Moscow was a city we could have settled in for a while. There was so much to see, great food and nightlife, and a rich literary and cultural history. Yet our stay was only to last two days. Obtaining a tourist visa to Russia is an expensive, time consuming ordeal and almost impossible to do from outside of the US. After four consecutive days visiting the Russian embassy in Mongolia, we secured a transit visa permitting us two nights in Moscow between arriving on the Trans-Siberian railway and leaving for Finland.
Having no time to spare, we stepped off our long train ride from Mongolia and picked up our normal pace to race around seeing the city.
Russia requires all visitors to register their location each night with the police (our hotel did this for us) and carry their passports with them at all times. The militia can stop anyone at anytime to ask for identification. I was a bit worried about police harassment – apparently this was a bigger problem a few years ago – but it turned out to be unwarranted.
Our first night was unseasonably warm for autumn; we walked around without a jacket amidst the crowds of tourists. The city came even more alive as the sun set – restaurants and cafes’ outdoor seating was full and musicians were in the streets.
Moscow is centered on the Kremlin, the walled complex of government buildings and former head of the Orthodox Church. To the south of the Kremlin is the Moscow River; to the east is Red Square and St. Basil’s Church. Surrounding ring and radial roads make the city very compact and walkable.
The triangular Kremlin is surrounded by high brick walls and twenty-one watch towers. The palace and towers were off-limits to visitors, but we were permitted to view the national Armory containing Russian thrones, artifacts, and treasures, and inside the three historic cathedrals of Annunciation, Assumption, and Archangel. The Bell Tower of Ivan the Great stands out as the tallest structure in the Kremlin.
Red Square still displays the embalmed body of Lenin, the first premier of the Soviet Union, despite communism’s end twenty years ago. Having seen the bodies of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi and Chairman Mao in Beijing we of course had to see Lenin. The procedure for visiting was similar – everyone had to pass through a metal detector without cameras and bags, but unlike the other two, there was no line to see Lenin. The Mausoleum was empty except for the bored guards. We had our time to gape at the body, which was in better shape than the others despite being 50 years older.
At the north end of Red Square is St. Basil’s Cathedral, completed in the sixteenth century on the order of Ivan the Terrible to celebrate Russian military victories. Its colorful towers and onion shaped domes are instantly recognizable as the iconic image of Russia.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is the most impressive church in the city. Built after the fall of the Soviet Union on the site of a former one dynamited by Stalin, it is the tallest Orthodox Church in the world at 340 feet high. The inside was even more impressive than the outside featuring amazing murals and icons (no pictures were allowed).
The weather stopped cooperating with us on our last day; the rain put a damper on our plans to walk through the parks and cruise along the Moscow River. Fortunately, one of Moscow’s more interesting attractions, its subway system, is underground.
Deep, deep underground.
Escalators leading down are very steep and fast yet take forever to reach the bottom. After a few seconds, we felt a strong sense of vertigo – it didn’t help that billboard ads were posted parallel to the escalators rather than level.
The stations are architectural wonders, featuring sculptures, chandeliers, bas reliefs, and stained glass.
Some were very futuristic…
some were traditional…
…but all were immaculate and impressive.
Each station had a unique history; we could have taken a subway tour – but we unfortunately ran out time. Finding our way around the system was not easy, since signs were all labeled in Cyrillic alphabet. But getting lost (as we did a few times) wasn’t the worst thing as we were able to see a few more stations.
We returned to our hotel exhausted from moving for two days straight, packed up our bags and left Moscow as we had arrived: by an international overnight train to Helsinki.