Weather. Overcast. 25oC. High humidity. Status. Exploring Moscow.
Back again for the fourth year on the trot. But this time with three days and a determination to learn more of the culture and language. To date, my only Russian has been learnt from corrupt mining colleagues, and therefore highly suspect. To this end, a resident of Buryatia, which I had to look up on the map (clue, North of Mongolia), has been engaged as tour guide and language teacher. To protect her privacy, I’ll call her Marina. I’m not so sure how well I am managing with the language, when, after two days, she again patiently explains that ‘Cyrillic alphabet not same as English alphabet’. So what I read as ‘Crapdogs’ actually says ‘Stardogs’, a hugely popular hotdog chain. Mind you, I did get ‘Happy Potato’, the wonderfully rhythmic ‘Kroshka Kartoshka’, about right. The language may not be sticking, but it is fascinating to hear a Russian’s version of modern day Russia and her impressions of other countries. For that alone, Marina is worth every rouble. Quietly spoken, she is also about five foot tall, meaning I crouch to hear her. She is undertaking a PhD on Dostoevsky, he of ‘Crime and Punishment’ fame (but don’t ask me to name another). I feel a little guilty dragging her to distinctly non-literary sights. She suggests art museums, I suggest a military aircraft museum. She suggests St Basil’s Cathedral, I want to see cannons and suits of armour. Sod the Fabergé eggs, show me a guy dressed up as Stalin. But kudos to her, she pretends to be interested and suffers this geological philistine well. She adds a disdainful ‘of course’ onto the end of most her replies, inadvertently making me feel stupid. A couple of hours into Day 1, I finally pluck up the courage to ask about her eyes, which are a distinctly non-Mongolian shade of violet. In fact, a colour I have never seen in a human being. Turns out they are coloured contact lenses; I didn’t realize such things existed outside Hollywood movies.
Day 1. Lenin played his usual trick on me, his mausoleum again closed for some reason. That treat will have to wait. Rain dampened the Eternal Flame ceremony, the goose-stepping guards almost coming a cropper on slippery granitic gneiss flagstones. (Check out the xenoliths.) The Kremlin Armoury was firmly shut against invaders, with a long drawn out ‘nyet’ from the ticket booth staff. Not on a Thursday, apparently. Red Square, crowded with booksellers, was lightened by the occasional new bride posing for photo opportunities. Either that, or she desperately needed to pee (see photo). We decided to tour the Historical Museum, just off Red Square. This incredible place bludgeons the senses with ancient artefacts. Cabinet after cabinet stuffed with incredible riches. To me, it was fascinating to see the development of the human species, the ceramics, tools and weapons they left behind. Even more remarkable, this Asiatic stuff could have come from South America; the prehistoric Venus cult figures, with big stomachs and engorged, pendulous breasts, are identical to the Valdivia Culture of coastal Ecuador. Stone and bronze axes from frozen steppe burials are indistinguishable from those in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. My mind boggles at the technical ability of Paleolithic Man, fashioning not just arrowheads and spears, but miniature seals, wolves and deer from flint. Try knapping a flint some time, to appreciate what an achievement this was. Or try building an 8 meter-long canoe out of a single tree, including elegant curved handles on the bow and stern. And let’s not even start with the mammoths. All in all, a World Class museum. Shame that the descriptions are largely in Russian, alienating most visitors. Day 2. I drag Marina to Monino air museum. What a saga to get there. Never have 40 kilometres seemed so painful. The initial Metro is fine, through marbled and granite-adorned stations that make the London Underground look shabby. But the subsequent journey from Yaroslavsky station to Monino is tedious. The gigantic train trundles along, stopping, it seems, every couple of hundred meters to disgorge and receive slab-faced commuters. The further we get from Moscow, the more dishevelled the stations; platforms appear to be built of children’s building blocks; gigantic pillars of concrete are topped by horizontal tabular slabs, much repaired by asphalt. Neat, almost continuous, lines of cigarette butts line the edge of the tracks by the platforms. The train, freakishly wide, is a brutal machine. The chassis displays magnificent, knobbly welds, resembling the scars on the faces of some African tribes. The cab windows are veiled by faded brown nylon curtains of the type seen throughout Russia, at apartment windows, in helicopters, boats and planes. The seats, and I have mentioned this public transport tendency before, are bone-hard. My guide happily tells me how the trains are ‘much improved’, but my arse tells me otherwise. My plan for on-board language training is scotched by noise; firstly, accordion-playing women knock out the kind of tunes I associate with Russia. Then a succession of ambulatory salesmen passes through the carriages, each with a loud sales pitch amplified by a microphone linked to a small belt speaker. They hawk phone covers, cosmetics, socks, superglue, books and even, on this hot day, camouflaged waterproof capes. What a hard life these people lead. Their bags, of the ‘For Life’ type, are heavily repaired with parcel tape. They fix their eyes on the ceiling as they give their pitch, not really engaging with their captive audience. Ticket collection is a KGB-like affair, whereby uniformed officers seal off each carriage, whilst a stern, surprisingly effeminate, ticket collector does his job. Perhaps in an act of rebellion, his tight-fitting jacket sleeves are rolled up to the elbow, revealing a tight white sweater. The officers look on unsmiling and disapprovingly, though it is unclear who they are pissed at, the passengers or the collector. Finally, after a long walk, refusing offers from horribly drunk taxi drivers, we arrive at Monino. To me, this place is manna from heaven. An air force brat, my fondest memories are of standing beneath the black, Dante-esque exhaust trails of a Vulcan bomber, limping skyward