|Your Russian Guide in Kremlin|
I just returned from a madcap adventure in Russia with a group of friends to visit the highest summit of Europe – Elbrus in the Caucasus. This post is not about this climb. I know or knew Russia and Russians well and a smattering of the language that had taken me from the high volcanic plateau’s of Kamchatka to the Baltic or Finnish Lapland and from the frozen shores of Laptev Sea (Northernmost tips of Siberia) to the breezy Caspian, often pursued or accompanied by stern non-smiling men and women in uniform whose purpose was to ensure I did or came to no harm. So rushing through the Russian Tundra aboard the Trans-Siberian Rail or reindeer-sleding towards the North Pole, I had always been amazed and impressed with the Russian diversity and the people’s tenacity over so much anarchy and butchery.
My first trip to Russia was more than 20 years back when KGB ruled that world and the mere mention of Lubyanka could make any lion-hearted feel dizzy; when we had no idea who was Cheka and who was friend. In those days we had been trained and conditioned to keep our mouths shut and eyes peeled to the ground. Keep our hands in our pockets and just walk past anything that may disturb our demeanor with complete nonchalance and indifference. So I looked forward to this trip that promised to be complete fun with an eclectic mix of equally madcap people assembled from all the high and low ends of our planet. Armed only with few Russian words, a bit of climbing gear, and all my wit in that order I boarded the Emirates flight.
As our plane careened towards terra-firma, I was excited since St Petersburg had been a home for me for many months when I was in Russia the first time and I wanted to see if it still remained as it was or capitalism had taken over Leninism. The immigration queue quickly told me that now more people come to Russia. After ages and a prolonged ‘staring competition’ with the burly lady immigration officer at the passport control I emerged to find that there’s no trolley anywhere. We heaved our heavy packs on our heads and headed out. The airport still remained tiny and complete chaos, so as before, I felt home after all I am from the true land of utter chaos. People milling around were unruly, loud and obtrusive just like back home. This wouldn’t be so before. Security was minimum and the guards were openly ogling all the pretty ladies rather than at the screening machines.
Our hotel was conveniently located between River Neva and St Isaac’s Cathedral. It took us less than five minutes to walk to the world famous cathedral, whose golden dome had more than 100 kg of gold. While I was still calculating how much that would be worth in today’s bullion market and why hadn’t anyone tried to pinch the dome yet that we were called for lunch.
We entered an eatery named ‘Gosti’ and ate Salmon and salad served by young men and women. All very pretty and nice and succinct. That I realized was a major change between then and now. The food was actually edible and you could get anything in Russia now. We finished with sorbet and delicious Russian pot made ice creams. Next morning our short-dressed guide picked us up and off we were to see the sights of St Petersburg, which wasn’t much to begin with (for me that is).
Cruising through Grand Peterhof Palace and Grand Cascade, the towering Cathedral of Peter and Paul Fortress, leaping at the bronze horseman, posing in funny dresses in front of Rostral Column, collapsing around Church of spilled blood, barging through St Nicholas Naval Cathedral and posing in the Palace Square, we finally ended where everyone and everything in this city ends – Hermitage, world’s second largest museum with the world’s largest collection of paintings. Our guide informed that even if you stared for only 10 seconds at each of the exhibits in Hermitage it would take you more than 12 years. As we followed her dainty form and raised hands we also quickly realized that in all probability it would take you forever since one could so easily get lost among the labyrinth of halls, doors, and spooky alleyways. I wasn’t as sad to leave Hermitage as to see our guide go, among other things she is a ‘nail-designer’ and that to me was fascinating. Must add that during lunch we went to a place that had stuffed predators hanging from the walls in the most gruesome postures with blood dripping from their teeth, and if that wasn’t enough to kill my appetite, they actually served ‘bear burgers’. I wouldn’t recommend this eatery to any faint hearted visitor and is absolutely not for kids.
A short hop flight in Aeroflot next day got us to the tiny airport of Mineral Body. I realized though Aeroflot has now got modern planes with real wings and aren’t flying coffins any more, the air hostesses are still relics from KGB. The one who pointed at my middle saying ‘Mr. you must have your belt on’ could easily be Lubyanka’s ex Royal executioner. Though my co-passengers rolled in laughter and insisted she was my perfect dream girl.
