Arrival in Moscow

Strolling the Garden Ring and taking in the sights.

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

A fruit and vegetable stand along the Garden Ring.
Upon arriving in Moscow the first thing that impressed me about the city was the sheer size of it, and many of the buildings and structures. The major streets are as wide as many American interstates, and lined with the huge, aging apartment buildings where the vast majority of Muscovites live.

The weather for the first few days in Moscow was anything but ideal. We had a lot of rain, so the camera stayed in the apartment. We did, however, sneak underneath the clouds and made it to the Pushkin Museum, which was truly fabulous, a definate must-see for any visitor to Moscow. The Pushkin was established in 1912 and contains masterworks from all over the world.

The first day we had good enough weather to spend a day outdoors we headed to the Garden Ring, one of the large ring roads that circle the city, for a stroll that would eventually take us to Poklonnaya Gora, the monument to the Russian victory in World War II.

While the Garden Ring is certainly a busy road, and there are a lot of cars, it sounds odd to hear residents complain about the amount of traffic. Perhaps compared to a few years ago, when many fewer people in Moscow owned cars, this is heavy traffic, but it didn't look to me as if Moscow suffers the kind of severe traffic problems we have in many cities in the states.

One feature of Moscow traffic that was interesting was the fact that even though there may be only three or four painted lines on the roadway, there are typically six or seven lanes of actual traffic. And even then some of the drivers use the trolley car tracks as an additional lane, that is, until a trolley car starts heading toward them. When this happens, the poor guy to the driver's immediate right better get out of the way, because given a choice between a head on collision with a trolley car, and a brush with another car, most Moscow drivers wisely choose to push the other car out of the way.

I still haven't decided who are the craziest drivers, New York City cab drivers, or everyone in Moscow.

Trolley cars are popular transportation in Moscow.
There are many different forms of transportation to choose from in Moscow. Of course, there is the world famous Metro subway system, with its impressive architecture and trains that run about every thirty or sixty seconds. There are both professional taxi cabs, and independant car owners earning extra money as taxis. Also, in the picture to the right, you can see the trolley cars that creep along the city streets, their antennas getting power from the web of electric cables that run overhead.

All of these options make Moscow an easy city to get around, provided you know what you're doing and where it is you want to go. I knew neither of these things, but fortunately always had an expert Muscovite along to lead me. This was a real necessity for me, since I speak absolutely no Russian, except for the words 'nyet' and 'vokda'. Incidentally, I never used these two words together. Oh, yeah, one more phrase I was to hear a lot when I was being acknowledged by various people around Moscow, 'teppoi Amerikanski'. Well, if the shoe fits...

My first few days in Moscow I also realized that this was a city designed without the anticipation that so many of its residents would become car owners, as is the case today. Therefore, parking spaces and parking lots are something of a rarity, so improvisation is the name of the game. It's not at all unusual to see cars parked all over the place, often in small roadways with a couple of wheels from either side of the car up over the curb, in an attempt to keep the vehicle out of the passing traffic. This technique is, for the most part, effective, although it makes for some pretty fancy maneuvering on the part of the passing drivers.

All these conditions and potential hazards have grown a breed of drivers in Moscow unlike their counterparts in the states. Whereas, here in the states we drive along clearly defined and strictly enforced lanes, only switching after a proper signal and careful examination of the conditions around us, in Moscow the scene more resembles an off-road rally, with cars careening across lanes of traffic and dodging out of the way of one another in such a way as to give an American driver heart trouble.

It is likely in a few years time we may see the Russian drivers emerging as a powerful force in the Formula One World Championship car races, born, bred and trained on the streets of Moscow.

A planetarium along the Garden Ring.
The architecture along the Garden Ring is very interesting. We came across the building in the picture to the left, and I believe it is a planetarium. Anyone who knows more about it, please correct me if I am wrong. One of the things that make Moscow so interesting to Americans are the landscapes created by old and new architecture mixing together that illustrate so well the changes taking place. After all, this is a city that will celebrate its 850th birthday in September; to an American this is simply astounding. Our whole country goes back only a little more than 200 years, as everyone knows. Europeans always get a laugh when Americans talk about our buildings from the 1920's and 1940's as if they are really old. Well, to us they are!

I met many visitors to Moscow who had been here before in the past, typically five or ten years ago, who talk about the amazing changes they see on their more recent visits. Since this was my first trip, nothing appeared out of the ordinary to me, so pubs and shops selling the latest western fashions or electronics seemed perfectly natural. Even if the prices didn't!

The cost of things in Moscow is another thing that was rather surprising. Some things are actually cheaper than in a city like Atlanta. A coke at a kiosk, or a bottle of spirits, maybe a hamburger and fries along the New Arbat, are often cheaper than back home. But go into a clothing store and check out the prices on a suit, or a pair of jeans. If you really want to see some outrageous prices, try and buy a lady's dress! Not that I was going to buy a lady's dress, mind you, but just for comparison purposes. Many of these things were three or four times, maybe even more, what they would cost back home.

