Sunday, 30 January 2011

A Hero Town and A Hero's Town.

'Zhenya's got no friends because he smells!' sang Richard.
Telling your ten-year-old son that you'll pay him every time you smoke is a bad way to try and quit. It's an expensive way to tackle a New Year's resolution and Richard's Machiavellian spawn, Zhenya, had been taking advantage with eagle eyes and conspiratorial glances.
'Papa's got no money because he smokes!' came the warbled response. KO.

* * * *

A great crotch-grabbing, potential child-bothering, backwards-sliding, plastic-faced, tune-creating prophet once said, 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough'. I have been travelling out of Moscow for the last three weekends. I'm tired now, but content. Three weeks ago was Pereslavl-Zalesky. Two weeks ago was Sergiev Posad. And last weekend was Tula and Yasnaya Polyana.

It was Sunday morning, about 9 o'clock, and I was sat on a train trying to pry open my gluey eyelids. Dmitry and his girlfriend Sonya sat, arms locked round each other, smiling adoringly. Another couple faced them, Marina and Vanya. Marina was Dmitry's friend. A quiet, intelligent and purely pretty girl who was nervous of talking at first but opened up as the day went on. She sat, arms in lap, next to her boyfriend, the dashing Vanya. He was a classical pianist, with floppy brown hair and eccentric clothes. The last two disciples on the pilgrimage were Fyodor, Vanya's cheeky, little brother and a French actress, whose name escapes me, who was visiting and staying with Marina in order to spend time getting to know the theatre scene in Moscow.
The small town of Sergiev Posad was a scrambled array of nondescript buildings around the station, overly snowed-up lanes lined with colourful wooden houses, and the main sight -
The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. It shouldered into view, a jumble of coloured domes atop towers and cathedrals and churches and all surrounded by a large white wall. Inside, past the blessed water well where we drank and past the fields of pigeons tended to by a little babushka with seed, was striking. Some old order of monks had unzipped a rainbow and tossed its remains over the place; chalk-white towers topped with sky-blue, gold-speckled cupolas; a turquoise bell-tower; a little red, white, orange and gold church lurking next to one covered with yellow and ochre squares.

Bearded monks trotted in and out of buildings while women covered their heads and men cleared theirs. A little monastery bakery sat preparing cakes and teas. Snow dropped from the steel-grey sky and I looked around, took photos, and tried to stamp warm my frozen toes. The important, 15th century Orthodox stronghold had caught my attention. It was brief but worth it.

* * * *
And so my latest excursion.
'Jesus ****king Christ!'
I apologise for my language but the 2.5hour trip to Tula was pretty hair-raising at times. We were bundled into a marshrutka - a share-taxi minibus - with about 10 other Russians and were bumping and sliding around the roads over potholes and around ice-banks without seatbelts. I often found myself clutching the chair in front of me.

We stayed in a rented flat, with the same group as in Pereslavl-Zalesky, but this time Dmitry, a different one, and Julio joined us, while Alvaro was at home ill. The weekend shaped itself into 5 stages:
1. Tula-tourism
2. Dinner and party
3. 'The only good club in Tula'
4. World's most hideous hangover and biscuits
5. Yasnaya Polyana and Tolstoyan reverence

Tula is a large city 120 miles South of Moscow and with a population of around half a million and seemingly built up and out from the central 'Prospect Lenina' road. It is in the Russian record books for having the country's oldest armament factory, the museum of which was housed inside the Tula kremlin. A statue of Lenin stood overlooking a square on the other side of which sat the red-walled fortress and a black-domed, brick church. The kremlin itself, set back behind the Tula Samovar museum, was a minimalistic but noble affair. Red bricks and open space. Inside were only two things: the Uspenskiy Cathedral and the salmon-pink Ephiphany Cathedral. The rest was all snow and wall.

After their meat-based dinner at a 'Bierhaus' the 13 tourists clogged up a small supermarket by a wall of vodka and bought supplies for the party: vodka, beer, champagne, wine, honey-liquor, crisps, ham, cheese, gherkins, and breakfast food. Dima invited his girlfriend and two others so in total the vecherinka was a busy one. Gone were the bad vibes from the restaurant where they tried, but failed, to charge us for a plate of meat we didn't order, and in were the happy vibes. Music 'blared' out of my mobile phone and the good times, as they say, rolled.

All comfortably sozzled we walked to the 'only good club in Tula'. It was loud, very large, almost completely lit blue, and full of absurdly attractive girls. The only downside was the music, which was abysmal. An irritating infusion of club/techno and Hip Hop. Sometime around the 4:30 mark we got bored and left. Some of our contingent took taxis while the more adventurous part elected to walk. It took over 40minutes. I was walking with Miguel and Manuel and, to be honest, what tipsy walk home through wintry Russia would be complete without snowball fights, sub-zero wrestling and mucking about on a children's climbing frame. All this fun had to be carried out under the strict instruction not to lose track of where we were. After all, we were walking back through a town we'd been in for only a few hours.

The following day was pain incarnate. All the evil done by all the bastards of history was melted down into a big pot of nastiness and poured into my head. Some internal tribe was banging a drum against my temple. I rarely get hangovers. I know when to stop drinking, and the Saturday party was no different. However, the problem was in the mixing. Some vile cocktail in my stomach that didn't let me off in the morning and just got worse throughout the day. Most of our gang left for Moscow on Sunday around midday. I was left with Fernando and Julio and Dima, who kindly offered to be our chauffeur.

First stop was a Tulsky pryaniki shop/bakery. The city is famed for its gingerbread cakes. Brown slabs of sweetness usually with a jam or condensed milk filling. A little old lady manned the cashier in the tiny room. The walls were covered in treats.
'They bake them fresh, that's why I brought you here' said Dima. I bought one in the shape of a cat whilst Fernando opted for a gun.

Then back into the car and back into my personal hell. I cursed myself, much to the mirth of the others, as we swung, slid, revved and bumped over the town's roads.
'Tula is in the bottom 10 Russian cities for road quality' said Dima
'Perfect for me then...' I groaned, holding my head and drinking water.

Yasnaya Polyana was Tolstoy's home and now museum and burial ground. It was his 'inaccessible literary stronghold'. It sat, in white woods, about 12km southwest of Tula. Magically, as soon as we left the car and ventured over the threshold the evil grip that was consuming me lifted. I felt good. The house was large, wooden and white. Cats played around it. Inside was old and felt almost spiritual. Everything preserved as it was. Scores of women were inside, at every corner, making sure no rules were broken. Thousands of books and hundreds of portraits and photos were the only details in an otherwise fairly sparse house.
'Fern, that's the actual seat where Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina and War and Peace' I whispered to Fernando
'Fern, that's the actual bed where the great Russian writer slept'. He smiled.
'Fern, that' the actual -'
'Are you going to this for everything we see Luke, even the mirror?'

Outside were more wooden houses and then endless, peaceful woods. One path lead us into a silent zone. At the end, overlooking a small ravine was his grave. Simple and unattended. A coffin shaped mound of snow and earth. There he was. Tolstoy. The greatest Russian writer.

It's apparent curative powers and its utter tranquillity when compared to Tula and Moscow made Yasnaya Polyana a wonderful end to an absurd weekend. With the lights out on the marshrutka and only a few, fuzzy villages to remind us of civilization, the 2.5 hours back to Moscow passed without occurrence.

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