This month I was in Moscow for a trade show. As a stark contrast to the cherry and magnolia trees blossoming in BC, Canada, Moscow still had patches of snow on the ground, frozen rivers, leaf-less Birch tree forests and its grass was still a winter brown. Despite this, my brain was constantly exercised by trying to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet of the billboards and signposts into Roman letters. As we passed nuclear reactors with white smoke billowing from their stacks, the lowering sun glinted off the golden globes atop Orthodox Church towers. Yet, despite the nuclear reactors, the skies seemed much clearer and less polluted than the Chinese skies I had peered into last month. *
We were put up at the infamous 4,000-room Intourist Hotel, Cosmos (photos 1 - a view from my hotel room - 2 to 4 - the statue is France's General de Gaulle - and 6 - one wonders what kind of compliment one got from the chef: I like your hairstyle today? Ooh! Nice boots? I wish now I had bought a coffee just to find out!), which was a smoke-infested pit (to the non-smoker that I am), and only 3 receptionists on duty! First I was told there was no reservation for me, then when I informed them I was one of a delegation of 148 Chinese (I am Caucasian so of course this possibility had not crossed their mind - not that I blame them for this fact), they said yes there was a room and gave me the key. I dragged my bags up to the 20th floor but when I tried to access the room found that my electronic key wouldn't work. I dragged my suitcases back down and got the receptionist to activate it. I dragged them up again and this time was able to enter the room, but found to my consternation that there were already suitcases and wash kits in the room. So I dragged my suitcases down a second time and informed them of this fact. They said 'Yes, you are sharing with a person named Liu.” Well there is no-one named Liu among my colleagues. I tried to tell them that I was uncomfortable sharing with a stranger. They raised their collective eyebrows and said “Oh really? You are uncomfortable?”, as if this were an anomaly. So I told them I was prepared to pay for a single room if they had any left. They told me yes but that this would be very expensive. At this point I desperately tried to find my colleagues and even tried texting the person who had arranged it all still in China, but my G4 phone was not working in Russia and none of my colleagues was back at the hotel yet as apparently (I learned later) their bus had been caught in a 3-hour long traffic jam.
I was sent to the Intourist office and luckily the lady there had a bit more sense for she found my name and confirmed that yes indeed a single room had been booked for me. Then she was on the phone for an inordinate amount of time in Russian explaining the situation to the receptionist and finally handed me a piece of paper with a new room number written on it. I asked her if it were a non-smoking room. She promptly phoned back to the reception and gave me another number (across the hall from the former, but which had a better view).
I guessed later that I had asked a stupid question because the hotel had apparently not heard of such a thing as a non-smoking room and I, who am allergic to smoke as well as a non-smoker, immediately noticed the smell of smoke and the ash tray conveniently placed in my so-called non-smoking room
. Well, one saving grace, as it was an old hotel it had a window I could crank open and I left it open for the duration. I was high enough up on the 15th floor that the constant traffic noise and gasoline fumes could be well tolerated in exchange for some fresh air.
Well that hurdle leapt, I went down to buy some bottled water to brush my teeth in and had to pay the equivalent of CDN$7.00 at the bar to buy a 2-litre bottle! I next went to find out about the internet (which to my disgust was not free) when one of my colleagues turned up, so I was less tempted at that point to turn right around and grab a plane back to Canada the next morning - or, less drastically, to change hotels to one that had non-smoking rooms and free internet.
I remembered that the last time I was in Moscow for the same trade fair there had been free internet at the fairgrounds so I resolved to wait until the next day to check my e-mails.
I will gladly omit the details of the fair itself, but Moscow traffic being what it was, it took us two hours to get to the fairgrounds along the highway for what should have been a 40-minute ride I am told. One day we actually took a different route through the city centre and arrived in 45 minutes!