Buildings are BIG around here!
Unfortunately, too many Americans still have the mistaken impression that Russians stand in line for everything. Of course, the oldest, and I guess most reluctant to die, of these is the story of the line line for bathroom tissue. Well, let me state here, that almost anything you can get in the states is here in Moscow, if you can afford it. And the lines are no worse then the lines at Winn Dixie, Kroger, or Publix. Sometimes they're even shorter.

Even easier to obtain here in Moscow is fresh fruits and vegatables. Outside, and sometimes inside, every metro station you can find fresh produce at very reasonable prices. My friend Nino became overpowered by strange cravings for fresh strawberries everytime we came out of a metro station, and they were almost always readily available.

About the only thing I really wanted to buy, but couldn't find, was ready made taco shells and sauce. I wanted to make my famous turkey tacos for Nino and her family, my best dish, but our quest yielded not. So no tacos were prepared. I suppose if I knew how to make them from scratch, well, then we would have had tacos. But like many Americans, I only know how to 'assemble' most meals.

As long as we're on the subject of food, I guess I can go ahead and talk about restaurants. If you're going to do any fine dining in Moscow, I'd suggest a visa card with lots of room to spare. One Mexican restaurant where we ate, very good food by the way, cost about four times what it would have in the states.

Less expensive dining is available, of course. The famous Moscow McDonalds cost about the same as in the states, by my calculations. Some of the best pizza I've ever had was at Patio Pizza, near Red Square. This place was good enough to draw me back again, before I left for home. I highly recommend Patio Pizza to any pizza fan from anywhere in the world! I was also taken to some favorite local spots by Muscovites who knew how to stay out of the tourist traps; in these places you can find good food at reasonable prices. So much for restaurants; I dont' really want to turn this into a review of Moscow's restaurants. Just be sure to take enough cash along, and still check the menu over well before you sit down.

One of many huge apartment blocks of Moscow.
To the left you'll see another of Moscow's imposing buildings. These large structures struck me perhaps more than any other feature of the landscape in Moscow. I'm not sure exactly why, since I have certainly seen many large buildings in my time, I mean, I wasn't exactly raised in the country. In fact, in Atlanta I work in a forty five story building downtown, amid many buildings that exceed even that. The buildings in Moscow typically don't go above fifteen stories or so, but their width is amazing.

Perhaps it is also the number of them that is so overwhelming for the first time visitor. In the outer laying areas, the vast stretches of apartment buildings makes a person feel very small in comparison, and you can find yourself feeling like you're in a maze as you travel through them to your destination.

For myself, I guess I felt a hint of the old Soviet Union's aspirations to be some sort of great society about me. But their features and signs of age seem to reveal a certain vulnerability to their structure, even to their very purpose. Some of the buildings' various states of disrepair seem almost an admission of the system's failure. As if the building itself were admitting something was wrong with the past. I felt as if I was staring back into history as I gazed at them. I could feel the hopes of an earlier time, when the people of the USSR were told that their leaders held the key to their futures. If only they believed in the system, and did as they were told, they would be the envy of the world.

While trying to grasp all this, my eyes would wander off their subject and find a small shop, perhaps with a Coca Cola logo in the window, and I would wonder if this, then, was Russia's real future. What would the former leaders of the USSR think if they could see this? What would they think of all the signs in english everywhere? The transition taking place is clearly evident all over the city, and it is easy understand why some people, especially older people, may be wondering where it will all finally lead. I was only a visitor and I began to wonder this, myself.

A veiw of the Moscow River.
These were some of the impressions and thoughts I had as we walked along the Garden Ring and came upon the Moscow River. Near the end of my trip we'll take a boat ride down the river, but for now, you'll have to settle for just the photo on the right. We walked across the bridge you can see in the left hand side of the photo, and continued making our way.

By the way, just as a sidenote, if you came to this story via the earlier stories about my stopover in New York City, I am happy to report that my new sneakers were a big improvement over the old ones. My feet were still a little sore from New York, but were well on their way to a full recovery. Only one thing kept nagging at me, as we made our way down the Garden Ring: who was wearing my old sneakers back in New York?

But New York now seemed like another planet compared to Moscow. Comparisons between the two cities would creep into my mind for the first few days after my arrival. New York is like a city built rising up into the air, while Moscow is a city built expanding outwards into its surrounding countryside. In New York, the view of the sky is often blocked by the huge skyscrapers that tower over you. In Moscow, the sky is often a backdrop to a vast landscape. The word that first comes to my mind, even now, when I think about the feel of Moscow is wide. It is a city with lots of room.

Moscow is also a city with lots of real estate. When one thinks about the potential of the future, real estate certainly seems like it will play a big part. Many of the older buildings seem to be begging to be purchased for remodeling. And remodeled for what? Let your imagination run wild; what would you like to put in them? This looked to me, on my first day of strolling about, like a city with a potential for a great deal of new enterprises, and indeed, it already is. New shops are everywhere, in many of the bottom floors of older buildings.

