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Michael’s Travel Diary

Friday, 16 Jun 2006

Location: Moscow, Russia

MapEntry 38 - Moscow and trip to Minsk (6th June - 10th June)

6th June - Arriving in Moscow

Most of the day on the 6th was spent driving to Moscow from our overnight stop in Novgorod. When we finally did arrive in Moscow we were hit with rush hour traffic and didn't get anywhere very quickly at all. Our local Moscow guide climbed aboard and quickly it was obvious that she was terrified of the Mafia, and proceeded to tell us stories of Mafia dominance. According to her, when the communist party ended in 1990, the new government was giving things back to the people, and every person received a letter from the government telling them to go to a certain location in the next fortnight and sign some papers. The people did as they were told (as they had been doing for the last 70 years) and in the wash up it turned out that the government had given everyone a share in the extremely lucrative oil fields in Siberia. A month later, another official letter appeared, but this time the people had just 3 days to get the papers signed. This time, the people had inadvertently signed over the rights to the oil fields to the Mafia in one of the greatest cons of all time, allowing the Mafia to hold the majority steak in the oil fields and give them the power they have today. True? Dunno, but someone has a whole lot of money in Moscow, that much is certain.

We finally arrived at the back of St. Basil's, and started to sink in that we were in Moscow. Not until we got out of the bus and walked into Red Square did it fully sink in though.

It pretty much sums up Moscow in one sweeping panoramic view. One wall of 'The' Kremlin lining one side of the square, broken only by the Lenin mausoleum in the middle. On the opposite site, facing the Kremlin walls, the Gum department store, set in one of the most impressive looking buildings ever used for a department store. On opposite ends of the square are St. Basil's Cathedral, the most rediculous and gaudy looking cathedral of all time, with tear drop shaped domes decorated like christmas tree ornaments, and the red brick builing of the natural history museum, formerly a church, but was gutted and used to house tanks for military parades through the square throughout the 20th century. A truly beautiful, but intimidating picture, just the way the communists had hoped. And a great place to have our group photo.

Soon after the heavens opened and we jumped back on the bus to head to the hotel. The foyer of the hotel looked very modern, but the rooms were a little less fantastic. After dinner Clint and I headed for the Alpha block (we were in Beta, and there were tgree others) where we found a casino in the foyer. We played blackjack for an hour or so at 300 a hand (rubels - about $15 AUD) and I broke even, plus grabbed my 2nd souvenir chip in less than a week, and got a free stein of beer. Then we looked for the night club in the hotel, and came across the only club in the hotel - in Russia, a night club is a strip club, and if it says VIP it has a separate room for 'very important pleasure'. As cheap as Russia is, it was 20€ per person to get in, even with 10 people, so we gave it a miss. Then we realised that they had a closed circuit TV in the foyer, and continued gambling a little longer whilst watching the 'talent' strutting on the stage.

The following morning, we went on a tour of the Moscow metro system. Again, we got to see the might of Soviet propaganda. The metro stations were incredibly decorated to almost a palatial standard. The lighting was provided through chandeliers, and mosaics and statues of military power were displayed throughout the stations. Russia is at a time where they are trying to remove the communist feel, removing all signs of the hammer and sickle, and tonning down the red colors. So we saw stations that had undergone renovation and others that hadn't yet. Just as much fun had to be the actual piling on and off the packed trains, which ran with incredible efficiency, departing every 30 seconds during peak hour, and 90 seconds the rest of the day. Finally we ended at Red Square station and headed for the Lenin mausoleum.

We had to line up for the best part of an hour to get into the mausoleum. That was as much to do with the slow flow of people they let in as much as Russians pushing in line. This was not a place that making a scene seemed like a good idea, with such a strong Russian police presence.

Once inside the tomb, it was one of the most eerie experiences of my life. Everyone was instructed to be silent, move in single file, and don't stop moving. Not such a daunting task to you find yourself leading a group and coming face to face with a dea body. Yep... they have enbalmed this bloke, put him in a glass coffin, and have people wander past him most days of the week. I have seen mummies in Egypt, but this was creepy! He was there, probably looking very similar to the day he died, and just lying there, 80 years on, waiting for people to wander past looking at him... a totally out of this world experience.

After the Lenin tomb we headed up to the old KGB building, which really is less intimidating than one could imagine. For those interested, there wasn't an irish put next to it, but there was one just round the corner! A photo stop, and time to move on.

We went to an underground shopping centre for lunch. The building was pretty impressive, 4 stories underground, and plenty of floor space on each level. After lunch we wandered around for a bit before deciding to stop in for a beer at Alexander Garden.

Afterwards we headed for our tour of the Kremlin.

To think of the superpowers that had wandered inside the walls of the Kremlin leaves you somewhat in awe. What most people find surprising, as I did, is that the inside of the Kremlin is dominated by churches. Being the fortification that surrounded an old town, included within the fortification is a church. Whilst inside the Kremlin we also took a tour in the museum, showing off many of the incredible gifts received by the Russian government over the years, as well as an incredible collection of items left from the reign of the Romanov's.

