Thursday, 14 March 2013

It's what I came for ...

Finally the day dawns when I fulfil the obligation that brought me to Moscow. I'm speaking at a GreenIT Forum sponsored by Kyocera Document Solutions Russia. This entails an 8.30 pick-up and, working backwards a 6.30 alarm. All fine - except that by the time I get home tonight this will translate to 2.30 am. Oh, and it's snowing.

I arrive at the Radisson  before 9am, ahead of all my colleagues. But there are people who know what to do with me and, more importantly, coffee. The conference room is looking good, too. In due course Julia and Maksim arrive, followed by the delegates. I'm handed a small receiver with an earpiece through which I'll be able to hear the Russian speakers translated into English. I'm the opening speaker, after a brief introduction, and we're soon underway. My talk over, I regain my seat and the conference continues. It's now that I realise the value of the translators. In 30 minute shifts, they translate the speaker's comments in real time. Without them I wouldn't have the foggiest idea what's going on.

During the lunch break I have to do a video interview - again the translators step in to help - and then we're into the afternoon. A couple of the speakers are a bit rant-y and at one point the translator resorts to "blah, blah, blah", much to my amusement, but the organisers, sponsors and audience seem well satisfied. I, on the other hand, have a flight to catch and Moscow's traffic to contend with.

After a brief diversion to secure more Rubles -  I told you it was expensive! - I'm ready to leave for the airport. I'm pleased to see that my driver is Roman, who picked me up on arrival. I'm less pleased to see that the snow has turned to icy slush and the traffic is horrendous. Most of the jams seem to be caused by accidents, some of which look quite serious. Seemingly oblivious to the danger, Ramon serenely browses the internet for alternative routes around the obstructions and writes my receipt while driving.

We arrive without incident and in good time for my flight, which is no more than a third full. I safely negotiate the meal, which is described as "meat pasta" or vegetarian - the steward is unable to tell me what kind of meat so learning from recent food origin issues I opt for veggie. I watch the Hitchcock movie, which is not as bad as I expected. And then I'm home.

Looking back, I'm so glad I took the extra days to explore Moscow. It was a fascinating insight into a nation that on the surface aspires to be European but gives the sense that, just below the surface, has a seige mentality and an "every man for himself" approach to life. The people I met were unfailingly pleasant and hospitable, but when push came to shove - as it literally did on the Metro - no prisoners were taken and no quarter given. I've been impressed by the skills of craftsmen that can recreate architecture and interior finishes from medieval times and turn the rather turgid ideals of a soviet society into inspirational art, and frustrated by red tape that makes a simple transaction into an endurance test. I wouldn't want to live here, but I've enjoyed Moscow and would like to visit again.

On my arrival back at Heathrow I learn that a new Pope has been elected. Ironically, I overhear this news in a conversation between two stewards, both so camp that I'm certain the new pontiff would not consider them deserving of the church's blessing.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Kremlin

An earlier start today, as Irena has pre-booked tickets for The Kremlin Armoury and our entry time is at 10am. Julia has been very reluctant for me to travel independently, but Irena is more relaxed about it and I have arranged to meet her at the Metro station to save her the trip to pick me up. We have a kerfuffle picking up Irena’s guide pass from the ticket office and she bemoans the way processes are constantly changed and always increasing in complexity. It’s another sunny day but bitterly cold again so it’s not comfortable hanging around while the issue is resolved.

