confines of the interior and found a little door with a padlock, long since broken and went outside, up an old iron staircase, through a gap in a plastic roof and into the fresh air. The view was outstanding, and made more alluring by its illegality. All around were the lights of the city; the skyscrapers and roads and cars and flats. It was beautiful. Windy and freezing, but beautiful.

That was something not in the guidebook.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Escaping the madness only to find it again.

Semyon poured out the chilli vodka into our glasses and took the kolbaski, boiled sausages, out of the plastic bag. Our fingers, numbed by the early evening wind and snow, gripped the amber liquid and turned blue.
Swig, fire in the throat, furnace in the belly.
'Arrrr, I can feel the wings!!!' He roared into the silent air, sending an echo flying over the snowy expanse.
Then the sausages scrunched and popped pleasingly in our teeth as we watched the sunset play in the trees and snowfall.
'This is the best Monday ever!' said Laura

Laura and I had packed our overnight bags one Monday and caught a little bus East to the historic city of Vladimir, about three hours away, with no firm contacts or plans. It was a city of great importance and was once a major capital, and would have been the present day capital if power hadn't gradually shifted to the newer settlement called Moscow. It is part of the Golden Ring and also contains some UNESCO sights (part of a collection of white buildings along with Suzdal and some other small settlements).

Having seen the historic centre - a strip of majestic white and gold cathedrals and churches stretched out along a ridge overlooking the Vladimirskaya region and stuck between snow and cyan blue skies - we found a little cafe that served Russian soups and home-made pizzas. I had started planning our evening escape back to Moscow if none of the couchsurfers responded to Laura when suddenly her phone buzzed.
'It's Diana! She's coming here, now'
As the last of the Solyanka was drained and the surreal pizzas were finished a mousey girl and her two friends blundered noisily into the little eatery. Kolya was fairly quiet and sheepish at first, but Semyon, with his manic hair and pierced ears flumped down and ordered two shots of vodka.
'He's getting over a hangover' said Diana, putting us at ease.

They toured us round a bit, but apart from a snowy mound from which people were sledding - and Semyon flung himself down - and a highly reflective theatre front where we tried, in vain, to capture us all jumping in a photo, there wasn't much more they could show us. The evening was slowly approaching, so we had to start making some decisions. Either we held on, hoping another couchsurfer would text back offering us a place to stay or we would get an evening bus back to Moscow.
'Let's go to Bogolyubovo then' said Diana
'But first' added Semyon, finger in the air 'we need weapons' - alcohol

So it was with that Laura and I left the bus in the tiny town of Bogolyubovo, passed the overblown white and duck-egg blue monastery, and found ourselves drinking spicy vodka and eating sausages with three absurd Russians who screamed when photos were taken and catapulted each other into snow drifts as the sun lowered and bruised the sky orange.

We walked over a elevated bump of ground that served as a pathway through the snowed over expanse and followed it over to a tiny, lonesome white church - the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, silly name - that was touched tan by the glow of the sun. At the building itself was one of the most quixotic and magical views I have even seen. The sun, at the tree-line, was spilling rays through the pine trees as the air above was a gentle spectrum of oranges, light pastel pinks and dark blues and the little church stood like some pretty, sculpted sentinel. The silence was tangible and we all just stood there, gawping.

After a failed dive into the snow bank, some snow angels and the buying of more 'weapons' we were back in Vladimir. Kolya, who isn't even a couchsurfer and only set up a facebook page for us to contact him after we had left, turned to us and offered us a place to stay at his grandparents flat.
'They're not alive now. We just use it to party'

It was a real soviet era timepiece. Everything was musty, wooden and mismatching. There was a funk of age and a feeling that no one had lived there for decades. The door to the living room creaked open and we dumped all the food on the table and ordered a pizza. While Semyon set up a hookah pipe Laura and Diana set up the feast: radishes, salad, kolbaski, mushroom sauce for dipping, brown bread, crisps, and a piquant cabbage mix. With the pipe bubbling away Semyon crackled an old LP player into life. Tchaikovsky streamed out, followed by the Beatles and then Russian 80s band Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine). It bounced off the fading wallpaper and old curtains. We danced, drank cognac, conducted invisible orchestras and blew smoke rings and stuffed ourselves silly.

At around half past ten Semyon had to leave. We walked him up to the centre through the dark alleys, all white powder, and past the little wooden houses - izbushki - to the are of churches and cathedrals which were all lit up.
'You'll have to come back in Summer' smiled Diana 'You will come back in Summer'

* * * *

In other news:
Sunday 6th was Maslenitsa - basically a week-long pancake day that ended on the 6th. I went and met a Russian girl, Margarita, for the first time in Kolomenskoye park. It was surreal and cold and snowing. I danced a jig with grandma, toboganned down the hill on a rubber ring, ate blinis with meat and drank hot medovukha - a kind of Russian mead.

On Wednesday the 9th - I walked around the Stalin Skyscraper complex with Richard and looked at the vast panoramic views of the whole city from the viewpoint at the Sparrow Hills nature reserve.

