Friday, August 19, 2011

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

Bishkek is my home. I really felt that as I was going through customs at Manas airport. I couldn't wait to get to my comfortable apartment and have a long sleep in my own bed. I was pleasantly surprised at how glad I was to be back.

But that lasted all of thirty minutes, thanks to an unscrupulous taxi driver, who began renegotiating the price of the ride as soon as he'd started driving. First he wanted more som, and then he started asking for rubles. By the time we got to my apartment (at 4:30 in the morning) he was really quite angry, and called his friend, presumably to intimidate me. However, I was angrier than he; so angry that I threw the money on the ground, grabbed my bags and marched away, twisting his hand off my arm when he tried to grab it. Honestly, I could have punched him for ruining my pleasure at being home again.

I'm dangerous when crossed. Taxi drivers of Bishkek, beware. 

(Still, I should probably invest in some capsicum spray).

Anyway, it is good to be home. Classes start again on Monday, which well and truly signals the end of the summer break. Somehow, we've ended up with lots more students this semester, and as the sole English teacher I find the idea of being responsible for the entire Year 7-12 curriculum both exciting and a little daunting. This time, however, I have my own classroom, which is a colourful and jolly place, decorated in posters from the British Museum and pretty postcards. Soon enough the walls will be covered in student work.

I promised photos, didn't I? Some selected highlights from Moscow, St Petersburg, and the train in between, then, provided particularly for the edification of those without Facebook:

Friday, August 12, 2011

Soul Food and Other Foods

Today, in a cafe, a very handsome Russian man in an expensive suit tried to flirt with me. It was going swimmingly for about ten seconds, until he realised that I didn't actually speak Russian, even though I'd ordered in it. We were both a bit embarrassed, after that; I stuck my head in my Lonely Planet and he bolted his coffee and left.

However, I wasn't sitting around in cafes all day, hoping that gentlemen would make abortive attempts to speak to me; the day was devoted entirely to The Hermitage. (Well, not entirely. There was also pirogi, which I will explain shortly.)

It's been said that if you stood in front of every piece in The Hermitage for one minute, you'd be in the museum for thirty years. That's to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it's certainly a vast collection. The sensible way to approach it is to read up beforehand and be certain what you want to see. There's a very impressive antiquities section - lots of Roman emperors and Greek amphoras and Egyptian mummies - but what I enjoyed the most on the ground floor were the rooms themselves: palatial and colourfully grand with vast bay windows. I went on to pay my dues to the French, the Italians, the English, the Dutch - very worthy collections - but in my heart of hearts I was impatient to see the Impressionists. As it was, I stumbled on them unexpectedly. Room upon room of Monet and Cezanne, Pissarro and Renoir, Cezanne and Van Gogh and Gaugin: enough gorgeousness to make the hardest heart leap. Oh, it made me very, very happy. I sighed with delight in each room, and tried not to judge the silly people with cameras. (I am working hard on my judgmental nature, and am pleased to say that I think progress is being made: but I will not stand idly by - because judging people isn't being idle, is it? - while they snap pictures of themselves next to a Monet and then complain that the lilies don't look like real lilies.)  Then, I tried very hard to like Matisse, and failed (if someone would explain his genius to me, I'd be very grateful); discovered Picasso's absinthe drinker and peculiar pottery; and wandered the halls of Henry Moore's wartime sketches.

The Hermitage itself is endlessly stunning, a palace decked out in French style. Outside, it's all white columns, gold leaf, pale mint-green walls, statuary. Inside, there's even more gold leaf and the grandest red velvet and chandeliers you'll ever see. Also, a royal stairway filled with gold and light and ceiling frescoes. It holds its own with comparable museums in France, England and America. If you can get over the perpetual crowds (and if art is your thing) St Petersburg is worth the trip for this alone.

The art of The Hermitage was food for the soul; unfortunately, I'm not composed entirely of soul, and was ravenously hungry after four hours of art-gazing. So, I went in search of a restaurant called Stolle, which is known for its pirogi (Russian pies). I found it easily and had a really excellent meal of sweet cabbage pirogi with fried potatoes (peasant food! but I never claimed to be anything else) followed by apricot pirogi and black tea. After waiting some time to see if I'd suffer a coronary, it seemed safe to leave, so I walked heartily and hastily for miles around the canals, trying to exorcise some gastronomic guilt.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Russia. I intend to climb the belfry of St Isaac's, visit the Russian Museum, and maybe one of the islands. I will also pay my last respects to Zoom cafe, where the good coffee is to be had.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

In Which Moscow Compares (Vastly Unfavourably) to St Petersburg

The centre of St Petersburg is very beautiful, very European, very bright. They call it the Venice of the North for good reason. Magnificent eighteenth century palaces, exquisite Orthodox churches, wide streets, stately parks, lots of wrought-iron and eggshell-blue and wooden bridges. However, it has also been raining in a soggy four-seasons-in-one-day kind of way which reminds me of nothing so much as Melbourne weather, so I'm waiting for blue skies before I start photographing things.