from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus; of sun glittering on the stubby wings of silver English Electric Lightning fighters as they roared into the sky; of playing in a half-restored De Havilland Vampire jet in a hangar. So the opportunity to see, up close, Cold War behemoths was a no-brainer. And mighty impressive they are. Remarkable aircraft, on deflated tyres and rotting in the harsh climate, they are proud symbols of the genius of Soviet engineering. Names like Pavel Sukhoi and Tupolev abound and I can detect trends; the family of Sukhoi aircraft are essentially cylindrical jet engines that run the length of the aircraft, with stubby wings added as an afterthought. The MiGs (designers Mikoyan and Gurevich) are more elegant, some with sweeping, curved lines and air intakes. The monster that dominates the show is the Russian equivalent of Concorde. It was the ‘first supersonic passenger aircraft’, according to the noticeboard. Clearly the Russians beat the British and French to it, but I see little to distinguish it from Concorde. So either the Russians copied us, or we copied them. Perhaps it was a symbiotic relationship with mutually positive feedback. Whatever, both planes were clearly uneconomic prestige projects, made by equally misguided governments. The other Monino monster is the gigantic plane-helicopter, the B-12, described as a heavy lifting helicopter. The thing is gargantuan, with twin rotor assemblies on the end of spindly arms. It looks like it might crumple under a heavy landing, but what do I know? Words cannot do it justice – see the photo instead. On the journey back we examine the different 20th Century architectural styles in Moscow. It looks uniformly drab. These 5- to 10-storey concrete edifices are peppered with humid, enclosed balconies, stained by algae; they are topped by rusty pitched zinc roofs. The scene is enlivened only by the odd fire-stricken and weed-encrusted building, collapsed roof left unrepaired. There are occasional conspicuous shopping malls, which wouldn’t look out of place in Vegas. My guide patiently explains the different architectural styles, mostly categorised by General Secretaries, for example, the ‘Brezhnev‘ and ‘Khrushchev’ styles. The ‘Stalin-style’, represented by public buildings such as universities, was the most ostentatious, with soaring towers, tall ceilings and impressively wide corridors. Apparently, professors complain bitterly about the lack of space. The rooms are tiny. Clearly, they were built to impress, not for living. We stray into more geo-political topics. Marina dissuades me from visiting her home town of Udan Ule, capital of Buryatia. The weather is wicked, with -40C in winter and +40C in summer. Unpredictable floods leave the capital knee-deep in water. I take the hint and strike it off my bucket list, though I did always yearn to see Lake Baikal and taste the fried freshwater seal. Migration is a common theme in my discussions with Russians. Many families move around the country, in search of a better life and economic conditions. I am amazed by the way Marina’s family has moved around the former Soviet Union, from Ulan Ude to Novosibirsk, then Moscow. But she describes her background as ‘nomadic’, with a family history rooted in livestock grazing and migration to new pastures. Buryatians clearly have wanderlust in their blood. Marina lists countries considered ‘friendly’ towards Russia. It is a short list: Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan. Her travels include China, the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany. Chinese are respected because they are ‘hard workers’. Vienna, hugely expensive, ‘comprises only bronze statutes of horses’ and why would one want to ‘take home a Viennese cake, in a wooden box, as a gift for anyone’? Especially when it costs 15 euros! Capitals and countries are rated on the cost of a square meal, which seems a bit of a brutal yardstick. Food is cheap in the Czech Republic. The Poles are disliked and the Finns are considered miserable, which seems a bit harsh; I have met many friendly Finns, though they definitely become friendlier when fuelled with alcohol, much like the Russians. Continuing the theme of national characteristics, Marina explains ‘slab-face’. The default position of the Russian face is neutral, with a slight downturn of the mouth, emphasized by high cheekbones that lend a gaunt and haughty, model-like aspect. I would describe it as a ‘cool’ expression. Only when something is genuinely funny will a smile appear, like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. Russians consider British or Americans, who crack a smile at the drop of a hat, as buffoonish. Clearly I am in deep shit, since my default position is buffoon. On the Metro, escalators packed with grim, unsmiling faces, she explains how the people are happier today because it is Friday evening; tomorrow they will head to their dachas, for a weekend of swimming and barbecues. To me they look totally pissed off. Mind you, if I was faced with their enormous commutes, I would feel the same. I should add, that every Russian I deal with is unfalteringly friendly and kind to the ‘lost foreigner’ in their big city. So the cool expressions do not equate with unfriendliness. The facial expressions are in conflict to the dress. There is a huge variety of bright clothing and no sign of the hipster phenomenon or the narcissistic, metrosexual fashions seen in London. (Which is a relief; am I the only one who wants to punch every tosser on the Tube that sports pointy-shoes, skinny jeans and well-trimmed beard?) Women flounce by in full evening gowns, LBDs, ripped jeans, diaphanous blouses. Men favour jeans and untucked checked shirts. There are also tracksuits, a truly Russian phenomenon. Overall, it is a pleasing sight, especially as the entire population seems to be under 30 years old and fond of working out. Mind you, in my black cargo pants, walking boots and freebie mining T-shirt I am in no position to comment on fashion. I just try to be an observer.
Overall, a relaxing couple of days in a fascinating city. Hiring Marina made it so much better and I would recommend getting local help. Next stop Magadan. I mentioned before that this remote city has the only airport I know of with a real fishmonger in Departures. Watch this space.