On Friday the 11th things came to an abrupt and melancholy stop with Olga.
On Sunday the 13th I walked around Park Pobedi (Victory Park) in the sun - for now all is warm and melting to a soundtrack of drips. It is spacious area that includes a grand concave building that helps constitute the Great Patriotic War memorial, along with the massive obelisk and spread of poignant memorial churches for different denominations. An interesting fact is that the obelisk is exactly 141,8m high - 10cm for every day of the war. Nearby, under a skyline of business buildings and bouncer-like Soviet flats, is Moscow's massive screw you Napoleon Triumphal Arch.
In the evening I sat in a hot bath, reading Gogol and planning trips.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Competition Piece - Three Words

What follows is a piece I wrote for a writing competition last year. I didn't win.


I hate Moscow?

I love Moscow?

I don’t know?

How to describe Moscow in three words was my thought. What was Moscow? Or better still, who was it? I was living in one of the largest cities on the planet. A swarthy, broiling mess of pastel coloured spires, grand neo-classical theatres and stuccowork facades sidling up alongside soviet era blocks, Moscow was a city whose identity I was struggling to pigeonhole. Looking out of my window as the wind howled around the grey walls outside, the sky threatening to spit snow at me, I thought I would find help. Condensed Moscow in a can. Three words please.

Richard. English. Ex-pat here for 14 years: vast, surreal, apocalyptic.

I can taste their smell. The daily love-hate play of the Moscow metro and its millions of users. I flit from palatial chamber to sardine-packed train and then back into the architectural gem further along the line. People everywhere. Solace is rare in Moscow, as is personal space. It’s a musky, exciting, silly, tiring place to travel round. I fear it and relish it at the same time. Some rough looking Caucus men vault over the barriers and run down to the trains as a portly old lady in a grey uniform pointlessly blows a whistle at them. Then outside the dry, cool air and epic street scenes lurch about me as noisy cars scurry over them. To the left, crippling beauty, ornate and well looked after. To the right, outstanding ugliness, scruffy, peeling and designed by someone who hates onlookers. Concordance isn’t Moscow.

Ilya. Russian. Banker: wealthy, fast-paced, programmed.

The city drips with wealth. Money sloshes all around the place. The windows shine with reflected designer labels, glittering black cars line roads, Italian clothing wanders past in heels and fur coats laugh gaily as they drown cashiers in roubles. The bubble bursts when the paradox comes into the light. Utter poverty, depressing and brutal, lives alongside. Middle-aged men slump alone or in groups, dishevelled, Dostoevskian, covered in the filth of the dirty streets, cradling cans of beer and consuming themselves into oblivion. All this within three feet of the other and neither party paying any heed. ‘That’s Russia!’ one of my students told me.

Babushka. Russian. Street-seller: super, multi-cultural, enormous market.

In the mornings, come rain or shine or Antarctic conditions, little old ladies set up little cardboard box stalls and little wooden tables. The kiosks have the monopoly on ‘street beers’ and snacks and the scented effusions of either hops or urine – and if (un)lucky, the marbled coalescence of both. However, the old babushkas persist. Chatty, plucky and awesome saleswomen, they offer fresh, moist cheeses; dark green bunches of dill or parsley tied with little blue rubber bands; bags of nuts and raisins; pots of homemade jams, honeys and sauces; or some fruit and vegetables that sit as little supernovas of colour exploding in the blustery washed out Muscovite autumn.

Miguel. Spanish. Work placement, 2 months: gigantic, grey, unrecognisable.

Moscow, like the country it runs, is hard to make friends with, tricky to get used to and impossible to understand. Its history is a bloody tapestry of revolution, dictatorship, repression and iron-fisted rule. From the tsars to the communists and finally to the capitalist ‘democratics’, one feels that the city itself doesn’t know what it is. Vestiges of every stage remain, like fingerprints. These differences are also imprinted in the psyches of the people, who are as perplexing as the place itself. They admit they are unique and they have serious trouble describing themselves. ‘We’re not really like anyone else’ laughed one of my students. When you finally break through the barrier though, it’s more welcoming and friendly than anywhere else.

Eileen. Canadian. Teacher. Never visited Russia: cold, grey, intimidating.

Winter in Moscow can be genuinely fearsome. The record low was around the -42 C mark. At the time of writing, the start of December, it is -21 C outside and I am bundled up in a duvet on my bed. The old flat doesn’t have double-glazing, but rather two sets of old windows. They rattle a little as Siberian winds taunt me and slide in through the cracks to make sure that my toes don’t warm up. Outside I am lit up as I breathe in the frozen air. My lungs wobble. Smells sit, vague, waiting for a zephyr to move them. Dust and beer and pastries. Scents of the underpasses; Moscow’s ‘high streets’. Or my cheeks and nose burn as they are blasted raw by gusts spiralling around corners. It’s terrifying and wonderful at the same time. It certainly adds a little frisson to walking to the metro.

Me. English. Teacher: overblown, unfathomable, non-stop.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Perils of ice and love socks.

Last week contained a Tuesday. That Tuesday was an incredible day.

