- Catching an early morning train from Pavlovsk, I headed to Novgorod. The train ride was about 5 hours long – luckily I am a professional when it comes to sleeping on trains, planes, and buses. I arranged to arrive in the morning so I had the day to wander around this infamous Russian stronghold. Novgorod is one of Russia’s oldest cities. I visited the Kremlin, the main place of interest in Novgorod. The Kremlin was constructed in the shape of an irregular oval, with the main square being about 12 hectares, tand the he length of the surrounding walls being 1385 meters (about 4500 feet). While walking around the Kremlin, it is obvious that these 3.3 meter-thick (about 11 feet) ancient walls are in desperate need of reinforcement. The are supposed to be 11 meters (36 feet) high, but they bow out and lean at such extreme angles, I am unsure of the actually height. New brick marks a section of the wall where recent repair is apparent. The walls tower over a a steep embankment for the (now frozen) moat, which children we gleefully sledding down. Novgorod is especially famous for an ancient Viking settlement, trading market, religious significance, and monuments. In the middle of the Kremlin there is a monument “Millenium of Russia”. It was erected in honor of the Russian state system foundation in 862, when Ryurik came to rule in Novgorod. As you can see in my picture, the monument is bell-shaped, which is the symbol of the Novgorod region, and Monomakh’s hat, the symbol of the sovereign power. Famous Russian people make up this 15.7 meter (about 50 feet) monument. The Cathedral of St. Sophia is also very famous, as it houses Our Lady of the Sign, one of the most famous Russian religious icons. Our Lady of the Sign is credited with saving Novgorod from Andrei Bogolyubsky‘s troops in 1170. When entering churches in Russia it is respectful for women to keep their heads covered (by a hat or scarf) and men to remove their hats. It is also common for people to touch or kiss the glass encasing religious relics. I also learned that one must write down a prayer, place it in a box for the priest (simliar to a suggestion box), and pay for the priest to pray for your prayers.
Before I knew it the day was over and I needed to catch my overnight train to the capital of Russia, Moscow. Assistance buying train tickets was necessary, as I do not speak Russian fluently, my passport was needed, and the train tickets themselves are extremely confusing. Fortunately I had purchased my tickets in St. Petersburg the previous week with help of my new friend In purchasing the ticket, I decided to travel as cheaply as possible and sleep in the public, open seating. Uncomfortable, noisy, and with unique smell that only a train this old could produce – I attempted to get some sleep. The train itself was a series of cafe, sleeping, private, and public cars. I met some interesting characters on the train, reinforcing the tradition of Russian hospitality.
Arriving at one of Moscow’s many train stations, I quickly realized how large this city actually is. Luckily, I had some help navigating to the nearest metro and buying a ticket. In Moscow the metro uses a card reading system, so you buy a card with the number of desired trips and scan the card when entering the metro. There are local jokes about St. Petersburg using coins compared to the sophisticated Moscow metro system. The Moscow Metro is a monster itself. I am glad I had practice in St. Petersburg before taking on Moscow’s infamous labyrinth of a metro. Beautiful, yet confusing, the metro lines are color coordinated and the walls are adorned with gold, art, and mosaics. Due to the recent Moscow Metro bombing incidents, the legalities of taking pictures in the Moscow Metro have changed. I was warned to keep a low profile and not to give police or anyone else an excuse to talk to me, so unfortunately I do not have many pictures of this famous metro.
Luckily my hostel, Hostel Moscow, was located downtown conveniently within walking distance to many of Moscow’s main attractions. I arrived at about 6 in the morning, took a nap, and then headed out to see the heart of Russia! Again, to make things easier for me to explain, and you to read, I a formatted this in a bullet-point fashion, in no particular order:
- The Kremlin: The street plan of central Moscow forms an impressively ordered pattern of concentric circles, clearly marking the city’s development outwards over the centuries. In the middle of this great Catherine wheel is the Kremlin, the fortified hill which formed the heart of the ancient city, and which to this day houses the political head quarters of the planet’s largest nation. Within the world-famous red walls nestles a collection of buildings of various architectural styles, ranging from ancient Russian ecclesiastical, through Romanov imperial classicism, to 1960s Soviet modernism. While much is out of bounds to tourists, being part of the Government and Presidential estate, there are easily enough treasures open to the public to make the citadel an essential conquest. You will need a ticket to enter, and the holiday crowds made the lines truly unbearable. After purchasing a ticket, you have to leave any large bags in the cloakroom located near the ticket office.
