When time came to fly from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Moscow, the competitive leader was Aeroflot Russian airlines. I got a lot of kidding about how awful this would be. The reality was rather different. I flew on a new, Russian-made jet, quite comfortable, with an attentive, efficient crew, and even a sandwich and drink on the 1 ½ hour flight. The flight and landing were impeccable. We should not let our ideas lead us to have unrealistic views of other countries. Russia certainly has problems (who does not!) but it also is a strong, capable country not to be underestimated. The Russian people have survived many wars, and are tough and resilient. Let us hope that we do not renew the Cold War.
I’ve arrived in Moscow, Russia for the first time. Moscow is such a big, historic city that many books have been written about it. I will not attempt to make a guide to Moscow, just put up some photos and make a few comments to give you a taste of what Moscow is like. With more than 12 million people, it is quite a bustling place.
I’m staying a block from Red Square, the center of ancient Moscow. The Kremlin: it means wooden fortress, which is what was first built here in 1156, 860 years ago. Upgraded to limestone in 1367 to withstand Mongol raids.
Napolean invaded Russia, and actually occupied Moscow briefly. The Russian response was to burn down ⅔ of Moscow to deprive the French of a place to stay. Faced with the oncoming Russian winter, he had to retreat, and by the time they made it back to France, only 30,000 of the 600,000 troops he started with made it out alive. Hitler also made the mistake of thinking he could beat the Russian winter.
My first night, I ate dinner at Cafe Chekhov. Very traditional. Beef stroganoff and mashed potatoes, quite good! (Since then, I have eaten here several times more. Good food, great atmosphere)
Moscow is further north than any of the USA other than Alaska, and it is already chilly here in late September. Time to put on my silk long underwear, down jacket and warm gloves. Of course, locals are used to this, and simply dress warm. They know how to live in this climate.
Lots of people out in the evening, even eating in sidewalk cafes! (Later, the weather warmed up a bit, and I even saw a blue sky day, and weather that was comfortable in the evening with a light sweater, quite pleasant.)
Yes, those are chess pieces in the ad. Chess is almost a national sport here.
The subways here are extensive (12 lines) and possibly even deeper than Prague! They made some of the lines very deep for a special reason: to be bomb-proof. One station is actually 276 feet underground, meant to withstand a nuclear attack (by guess who). There are many long escalators to get up and down. One is over 400 feet long! This is the third biggest subway system in the world (Beijing and Shanghai are #1 and #2)
If you buy a card with 20 trips encoded in it, it’s only about 45 cents to ride as far as you can go. I have one. Begun in the 1930s, it is one of the most extensive big city systems in the world, with 194 stations, 200 miles of track, and around 400 trains operating, carrying 6-9 million passengers a day, more than New York and London combined. There are trains every minute and a half at peak times. Quite a system!
(The more I ride the Moscow subways, the more I like the system. With trains every 1 ½ to 2 minutes, very fast train speeds, and easy transfers to other lines, travel is quick and easy. Somehow they seem to keep all these long, fast escalators working. That’s essential for a very deep subway.)
(Note: a major guidebook says there are 9,000 trains operating a day. The mathematician in me was made uncomfortable by this number, so I did some simple calculations. If the trains are spaced 2 minutes apart at peak times, at most there should be around 600 trains on 200 miles of track at once. The trains are 6-8 cars long, so there might be several thousand subway cars, but I just don’t find 9,000 trains plausible. Wikipedia says there are about 3,300 cars in service every day, 6-8 per train, which would imply 4-500 trains. That is more plausible. Don’t believe everything you read! I think they meant almost 10,000 train trips a day, whatever that means)
I also signed up for the bike borrowing program, which is about $9 for the week I’m here. I really enjoy being able to just grab a bike and cycle off. (Note: after cycling for awhile, I found Moscow to not be very bike friendly. In order to keep traffic moving freely, pedestrians mostly have to go down into underpasses to cross the many major streets. This is not easy for bikes (or baby carriages, for that matter! I have helped carry a baby carriage up out of the underpasses several times.)
The stations are elegant, the trains a bit old but clean and fast (note: not all are old. There are many newer ones, and all have padded seats, a very nice feature) Moscow is in the lead worldwide on electronic ticketing for the subways. You buy a card which serves as a monthly pass, or has 20 rides, etc. and touch it on the way in. Slick. Now, some credit cards in Moscow also let you in, automatically billing you monthly. Our transit systems need to do as well so it’s easy and fast to use public transit.
Subway station art. Russia decided to make the Moscow subway system a showpiece, and there are many attractive stations.
One challenge of using the Moscow subway system is that many signs list the destinations only in their Cyrillic spelling. This motivated me to learn a little Cyrillic pronounciation. I’ll show you the challenge it presents with two examples:
This is a common street sign at crosswalks. It is pronounced ‘Stop’
So the C is an S sound, and the п is a P sound. Once you understand this, it’s easy.
By the way: every cross walk in Moscow has these kind of signals, which every technically capable country should have! They tell you how many seconds you have to walk, or how many seconds you must wait till you can walk. As a result, people by and large wait, rather than jaywalking.