After my early morning class with SOVCOMFLOT, which ended at 9:00, I hurried through the wind to the metro, past the streams of early morning commuters, and took the metro north to the VDNKH stop. I was to meet Dmitry and his friends as soon as possible in order to visit the Ostankino Tower. The Moscow Metro Map website clocked the journey at 20 minutes. In reality it took around 40. Lying bastards.

At the required metro stop there was a rather long walk down a rather long street to the little ticket office where I could enter into the Ostankino complex. Leaving the metro I began trotting along as fast as I could. It quickly materialised that I wouldn't make it by the 10 o'clock tour by mere wayfaring. Already sweating from the metro in my four layers, fleece scarf, gloves and hat I began to jog. Jogging at 9:45, in full winter kit, in my boots, through Moscow. I was breathing heavy and soggy under my clothes. I turned a corner, crossing a busy road, full of early-morning, steaming Ladas and BMWs and pressed on, crunching the snow and bamboozling pedestrians. Dmitry then called,
'Hey man, where are you?'
Heavy breathing
Heavy breathing
'I'm running...'
Cough, heavy breathing
'There shortly...'
'Ok man, sorry to disturb you. Keep running! See you soon'
With only a few minutes left before our tour was to start I pounded up to the Ostankino entrance where Dima met me.

The building stands at 540m. It is the tallest building in Europe, and the fourth tallest in the world behind the CN Tower in Toronto, the Canton Tower in China and the ridiculous Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It's primary function is to be a television and radio tower and, like other buildings of the same type, it spears up from a wide base and tapers into a tip, bulging out at certain points with viewing platforms or maintenance levels.
After the usual bureaucratic rigmarole of Russia - go to this window, then that window, show your passport and this one again - we got to security. There, in the tiny hall with the metal detector machines, was one of the most embarrassing moments I had had in a long time.
'Come in' said the officious lady holding a detector wand 'put your items on the table and walk through with your coat on'
I didn't quite catch what she said the first time, but after a slapstick routine with my coat I got the picture and walked through; my keys, phone and wallet on the table. She swiped the detector over me.
'Schto eto?'
'Oops, da, eto moi ipod' I placed it on the table
She swiped my other breast pocket, it beeped. But there was nothing in there metal.
'Please take it out of your pocket'
But it wasn't metal...
'Just put it on the table'
Had I known it was the metal button for the external breast pockets I could have avoided embarrassment. I put my hand inside my coat and felt around.
'Oh no' I said under my breath and looked up to Dima who was being patted down at the other security point. I mouthed my problem to him and he laughed.
'Please take it out sir' said the lady again.
I reached in further and pulled out the offending item. Dima snorted under his breath and I flushed red. The little chocolate flavoured condom looked so pathetic and absurd lying there on the table. The lady smiled ever so slightly and then found the button that beeped.
At around 360m the high speed lift spat us out and we were granted impossibly vast and vertigo-inducing views to Moscow. Almost all was white and grey as the sun continued its morning ascent. Industry trails hung low in the air and a morning pollution haze, usually horrid in the centre, added a magical eeriness to the scene. Cars like ants, skyscrapers like tall black grass. It was magnificent but all too short and we were quickly sucked back down into Moscow to take the monorail system back to the metro. No more jogging for me.

* * * *

But a few hours after that I met up with Sarah, a girl who had done Russian with me at university. She was attempting to return to Moscow to live and work. She had the same russophile urges as me. We met at the Oktyabrskaya metro stop and skidded down the road to Gorky Park. I was disinclined to comment on the sweat-ruined state of my clothes but, for some reason, more than happy to share my folly concerning the comical preservative.
In winter Gorky Park is flooded. The walkways, as a result, become frozen channels so that the visitor may skate through the area. It's a strange feeling. I'm used to rinks, or a frozen pond at best, but to skate through a park as if one were walking is, for want of a better word, cool. It's just a shame that my skates weren't very tight. I had trouble walking on my left foot for the days that followed. It's hot and thirsty work skating so, with burning thighs, we sidled up to one of the kiosks that lined the ice-ways. To make the episode that little bit more Russian we drank hot tea that fumed in the chilled air and munched on warm, slithery blinis. Almost as soon as we had met we parted. Sarah had some interviews and I had to teach, in vain, a small five-year old child how to say 'I am good'.

I was, a couple of weeks ago, made 'single', due to incompatibility. This amazing day was rounded off by meeting a quite delightful creature who I am currently seeing. Olga. Beautiful and artistic with Lily Allen hair and eyes that would show up a doe. Fingers crossed I don't screw this one up.

* * * *

EXTRA: As if I thought the trials and tribulations caused by the humorous chocolate willy warmer were over I was wrong. It reared its ugly head - perhaps the wrong use of the phrase - again on the Thursday of that week. I was at SBERBANK. My student arrived and we went up to the main desk to get my pass. I handed the girl my passport, realising only at the last moment that Mr. Prevention had wrapped himself round some of its pages. She took the passport, removed the little brown salami sling, emitted the tiniest 'oop' on noticing what it was, typed in my details, popped it back in the passport and let me through. Nobody spoke of it.

I've since relegated the little bastard to a dusty drawer in my room.