We stayed in the city for a traditional dinner with beetroot soup, or brotsh, mash potatoes and pork. From there we wandered around the city looking for Propaganda Bar, but found it didn't convert from a restaurant to a night club till midnight, and decided to come back the following night. We caught the metro
home and had an early night.

The next morning (8th) we were up early to head to the "Big Boys Toys" or Russian Military Museum. It wasn't a let down, but wasn't as good as I'd hoped for. All of the information was displayed in Russian, with no translations, which isn't that surprising I guess. The problem was, the good stuff was all too big to be inside, and we only had 20 minutes to look around outside. Mig's, Sukhoi's,
Missiles, Helicopters, Tanks, Mobile ICBM's - and just 20 minutes. Guns and stuff inside, nearly 90 minutes... Well, just my feeling.

From there we headed to the Revolution Museum. It went through the history of Russia for the last 300 years or so, including the Romanov's, the Communists, and last 15 years since the end of Communism.

After lunch we walked to cathedral of Christ Our Savior, then down to the Statue of Peter The Great. That was a bit of a stuff up in directions as we were in a hurry and heading to Gorky Park (from the film), but ended up on a peninsula without any bridges to get off for about a kilometer. As such we could only see the statue from behind (as he looks out off the peninsula). By the time we realised our predicament we had to high-tail it back to St. Basil's to catch the bus to dinner.

After dinner we headed to a tradiitional Moscow circus - Not THE Moscow circus, but the same thing with chimps dressed up in tu-tu's and suits, lions jumping through hoops of fire.

There was pretty cool trapeze stuff, and non-animal related gear, but the animal stuff didn't quite sit right with me. Then add the drugged out of their minds animals sitting in the foyer that you could get photos with and it really was a downer. You can see why things like Cirque de Soleil came so far and The Great Moscow Circus has basically disappeared. But it is local culture, so had to do it, and the locals there were loving it.

A heap of dared to venture out and try our hand at the Moscow night-life after the circus. We got changed at the hotel and jumped on the metro to head back into town. A few people had mentioned Propaganda, and we knew where it was from the night before, but an executive decision was made to try another place first - Boar House! Clint, Simo, Scotty, Matt, Dave, Ben, and Mark Terrence (the tight arse), as well as Clare, Cara and baby Aimee.

Walking up to the front door we did a walk by as there were ten guys standing on the front steps looking really menacing. It was about then the 'only in Moscow once' and 'life's more fun when you say yes' attitudes kicked in and I said we're going in. Everybody followed, we payed the 100 ruples cover charge (about $5 AUD) and wandered in. Straight away weá realised this wasn't your usual club. All along the bar were 'provactively' dressed women who left no doubts to the fact they w re there to get paid, not just for a fun time. We all walked to a table, asked the girls if they were comfortable being there, and it was decided we'd have a drink and see. A handful of drinks later and we're all having a ball, out of the dancefloor.

Another thing caught my eye on the way in, and that was the blackjack tables at the back of the bar! I was nervous as hell about playing in such a dodgy establishment, but needed to have a Boar House chip as a souvenir. At 300 rubles a hand, I bought 350 worth of chips, (from a cashier separate from the tables) enough for one hand and a souvenir.

Well, all went very well, and I turned 300 into 2100 (despite what I say in the videos) in less than 10 hands, kept a 25 chip, and left a 25 as a tip. As I cashed in and headed back to the group, I was propositioned by an Asian girl. I politely told here that if I was going to pay for it while in Russia, I'd be paying for a Russian. She moved quickly onto the next person cashing in chips.

Stopping at the bar on the way to evertone else to show off my winnings (pretty dumb thing to do in a dodgy ass Russian bar) I bought a 2Lt beer which comes with it's own tap for 200 rubles, a bargain in my book! We all stuck around dancing and drinking, laughing off all of the ladies of the night that kept milling around us - the foreigners. Eventually after 1 beer turned into about 3
hours, we headed off on a mission to find Propaganda bar. The 15 minute walk, was in fact 45 minutes, and it was 315am before we were inside. This was a true nightclub, with some sort of house music playing (Jaime, you'd have loved it). We ended up on the dance floor eventually, when most of us were drunk enough to be denied entry in most places in Australia, so there was plenty of stumbling and falling, myself included. The highlight of this part of the night had to be the dare I received from Cara to jump on the stage and dance like the two 'sissy boys' up there. Upon completion of the dare, the return dare was for Cara to do a pole dance using one of the poles up on the platform. They were pole dancing poles, but they might as well have been as Cara gave it
drunken best. Some time after 5am we left and headed for the train station.

