When travelling on a budget, one must get used to a wide variety of circumstances that on a regular fortnight away you would find vexing. Wearing the same clothes every other day. Packing and repacking, then having to pack some more. Missing Game of Thrones. And countless more. The hardest one for many is the necessary act of sharing your sleeping quarters with strangers. Through this trip I would guess that I have slept with hundreds of people. And it was hardly ever fun. Snoring, farting, shagging, crying. You hear it all on the road.
Today I was awoken to the sound of a sixty year old Korean woman mooing like a cow.
Our room was a vast, 8-bed dorm with wooden floors and a lovely views of Tverskaya Street and Tverskoy Boulevard. Fountains glistened in the morning sun. If you craned your head and tempted death just a little, out the window you could just about see the ornate spires of Red Square, projecting up to the skies like colourful gnome hats. The room seemed to lay claim to items that the rest of the house didn’t want: a broken ironing board, two cricket bats, scores of odd socks.
Time for breakfast.
We are supplied with tea, rolled oats and soup. A warming collection. During breakfast we ask one of the workers about Red Square and Lenin. Lenin has been on show there since 1924 and I was eager to see him since I haven’t had the best of luck seeing dead communists in my time. Not long ago I visited Hanoi and left a space on my final day to see Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in the north of the fantastic city. At the hostel I asked the lady for help in getting there.
“Not open. Uncle Ho gone away.”
“Where can he go? It’s not like he’s snowed under.”
“Uncle Ho on holiday. Go to Moscow for, how you say, touching up.”
So Uncle Ho evaded me, as did Uncle Mao in Beijing, but uncle Vlad was a dead cert!
“It’s closed now.”
“No. He’s getting repaired.”
“These guys take better care of themselves than I do.”
I was deflated. It seems as if my dream of seeing a dead socialist full of formaldehyde will continue.
Red Square is a good name for it, as my first feeling inside was for the beauty of its geometry. Oppulent, sumptuous, clean as a tack and magnificent in it’s grandeur. Even the old Korean tourists in their matching shell suits didn’t sully the feeling. Arriving at the gates of Red Square a monumental feeling of history swept over me. A meeting point of the historic merchant quarter and the Kremlin and bookended by the State Museum and easily one of the most startling and remarkable looking churches in the world: St. Basil’s Cathedral.
After spending some time roaming around the famous GUM department store, with its glass domed roof and delicious ice cream we though we’d take some snaps of Lenin’s mausoleum. It’s a vast, marble structure that has pride of place in the square, it is at the same time impressive and daunting. It wouldn’t be my choice for a home after I’m gone and apparently it wasn’t Lenin’s, either. By all accounts his final wishes was to be buried simply in St. Petersburg close to his mother. Stalin wasn’t a fan if this idea and because of him we can now see Lenin as we please. As we surveyed the premises we noticed there was a line forming round the side of the Kremlin, this line gained you access to view the graves of previous Russian heads of state so we trundled to the back and patiently waited. Once in, we noticed people entering Lenin’s mausoleum.
“Youngja, look! It’s open!”
“Do you think he’s in there?”
“The girl told us no. Probably not. Maybe it’s a mausoleum/museum deal. A mauso-museum.”
“I guess so. Well let’s check anyway.”
When we entered we were greeted by two lamppost tall Russian soldiers with backs as straight as arrows, their index fingers, to all appearances permanently affixed to their lips. We took this for “shush, now” and glided round the near pitch-black hallways. As we trundled along, knocking into the furniture, we finally got to the bosom of the beast and was met with the main man. He was there! All milky and spooky. Phantasmal in appearance, he seemed to glow in the dark. I could instantly understand why Lenin wouldn’t have wanted this for himself. I still couldn’t believe that I had finally seen a taxidermied communist and found myself determined to make sure it wasn’t just a fake. I compelled myself to asked one of the heavily armed guards whether it in fact was he.
“Excuse me, er, (pointing to Lenin) Lenin?”
His look could have given a gorilla a seizure. I thanked him (not sure what for) and ran out.
With Lenin in the bag (no pun intended) I skipped around red square. We saw the tombs of Stalin, Kalinin, and Chernenko and then visited St. Basil’s Cathedral. The inside was bustling as some service was in progress at the time. A priest was leading gang of worshippers in the loudest prayer service I have ever heard. “Aeeeeegonasfagaroooonomarrr!” “Eeeeeagoooo!”. “Goooooonasghostaaaaamenafaaaa” “Eeeeeagoooo!”. Stranger still is that technically it is no longer a church. It is now a museum. Either these guys didn’t get the memo or they didn’t care. Inside, incredible murals decorated the walls throughout and every inch was swathed with incredibly beautiful decorations. An unbelievable place.
We wandered around all the sights of Red Square and on our way back noticed a Macdonalds restaurant not far from our hostel. I was taken aback that Macdonalds even existed is Russia as, besides Mickey Mouse, there is no clearer icon of the those capitalist pig-dogs than Ronald. I was further taken aback when I entered the place. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a bigger Macdonalds in my life. There were at least a thousand people in there, slowly clogging their arteries. I have been to quieter football matches.
Back home we packed for our trip. A train was waiting to take us to St. Petersburg so we wasted no time. On the subway I took a seat next to a large Russian lady with a fixed grin. As the train started to move I got a personal space alert and from nothing this lady starts stroking my hair. I have never been stroked by a Russian and was initially unsettled, but I saw she meant no harm and seemed to be having a great time, she was laughing like a drain. Thinking back now I am under the impression she was trying to pat my hair down as my appearance was somewhat rough. Having no postcode will do this to you. Anyway, the stroking continued for quite a long time. She then started ordering me to do something. What that thing was I’m sure I have no idea but at one point she made the sign of the cross on my chest so Jesus must have been involved. The stroking then turned into face rubbing. A strange way to end my time in Moscow but fair play to her. If she wants to rub foreigners faces on the subway then good luck to the crazy old woman. She departed before me and waved me off through the window until we were forever parted. Thank God.
At Leningrad Station we bumped into our Korean friends. The mother, who loved Youngja, was very pleased to see us. Youngja bought her a sudoko book to help her pass the time on the train. She in turn promised to send us a box of apples when we returned to Korea.
“What? A box of apples? What’s wrong with a Christmas card?”
“I don’t know but that’s what she said.”
“Well, I like apples.”
Our train looked brand new. Like a polished bullet. In our cabin we were joined by a young and supremely miserable Russian couple. He at least 6ft7in and a jet black unibrow and her around 4ft3in with a face like a fish. The air blew cold as they walked in. Another drawback was that we were given the top bunks which had about a 12 inch gap from the mattress to the ceiling.
“I bet a hit my head on the ceiling when I wake up.” I said.
“I bet you to do.” She said.
The time was 11:30.
Moscow was behind us.
I dreamt of milky Lenin.