- The Red Square is considered a sacred place. Various festive processions are held here as it is considered by most to be the central square of Moscow, and thus Russia.
- The State History Museum was an extensive foray into Russian history from the middle ages of the mammoths, right up to the 19th century. The atmosphere is conducive to both wandering and musing as the museum guides are, lets say, a little less protective than usual. While the the museum it lacks any English explanation, has an abundance of cool historical tidbits.
- St. Basil’s Cathedral stands magnificently at the head of Red Square, and is Russia’s most recognized buildings. It was built in 1561 to celebrate Ivan the Terrible’s crucial defeat of the Khan of Kazan, a victory which secured Moscow’s position as the region’s dominant city. Beautiful both inside and out. Legend has it that on completion of the church the Tsar ordered the architect, Postnik Yakovlev, to be blinded to prevent him from ever creating anything to rival its beauty again. Today, St. Basil’s is an internationally recognized church and symbol of Russia.
- GUM: A trip here was essential and unavoidable – clean, free toilets near Red Square! This mall is three stories high and elaborate in every sense, from the architecture, to the stores within. It was built in the 1890s out of limestone, marble and granite, and was festively decorated for the holiday season with lights, trees, and an ice rink with a matching zamboni!
- Lenin Mausoleum: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin has been on display since in Red Square since 1924. Visiting this waxy, bald and embalmed body of the founder of the Communist Party is a no-nonsense event; guards are posted at each corner. There no bags, no cameras, and no stopping as the guards will prod you forward during the viewing. Your pockets are searched to make sure you don’t sneak anything, and you are required to walk through metal detectors before entering as well.
- Sparrow Hills (Vorobyovy Gory): It was a bit hard to imagine the footprints of Napoleon while surrounded by kiosks, fast food vendors, and souvenir touts, but this area boasts over 1000 years of history! The length and breadth of the capital is quite visible from here, as well as seeing some of Stalin’s Seven Sisters. I walked the treacherous parks (ice on wooden steps) to view the Olympic Stadium, Ski Jump, and Moscow State University.
- Moscow University (MGU), one of the Seven Sisters: This building is grand, the rest behind it are frightfully unspectacular. It is the largest, oldest (founded in 1755), and tallest university in Russia. This is where my current flat-mate from Russia attends.
- The All-Russia Exhibition Centre (Всероссийский выставочный центр) formally known as the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (VSKhV) (Всесоюзная Сельско-Хозяйственная Выставка) is an amazing outdoor marketplace. It has about 400 buildings and houses such monuments as: the Fountain “Friendship of Nations”, Moscow-850 Ferris Wheel, and the statue of “Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt”, for the victory over Nazi Germany. The day I went it was bitterly cold out – so cold my camera batteries would not work! I now know why Moscow winters are notorious – they defeated the armies of both Napoleon and Hitler, and me.
All of a sudden I found myself haggling with a taxi driver, and catching a bus out of Russia. My VISA expired soon, and I had no plans of overstaying my welcome. I booked a ticket with Ecolines heading through Latvia and Estonia, to return to Helsinki, Finland. Little did I suspect price might reflect the service…
Details will be spared, to spare the worry of my parents (ha ha ha). In short I found myself being awoken at 5 in the morning to let me know that we had arrived at the Russian border. The problem was, I found myself with nothing more than my purse and a water bottle. In broken English the bus assistant informed me they could not find my bag, which had been checked under the bus Frustrated, sleep deprived, and dazed, I stumbled off the bus and went through customs. I was suspiciously eyed for what I wasn’t carrying, and then proceeded to sit at the border for hours while our bus was searched, scoured, and scanned. I noticed that four people did not get back on to the bus, as our bus slowly crept towards the Latvian border in the early dawn. I eventually found out that my bag had “mistakenly” been loaded onto another bus at one of the stops in Russia, though suspiciously nobody else heading towards Tallinn, Estonia, let alone on our bus, was missing anything. Too tired to argue, I curled up and tried to sleep so I would be fresh for my day in Riga, Latvia.
Join me next week as I try to track down my bag, get back to Helsinki, and venture into the two capital cities of Riga, Latvia, and Tallinn, Estonia, along the way.
I hope you enjoyed my Russian adventures as much as I did!