Monday, 10 May 2010

Moscow Map Making

When I first arrive in a place, all I have of my internal map of the area is what I can see, hear, smell and feel, there and then. Whatever is beyond the limit of my personal spatial experience, is unknown and does not yet exist for me as a place. The great block of Unknown builds up behind the wall of my horizon, and can only come to be known by injecting my presence to slice it apart.

The scale of Moscow's stubborn grandeur is difficult to come to terms with - as is the general unhelpfulness of the place: even the writing did not initially not fit into my experience bracket. The weather was also somewhat unhelpful: as we got off the train in the early morning, it was a nice hot sunny day, and this heat continued to increase as the day went on.

On the morning of the 8th of May, my horizon consisted of a row of large rectangular buildings surrounding the square outside Belorusskaya station where I had arrived. Not knowing quite where to turn first, having left the directions for my hostel on the internet, I headed for the Metro system, as I had read that this is the best way to navigate the city. The Moscow Metro is a half-buried warren-shaped palace. It it a surreal maze of opulent décor. Unexpected passages lead off in every direction, and each station is potentially three in one, as stations that span more than one line have a different name for each part. милиция wander its passages in strict formation, presumably keeping their eye on things, although their youthful faces belie their human interior.

The милиция presence was especially huge in the city centre, most of which had closed down due to the Victory day parades. All the Internet cafés I had been recommended were within a huge underground shopping centre, which was completely off limits, so I had no access to the hostel directions. The милиция were no help at all, answering most of my questions with a gruff "нет". The most helpful people I met that morning were the doormen of a grand looking hotel, who told me that although the central area was closed, any open coffee shop in a nearby street would probably have an internet connection I could use. This turned out to be far from the truth, and I was without internet after all.

I knew that my hostel was in between two Metro stations, so I travelled to one of them and started walking in the direction of the other. As I went, the map I had seen on the hostel's website gradually came back to me - albeit warped by my memory - and I worked my way to the location of the hostel. Seeing no sign of any hostel in any of the streets I passed through, I concluded that I must be mistaken, and went off to find somewhere to log on.

Refreshed (by a cool fruity drink) and connected (by an intermittent and unofficial internet connection), I found the hostel's access map and discovered that I had already walked past the hostel, perhaps even twice! So I retraced my steps, and found yet again that there was no sign of a hostel there. A large long building with a roughly plastered painted brick exterior was undoubtedly the location, but there were no signs - just a couple of blank doors. I settled for the door on the left, and went through into an apartment building. I started climbing some stairs which looked rather private, thought better of it, and consulted the map and directions, now saved on my computer. The directions said something about pressing the right number to buzz to be let in. While I was sitting on the steps, my large rucksack on the step behind me, my laptop on my knee, an old lady came downstairs. She peppered me with harsh-sounding Russian words, but no mention of a Youth Hostel had any pacifying effect on her.

I apologized, escaped fury and went outside to try the other door of the building. Inside was a numeric keypad as described in the directions, so I pressed the correct number and was let in. Still no signs or anything to suggesting a hostel. I went up three flights of stairs to where a woman was looking confused at a door. She also could not find the hostel, even having got this close. Emboldened by company, we tried the last door, a big heavy metal affair. It opened onto a polished stone staircase with steel bannisters, leading up to a bright modern interior with a big friendly sign saying "Welcome to SHELTER Hostel!"

That evening, I met a youngish chap who introduced himself as George, and said he was originally from Armenia, lives in Russia, but has latterly, "for whatever reasons", been mostly speaking English. He seemed to live at the hostel, and was involved in various English teaching activities. George has a natural inquisitiveness for language, and is constantly hungry for the lowdown on colloquial expressions. He invited me to his English converstation class the following evening.

On Sunday, I indulged in the main reason I had decided to spend more than a day in Moscow: Сандуновские баня. This turned out to be the most opulent (and perhaps the most expensive) bathhouse in the world Despite its grandeur, the place fell somewhat short of my expectations as a bathhouse: there was no hot bath, the only large masses of water were cold. After a sauna and scrub and some delicious fried aubergine eaten in the nude in the leather-clad changing room, I returned to the hostel, where George was waiting for me.

George and I on the subway escalators

He took me via the Metro and through the still closed Moscow streets to a coffee shop. None of his students were there - he suggested the continuing national holiday may have put people off coming. We waited anyway, and two people eventually turned up - they had been out clubbing late the night before, although this was about 6:30 in the evening - so I guess it was a pretty late start. It was all very informal, and we talked of the world, travel, and hopes and dreams. I learnt that lots of Russians and Belarussians (so it seems) want to leave Moscow and go to America.

This does not apply to all Moscovites, however. On Monday 10th May, I met up with Paul, who I had met when working for EF in Minehead in 2003. He is Moscow-born-and-bred, and has an inexhaustible passion for the city and its places and their stories. I felt lucky to know him, as he gave me as complete a tour of the city as I could possibly imagine having in a day.

Moscow is a complete mix of different architectural styles, ranging from the solid "Don't mess with us" former KGB headquarters to the floating golden and coloured domes of the churches, monasteries and cathedrals.

Moscow seems somewhat like a dustier version of a cross between Paris and Barcelona with different famous bits. It is lively in parts with quiet backstreets, and all framed by 4 or 5 concentric ring roads and 8 huge towers, each of which serves a different function. The one we got closest to is one of the biggest, and houses something like the Foreign Embassy. These huge structures make me think of Orwell's government buildings in 1984 and Huxley's rocket towers in Brave New World.

Paul also showed me a selection of the most impressive Metro stations, one of which has statues on every corner (and about 20 corners per platform) depicting idealized images of humans in various roles: Sportsmen and women, factory workers, writers, farmers... Truly the Moscow Metro was - and still is - a palace for the people.

The tour finished with the two of us running up a grassy ski slope to a viewpoint in front of the University, which itself is housed in one of the impressive scary towers. It was too dark for a decent photo, but we could see right across the entire skyline of the city, counting all eight towers, and also spotting the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and St. Basils. My internal map of Moscow is now fully structured - with just a few more details waiting to be filled in if I ever visit again.

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