Today my friend Georgia and I walked almost the entire length of the city: she wanted to orientate me before I set out on my own tomorrow. One of the best things she showed me was a very lovely, very French, (and therefore completely un-Russian), bohemian cafe, where we ordered the best coffee I've had since leaving Melbourne. It was a rapturous experience. I intend to go there every day until I leave, so I have the memory to hold on to when downing yet another instant coffee in Bishkek. I may be missing friends and family a great deal, but good food and coffee come a close second. I dream about Yarraville cafes and Thai restaurants and mum's cooking.

I've been enjoying the hospitality of Georgia's family. They live in the suburbs, which, unlike the city center, have a crumbling, rusty Soviet ambience. Lots of abandoned factories, identical Stalin-esque flats, Lenin's face everywhere. Still, in comparison with Moscow, it's a hugely attractive city.

More as it comes to hand!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Some Art, a Cathedral, a Cemetary, and Lenin Himself

This morning, I resigned myself to the probability that I would get lost, stand in pointless queues, pay too much for extremely ordinary food, and generally wander around like a lost sheep with sore feet. All of these things happened, and yet as I reflect on the day I don't feel particularly peeved. Mostly, I just feel poor.

Notable Event #1 was Lenin's Mausoleum. This involved standing in the longest line I've ever stood in, apart from the time when I queued for Mumford & Sons. It was hot, but it was free, so I bore it well. You get about two minutes in the tomb, and Lenin might as well be a wax figure for all we know, but it was one of those few times I've had in my life as a tourist where I tick a box in my head. Not thrilling, precisely, but obligatory. Lots of military standing about to ensure that you don't speak, take photos, or smile. (I might have made the last one up, but only just).

Incidentally, if you try to jump a queue in Australia, a guard might escort you back with a stern word, but probably a grin as well. He's certainly not armed. If you try to jump a queue in Moscow, a guard mght reach menacingly for his gun, or at the very least freeze you in a stare as steely as his grasp.

Following the requisite visit to Lenin, I hopped on the metro to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, which had an astonishingly good collection of antiquities, some very fine Rembrandts, and a whole building full of Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Kandinsky, Rodin, etc. Honestly, it rivals many more famous collections. The Egyptian Room alone took my breath away. I'm learning, however, to avoid Orthodox iconography and Russian religious art in general, because while there are some beautiful examples of the genre, the overwhelming effect is a bit ghastly.

Over the road is the relatively modern Cathedral, Christ the Saviour: if you're a woman, you can't enter with bare arms or head or legs, so quite a few are turned away since it's very much summer here. Fortunately, I had a scarf with me (which I wore to match my new bohemian haircut) so I got in, though something in me baulked at having to cover my head, low-churchwoman that I undoubtedly am. Though new, it's a very traditional stately cathedral; no boundary-breaking art or particularly creative architecture. But there are lots of very formal and rather beautiful icons, with many people praying all around. The overall effect is majestic - lovely colours, not too much gold, lots of marble and candles and frescoes. It reminded me of a Rubens painting. I'm not sure I liked it - for the same reason that I'm not always sure I like Rubens - but it's very striking.

Finally, after a hideously overpriced and horrible lunch at the Soviet-style canteen in the basement of the gallery, I hopped a train to Novodevichy Cemetary, where such notables as Krushchev,Gogol (all I could think was, poor dead soul!), Rachmaninov and Chekhov are buried. The place was swarming with Asian tourists in large packs and matching shirts, conscientiously aiming cameras at everything and nothing. I found the tombs I wanted to find, however, except for Rubinstein's, which has evaporated in the most peculiar way. The overall effect of the cemetary - which houses all the political and cultural figures who the authorities judged unsuitable to be buried in the walls of the Kremlin - was one of Soviet heroes striding out of granite blocks, chests imperious, faces impassive, gazing at a glorious future whilst clad in immaculate suits. (Soviet heroines are generally pigeon-breasted and middle-aged, occasionally in pearls but more often in sensible brogue). A lot of older folk still pay homage and leave flowers at the graves of notable Communist figures. I rested my feet a good deal and gazed on stony visages; all those Soviet figures became a little more real as I did so.

