Disembarkation at Paveletskaya had a familiar feeling about it: hordes of jostling, hurrying people charging down the sun-washed platform into the station where the crowd momentarily paused in the face of myriad gloomy portals identified by similarly colourless signs. Managing to avoid getting swept away by the tide I made for the nearest выход (exit) and kept my eyes peeled for Leyla and Nigar at every turn.
Stepping out through doorway number two I was presented with a less familiar sight: large amounts of space. Not what one might expect to find in the middle of a capital city. Admittedly much of that space was a building site that appeared to be the renovation of a large bus terminal but the fact remained that the far sides of that space were bordered by comparatively few but large buildings. There is a similar broad acreage as you step out of the main station in Amsterdam but the tall, slim, tightly packed buildings around it make you aware that you are in a compact city centre; from this viewpoint Moscow felt big and expansive. The feeling was compounded when it transpired that Leyla and Nigar had managed to walk straight past me in broad daylight while entering the station to meet me.
We headed for the Metro, first by crossing the aforementioned building site via a suitably long subway tunnel. As with some of the subways in Baku the route was lined with stalls selling all manner of goods. As with some of the subways in London, the sound of a far-from-talented busking duo could be heard as we approached our exit. We rounded the corner to see two young men in clean army camouflage fatigues, one of whom had no legs. The same two men were working the same pitch when we went back to the airport days later so I can only assume that they were bona fide war veterans in need of an income; a sobering thought.
The Moscow Metro system is a very grand creation and some of its older stations very ornate. At street level we were met by a high-ceilinged ticket hall and escalator lobby decorated with marble, mosaic and murals. Descending the remarkably long escalators took us down to a long hall with vaulted ceilings and columns; the platforms for the trains being just the other side of the columns. Aside from a digital display at each tunnel mouth showing time of day and elapsed time since the last train departed (they run very frequently most of the time), there was little sign of any changes having been made since the station was originally built way back when. Particularly there was barely an advertising poster to be seen anywhere: a definite contrast with the paper that now covers so much the London Tube’s once clean and simple design.
First stop for two newcomers to Moscow could only be Red Square and that is where we surfaced a few stops later. Stepping through the large arched gateway into the square from the northern side I was struck once again by the sheer size of the place. A good few hundred yards’ worth of cobblestones separated the GUM department store on the left from the Kremlin on the right and their walls seemed to stretch half a mile before reaching the unmistakable domes of Saint Basil’s straight ahead.
The beauty of Saint Basil’s
Having seen Saint Basil’s in numerous films and news reports over the years it was a real pleasure to view the building up close with my own eyes, especially after it has apparently had a thorough wash and brush-up. The colours of everything from the bushes and the brickwork to the magnificent domes were so vivid in the bright light of the afternoon sun, it was almost as if someone had replaced the cathedral with a life-size plastic replica that morning.
As we adjourned to the GUM to seek a café and lunch, I continued to be impressed. As a Londoner I can best try to describe GUM as follows: take the architecture and colour of a generous stretch of building from one side of Regent Street and cross it with the market house in Covent Garden. The result is a stately glass-roofed shopping arcade in pale stone with several ‘streets’ of shops across several floors and stairways and bridges peppered throughout. Everybody from Accessorize to Louis Vuitton has a concession there and Apple are in the process of preparing a huge amount of space for themselves in the middle of the ground floor. I imagine GUM must have looked very different during Soviet times but today it is unmistakably a sign of western consumer brands’ growing influence over the city.
Walking out and round to the other side of the Kremlin took us into the Alexander Park. Pathways wended their way through tended lawns and trees, bounded by the Kremlin on one side and white stone balustrades and several fountains on the other. A small brass ensemble played lively renditions of jazz standards as people relaxed on the grass, fooled around in the fountains or took some refreshment in the shade of one of the large, open-sided beer tents that had been erected along the fountain side of the park. We repaired to one of the tents for a much-needed cold drink and I tried my first ‘glass’ (plastic) of Russian draught beer. A fine ‘glass’ it was too, especially when accompanied by a bar snack that I had never tried before but I am told is quite common in Moscow: dried and salted squid.
The three of us chilled out and chatted and I learned more about the local past a present from my companions. One detail that I found particularly noteworthy for my fellow Englishfolk concerned identity cards. Last time I looked, the British government was edging ever closer to implementing a national identity card scheme and it has been fiercely contested by many people for years. While I can sympathise with the anti-card protests in Britain I must also say that since moving abroad I have become used to carrying my passport everywhere in Paris and carrying a police registration card at all times in Baku. Spare a thought for those who live in Russia though, where the identity ‘card’ is a fifteen page booklet that records all manner of personal details through your life until you are permitted to dispense with it at the age of forty-five. While there is still room for discussion regarding the amount of personal information that is stored ‘behind the scenes’ in these situations, the consideration of carrying a single piece of plastic takes on a different dimension when compared with the Russians’ obligation.
Our laid-back conversation was most unexpectedly but pleasantly interrupted by the appearance of; believe it or not; a couple of friends from Baku. Leyla was aware that a couple of people she knew were going to be somewhere in Moscow at the time of our visit but with the city being so vast we had not dared make any plans to seek them in the short time we had; yet here they were casually walking past us in a park after we had been in the city less than twenty-four hours. Three became five and we celebrated the isn’t-it-a-small-world moment in animated tones before parting some hours later.
Next stop was Nigar’s apartment via ‘taxi’. There are official cabs in Moscow but people also happily hail any car that is passing and bargain a price with its driver to get from A to B – it’s cheaper. On the third or fourth attempt Nigar found a driver who was deemed suitable and off we went. His route was apparently a little more scenic than necessary but as the price had been fixed before departure our only loss was a few minutes in traffic.
At the apartment I was introduced to Nigar’s husband, Dima, and two year-old son, Nikita (lovely fellows both) and after some time to rest and recuperate we all stepped out for dinner. Our destination was the John Bull Pub: a place where the décor, the music and the menu are so British it is scary and they even serve Newcastle Brown Ale on draught. Having not been in a British pub or anything even close to one for many months it was a strangely familiar-cum-Twilight-Zone feeling to be getting this close to the experience while sitting on a terrace in Moscow. I ordered an other pint of Newkie Brown and continued to enjoy the good company, good food and good surroundings.