The Russian White House.
Passing the Russian White House, my memory went back to the images of the now legendary coup attempt of 1991, and Boris Yeltsin standing atop the tanks. I started to wonder how things might be different now if the coup had succeeded in toppling the government. Would I even be here now? Perhaps not. History has a strange way of making us feel very vulnerable, even in the present.

I said to Nino, "Man, I'd have to be really drunk to climb up on a tank trying to shoot me out my office." And she responded, "He probably was." Well then, it's a good thing.

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard of events taking place at that fateful time. I was in my car, backing out of my driveway heading to work when National Public Radio began describing the ring of tanks around the building. They assumed Yeltsin was inside and, if I am correct in remembering, they had no idea where Gorbachev was.

I remember thinking then that this could be the end of the new beginning, before it even got a chance to start. I wondered who these people were that didn't like the new direction Russia was taking. I thought of how things might be going back to the cold war again, an extremely depressing thought at the time, and frankly, it still is now.

But of course, we all know how the story turned out, so why dwell on it here? I guess what I want to convey is how strong an emotion it was to be there where it all happened. Because at the time, back in the states, even though the events that I listened to intently on the radio I knew would have an impact on my life, the country and the people of Russia still seemed so far away, and distant, both physically and psychologically. But now, strolling down the Garden Ring, I realized that we truly are neighbors, and with just a little time and a plane ticket, it is possible for a friendly, neighborly visit. And that's very cool, indeed!

Another view along the Garden Ring.
Considering how traveling to other countries and experiencing another's culture draws people of the world together, I think it would be a great investment for governments of the world to sponsor Travel Lotteries. Every week you can buy a lottery ticket to win a trip, all expenses paid including silly t-shirts, to some country. This week Russia, next week India, maybe even Cleveland!

They could send thousands of people each year. Part of the deal could be that, upon return, you are required to make presentations to different public groups, literary clubs, youth groups, perhaps your local Moose Lodge, telling all about your trip. Now that's a lottery ticket I'd buy every week.

Well, as you can see, my trip and stroll along the Garden Ring was already beginning to inspire me and create a wellspring of great ideas.

As you can see from the following two pictures, the weather began to look nasty. We considered hiding out in one of the many pubs along the Garden Ring, should the weather live up to its threats. Still, we bravely pushed on towards Poklonnaya Gora, even though I voted for the pub.

I was, at this point, beginning to wonder if it didn't rain every day in Moscow. Maybe I should have brought galoshes.

But the rain didn't start and we walked on. And to divulge a little bit of information pertaining to the rest of the trip, I was in store for some very nice weather in the days to come. In fact, it was to turn out that almost my entire stay in Russia would be in the sunshine, with very little rain to dampen my daily travels. Another surprise I was to experience was the very long hours of sunshine in the summer.

For the first couple of days, I was dismayed to realize I was suffering a rather servere case of jet lag, and was sleeping very late in the day, sometimes until three in the afternoon. (Maybe I'm just lazy.) But I was fortunate to discover that the sun would stay up until sometime after ten at night, or even later, so there was always plenty of sunshine for lighting the way around town. I was in for even a bigger surprise when I got to St. Petersburg, but that's later.

Restoration in progess abounds around Moscow.
The picture to the left is a typical scene in Moscow today. Many structures around the city, especially churches, are being rebuilt and restored. There are also new apartment buildings, promising 'western standards', being erected in many parts of the city. Near the Old Arbat we passed a building where the apartments, I was told, will sell for three hundred thousand dollars each. Try that on an average Moscow salary!

The revitalization of the city is an encouraging sign to visitors such as myself. Still, there is much work to be done, such as the roads. Riding in a car is quite an experience, as it bounces over bumps and swerves around the many holes in the pavement.

I think Moscow, and all of Russia for that matter, will be successful in making the transition to a healthy market economy. There are still problems to be solved, and difficulties to overcome. Much of the wealth of the country is still in too few hands. This may sound a little bit like socialism to some, but it is also the sign of an unhealthy democracy, as well. For the economy to serve the people well, there must be opportunity, which seems in relatively short supply in Russia today.

The desire, however, is not in short supply. The people are ingenious and ambitious as they explore business ventures and find their own ways in the fledgling economy. There were even guys on the street offering me great new opportunities in business in Moscow. They'd stroll up pleasantly along side of me and begin to sell me their pitch, in Russian. "Sorry, I don't speak Russian," I'd say. "Ah," they'd respond with delight, "I want to talk to you for just one moment; let me show you something right over here."

"Sorry," I'd respond again, "I don't speak english either." And I'd walk on my way, leaving them scratching their heads.

By now I was beginning to get a real taste of Russia. I was learning my way around and already I, an American visitor, was dreaming about what Russia's future held. But now, as we proceeded on to Poklonnaya Gora, it was time to take a visit to Russia's past, and pay respects to her heros.

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