As far as layovers go, I’m pretty excited about this one! It will be cold for sure, and tiring too, but a welcome distraction from the depression that sets in when one leaves home!
I call the airport to check my flight status and am informed that there’s a delay of about 3 hours! We finally take off over 4 hours late and I begin to do the mental math – I’ll now have just a smattering of hours between flights!
An endless carpet of white greets us on touch down in Sheremetyevo and as the aircraft slows to a crawl, fresh snow can be observed on the ground. Clearly, not a very promising start!
The new terminals at Sheremetyevo International are as plush as can be, covered with more square footage of Duty Free establishments than most airports I’ve seen! But if shopping is not your thing, and you don’t take kindly to second hand smoke – several earmarked, albeit unenclosed areas abound – then this is probably not your ideal layover!
But if you possess the right documents – for many, a passport will suffice – the AeroExpress departs every 30 minutes, offering a convenient and very comfortable ride into Moscow’s city centre. Scanning the departure boards, I realise that the next train leaves in 15 minutes! Just enough time for me to grab some breakfast, buy my tickets and secure a map.
As we make our way across the dreary snowscape that makes up the city’s outskirts, it dawns on me that Sheremetyevo is the last I’ll be seeing or hearing of the English language for a while, and maybe, just maybe, I should have brushed up on my Cyrillic! Closer to the city centre however, the writing on the wall seems all too familiar – graffiti still speaketh the universal tongue!
I leave behind the heated confines of the train as I step on to the platform at Belorussky station, and into -7C weather – mild, by any stretch of the Russian imagination! I spend the next 10 minutes trying to find the entrance to the Moscow Metro, asking every other person I encounter. The select few who know English are reluctant, almost embarrassed to speak it, and for the majority who don’t – that’s 9 out of 10 people – Niet. Tolka pa-russki, pat comes the reply!
Eventually, when I think I’ve figured it out, I stop to admire the station..
Built in the late 19th-century, this grand Gothic structure has hosted everyone from Maxim Gorky to Soviet troops headed for the front, to Matt Damon playing Jason Bourne! In between all that, the station has relentlessly served trains from Warsaw, Minsk, Vilnius, Kaliningrad and Berlin, amongst other European cities. For all you cinema buffs scratching your heads over this one, it is Berlin that Bourne arrives from and then proceeds to hail a taxi!
As the city’s reputation for having more billionaires than any other on the planet grows, you will be hard pressed to find a ‘good deal’ here. But deep beneath this humongous metropolis lies an intricate web of rail lines – the Moscow Metro – which, at 28 Rubles (less than a dollar!), still offers a remarkably cheap ride!
And what a marvel of a system it is! Trains are reliable and arrive frequently, everything is well kept and clean, and the stations have to be seen to be believed. Mayakovskaya, for instance, boasts stainless steel art deco columns, patterned marble flooring and ceiling mosaics!
It only takes a few stations to realise that a journey on the Moscow Metro is the equivalent of traveling through a series of beautiful art galleries!
I alight at Teatralnaya, and emerge on to Ploschad Revolutsii or Revolution square. The famous Bolshoi Theatre and the historic Metropol Hotel are within earshot of me but I am completely oblivious to their presence, and instead head west towards Manezhnaya Ploshchad or Manege Square!
A winter market lines the path to the square and is dotted with shops selling everything from traditional Mink hats to dainty Matryoshka dolls of every possible shape, size and colour! I am instantly reminded of a scene from last year’s Bollywood flick, Delhi Belly 🙂
Manège is the French word for riding academy and Manezhnaya Ploshchad gets its name from a large oblong building that houses an indoor version of the same. The square also spawns Tverskaya Street, one of the city’s main arteries. Dominating the square though, is the equestrian statue of Marshall Zhukov – one of the most decorated generals in Russian history.
Just south of Manezhnaya Ploshchad sits Iberian Gate or Resurrection Gate. First built in 1535 to be a gateway to Red Square, it was rebuilt in the late 17th-century, only to be demolished (along with the little chapel in front of it) in 1931 to allow heavy military vehicles to pass through for parades!
After the fall of the Soviet Union, both the gate and the chapel (Iveron Chapel) were completely rebuilt! When you look at it though, it is kind of hard to fathom that something so impressive could ever be rebuilt as recently as the mid-90s!
Several other buildings in and around the square suffered much the same fate under Stalin’s regime, and yet, they were miraculously restored to look just like the original!
A select few were fortunate enough to survive, which Stalin, I’m assuming, needed for his own selfish purposes! The Kremlin is one of these, an edifice that has continuously framed the western edge of the square with its very imposing rampart and towers.
If the Kremlin bears testament to the country’s communist past , then GUM stands for the biggest driving force in Russia today, capitalism!
Designed in the Russian Revival style in the late 19th-century, Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin or GUM is the majestic building that sits right across the square from the Kremlin. Built as a state-run department store, and once host to Stalin’s extended offices, it is a modern shopping mall today, home to every conceivable high-end brand you can imagine!
Many years have passed since the last tanks rolled through the square, and other than a constant stream of visitors, Red Square hosts an ice-skating rink in the winter months, in what has now become a tradition served up by none other than GUM!
But despite the razzmatazz on display at the rink, and the larger than life Christmas tree that accompanies it, the centrepiece of this incredibly impressive square remains St. Basil’s Cathedral. And even on this terribly gloomy day, it holds its own!
‘Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat’ as its proper name goes, marks the southern end of Red Square, and is undoubtedly the city’s most distinguishable landmark. It was completed in 1561 under the rule of ‘Ivan the Terrible‘ to commemorate his siege of Kazan!
The statue in front of the cathedral dates from 1818 and portrays Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, the gentlemen responsible for driving Polish invaders out of Moscow in the early 17th-century! The statue was originally placed in the centre of Red Square but the Commies moved it to its current location in 1936, as it was – you guessed it – obstructing their parades!!
With time quickly running out and my fingers about to go completely numb, I get a firm foothold in the snow, steady my hands, and compose my token panorama shot!
Back at Sheremetyevo, the immigration officer scans over my passport, then looks up at me. In all my hours in Moscow, no one has made eye contact with me – this is a first, and a distinct departure from convention, no doubt! He shakes his head in disbelief, stamps my transit visa and hands the passport back!
Less than 6 hrs after touching down from Indira Gandhi International, flight SU315 lifts off for Kennedy, and my Moscow thrill ride comes to a close 🙂
A full set of Moscow pics can be seen here.