Asia 2005 : Moscow

I had been hoping it would snow in Moscow. Chocolate-box images of St Basil's covered with a light dusting of white. "It is the warmest October on record" said Tatya, my guide, as we crawled through the clogged city streets. "But tomorrow the wind will change and then perhaps we shall have snow."

The prediction of snow proved well-founded: I woke up to veritable blizzard conditions outside. Donning four layers of clothing, I ventured out into the October morning.

It was only 10 minutes walk to the metro station, but observing the Muscovites around me, it was evident that I needed to buy a hat to both blend in and stay warm.

Moscow is surely the hat capital of Europe. Never had I seen such a variety of head warmers: woolly numbers, berets, flat leather caps, big furry concoctions and fluffy ear mufflers. At the market by Bagrationovskaya metro station, I scoured the stalls: unfortunately the hats on sale seemed to fall into two categories: cheap woolly teacosies, and eye-poppingly expensive fur epics.

I opted for a cheapo fake New York Yankees teacosy and took the metro to Aleksandrovsky Sad for Red Square.

In Red Square I was delighted to see that international art exhibition "Cow Parade" was in progress. It seems wherever I or my parents travel we meet these highly decorated ceramic cows. We then find it highly amusing to clog up my sister's inbox with large attachments of cows. Little things...

There are certain "facts" about places in the world which I have known for many years and become highly associated with the place in question in my mind. Hence South Africa has an astonishingly high crime rate, Cuba is full of old-fashioned cars, everyone wears a sombrero in Mexico and a pointy hat in Cambodia, you can't chew gum in Singapore, there are snipers on the streets of Sarajevo, and the Moscow metro is really cheap. Like 2 kopeks a trip or something.

Sad to report these facts are rarely very accurate and the metro is no longer really cheap, at a shocking 13 roubles a trip. It is however, one of the best metros I've ever travelled on: the stations are like cathedrals and no sooner has one full train departed when the next one pulls up right behind it. If it's cold, you can also just ride the circle line endlessly and write your diary while you thaw. Not that I'd do anything so silly. Of course.

In fact by using the metros and subterranean tunnels it isn't necessary to come up to the surface much at all. I therefore popped up right next to the Kremlin.

The Kremlin has been the centre of Russian political power for centuries. Two of the major cathedrals were shut for "technical reasons" - the recorded announcement said it in exactly that way, with the inverted commas. In the third major cathedral, the Cathedral of the Assumption, gold glittered amongst the images of the saints and the paraphernalia of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Wednesday morning edition of the Moscow Times promised "some snow, unlikely to stick to ground".

Wrong - by the time I had waddled out of the hotel (I had been taking advantage of the free buffet breakfast) a good half-inch was covering the ground and the snow was continuing to fall.

I decided I'd go to Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery on the basis that "the tombstones will look cool covered with snow".

Novodevichy is the final resting place of many of Russia's most famous political and artistic personalities: Chekhov, Gogol, Shostokovish... Though with no guidebook and just the Cyrillic I could recall from "Teach Yourself Russian in 3 Months", I ended up wandering around the tombstones slowly reading V-L-A-D-.... -IMIR!

One impressive black and white memorial caught my eye: scraping away the freshly-fallen snow this turned out to be Khrushchev. The cemetery was deserted; save for a couple of Americans who pointed me off towards a statue which they claimed was Gorbachev's grave. This was slightly confusing. Later research confirmed Mikhail was indeed alive and well.

Enough graves? OK.

When I arrive in a new capital city I find there are an increasing number of "traditional" things I have to do, mainly due to my penchant for taking on over-ambitious quests.

So I MUST go and buy a McFlurry (the Quest for the World's Cheapest McFlurry) and I MUST go and see the Olympic Stadium (the Quest to Run Round Every Olympic Stadium). Only a couple of hitches here in Moscow. Firstly, I could not find a McFlurry but only a МакФлурри, clearly inferior. Secondly there are two Olympic stadia.

The first, the "Olympic Stadium", a vast concrete monstrosity in the northern suburbs, wasn't actually used much during the 1980 Olympics. That task fell to the Stalin Stadium, aka the Central Lenin Stadium, now the Luzhniki Stadium, a vast concrete monstrosity in the southern suburbs. This would surely win a place in "Now That's What I Call Soviet Architecture".

As in Berlin and Barcelona, the stadium is now used for football, being the home of Torpedo Luzhniki and Spartak Moscow. Getting inside proved impossible as there were large padlocks on all the gates. There were just brief glimpses of the 80,000 seats inside.

Thursday afternoon I had arranged to go on a guided walking tour. This was a private tour (only me!) so thankfully no annoying woman with a flag. My guide did look scarily like my aunt however, which is even more terrifying if you know my aunt. The history of most of the buildings we visited went a bit like this.

This was a shop/church → Then the revolution occured → It was turned into a warehouse/abbatoir

Onwards from Moscow

I do not have a good record of catching trains to St Petersburg. On the last attempt in 2003 I succeeded in getting us locked in a cupboard with a mad Estonian janitor in Tallinn train station. I don't think James has ever forgiven me.

Bearing this is mind, I decide to allow myself four hours to cross the city, get to Leningradsky station and catch my train. Predictably this meant I sat waiting at Leningradsky station for around 3 hours.

The railway line from Moscow to St Petersburg is almost exactly a straight line, except for a bump known as the Verebinsky bypass. The story goes that Tsar Nicholas I was unhappy with the winding route proposed by his engineers, and simply took a ruler and drew a straight line between the two cities. However one of his fingers got in the way, and an unplanned bump was introduced. Nobody was brave enough to confront the Tsar about it so the extra curve was incorporated into the design.

In reality the bump was intentional, to circumvent a steep gradient. Today's engines are more powerful so the bump has been shaved off.

Next: St Petersburg >>