So here’s a harder one: a subway station name.
This is pronounced “Kro-pot-kin-sky-ya” and written in Roman alphabet “Kropotkinskaya” Once you learn that “ckaя” means “skaya”, it helps, as there are a lot of place names ending in this. (It means something like ‘region or area’) So if you want to go to here, or in this direction, you just look for this on the signs in the subway.
Part of the active Moscow street cleaning arsenal. Works in the snow, too, I guess. Russia’s agricultural roots are not far away.
Moscow puts a lot of effort into keeping the streets clean! It makes for pleasant walking.
The first three pictures are all on the subway. The last two pictures are of a girl visiting from southern China, and a visitor from South Korea.
The colorful towers of St. Basil’s have become a symbol of Moscow. Originally, the towers were white with golden domes. Then about 400 years ago someone decided to jazz things up!
There was a time when one of these cannons could ruin your whole day. The one on this end was made in 1630, and was in use in wartime well before the United States came into being
This is the big guy, the Tsar’s cannon. I doubt it saw a lot of battle. My personal opinion is that it was likely made just to prove that the Tsar had the biggest balls.
The Church of Christ the Savior, the tallest Orthodox church in the world. The paintings on the walls and ceilings are amazing. I found this church more interesting inside than St. Basil’s.
Just across the street is the museum of 19th and 20th century art. It has a modest collection of impressionist paintings, worth visiting.
Seen in a shop window. Not too surprising.
The Armoury at the Kremlin is the home of Russia’s treasures, handed down from the Tsarist times. It is well worth a visit.
Those are not costume gems.
The last pictures are three young Moscow women and one father with his boy, all out on a nice September Sunday in the park.
Next, I visited the ‘State Diamond Fund’, where the crown jewels are stored. And boy, do they have some amazing jewels. They also have super security. They make you turn off your cell phone, so you’re not tempted to take forbidden pictures. The security is so tight, there is no chance anyway. Your phone might be sent to the gulag. I’ll have to use a few pictures from the internet. There are huge diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and nuggets of gold as big as a dinner plate. A must-see if you’re in Moscow. I have never bought or owned any diamonds or precious stones. My dear sweet wife did not require that to prove my enduring love, and wore a simple golden band we had custom-made. I now often wear it on a chain in her memory (not while traveling, lest it be stolen). Still, it is interesting to see the big stones.
Out for a walk, I encountered this duo doing some most unusual street music!
Today, I took a subway out to a big park. Moscow has quite a few big parks! Then I picked up a bicycle at the metro station, and rode around.
Near the metro exit was a cemetery. Many of the more recent tombstones have pictures. I guess someone figured out how to engrave them on the stone.
It was not crowded on a weekday morning. It was like a walk through a lovely fall forest.
I noticed quite a number of people searching the ground in the forest areas and picking up something. I thought perhaps mushrooms. However, they were collecting acorns! So I helped a little, and this man in return consented to a picture. I believe these are oak acorns. I don’t know if they are roasted and eaten. I don’t think they would be good raw, though certainly they are popular raw with squirrels.
Tuesday, I’m attending a ballet performance at the historic Bolshoi Theater. That should be fun.
Uh-oh. World nomads don’t carry dress clothes. My blue sweater and athletic shoes are as good as it gets. I think I will be under-dressed. I’ll tell people I’m from the outback of Australia.
The stars of tonight’s ballet, “Jewels” by George Balanchine, music by Fauré, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky.
The girl pictured was handing out leaflets for a science-related program for kids. Russia has a high regard for science, something we seem to have lost in the USA recently.
On the back, some of the events noted were: interactive exhibits, conversations with robots, lectures by Nobel Prize winners, laboratory tours, master classes, leading universities. Free admission. 90 sites in Moscow.
If the USA does not regain respect for and support of science, we may find ourselves falling behind the rest of the technical world in time. Military power is not enough in the long run.
The ballet was exquisite! The Bolshoi Theatre is spectacular, and the troupe of 40 dancers were very graceful. The costuming and staging was dramatic, and the music perfect. It’s been a long time since I watched Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in San Francisco, what a treat! Ballet is the kind of fluid dancing most of us can only do in our dreams, but we can watch and imagine ourselves moving like that, with such grace and power and flexibility.
I love staying a week or more in a new city, in an apartment in the center. It gives you the time to get out, walk, use the transit systems, and get to know the neighborhoods. I found the people of Moscow to be polite, quite open to questions (although you don’t find too many people fluent in English), and friendly and tolerant when you try your fledgling Russian phrases. Google Translate is essential. Google Maps helps with GPS and transit, but doesn’t always get addresses right in Moscow, and does not seem to consistently know how to route you around the subway system if you must transfer to get somewhere. I felt safe walking around the city, even carrying my iPad in hand. Everyone has a phone or tablet in hand! Moscow has much to offer, and I would consider spending a little more time here in the future. Perhaps next time I come to Russia, I can visit the other great city, St. Petersburg also.
My time in Moscow is drawing to a close. Next, I fly Aeroflot to Delhi, which is one of the gateways for flights to Bhutan.