We wanted to get going reasonably early (for us) on Wednesday morning – it was our last morning in Moscow and we wanted to go to see Lenin. The mausoleum closed at 1pm and before then, we had to walk through Red Square and around the Kremlin to the cloakroom near Kutafia Tower, then back again into Red Square to the queue for the mausoleum, preferably joining the queue around noon. Achieving this AND sourcing a breakfast location would be an impossibility for me and SleepyLeach so we elected to breakfast in bed.
Room service delivered at 9.30am. We had gone for the “Continental breakfast” option for a mere Euro20 a head. Yes, Euro20 a head. We expected a breakfast the size of a continent. Needless to say, it wasn’t amazing value for money. We got a croissant, a not-terribly-pleasant danish, a couple of bread rolls and a couple of slices of cheese, ham and salami each, plus a small glass of juice and pot of tea. The order form had made reference to museli and “a selection of teas” but the former didn’t appear and the latter was a selection of one. It’s true to say it was the worst meal we had in Russia but that is also a little unfair as everything (bar the yacky danish) was nice in itself and we were stuffed after we finished it, no matter how meagre it had appeared. As we were eating it, we were kicking ourselves for not going down to the buffet inside of going for the bed option but even if we had been given a greater choice of things, I probably would have gone for the same stuff (including the danish, because it looked good, it just tasted like concentrated evil) and I couldn’t have eaten any more anyway. Plus, we didn’t have to get out of bed to eat it. Euro20 each for a scrappy breakfast sounds a lot but for the convenience and in the grand scale of things, it wasn’t as bad as it feels when I think about it in isolation.
Anyway, we got up after breakfast and checked out. We got a nasty surprise when we were presented with the bill – I knew the figure I had been quoted by hotels.com on reservation didn’t include local tax (including the equivalent of VAT) but I didn’t expect it to be quite so much (Euro60 a night). That, combined with the car we had arranged to take us to the train station that evening (more later) and ExpensoBreakfast, brought the final price to the hotel to, well, slightly more than we thought it would be. I will certainly take more consideration about whether websites include taxes or not at the booking stage in the future – I suspect the ones that I initially dismissed as being more expensive worked out about the same (or perhaps cheaper) when taxes are included. Still, it had been an excellent hotel. Unless we had been sleeping on camp bed in Putin’s spare room, we couldn’t have wished for a better location or better view from the hotel room (we had, admittedly, paid a little extra to guarantee a view of the Kremlin – for a first time tourist visit, I certainly thought this was worth it). Yes, we do, humbly, realise how lucky we are that we can stay in such wonderful places and certainly don’t take them for granted. And while I would recommended the Baltschug Kempinski whole-heartedly, whether you are staying for business or pleasure, if we returned to Moscow, we probably won’t stay there again – just because we’ve had that experience, we’ve “done” the Kremlin etc, so next time we’d stay somewhere else to get a different perspective on things (such as near Gorky park or the White House – or even in one of the Seven Sisters hotels, if they’re still hotels then, just because the architecture is so amazing).
So, back to the story. We checked out of the hotel and left our bags with the concierge, then walked over to Red Square. We had intended to walk clockwise around the Kremlin to get to the cloakroom (ie, along the island, over the Kamenny bridge and up through the south part of the gardens) but we forgot we had decided that until we were over the Moskvoretski bridge and by then it seemed to be pointless to backtrack again. It was nearly noon at this point so we stormed through Red Square – thankful that people seemed to be walking up and into the mausoleum without any queuing – and around to the cloakroom (dropping off John’s camera as well as rucksack), and back again, only to suddenly stumble across a small queue facing Red Square at the back of the (State Historical) museum. We knew it wasn’t for the museum itself because that queue was on the other side of the building and it slowly dawned on us that the clever Russia organisers had done a cunning thing: hidden the queue out of the way from Red Square. My guess is that it was more for a security reason than a PR one but it worked for both: groups of people, potentially with “terrorist” agendas, are kept from lingering near the open mausoleum and can be carefully screened on the way in, while the monument of the modern mausoleum (and indeed, the sight of the rest of Red Square) isn’t ruined by snaking lines of gawkers. The queue we joined wasn’t that long and we were in the second group that got let through to stage 2 of the process (metal detector and handbag check – including checking my phone wasn’t a camera phone) which took place on the edge of the Square. After that, we went up to the mausoleum itself and after another very quick handbag check, we walked into the little building-cum-bunker.
