Transsiberian, Day 8: Tinder-ing in Moscow

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

I set my alarm for 6:20am and woke up the rest of the group on the train. It’s been the pattern of the trip so far: I set the alarm, I wake up the group.

An attendant drops off our breakfast boxes in our room and brings Amanda, Ihita and June their coffees, which surprisingly look quite appetizing and straight out of a café espresso machine. We open up our breakfasts and find a plastic tray with some delicious golden crêpes and blueberry sauce, which taste even better than they look.

The train arrives around 8am, and we go straight to the taxi area to call some Ubers. Despite the time, it’s pitch black outside, throwing off our circadian rhythms, as it feels like the middle of the night. Apparently sunrise here is around 9:30am.

We go to Godzilla hostel, and we can’t yet check in, but we can overtake all fifteen outlets and use WiFi, so we do that. Ihita, June and Amanda download Tinder during this time and we discover that yes, our predictions of women meeting men on Tinder were correct. One match, Vladimir, messages Amanda telling her his bed was warm, which we used as a recurring joke throughout the trip as a great pick up line. Amanda, in a conversation with a different match, says she is tired from the long train ride and lack of sleep. The match asks if she needs a massage. A third match is friendly, and Amanda converses with him for a while until she tries to coordinate for him to join our group for dinner or drinks, to which he says “I am afraid of ‘we.’ I just want to meet you, not them.” Needless to say, we don’t meet any of the male matches at all during the trip.

We lock up our stuff and head off to the Red Square, which is beside the Kremlin and the center for all the main attractions. We first get in a massively long outdoor line for Lenin’s mausoleum, which moves efficiently, much to our delight, as the cold is biting. This is definitely an attraction I will never forget…seeing the preserved dead body of the former Russian leader. It’s free, and they thoroughly check you before entering to preserve the security. You go through outdoor metal detectors and frisks and bag searches, but I guess no more than we had to do on NYE in St. Petersburg.

You then are on the property, lined by the gravestones of revolutionaries, and you follow the metal fences into the building. It’s super creepy and ominous as you walk past the stone-faced three armed guards at the entrance, down the dark stairs and turn down a hallway lined with more guards, and down another staircase of more armed guards, all solemnly and silently watching you. You walk in a steady pace, as though you were on an invisible moving walkway through the halls. Don’t smile or laugh or stop, or you may be penalized. You finally enter a room that is only slightly more lit than the black marble hallways you just walked past, illuminating a glass case in the center, with clear view of Lenin laying calmly on a minimal cushion. One hand rests open, one rests in a gentle fist. His eyes are closed. The path leads you around the glass case completely, and it’s morbidly fascinating and somewhat reminiscent of seeing a body at an open-casket funeral. His face and hands have a slightly foggy or waxy look, most likely from the chemical and paraffin bath it receives every 18 months. It receives a cleansing by hand every few days.

Once you’re out of the building, which takes less than a few minutes, you walk past more gravestones until you exit to the square. Next we went to the onion-domed St. Basil’s cathedral. It wasn’t nearly as gorgeous as the Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, but the nearby Christmas market was appropriately playing the Tetris theme song as we waited in line for tickets, which made the experience worth it. Inside was a maze of rooms with hand painted walls in an earth-toned rainbow of colors.

Our group of nine then split up, and Amanda, Ihita and I went to the Christmas market in the center of the Red Square to enjoy the festivities. Inside were spinning teacup rides, a spinning hot air balloon carnival ride and dozens of food and gift vendors. We went straight to the Nescafe booth to get some hot cocoa, and Ihita and Amanda got more than they expected, with a beautiful presentation of a ruffly mound of whipped cream topped with silver send gold sprinkles for Ihita and rainbow sprinkles for Amanda. Other foods for sale were hot donuts, cracknel (pretzels coated with frosting and sprinkles), savory crepes filled with salmon and cheese, and mulled wine.

We went into the neighboring department store Gum, which is more like a mall of high end shops. All the designer brands are there, along with an extensive gourmet food shop. The outside of the building is covered in golden lights, and the interior is a palace of mahogany wood railings, wrought iron details, marble floors, and brightly colored Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling and walls. It reminded me of a much nicer State Street Macy’s at Christmas time, but with multiple shops instead of one store. The whole group met up again to go to a food court in a neighboring, less impressive mall. The food court was as busy as any American mall on Black Friday, despite it being a Tuesday afternoon. We ate at a Russian fast food chain called Terremok, per a recommendation by Calvin’s friend. It was sandwiched between a KFC and Burger King. I ordered pelmini and roasted potatoes. Some of the others in the group got borscht.

We then walked around the Kremlin without getting tickets to go in. Calvin went there a day before he arrived in St. Petersburg and felt it wasn’t worth our time, and the line is massively long so we skip it. We instead get photos around the wall and near the monument to the unknown soldier.