The Armoury is more of a treasury, containing historic costumes, carriages and gifts presented to the Tsars by foreign rulers. There are a few weapons but we spend more time on the other exhibits. Some of the women’s dresses have ridiculously small waists and Irena tells me that one of them fainted 3 times during her coronation because she just couldn’t breathe. There is an astonishing amount of precious metals and jewels on display, much of it belonging to the church – the priests’ robes used to encrusted with pearls and embroidered with gold and silver thread, and even their bibles were bound in gold and gemstones. Irena is very knowledgeable and her stories bring the exhibits to life. I’m amused by the story of the two brothers who were made joint rulers while still very young and had a double throne constructed for them with a hidden opening in the back so that their elder sister – literally the power behind the throne – could whisper instructions to them when dealing with affairs of state. I also learn that Ivan the Terrible should properly be translated as Ivan the Awesome, although he beat his son to death in a fury after arriving unannounced at his home and discovering his son’s wife with her head uncovered – which I feel merits the “terrible” label.
After the armoury we explore the churches of Cathedral Square and the giant bell and cannon, neither of which were ever used except as displays of wealth and power. The Kremlin is an architectural treasure-trove, with curvaceous churches, ornate domes and elegant palaces. And plonked in the middle is a hideous 1960s monstrosity in concrete and glass, built as a convention hall for the soviets and now a concert hall with, according to Irina, rather poor acoustics.
The Kremlin tour over, it’s time to set out alone. Irina has kindly written me instructions explaining how to reach the Tretyakov Gallery by Metro. She suggests I eat lunch at the food hall in the underground mall that runs along the side of Alexander Gardens. I choose some sausages and mash, for which I am charged by weight. My journey to the gallery is uneventful, apart from being asked for directions, but it’s quite a speedy visit as Julia has invited me to the office and she’s expecting a call about 4pm to let her know I’m ready to be picked up and walked there. I get back about 4.10 but when I try to call her the number won’t work. When I’ve exhausted all the options I can think of I google the address and copy it in to Nokia maps. It says it’s 7 minutes away so I set off, finding it quite easily. Julia is so surprised to see me, and slightly horrified that I attempted it. I decide not to mention that I took myself off to the gallery, or that I’m planning to return to Red Square to see it after dark.
From the office I go straight to Alexander Park to buy the obligatory snow globe and fridge magnet at the kiosks I had noticed earlier, as well as some snacks and sweets to bring home, from the nearby supermarket. The evening sun casts a golden glow over the buildings and I wander round the park and take photos, then move on to Red Square to find Gum is illuminated in the style of Harrods. It’s dusk now and I want to stay until it’s really dark, but I’m aware that I still have to get back to the hotel, eat dinner and pack and tomorrow will be a long day. With my sensible head on I head back and treat myself to the first vodka of my visit while uploading my photos to the netbook. It costs 500 Rubles – about £12.
After dinner and a quick Skype home I go to bed, but the room’s too hot, the air conditioning won’t stop humming and I don’t get much sleep.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral

I slept wonderfully well, and awake to a bright, sunny morning. Breakfast is excellent and I wrap up warm for a day of sightseeing. My colleague in Moscow, Julia, has arranged a guide for me and Irena meets me in reception wearing a long mink coat. We quickly recap the brief I had emailed to Julia and set off to explore the Metro which is reputed to be a tourist attraction in its own right. I have plenty of layers on, which is just as well as it’s a very chilly walk to Prospekt Mira station. We take the circular brown line to Komsommolskay station which is decorated with mosaics celebrating the values of the communist era, then to Novolslobodskay which does the same in stained glass, then Kievskaya (historical panels). Switching to the dark blue line we visit Kievskaya (paintings) and Revolution Square with its bronze statues. There was certainly no lack of creative talent in soviet Russia: even though the subject matter was quite consistent, the executions were varied!