It wasn’t particularly bright outside but stepping into the mausoleum was quite a shock to the eyes anyway. Inside the, I guess, anti-chambers, it was almost pitch black – with matt black walls and (marble) floor sucking in what little light there was. I’m sure a lot of people must fall down the first set of steps that you walk down because they’re practically invisible. The only thing that breaks up the matt black corridor as it twists are the soldiers placed at each corner who, when you approach, signal the way. It’s not like you have a lot of choices anyway. A couple of turns and set of steps later, we came to the main attraction. You enter the room at Lenin’s right shoulder, walk around his body anti-clockwise and leave at his left shoulder; you can’t stop walking but it wasn’t too busy so we could slow down. Is he real or is he a waxwork? I don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to argue for the first very vehemently (and I can argue for anything vehemently if the mood takes me). He certainly looks waxy but he was, as far as I know, my first dead body and certainly my first embalmed body so I have nothing to compare it to. He looks as I expected him to – lying back with his head slightly raised, in a dark suit with his thin, gingery hair and beard. I didn’t notice the tie so can’t say whether it has been changed since the report I read about it being polka dot (apparently they change his tie and suit from time to time) but I did notice that his hands had been arranged, resting on his thighs: his right lay flat but his left was in a subtly fist. And then, by the time I had noted this, we had reached his left shoulder and a beckoning soldier moved us on and out into the light again.
After the mausoleum, the path takes you out through the Necropolis behind the mausoleum, next to the Kremlin Wall, which houses the graves of or memorials (some with busts) to many key Soviet figures such as Yuri Gagarin (and other key cosmonauts), Brezhnev, Chernenko and Stalin himself. There are also a couple of mass graves for soldiers that died in the October Revolution, and other additions such as John “10 days that shook the world” Reed and both Lenin’s wife and mistress. You are allowed to linger longer out there but aside from practising our very slow translation skills on a few key names and being amused by the different ways glasses are shown on busts, we didn’t stay too long. The weather was a bit more off-than-on than it had been on the Tuesday so we decided to head to the internet cafe I had read about for some lunch and to have a mainline shot of pure uncut internet.
The wonderfully named Phlegmatic Dog internet cafe was in the Okhotny Ryad shopping centre, just near the north end of Red Square but none of my maps pointed to an exact location. We went to collect John’s bag and camera from the cloakroom – walking higher up in the Alexandrovsky Gardens than previously – on the concrete part with the water fountains and the cool but confusing painted dome thing, rather than in the grassed area. I looked at the buildings we passed on the way but couldn’t see where we should be going. We picked up the bags and walked back along the concrete path to the top of Red Square to start looking again. It’s a big shopping centre, surely it couldn’t just be hiding? We walked passed the water fountains and the painted dome again and at the end furthest from Red Square, I spotted some people nipping down some steps. Aha! I thought, there must be a subway into the shopping centre. Nope, the whole shopping centre is underground. And that painted dome is over the centre, where the three limbs stretch out from. And the fountains are set on top of clear glass domes and so let light in to the shopping centre. Why did neither of the guidebooks I was consulting mention the word “underground”? It would have saved us so much walking around. We had walked past at least three of its entrances twice in our wandering.
ANYWAY. Inside the shopping centre, we kept up with our navigational mishaps and failed to find the Phlegmatic Dog. We found another internet cafe though so paid for an hour (75 roubles – Â£1.50) there instead. After we got our fix, we went back to the food court we had spotted earlier to buy a spot of lunch. We weren’t that hungry so decided on pizza, going for the local option rather than the default of Ð¡Ð±Ð°Ñ€Ñ€Ð¾ (Sbarro). It was really cheap and tasty but not quite as good as Pizza Pause in Venice (the take out place we graced for Christmas lunch). After that, we walked back through the shopping centre and then, on the way out, spotted the Phlegmatic Dog. Because that’s how things are.
In the afternoon, we went on a circular walk up to the Lubyanka and then back to the bottom of the GUM shopping centre. I wanted to buy some souvenirs so we went into GUM. We shopped for a little bit then had drink and some cake at the Idealnaya Chashka (Russia’s main chain of coffee shops) cafe in Row 1. The cakes were delicious and well worth the wait it took to get any kind of service there. After that, I wanted to go on a cow (see Tuesday) photographing mission for Wellsy so left John reading at the water fountain. We stayed there for a while – John reading and me people watching after I was done with the camera. It really pleased me to see how many people smiled when they saw the cow we were next to: decorated to look like the frog prince. Everyone with a camera had their photo taken next to it and kids just wanted to jump up and kiss it.