We caught the first train home at 6am, nobody bailing the whole night (even Clint), and crashed for a few hours before getting up for the drive to Yartsevo, our last night in Russia.

The following day (9th June) was a pretty quiet one, with many hang-overs and not enoughsleep the order of the day. Thankfully the only thing on the itinerary was a drive to Yartsevo, and town in the middle of nowherebut good to break up the trip from Moscow to Minsk. The motel was run by dodgy Mike who will sell anything from the back of his car, including bootleg porn, as well as organise the nights entertainment. He was also heard mentioning he could arrange 'legal prostitues' for €70... I don't
know if anyone asked what the 'illegal' ones went for.

We had dinner in the motels 'theatre' that looked uncannily like the 'Titty Twister Bar' from the Tarrintino movie 'From Dusk Till Dawn'. With dinner we had a caberet show, that was actually quite good, with five different traditional dances taking place through the show. The next bit is where dodgy Mike came into
his own, proving a stripper as part of the dinner, on stage at 9pm. But using the term stripper is offensive to all other strippers out there. She came on stage in lingerie, walked onto the floor, and proceded to take the top off. As Clint so eloquently put it, when she got close enough it was apparent that she had a 'face like a bucket of smashed crabs'. Upon taking her top off, she went
back on stage, spun on the pole once, and walked off stage. BRAVO. At least we only missed the first 90 seconds of the opening soccer game of the World Cup between Germany and Costa Rica. An early night after the monster Moscow night,
not before being offered a 'massage medical' by some woman on the way back to our room at 11pm... Dodgy Mike, you sure are dodgy!

Feeling much fresher after a good nights sleep, we drove to the town of Smolensk, a WWII town obliterated during the war, and visited the Smolensk church. At about this stage the ABC (another bloody church) syndrome had well and truly set in.

Next stop of the day on the way to Minsk was a much more moving one, that of Katyn Forest. The forest is the site of a mass grave of polish soldiers in Russia from WWII. They were fleeing the Nazi's, and the Russian's told they to join them. After they had committed they were forced to dig their own mass graves and were shot and the bodies piled in. For years the Russian's denied it, claiming it was the Nazi's, but since the end of communism it has all come to light.

Just up the road we had the border crossing with Belarus, which was a long drawn out process of a couple hours. Again, makes you glad someone else is in charge of the transport, and you don't have to plan it on your own.

Once in Belarus, on the way into Minsk we stopped at the Belarus WWII memorial on the site of the former Kahtyn Village - not related to the Katyn Forest. During a Nazi convoy through a Belarusian village, the Belarusian people ambushed and killed an SS soldier. The Nazi's went into Kahtyn Village, totally unrelated to the village that the ambush took place, and rounded up all 600 odd people in the village, women and children included, locked them in a barn and set them alight. They also destroyed the houses in the village. The only survivor was a father who had been hunting and came back to find his family all dead, and the village destroyed. They built the memorial there, and erected a chimney where each house in the village previously was. At the top of each
chimney is a bell, which rings once just under every 30 seconds, signifying how regularly a Belarusian was killed during the war. In total, 2,230,000 Belarus people died in WWII, about a quarter of the population, in a country that wasn't really involved in the war outside of the fact they were sandwhiched between the Germans and the Russians. During the war 611 villages were destroyed, 186 of which were never rebuilt.

Eventually we rocked up into Minsk, and simply put, there ain't a lot to see in this town. One of the main points of this town is that it is Stalin's model communist city. So everything is either bland or bland! Having said that, we did rock up on a Saturday evening and only got to do an hour long bus tour. The new city centre would have been nice to walk around. Instead we went to Teardrop Island, where many people were getting married.

Again we scored a hotel with a casino, and made use of it, with Clint actually making a bit of money on the roulette table. I was playing 5320 belarusian ruble ($2 US) a hand blackjack. It was confusing as all buggery, because I handed euro's over, was given chips in US currency, then cashed them in for Belarusian rubles! All the while trying to figure out what it was worth in Aussie dollars!

At one stage during the night I was playing on the table with just one other bloke who kept talking to me in Russian, whilst I continued to gamble, smile and nod. Eventually he wised up that I didn't know Russian, and started talking English. Turns out he was actually Israeli, decided I was his lucky charm or something, and started buying me Vodka shots. Only problem, he'd grab me by the
wrist and drag me to the bar, and this guy had the worst body odour I have smelled in ages. It made me just sitting at the table with him, so I was happy to take the rough Russian vodka to burn the lingering smell of his body odour outbof my nostrils. In the end, lost a bit of money but got my 4th souvenir chip!

We went to Maccas around 1am, to keep the McDonald's in every country challenge alive, and I bought a double cheeseburger for 4,000 rubles, which gives you an idea of what a ruble is worth.

After that, bed, and ready to head to Warsaw, Poland. I know it was a long entry, but I have plenty of catching up still to do. There are also new photo pages up... hope you all enjoy.