As you see, the day has been full and I feel quite justified in heading home for a bit, before I amble around in search of dinner. Tomorrow is my last full day in Moscow. I catch a train to St Petersburg at 11:45 PM. In the morning, I'm going to visit an Anglican church that is reputed to exist somewhere near me; I love expatriate congregations! They're full of interesting people doing wonderful things.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Regarding Moscow and All Things Muscovite

The secret to enjoying a new city is a comfortable pair of shoes. A decent guidebook, good health, pleasant company and adequate funds will naturally contribute to the overall experience, but ultimately your happiness depends on the state of your feet. This is particularly true in cities with cobblestones, of which most of The Continent is comprised, and at which Antipodeans are in awe.

Moscow does not exert itself to win over visitors. It does not ask for your admiration or praise, it sits haughty and high and expecting your homage. You are privileged to bask in my grandeur, it says to foreigners; and so, it does not provide signage or directions or readable maps or convenient eating places. The Muscovites within it will not slow down to listen to your broken attempts at questions in Russian, or even acknowledge that you asked them. It seems to me that the most effective method of extracting information from a local is to wrestle them to the ground and tickle-torture it out of them.

It is a hard city; hard and glitzy like a diamond, except you have to imagine a very imperfect diamond with veins of concrete running through it. There is beauty here, but the city doesn't ask you to partake in it; in fact, it demands that you keep your distance and forebear to love it. In most European cities, the architecture invites you to enter into a relationship with it; to be warmly enriched by it. Moscow's buildings, for the most part, are like a patient with dementia. They are sunk in Soviet memory and don't recognise the present. Difficult to love, unless you knew them beforehand.

The Kremlin is the ultimate expression of Moscow's stony indifference to foreigners. In order to experience the Kremlin, the visitor must exert her problem-solving powers, since the ticket sellers will only sell certain tickets at designated hours, and you must use your intuition to identify entrances and exits. For instance, if you want to visit the Armoury, which you certainly will since that's where the Faberge eggs and ancient carriages and jewels are kept, you must line up at 11:15 precisely to gain entry at noon. There is a perpetual huddle of confused tourists around the office, and information is garnered by word of mouth rather than signage. Then, once in possession of the required tickets - which cost enough to feed an average sort of individual in Bishkek for a week - the visitor must pass through many security checks and undergo the scrutiny of bored police before entering the inner sanctum.

When I manage to upload my photos, I'll talk about The Kremlin and Red Square and surrounds in detail. There are lots of things to like about Moscow - but it's ever so much more fun to talk about the difficult things!

I bought a Stephen Fry novel in English yesterday, since it turns out that I'm not feeling as intellectually keen as I anticipated when I packed some rather more demanding books. I'm going to take it to the park and read for a bit, and rest my weary feet. It occurred to me today, as I was grumbling (in my head) about Russian things, and also when I spent more time on an exhibit of English art than on anything besides Faberge, that I'm a bit of an Anglophile, and Stephen Fry's writing feeds this inclination since he is himself the perfect arbiter of Britishness. If my next post reeks of aphorisms and tweedy adverbs (frightfully boring and all that!) you'll know the reason why.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

In Which I Tell (Briefly) of How the Tsar Kissed my Hand.

I have 25 minutes left at a frightfully expensive Moscow internet cafe, so I thought I'd just check in to say - here I am! I tracked down my visa on Tuesday, boarded a plane yesterday, arrived at a perfectly lovely and relatively inexpensive B&B in the middle of town, and spent most of today wandering through the Red Square, etc. The highlight was indubitably, exquisitely, St Basil's, the one with the gorgeous multicoloured domes. Unfortunately, I left my camera cord in Bishkek, so I can't upload them, but I look forward to writing about it at length and sharing some photos of beautiful architecture!

You know how the ultimate cheesy tourist experience is getting your photo taken with someone dressed as an historical figure? Well, I gave in today! There was a wonderful duo, the Tsar and Lenin, and I just had to get my picture taken with them. They were charming. The Tsar kissed my hand in a most courteous way, and Lenin said gentlemanly things in Russian.

Incidentally, I also got an excellent haircut at an expensively warm and friendly salon, on the recommendation of the people I had dinner with last night. It's very short with a pretty fringe. I've been missing good hair -I feel a little more like myself again.

On Sunday, I take an old-school overnight train to St Petersburg (how very Agatha Christie!) where I hope to report all manner of adventures. But my time's up - till soon!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Moscow Bound

'Moscow Looking South' photo (c) 1915, Oregon State University Archives - license:

Yesterday was nearly 40 degrees, not the most conducive temperature to running around Bishkek like a headless chook trying to locate a mysteriously elusive visa! But three offices and some heatstroke later, and there's a holographic Russian visa in my rapidly expanding passport, which means that I can board my flight this afternoon...