When we felt we had worked up of an appetite to go off in search of food, we left the GUM, stopping off in the toilets on the way. Having been to the toilet in the Okhotny Ryad, I thought I was an old hat at the game: have my 10 roubles (or 8 as it turned out to be here) ready to hand to the lady on the door in a “I do this every day” way then I saunter on in. I was the queen of cool until I entered the cubicle and .. SQUAT TOILET. John had been worried about the toilet situation in Russia before we left the UK – to the extent of view this website – but I had reassured him that it would be ok, and now, here was I, confronted with a hole in the ground. Eeep! doesn’t come close to the yelp in my mind at that moment. Still, my good old bladder wasn’t for arguing so I tried my best and managed not to pee on my pants. Go Team Pee!
When I got to our meeting point at the top of the stairs (which, incidentally, had paw prints in the concrete steps :) ), John was looked like he was in shock like me – and he’s a boy so didn’t really have to change his way of doing things that much.
We went back onto Red Square then headed to a cafe/take-out place behind the rebuilt Kazan Cathedral that was mentioned in my guidebook. I can’t remember the name of it right now but it was just behind that Cathedral and, well, we thought all the neon and flashing lights would put us off our food. Waiting somewhere where we could kill time (we were getting quite tired by this point but weren’t picking up the car to the train station until 10.30pm) as well as eat, we decided to head back to the Phlegmatic Dog.
The Phlegmatic Dog is an internet cafe/bar. It’s a mixture of booths (with one monitor per table), monitors embedded in the bar and a more traditional computer cluster effort on the side nearest the window so it caters for the more social or eating net browser as well as the type of person there more for the web access than the atmosphere. We took a booth and took a few minutes to get orientated by the set up. We had a keyboard between us and a touch pad rather than a mouse, but since we’re both laptop trackpad people, that wasn’t a big deal. The set up is good and efficient: all the food and drink ordering is done online so the only time you really see any staff is when they’re bringing you your order. And the website has an English language option – a very good translation including jokes and colloquialisms about the food. We just had drinks to start with but after a while, ordered food too. We had gorgeous, huge onion rings to share to start then went for burgers (yes, meat burgers) after that: John had blue cheese while I went for the normal, non-mold version. They came with a small side of chips (standard take-away style fries) and coleslaw (which was a bit bland) but the burgers (closer to just cuts of meat than the more-filler-than-meat ones we get over here) themselves were very good. Mine had gherkins, salad and red onion as well as cheddar cheese on it and I was stuffed at the end of it. The only minor complaint I have about the burger itself was that the bun was toasted a little too much and was really crunchy all the way through. Still, minor complaint.
Between eating and internet browsing, we killed a few hours in there. It was good value (200 roubles – about Â£4 – each for the main meals) considering how good it was, how full we were afterwards and the fact we had free internet access the whole time we were there.
We left there about 9pm, save in the knowledge that the internet was still there and that it still loved us. I wanted to buy some more bottled water on the way back to the hotel so we went inside Okhotny Ryad shopping centre again and walked around for a while before buying the water from the first drinks outlet we had see. We then walked back to the hotel over Kamenny bridge and witnessed one multi-car crash (not serious, just someone stopping and then about four cars behind going into the back of each other) and lots of road rage. The amount of traffic flying around was quite stunning.
We had a car booked to take us from the hotel to Leningradskaya train station at 10.30pm. I had booked it the night before after realising that I was nervous enough about getting to the train and the thought of having to negotiate the Metro system for the first time, at night, with luggage, didn’t exactly appeal. I wish I had arranged this transfer in advance with someone like Alex Transfers because getting cars from hotels is always way more expensive than it should be. We had been quoted Euro51 for the journey but when we actually paid for it (as part of the hotel bill), it was charged at circa Euro66 because we hadn’t been told about an additional 30% surcharge for journeys after 10pm. Euro51 is still quite, quite extortionate considering it wasn’t half as far as the airport but as I said, my nerves couldn’t take the Metro or finding another taxi while we were there so, again, we paid for the convenience. Plus, nice hotels have nice cars for transfers :)
Anyway, we got back to the hotel just before 10pm so, warned about the yacky state of toilets on trains, we made sure we were all peed up in the nice lobby toilets at the hotel and had a cup of tea (with strange tilted tea pots) in the lobby bar while we waited until it was time to leave.