On the last day of the fair, when 4:00 p.m. was reached, our booth stripped and most of our samples given away, we had some spare time and so packed back into our bus with the Chinese contingent and were taken to the tourist shopping street of Moscow, Arbatskaya, and for the first time on the trip I enjoyed myself, photographing the wares on display, the people, the scenery, etc. (photos 7 to 29). We were told to be back at the bus by a certain time and knowing the Chinese to be prompt I was of course also prompt, but then ended up waiting 45 minutes for stragglers. In hindsight, had I known this was to be the case, I'd have grabbed my dinner at Macdonald's PECTOPAH or the Starbucks (CTAPBUKC) on that street. As it was, the bus went on to a Chinese restaurant (the Chinese contingent refused to eat at Russian or other types of restaurants in Moscow) and waited for them to finish as I am not really interested in Chinese food unless I am in China. I was told they usually took 1/2 an hour to eat as the food wasn't very good at these restaurants either (the breakfast buffet at the Cosmos was horrendous), but ended up waiting 1 1/2 hours as I was told by my own (tee-total) colleagues that some of the Chinese had begun drinking alcohol and that was the reason for the delay. So I settled finally for a pizza at the Cosmos with smokers all around me. Well, you know you are in trouble when all the restaurants, bars and cafes in the hotel include cigarettes and a “smoking kit” in their menus!
The day of our departure was a Saturday and the Tourist association our Chinese group was booked with, in order to obtain the tourist visas to come to Russia, was offering a tour to the Kremlin and Red Square. As our flights were not until 7 in the evening, I thought that finally this was something I might enjoy - rather than trying to travel about in the Moscow metro on my own and worry about luggage storage and getting to the airport on time - so I hopped happily on the bus with the others at 9am. Our first stop was the Kremlin. We had a Chinese guide (with not much English) and had to have a official guide to get into the Kremlin, so, sadly, we were matched with a little old Croatian man whose Chinese was non existent but whose English was poor too, so it seems the group abandoned him after the visit to the first church.
Photos were easy here (photos 30 to 42) - no limits except for inside the churches, unfortunately, as they were so splendidly painted - but for one young Chinese guy who stepped in front of every single monument just as I was about to shoot, in order to have his own photo taken by his friends - so very frustrating for someone who likes to take photos of monuments on their own without any people in front of them. So I had to practice my patience on top of not understanding anything that was said by the guide. I almost bought a guidebook to the Kremlin in English in the church, but as we had to leave our bags behind in the bus and I had brought no money with me, I lost the chance and the one colleague I was with was reluctant to part with his roubles despite my promising him that I would pay him back once we were back in the bus. And the book was a bargain too at only $5!
Outside the Kremlin (photos 43 to 45) there were some marvellous statues and of course Lenin's tomb where we saw the first of many bridal parties in this area. Being a Saturday, a sunny one at that, and one of the first weekends of Spring, there were many wedding shoots going on as the Red Square seems to be one of the places for bridal parties to be photographed in Moscow. We must have seen a dozen or so (and as you will notice, I included in the slide show a few that I photographed myself).
Then we entered Red Square (photos 46 to 60) just around the corner. This is the first time I had seen it in daylight. My photos of the Red Square at night time are found on my stock photo page for Russia
. We seemed to have been pushed back in time for wasn't that Tsar Nicholas II over there, talking to Lenin and that man there a Cossack soldier, perhaps? A visit to the Gum Department Store was also on the cards (photos 61 to 67) and finally St. Basil's Cathedral on its sunny side (photos 68 and 69). Personally, I could have happily stayed longer here just soaking in the environment and clicking away, but we were suddenly rushed into a tunnel under the road (photo 70) in order to return to our bus and drive to another Chinese restaurant for lunch. (I passed on this opportunity again as I had brought some cold pizza from last night's hotel dinner with me). Then I waited another hour or so in the bus with my book and my music when we drove to a shopping centre so that my travel companions could purchase a few more gifts or souvenirs before heading to the airport. One of our Chinese contingent bought a huge doll which she later noticed had a sticker on it saying “Made in China.” Everyone had a big laugh about that.
The last photo in my slideshow below is of a ubiquitous billboard advertising a concert on my birthday - I recognised the face before I finished transcribing in my head the Cyrillic letters into Roman ones and was happy to find out I had guessed correctly who it was.
* As pointed out later by my brother, an energy expert, “the “white smoke” [ I ] saw from the nuclear reactors is not smoke - it is water vapour - there is no combustion in nuclear energy. In China, on the other hand, the vast majority of power production is from coal, with lower standards of stack opacity (i.e. smoke particles emitted) than North America and Europe.”