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Moscow and Rostov-Veliki

St Basil's Cathedral

Luckily, some people at the suburban metro station pointed us in the right direction to our hostel. A 10-minute walk brought us to a creaky, Soviet-era hotel with a few rooms converted to dormitories. We sat with some Canadians outside near the kiosks across the street, drinking beer and snacking on cheese and bread from the nearby convenience store while fending off the local drunks.

Russia is a tough place for the independent traveler. People are unhelpful and unfriendly unless you speak Russian, and, if you can speak a few words in an obviously broken accent, they reply by speaking so quickly that it is impossible to understand! Entering a store, the (usually fat) woman behind the counter will shout “shto!” (what!) After telling her what you want, or pointing if the location is obvious, she might even retrieve it, if it is not too far to reach. Apart from the metro, costs in Moscow are very high, on par with some European cities, though the value for the money is poor.

Dave arrived the next day from St. Petersburg, on the night train. Today was the 49 th anniversary of the end of World War II. A big party in Red Square was plenned, and the Kremlin was closed, so we visited the Tretyakov gallery, one of Russian's premiere art museums. We marveled at the icons by Andrei Rublev, still looking vibrant and fresh after 500 years. There were some gigantic paintings of Central Asia by Vereshchagin done with wonderful clarity and attention to detail. We recognized pictures from Ladakh, where we had been on our honeymoon the previous summer. The main gallery had only “old” art. We walked down the river to the 20 th century wing, housed in a kind of Soviet-era 1960s “hall of the people” style building. The collection, though, was disappointing.

After the museums, we walked back up the river towards the center of town. The war parade was over, so we could enter Red Square and appreciate St. Basil's cathedral, partially covered in scaffolding for yet another renovation. The Arbat, a pedestrian street to the west of the Kremlin, featured street musicians and carnival games. Further to the west, the Novodevichy Convent has some quaint Russian churches with golden domes. By the time we headed back to town, it was dark and had started to rain. We took shelter in a metro underpass, where an impromptu rock band had set up and was playing to an enthusiastic, beer-swilling crowd.

Our next excursion was to Rostov-Veliki, an old capital, to spend a few days in a small, quiet, typically Russian town. We stayed inside the Rostov Kremlin in a hostel that, with massive wooden walls, looked like a giant sauna. At a nearby monastery we met some seminary students, and spent the afternoon with them talking about Russia, its problems, and religion. Perhaps they approached us because Anne was wearing a scarf over her hair like a traditional Russian woman. After talked several hours, they offered us a meal, with plenty of cream and butter. Most of the food had been grown or produced at the monastery Anne tried “kvass” (fermented rye juice) and liked the sweet, fermented drink.

The next day we traveled to Yaroslavl to look at the typical churches there. Getting there, though, turned out to be a nightmare. We arrived at the station, and although a bus was waiting, we couldn't get on because we didn't have tickets. When Eric tried to buy tickets by squeezing his way to the front of the line, the unfriendly woman inside the kiosk informed me that there was no bus until after 1 o'clock! A few minutes later, another bus drove up, also going to Yaroslavl, but again, despite more commotion, there were no tickets. Anne, however, managed to get us aboard a different bus by discreetly paying the driver. For that Eric had the privilege of sitting next to a drunk the whole way! Luckily, Eric could still speak a bit of Russian. How can independent tourists survive without any language skills?

Kremlin in Rostov-Veliki

We just had time to see the inside of the kremlin in Rostov-Veliki the next day before rushing back to the station, at least 1.5 km away, to catch the four-hour return train to Moscow. Dave had never been in a “platskartny” wagon before. In one large compartment with folding beds, passengers were eating, sleeping, and even hanging their socks up to dry. Imagine the smell of it all, in a closed wagon! The inside looked like a refugee camp. Eric tried to speak some Russian with a friendly neighbor, but couldn't understand much. A man sitting near us spoke broken German. Another lady, a German teacher, joined us to chat. A shy boy, afraid to speak directly, passed us questions written in rough English on a piece of paper. Anne carried on quite a conversation with him until he became bored and started making paper airplanes. As we approached Moscow, the passengers prepared themselves for arrival. Off came their pajamas and old country clothes, and out came smart outfits and freshly polished shoes. Women emerged from the toilets with fixed-up hair and fresh makeup.

We had just enough time to see the Moscow Kremlin. It cost a minor fortune to get in, especially with the camera passes, but was worth it. There was only an hour to see the main churches, still crowded with tourists, before being ushered out by the guards. With our Trans-Siberian tickets finalized, we prepared to leave. It wasn't the train we had requested, but it was going directly to Irkutsk. We rushed to get to the station to catch the train, with just enough time to buy food.