The drive to the train station was quite exhilarating – and by that I mean the guy drove really quickly and we nearly crashed at least twice. We got to see some cool architecture on the way (even though it was night time) and were delivered to within about 5metres of the departing platform at the station, which was handy.
(Just a note about the train station names: Moscow and St Petersburg each have several train stations, named after the direction that those trains head in. So, in Moscow, we caught the train from Leningradskaya train station to Moskovsky train station in St Petersburg. It all makes sense really – say, you want to go to Finland, you get a train from Finlandsky station (SP) – but is a little confusing when we’re sleepy as we were by then).
We arrived at the station a little after 11 – half an hour before departure – and since our train was on the first platform we came to, we found it quickly. We then had to decipher our tickets to see what carriage we should get on: carriage number 14, which was about the third one in. A ticket checker did as her job would suggest and pointed us to our own compartment. We had booked (through the concierge at the hotel) a first class compartment on Train #6 (aka Nikolay’s Express). We didn’t go with the first class option because we’re obsessed with living the high life but for a security thing: first class compartments sleep 2, second class ones sleep 4 and we knew we wouldn’t sleep at all if we had to share with strangers. The tickets cost circa Euro220 (circa Â£150) for the two of us – for the compartment, with made up beds, towels and a snack-meal/drinks – which isn’t bad when you consider than a standard return seat to London costs about Â£65 per person (Â£125 peak times) for a shorter, less comfortable journey.
Anyway, it was the first time in a private compartment on a train for either of us so we were giddy with excitement (the nerves had abated when it was clear from the ticket checker that we were in the right place, at the right time, on the right date). We flung open the door and looked at our small little world for the evening. The room was, perhaps 6ft square, with two narrow bunks on either side. I had been convinced that the bunks would be stacked so it was a nice surprise when they weren’t. There were big, heavy down pillows for each bed, as well as a (folded) single duvet and sheets. We also had a couple of small towels each, disposable slippers and a hygiene kit (mini-toothbrush etc). There was a table between the bunks, dressed with a table cloth, vodka and water glasses and free newspapers and magazines. The snack-meal was packed-lunch style: a little pack of soft cheese, salami, butter and red caviar in one pack, and some bread, crackers and a biscuit in another pack, with a bottle of sparkling water too. It was all quite cute and we spent a few giggly minutes working out how everything worked and getting ourselves sorted. John wanted to take some photos of the compartment so we ended up posing for our standard holiday-being-cute-together series. That killed the time until 11.30 when the train started to move.
I’ve left something out of the description of the compartment so far: the aural experience. For some reason, there was nasty 1980s cheesy piped music from the moment we entered. Very soon, it drove us potty but we rationalised that it would only be until the train set off – kinda like the music you sometimes get on planes. But when the train set off, it kept on going, looping around so we heard the same song (a cheesy Euro-pop cover, by robots, of “Putting on the Ritz”) twice. We checked everywhere for an “off” button but none was to be found. Eight hours of that would have driven us quite, quite insane. When the carriage attendant knocked on the door to over us a nightcap, we quickly declined the drink but dragged her inside and mimed “oh god, please turn off the music, please just kill it now, now, now, please”. She looked confused as if she couldn’t understand why we couldn’t find the volume knob ourselves and turned it off. Said volume switch was hiding underneath the curtain valance. Under the curtains. And the blind. Obvious. Clearly. It’ll be the first place we look in the future.
Relieved (so relieved) and sleepy, we lay down on our respective beds and read for a little while. I also took my first trip to the toilet on the train (as yacky as expected and very strangely complicated when it came to flushing and getting water). After about half an hour, I decided to go to sleep so climbed into bed properly. When I had read about the trains on the internet, everyone had said “expect to sleep in your clothes” but maybe just because we had a private compartment, I didn’t feel that was at all necessary. John followed suit a little later, making sure the door was locked and the simple plastic security doohickey was over the lock (very simple but effective: it sat over the door handle and lock, stopping the lock from being turned from either side of the door). We couldn’t get to sleep though. It was probably a combination of the excitement/novelty as well as the noise that kept us away but, unlike when we can’t get to sleep at home, it wasn’t frustrating. We lay awake for probably a couple of hours (or certainly didn’t get past the first level of sleep) but were perfectly relaxed and just went with the flow.