As the image of St. Basil's Cathedral might suggest, we've made it to Moscow. We're staying in a hotel complex that has been constructed from the remains of the old athlete's village from the Moscow Olympics in 1980. This comprises four gigantic tower blocks which together house over 5,000 (!!) rooms - none of which have been refurb'd since they were built seemingly. The rooms are outstandingly soviet, with showers so powerful they actually strip the skin from your back and decor taken entirely from Stalin's personal Habitat catalogue.
Soviet-era hotels notwithstanding, Moscow has been pretty cool. The weather has been abysmal, but seeing the Kremlin and the 'Tetris Cathedral' has been worth the sleeting rain. We also joined up with some Russian friends of guys in our group and walked through 'Old Moscow' to one of the coolest cafés I've ever been to. Tiny, packed with Moscovians and serving excellent coffee and cake, it really was the greatest way to see the city, much better than just trotting around the tourist sites with the crowds. We also visited the flat of Kirov, one of Russia's great storytellers (apparently) and looked blankly at Cyrillic information tags that meant nothing to us. But it was interesting all the same.
So. I've now seen two of Russia's major city's and I feel that affords me the opportunity to outline a few of the major cultural differences between the ex-USSR and dear old Britain that I've observed thus far.
- Russian men seem to believe that a man should smell like a man, but only when that man smells like he's been rasslin' a bear for an hour and then bathed in the sweat of more bears before being stuffed in a sauna overnight, so they can really get a sweat on. Seriously.
- Conversely, young Russian women are well dressed ALL of the time. This means dresses, leather jackets, smart trousers, full make up, hairdresser standard hair and heels are essential at all times. In fact, if you dress in a way that means you couldn't survive being dropped into a nightclub at a moments notice, you are underdressed. Needless to say, Kate and her yellow rain jacket have drawn quite a few looks. The heels, in particular, are quite staggering. Given the height of the heels and the poor state of many Russian pavements, a cobbler here could be a millionaire inside 9 months.
- Cabbage, in Russia, is still disgusting. You'd have thought that after all the years they've been dealing with it, they'd have found a way to make it taste of something other than gym socks. But they haven't. In fact, food in Russia in general is pretty terrible. Almost all of the meals we've had have been blander than Davina McCall, with even a Red Thai Curry tasting like some kind of coconut gravy. So far, Russia's greatest culinary invention seems to be a pastry (not dissimilar to a doughnut) filled with mashed potato. No wonder Jamie Oliver hasn't done 'Jamie's Russia' yet then.
- Russians, in general, don't give away a smile a easily as their western counterparts. People here will very rarely smile at a stranger, and often just stare blankly at my attempts at disarming British charm. Whilst initially this made Russians seem somewhat stand-offish and rude, I've found it to be one of the more charming local customs. It's a nice counterpoint to the casual disregard that you get in the UK, most often on display in SportsDirect or JJB, where people genuinely couldn't give a flying who-hah if you live or die. In Russia they seem much more binary, either love or hate, and it makes both emotional responses all the more rewarding for their honesty.
After an average meal (par of the course it seems), a quick pint in an 'English' pub - a bargain at a mere £7 per beer - and then finding out in the bluntest possible terms that Chechen people really don't like English people, we retired to our steel cots to grab some sleep before what might be the most epic part of the journey - the four day train ride from Moscow to Irkutsk.