We walk to a nearby monument and the group moves on without me, but I see the church (our next destination) in the distance, across the street, but find no way to cross it. I linger at the monument for a bit, thinking maybe the group will see me and return, but instead I decide I’ll attempt to cross the street. I go east, there’s no crosswalk. None west. I need to go north. It’s a massive intersection with six lanes across, and I’m baffled as to how one crosses this monstrosity. I ask a local who doesn’t speak English and he tells me there’s an underground way. I begin walking towards something, until Calvin catches up to me telling me I’m going the wrong way. Plus the cathedral I was attempting to go to wasn’t the one they were heading to, so it was good he found me.

We meet up with the rest of the group at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and get tickets to view both the inside and the lookout on top. The views are amazing, and since I’m not as in love with Moscow as I was with St. Petersburg, it doesn’t ruin the magic for me. It can only go up from here! On our ascent to the top, we climbed hundreds of stairs, and when I neared the top there was a security guard stationed there, presumably to laugh at all the out of shape tourists who are huffing and puffing upon their arrival. I see him and he sees me doing just that, and I say in Russian, "water?" and we both laugh. He should have a marathon-style water station up here.

We all take pictures from the four sides of the lookout, my favorite being the side overlooking the river and the Kremlin. Upon our descent, the guard and I make eye contact, and we both laugh at our shared inside joke. The Russians love me!

By this time our group is a bit smaller, as we’ve been running around all day and some wanted to get rest. It’s getting dark, and a smaller group of us crosses the river to Red October, a hip district filled with restaurants, bars and nightclubs located in former factories and warehouses. We go there and it’s very dead. It’s both too early for nightlife and too late in the year for a pedestrian crowd, so it makes sense. I would love to return in summer, when I’m sure it’d be very lively.

Our final stop is walking through Gorky park to Muzen sculpture park, where there are about a hundred sculptures of people, both general men and women as well as a dozen of Lenin: his head, his body, Lenin at a young age, Lenin at an older age.

We return to the hostel as our bodies by now are nearly completely numb. We change and rest a bit before heading out for a late 9:30pm dinner near Arbat St. I found yet another recommendation on Spotted by Locals, but we chose a different location of the recommendation’s chain, as this one is on a better street for nightlife, according to the guy at the hostel. It’s called Varenichnaya No1 and it is old fashioned soviet comfort food, much like the place I tried in Saint Petersburg. Their specialty is pelmini so we order a bunch in various flavors, and I order a pot roast dish with a bread on top, almost like a pot pie. The meat and potatoes are delicious, but the sauce is unfortunately not as savory as I’d prefer.

We get kicked out around midnight when they close, thankfully just in time to have some dessert. Since the hostel guy told us Arbat street was great for nightlife, we begin walking along it, and only find s two-lane highway with a sort of strip mall on one side. It’s pretty disappointing. We are cold and impatient so we settle on the first open bar we find, which of course happens to be a hookah bar.

We then get the most obnoxious service ever, clearly sparked by us having a larger group. Upon entering, I ask the hostess if she speaks English. She is very friendly and tells me to wait a moment and a male waiter approaches. I tell him table for nine and he huffs and frustratingly walks away while another waiter comes up and I tell him the same thing and he angrily tells me there are no tables. Mind you, the entire restaurant is about thirty percent full, and there are plenty tables of five or six that are open. I point to two tables in the back and say we’ll split five and four, and he exhaustedly says “No, you’ll block the walkway.” I insist that no, we won’t, we will sit in the tables as is, split up. He rolls his eyes and lets us in, but then someone in the group suggests a different area to sit and begins settling down there, which pisses off the waiter even more.

We settle in, and begin to order. I order some mulled honey and he huffs and tells me I also have to order tea to accompany it. I tell him I understand, and that I wasn’t finished ordering. Then Amanda orders a hot chocolate with Baileys, as there appears to be a picture of it in the menu. He rolls his eyes and says no, the Baileys is for the coffee. They don’t have what she’s ordering. “Ok, then I’ll have a shot of Baileys. I will also order a hot chocolate.” “It’s not hot chocolate, it’s hot cocoa.” “WHATEVER!” He finally obliged, but only before saying, “Is that it?” I tell him no, if he hasn’t noticed, we have nine people and there are more than two of us ordering. Calvin gives his usual spiel of “I travel all around the world looking for the best hookah, and I want the best hookah you can give me.” The (different) young waiter who brings the hookah barely speaks English but he’s super friendly and it’s served in a pineapple bowl so Calvin approves of the presentation.

Someone uses the bathroom and comes back to tell us that there is not one, but two toilets in the restroom, oddly. They face each other and both function the same. It’s super weird. Calvin jokes that you could play “battleshits” just as our snippy waiter is passing the table, and we see the waiter crack a smile.

We eventually head back to the hostel, and I work on writing my blog in the common room as the hostel staff guy comes in with the main hostel phone and passes out on the couch next to me. Good night!