Monday, 21 March 2011

Moscow (22/02 – 02/03)

First of all, pardon me for all the grammar mistakes, I’m writing fast, I just want to say whatever passes through my mind when remembering. And forgive me for all the missing parts I don’t recall now, and the pictures, which I will post later on.

It was a clear day but the first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the wagon was the extreme cold that Moscow was suffering that day.

I was soon leaded out of the train station by my CS host, and while we talked I could only be awed by everything I saw.

It is true that I couldn’t sleep much on the platskart carriage (3rd class) last night, and I was kind of overexcited, instead of awfully tired. And I remained like this all day long, despite my attempts at sleeping.

We quickly got into a huge corridor followed by hundreds of people, and I was open-mouthed as we entered the beautiful metro.

Loads of people were in there too, but due to the early time most people were silent, heading to their jobs as fast as possible.

I was also amazed by the beautiful totally frozen Moskva river as we passed over it inside the metro.

I didn’t do much productive that day, given my exhausted condition.

Thanksfully my host was absolutely helpful and provided me with everything I needed, and some that I didn’t. I started to got used to having tea every hour, as they offer you at any time.

In any case, yet again I took calmly the task of knowing Moscow, as I did in Kiev. Well, I thought that there were going to be tens of obvious sights not to miss, but in the end that was not the case.

Next day my host became my guide through a maze of relatively unknown places in Moscow, mostly related to Russian literates, of which Russia was so aboundant, in a time.

Starting off from the Lomonosov university, which is on an upper part of the city, a huge Stalinist skyscrapper overlooking the Moskva, near the Sparrows Park, to where we headed next.

I really couldn’t have pictured before that streets were completely covered by a thick and hard layer of ice all winter long, because I had never seen anything like that, but obviously it is the commonest of things in these latitudes.

Not only streets, but the paths leading down in Sparrows Park were very slippery too, but I managed not to fall to the floor. There were many times in Moscow were I was about to fall due to the ice, but I didn’t actually knock the floor till I got to Kazan (twice on the same day).

Finally we saw the Novodevichy monastery, right in the middle of Moscow, near the Stadium by the river, a very ancient sacred place, home to a cemetery too, where the Russian personalities of all times are buried, including writers, scientists, Soviet politicians, and lately, president Yeltsin.

I soon reached my cold enduring limit that day. Truly I was awfully cold, the only exposed part of my body being probably my lips, nose and eyes, but they were getting positively numb.

I couldn’t stand it for long, so we took a rest to have lunch near the new Byzantine-style cathedral, where the Palace of the Soviets was going to be built before WWII (but they made an open-air swimming pool in its place).

In the afternoon we walked through the narrow winding streets near Arbat, old and new, a famous street for musicians and tourists.

We saw a facade decorated with a strange bust of Tolstoi, and after that statues dedicated to others writers I sinceresly don’t remember… but well, notably Sholom Aleichem (the Jewish writer of Tevye the Milkman and his daughters, the book that was the inspiration for the Broadway musical and film Fiddler on the Roof).

In the following days I tried several times to see the mummy of Lenin, but with no luck at all; I found it closed every time, in spite of the timetables that said it should be open.

Thanks to that I came to know quite well the Red Square and all the surroundings, Manege, Teatralnaya, Kitai Gorod, etc.

Most sights of Moscow were in that area, including the walled Kremlin, to where I entered too, just to see the Tsar’s treasury and its old churches.

Apart from that I did nothing much of the touristy things. In a way, I kind of lived in Moscow for more than a week.

I met some old friends, like Katia, Valentina and Anna, and even went to cinema (funny enough, I watched ‘Biutiful’ in Spanish with Russian subtitles).

Perhaps the disappointing part was that I really didn’t taste the night life in Moscow, and even if I was there for the Maslenitsa (Russian Carnival) week, I didn’t stay for the partying on the weekend.

On the other hand, I attended some Spanish lessons my friend Katia gives to Russian students, and I helped them in conversational skills and deepening into the meanings of made up expressions. It was a refreshing experience, and quite the out of the ordinary things tourists do. I really felt like I was living temporarily in Moscow, not just visiting.

Before I departed I wanted to see a city of the so called Golden ring surrounding Moscow, but most of them were too far away for a day trip, so I got to Sergiev Posad, a small town with a heavy religious background around Saint Sergius.

And the last but not the least, I had my choice of Russian traditional dishes in a very cosy (but quite modern looking) place. Delicious borsch with Smetana, and many other cheap specialities whose names I didn’t get.

But Asia was already calling me (so easily perceived from Moscow), and I had to take the first one of the trains that would eventually take me to Vladivostok, following the transsiberian line.

I had already bought five tickets online with fixed date & time, and printed them at Yaroslavskaya station, so only thing I had to do was to hop on the train.

I took the train to Nizhny Novgorod, my first stop East of Moscow, at Kurskaya station, and having received a bouquet of flowers from Valentina, I said good-bye to this part of my travelling life.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Ukraine (14/02 – 21/02)

Ok, I haven’t written anything for a pretty long time. It’s true. I was too busy travelling and doing some journalistic job for a Basque newspaper, to which I gave more importance than to this personal blog.

I will try to catch up in a series of not very long posts.

My journey came to a halt after I arrived to Kiev, due to several reasons, but mainly because I had been travelling fast and needed to live a bit more while on the road.

Besides, the winter cold was at its high point in Ukraine, only some days later in Moscow I experienced such a sensation of coldness like I had never before.