We emerge in a square fronted by 16th century walls, the Hotel Metropole and the Bolshoi Theatre and with a statue of Karl Marx in the centre. We haven’t got far before my face – the only exposed portion of my body – begins to ache with cold. It’s a bright day but there is snow on the ground and the wind is icy. We walk towards Red Square (the name actually means “beautiful square”) and enter through the Gate of the Resurrection. I immediately recognise St Basil’s Cathedral at the far end with its candy-coloured domes but the outdoor skating rink is less familiar and blares out “Gangnam Style” as we pass. To one side of the square are the red walls of The Kremlin, with Spasskaya Tower and the so-called Secret Tower from which Ivan the Terrible would covertly watch the action in the square. The other side of the square is flanked by the grand façade of Gum, the famous department store.
We explore St Basil’s Cathedral, which is actually a cluster of churches, each dedicated to a different saint; St Basil (or Vasily) is simply the most highly revered. Irena explains the traditional layout of the orthodox iconoclasty, which has the church’s nominated saint to the right of centre and a strict hierarchy of icons. Frescoes also adorn the other walls, again following a specific format with judgement day on the wall facing the altar. In the central chapel a 3-man choir sings – the size of their sound and their vocal range are impressive. Apparently choirs always sing acapella in orthodox churches so the booming low notes we associate with church organs are created with the voice.
Our next stop is Gum, which turns out to be more of a mall than a department store and populated mostly by the more upmarket global brands. We explore the rather exclusive delicatessen on the ground floor – which feels like it comes from another era and smells divine – and then have a rather more modest lunch of Porhzovski (traditional pies) at Café 57 on the first floor; these come in both sweet and savoury flavours, encased in a kind of glazed bread.
The afternoon begins with Alexander Garden where we see the tomb of the unknown soldier and its eternal flame and then walk along the opposite side where there are statues depicting fairy tales and four lifesize horses outside what used to be the state riding school. We take the metro once again, this time to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which is a modern reconstruction of an earlier cathedral which was demolished to make way for an ill-fated soviet civic construction project and now has a basement church beneath it – The Church of the Transfiguration – where a swimming pool briefly existed.
There’s a walking bridge next to the cathedral, which has great views of the upper parts of The Kremlin in one direction and the ridiculously huge Peter the Great memorial in the other. From here we can also see the former Red October chocolate factory and a soviet apartment block so large it has its own power station. The next stage of our tour is by tram; the 5-journey ticket I bought for 135 Rubles (about £3.50) is good for any length of journey on any form of public transport. I think it’s really good value but Irena remembers when a journey cost 7 Kopeks. We finish at a mall where Julia and her colleague have arranged to meet me for some shopping before the ballet. There are few stores I don’t recognise and the prices are pretty high – a fur hat (not that I would buy one!) is anything upwards of 200 Euros and a large proportion of people wear them. Fur coats are also worn by a large proportion of women - and they start at about 2,000 Euros.
Julia recommends a snack before the ballet and proposes pancakes which are traditionally eaten in the week before orthodox lent begins. Then it’s back on the metro to travel out to the theatre where we are meeting Maksim’s wife for the ballet. We see Spartacus, which is remarkable for its raunchiness and the brevity of the male dancers’ costumes – plus, of course, the artistic interpretation of a classic legend! After the show Julia and I travel back towards the hotel and stop at a restaurant called Yiki-Palki which serves traditional Russian dishes. It’s pretty late by the time I get back to the Garden Ring but before I can go to bed I have to pay some attention to my face which has red, swollen blotches from the cold.


Sunday, 10 March 2013

Moscow bound

An inauspicious start – the flight was delayed for an hour due to ice on the flaps and some missing paperwork. The cabin steward (Darren – I made a special note!) was particularly offhand and abrupt. But, on the plus side, a strong tailwind enabled us to make up the time and we arrived more or less on schedule. Only a four hour flight, but the 4 hour time difference meant a whole day spent getting to Moscow.

Surprisingly, getting into Russia turned out to be easier than entering Australia – a short queue at immigration and a long wait for baggage, but otherwise uneventful. As promised, I was met in the arrivals hall by my driver, Roman and driven to my hotel. The traffic was a bit sticky but this was less of a concern than the laptop mounted on the dashboard which Roman consulted frequently, both to check his emails and to show me photos of his daughter Deanna and his cat, whose name I can’t recall.
Against the odds, we arrive safely and I check in. The Garden Ring Hotel is fairly new and my room is comfortable, apart from the faint whiff of drains in the bathroom. Once unpacked and fed (Beef Stroganov in the hotel restaurant) I Skype home. After a late night and an early morning, the time difference is negligible – I’m definitely ready for bed.