Monday, August 4, 2008

RU - Moscow

Today I was set loose on my own. Well, first we took care of some paperwork – a fine introduction to government bureaucracy, of which Russia is particularly renowned for. The first work day since my arrival, we walked to the local police station to register my visa. I had been hounding Svitlana and Anastasia all weekend about getting this done, thinking I only had three days to do it; so I was relieved when I read a little further into it and found that I had three working days. Regardless, we still moved to avoid any additional procrastination.

Up to this point, Russia had been thoroughly breaking quite a number of stereotypes I had of it prior to my arrival. Upon visiting the police station, however, it just felt so stereotypical “soviet”. The building was quite drab and rundown – the concrete was cracking and the paint was well peeled, chipped, and faded. Anastasia did the wheelings and dealings while Svitlana and I sat in the waiting area. Furthering the stigma, Anastasia returned frustrated in that we had to go make a copy of a form (they couldn’t do it there?) and then fill it out.

So we went off for a 5 minute walk to a place where we could get copies, which oddly seemed to be an optometrist. In America, we have FedEx and Staples; but we went to an optometrist. Copy in hand, we returned to the police station, filled out the forms, and Anastasia went on. Now we were beginning to run out of time, so Svitlana and I left for the Kremlin so that I’d be able to get tickets for the Armory. We were assured by the woman at the police station that I wouldn’t need to be present nor would I have to leave my visa, immigration card, or passport there. This all struck me as somewhat odd, but Anastasia explained that she’d receive a paper which says I’m registered; and I figured “OK” – albeit still skeptical.

Well, waiting in line at the Kremlin, a number of things happened. First, I couldn’t get tickets to the Armory, though I still got the tickets for the Kremlin itself just so I could say I’ve been there. Second, we got a call from Anastasia that she needed my immigration card. She arrived just as I was about to enter the Kremlin & I gave her the documents. I left them both behind and went into the Kremlin solo.

The inside of the Kremlin was quite neat. It was very open, with wide cobblestone streets, mid-sized buildings, and some parkland. There was a very strong military presence, including guards standing about at frequent intervals and strategic locations; and also entire units moving about the interior. Looking back, with the outbreak of war in Georgia, I suspect the Armory may have actually been completely closed. The Armory appears to skirt along an off-limits area; or at least it was definitely off-limits while I was there, even though the map appears to indicate it as an open area. And I and all the other tourists were directed out of the Kremlin much sooner than it typically closes, raising another intriguing thought.

I walked about and looked into the churches, though one was closed and another was closed for reconstruction. I’d never seen an Orthodox church up close before, and I had never ever been inside one. I spent about an hour inside the first church, looking at every single painting; every single icon. Prior to coming to Russia, I wasn’t sure I’d have any interest in the churches; or that I would be bored by the interiors. However, the interiors of these churches weren’t just paintings of people’s faces; there were paintings of entire scenes. It kept my attention as I tried to identify each and every one.

Upon being directed out of the Kremlin, I went toward Red Square and caught the Changing of the Guard at the Eternal Fire, located along the outside of the Kremlin wall (I really love those walls, by the way). I met up with Svitlana and we waited about for Anastasia a bit, but after a couple minutes we decided to continue on through Red Square. I went into a smaller church located on the one corner, and then into St. Basil’s on the far end – this is probably among the very first things that anyone thinks of when they think of Russia. The inside was neat, but not as spectacular as the churches within the Kremlin. The exterior was certainly the most fantastic.

Svitlana followed me as I led the way toward the Statue Park – quite a ways away. We walked along the river and took a bunch of photos before finally ending up in the park. We then met up with Anastasia, I got my registration papers, and we walked back through the historic downtown of Moscow. We stopped at the McDonald’s right by the Kremlin and I opted for some french fries – one of the few McDonald’s foods I can eat and, indeed, one of the few I can potentially rationalize eating while I’m in a different country.

McDonald’s has certainly taken its hold on the post-Communist world. In both Russia and Ukraine, it is consistently absolutely packed. It is also one of the few places where you can readily walk right in and use the restrooms without having to buy or pay anything (which is welcome considering my policy of not paying to go to the bathroom). I’d wager that McDonald’s is perhaps the most popular destination throughout the former Eastern Bloc.

We stayed up late that night to catch a 2am train to St. Petersburg. We were expecting a cabin with fold-down seats, but instead we were surprised to find ourselves in a cabin with bench seats. We were also expecting 4-person cabins, but instead got 6-person cabins. Our other three cabin-mates included a large girl in her young-20’s who listened to her music much too loudly (wow, I feel so much older just by saying that), a middle-aged man, and a thin girl in her mid-20’s taking up one of the middle spots. I first had a middle spot, but swapped with Svitlana so that she and Anastasia could use each other as pillows; and I could rest my head on the wall, table, or whatever else I could do. I reminisced on the positions I put myself into during my flight across the Atlantic…

The ride was relatively uneventful. The three of us would each reposition ourselves every 15-30 minutes in an effort to get comfortable, though I eventually happened upon a couple positions that I liked; and began cycling through those more at hourly intervals. It was a 12 hour train ride, so I was glad to find those couple. Not comfortable; but comfortable enough. I felt bad for the poor girl beside me, who clearly was not able to get any rest.

One fun part was when the larger girl put her legs up onto the middle-aged man across from her – that was the only time I heard him say anything, and I believe it consisted of words of disapproval. Later in the night came the highlight, when the same girl put her legs on top of Svitlana, whom was in the middle seat & using Anastasia as a pillow. Svitlana said something to the girl and a couple seconds passed… then I forget who did it first, but Anastasia and I started giggling, chuckling, snickering, or whatever you’d call it.

We started laughing just because here this girl just randomly decides to use Svitlana as a footrest. It seems funnier when you’re sleep-deprived and rather loopy. I don’t know how long it lasted – I guess anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes – but Anastasia and I ended up in this uncontrollable bout where one of us would laugh; then the other; then the first would laugh again. We’d try to hold it in… but that just made us laugh even louder. Poor Svitlana, whom was stuck with a laughing pillow; and clearly wasn’t as crazed as the two of us. Anastasia eventually got up and left the cabin to try and collect herself, but it started right back up again when she returned. We finally calmed ourselves down when Svitlana made it clear of her desire to get some sleep.

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