I came quite unexpectedly earlier to Kiev, so I took like a long weekend to stay at a relatively cheap hostel, know the place, and write.

As I wrote before, my border crossing was not smooth, and I chose to go directly to Kiev, missing the charm of Lviv.

Because of that, I had to spend most of the following day on the train, where I met a friendly Russian young mate who could speak some English, and unpurposely introduce me to the ways of train-travelling in Russia, like carrying your own food, getting tea at the samovar, and some minor details that Russian people don’t even realized, used as they are to this kind of travel for long distances.

So, in short, he made my journey a bit shorter, told me some tips for Ukraine and shared the food his girlfriend had prepared for him.

Actually, it seems that all of that is natural to Russians on trains, but anyway it was very helpful to me.

Well, the problem was that I didn’t know beforehand that I was arriving at 21h to Kiev, which is pretty late for a place as huge as Kiev, not having a clue of its urban landscape and without a hostel reservation for the night.

Anyhow I managed to get to this hostel I mentioned, some 15 minutes walking from the train station, very practical.

That I had to walk with my heavy baggage through unknown streets at night while snowing heavily, and all of that, take it for granted, no big deal, and already forgotten. Quite the routine for backpackers.

One funny thing was that I forgot to write down the opening code of the door of the building where the hostel was, so when I got there I was desperately knocking on the wooden door, but it wouldn’t open. Funny it is that if you don’t know the code you can’t even make yourself noticeable to the hostel crew, and I had to wait till some other tourists came and opened it.

It kept on snowing for most of my stay in Kiev, with temperatures under -7ยบ.

The hostel was comfy and not crowded at all, so I made myself comfortable inside (some nights I had a very big room just for myself).

I had the chance to talk with a couple from East Germany (so they told me), working as doctors in Sweden.

On the next Friday I had been invited to a CS party at a girl’s place somewhere in an outskirt of Kiev.

We all met outside a metro station, near a MacDonalds.

It took me 15 minutes to get to the closest metro station from the hostel (Universitet), and it was my first contact with the old Soviet metros, and was quite impressed (but that was nothing compared to Moscow, of course). It worked on jettons that you inserted before the access to the escalator (a steep one, as it’s usual in Soviet engineering, just like the escalator they showed me in Warsaw).

20 minutes to the metro station where we had met, far on the other side of the river (the metro crossed over the wide river on a bridge).

After we were all together then the girls leaded us to a marshrutka, this kind of really old taxi-van-buses that took us to the place where she lived, 20 minutes or more inside the wheeled tin to a desolate place dotted with huge towers of appartment buildings.

The party was great, we only spent 4 € each and had drinks and food for everyone.

There I met a guy from Mexico, who was a photographer doing a dossier about the ruins of the town that had to be abandoned after the catastrophe of Chernobyl.

This guy had lived in many countries, apparently being raised in Middle East as he spoke perfect Arabic, and mastered English and Portuguese too (he had lived in Brazil too). He told us that his grandfather was the advocate to Trotsky's killer in Mexico.

Incidentally, there were two other guys from Brazil (strangely enough, both of Italian descent, and they had met in Italy), who had just turned 30 and left their jobs in Ireland to travel around Asia, more or less like I did. But they were travelling counter-clockwise, so having started in Estonia, they were heading to Bulgaria, and after that Turkey, Iran, India, China…

The couple from East Germany had told me that there were no clear sights in Kiev. Then they changed their mind and told me that the “lavras” or monasteries were a must see, even if they were recently (re)built.

They were not wrong in this last statement, but I might say that there are clear sights in Kiev, as I spent three days walking around the centre and was quite delighted by what I saw, and positively surprised.

It’s true that I was initially somehow lazy and didn’t take much time in visiting it, but it was rewarding in the end.

Elegant avenues, neat classical buildings, Soviet architecture, epic statues, shiny Orthodox temples under the snow…

I was amazed by the size of a huge female statue (tens of meters?) representing the victorious Soviet Union over the nazis in the great patriotic war (their name for the WWII), it was located in a park dedicated to the fallen soldiers, and home to a cemetery of Soviet tanks, missiles, helicopters, etc.

The day before I left there was a minor incident at the hostel.

Apparently, a guy from Barcelona had just stayed at the hostel but left before I got there, and he claimed that he had been robbed there, some computer material he had, very important for him, since he was travelling one year around the world (same story again).

Well, there were no proofs, but a hostel worker found this guy’s belonging under the bed of a Turkish guest and he was accused of robbery.

She, the hostel worker, asked me and a Pakistan guy (who was spending a lot of time in the hostel) to back her up while she threw the Turkish guy away, just in case he became violent.

Obviously, he got offended, guilty or not, and after an absurd discussion he left.

The thing is that the day I left the hostel crew asked me to bring these belongings to Fede, the guy from Barcelona, who was currently in Moscow.

I took the white bag they gave me (I saw inside a MP3 player, an “Around the World” travelling guide, and a PC memory).

I crossed the border between Ukraine and Russia by night, on a train of course, but they didn’t check anything especially, not even my ID photo or visa.

Next day when I arrived to a frozen platform at Kievskaya station in Moscow, Fede met me and I gave him the bag. End of the story. Good luck with you, Fede, wherever you are now (he was heading directly to Beijing on that same day).

Some minutes later, in the same place, I also met my CS host in Moscow, but that is another story ;)

Wow, it all seems such a long way back now that I am writing this chronicle from a futon on the floor of a motel’s room in a lost tiny volcanic island of South Korea, halfway to Japan, Ulleung-do.

But we’ll get to this too, in time :)