I was back on my own again and the only thing left for me to do was to push onto Moscow. I travelled by train from Kiev – the tickets were a bit of a mare to sort out…it was difficult actually getting them to sell me a ticket as lets just say they are not really very good at ‘playing the game’ when you don’t speak there language…and due to a miscommunication error, I had to make an amendment/refund of my ticket so this was pretty tricky!
But I got my train in the end, ended up travelling third class, a.k.a ‘platzcart’, a.k.a cattle class! This was definitely a bit of a weird experience, everybody is pretty much crammed into one long carriage, with 6 beds to each vague compartment. I had an upper bunk and there isn’t enough headroom to actually sit up properly. All the russians were basically staring at me the whole time obviously thinking “what the hell is he doing here?!”. It was only a relatively short overnight journey though and was good to experience, and I've heard much better stories from this from other western travellers who've also travelled platzcart style.
With Moscow’s repuation as an expensive and pretty intimidating city if you don’t speak english, I decided to try couchsurfing. These worries seemed to be confirmed when one of the first shops I went into, a shopkeeper came up to me and started saying something that I obviously didn’t understand, so when I replied in english with ‘sorry, I don’t understand’ he gave me this look like I was some kind of bug that he had squashed and wanted off his shoe…and he just kind of shooed me out of the shop!
I was lucky to find a great Russian couchsurfing host, Julia. She let me stay at her place for the two nights we were in Moscow, gave me food and great hospitality, and also took me on a long tour around Moscow, meeting her friends etc. and we generally got to talk a lot about all sorts of different topics and aspects of life living in Moscow. We also got to see this totally incredible fireworks show at night because it was ‘Moscow Day’ or something. I’ve never seen quite such a huge, well orchestrated show, all synced up to dominating music, was pretty wicked.
There a lots of things to see in Moscow and I spent so much time walking around my legs really start to hurt over the course of the couple of days I had there. The rich history of the country and the awesome, sometimes imposing, soviet architechture definitely makes you feel pretty small in the face of their overarching empire…
Unfortuantely, I didn’t have the time (or probably the money!) to experience Moscow’s nightlife, althiough I heard from other travellers having a good time with this. It is a totally massive city, but I do think that unless you speak Russian, you’d probably not want to spend more than 3-4 days here max as a tourist Longer is definitely possible if you have a couchsurfing host to help you get to grips with the city! I did spend the last day basically burning time because I wasn’t sure what to do before catching the train. One thing I did do to help pass the time was ride the metro circular line a full circuit, it takes 23 minutes.
My experience of Russian people is really pretty limited to Moscow, and I will say (as most other travellers through here confirmed to me), that if you don’t speak Russian, have a Russian friend, or at least read the Cyrillic alphabet (which thankfully I can), you will most certainly come across challenges approaching even pretty basic tasks, such as ordering food, finding wifi etc. The women (and it is always women in this country) selling train tickets, working in admin offices, behind counters etc. generally gave me the impression that they weren’t really trying to make this easy for me! Not really had this problem anywhere else and I spend most of my time now in places where the majority of people speak zero english.
That said, it’s a big, serious, hard-working and proud city. And I honestly think that this situation would be exactly the same for a foreigner coming to visit London, for example. Imagine going up to buy train tickets in a London train station but speaking to the cashier in Russian, waving incomprehensive Russian symbols at them. I bet these Londoners would surely not have very much patience for this approach and probably would make you feel like you need to go away from them as quickly as possible!
A word on safety in the city…I was reasonably apprehensive partly because my Mother (who really doesn’t have any problems with an adventurous spirit) did keep specifically telling me about Moscow…”Yeah, you’ll probably get robbed there”…”its full of criminals” etc….well, I didn’t experience any of this! In fact at one point, I had Julia’s expensive camera round my neck, with hundreds of people all about the place, travelling through the metro etc and she was perfectly happy to be snapping pictures all over the place with no concern about being overtly touristy.
However, one thing that I DID notice was the huge amount of Police in the city. There seemed to be squadrons and vans full of them on every other street corner. Maybe they have toughened up on crime or something, as it seemed to me you’d be pretty crazy to attempt stepping out of line with the ridiculous amounts of place about. I will say that these police are perhaps more of a potential threat than street crime, somebody gave me very clear advice, “whatever you do DON’T attempt to talk to them”….
In conclusion, from vodka that’s cheaper than the, food to ornate metro tube stations, impressive and intimidating architecture, challenging linguistic negotiations, incredibly hospitable local people (*once you get to know them!*), a richly deep, chilling history…behold Moscow and the Russian empire!
Tina's house in the country. Lots of flowers and vegetables grow here