From the airport we drove along the frothing Baksan River, through winding forests and well tarred road to the quaint village of Cheget. I found significant development here. I will write separately about the Caucuses and the climb, so suffice it to say here that we did few pretty hikes through flower decked gradients and had a great time up through the glaciers, rocks and ice and some bit of ruffled weather to the top of Europe and back. Not to mention all the pretty Russian mamas and ballerinas and the bucket full of drinks and food we had. So at the end of this jolly trip we boarded a flight for Moscow.
Driving from the airport soon we got engulfed in the fumes, pollution and long line of stranded cars and I realized that Moscow had definitely changed for the worse; never mind if no one followed us anymore. Huge billboards and every possible western brand of luxury and materialistic indulgence glared at us, compelling my eyes to shut. The huge mini-bus that had picked us up from the airport seemed like a Sheikh’s traveling harem, packed as it was with all sorts of contraptions for a night life in the fast lane. It took forever to reach the hotel. The sky was cast in shades of dark and grey and we got a moist air in our lungs. Our hotel was bang opposite the imposing iron gate of Ghana Embassy. If I sleep walked at night I could easily jump out of my window into the courtyard of Ghana. The hotel reception desk had two dainty damsels in a state of utter distress though their eyelashes stayed in place but what got all of us excited after the drab drive from the airport, were two boxes of ‘free’ chocolates scattered in the lounge, to soothe the frayed nerve of the guests I suppose.
We all dived into the boxes without any regard to cast, creed, color, gender or dignity and in less time than it takes to say ‘presto’ both the overflowing boxes contained nothing but empty air – a conjuring trick to rival David Blaine. That night when I did steal down clandestinely to steal some more ‘free’ chocolates while my fellow crusaders slept or danced in shady bars, I found that the boxes remained empty. When I asked the ‘now’ relaxed receptionist about this sacrilege, she informed conspiratorially that there had been an invasion of a bunch of most unruly and hungry tourist group in the precincts since last noon who polished off everything and keeping the emergency in sight, the management had decided to refill the boxes only after this group leaves; and she told me that I will know this group when I saw them. I ran away in haste before she recognized me as the pack leader of the Chocolate Brigade.
In the evening we went for a walk through Izmaylovo Market, along the Arbat and then to Red Square. Slight drizzle had started so we entered the monsterity called GUM, Moscow’s largest shopping mall bang across from Red Square. GUM must have paid someone a filthy amount of money to be built in such a historic location. Within the glum of GUM, soon many of us disappeared in search of bargains and toilets in reverse order. After a brief escapade from GUM and lighter by few dollars as well (not me of course!) we reassembled in Red Square and walked around, looking at the beautiful flower mosaic, swaying to the music choir, people kissed and clicked all around us. The moon was peeking through the dark clouds and the air was chilly and wet in a devilish way. We ended the night in the galloping screaming dance floor of Hardrock Café.
Next day was a guided tour and the day started with a heavy shower, but the day brightened with our chirpy guide, very nattily dressed in full sleeve jackets and hip hugging jeans. As she rambled on, we passed by the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, by the northern shores of River Moskva, clicking pictures of the tallest orthodox Christian church in the world. Our guide told how it was destroyed and rebuilt, first into a swimming pool and then to its present splendor. From there we drove to Sparrow Hills to have a bird’s eye view of Moscow along with the winding river. Nothing much was visible through the haze and the light drizzle. While others gazed out into the misty horizon I took pleasure in eyeing the eye candies that accompanied several newly married couples who were being photographed for posterity. I wandered around a bit and wondered about a lot, most significantly what on earth I was doing in a place like Moscow! In between we saw a park that had a row of walking bronze ducks that the First Lady Bush had gifted to the citizens. For the love of me I couldn’t fathom the significance of walking bronze ducks to end the cold war.
Then our tour bus dropped us on the far end of the river from where our guide was supposed to take us on a flowery walk back to Kremlin. But the Balkan gods decreed otherwise and the sky opened up the moment we stepped out and the bus disappeared. Our smiling guide smiled some more, opened her rainbow umbrella and took us inside a Starbuck outlet mainly for the ladies to powder their noses, but alas, the restrooms were under renovation and not available to the customers; imagine everyone’s plight since by then in anticipation of powdering noses, all of us (except of course the wise one) had gulped large helpings of coffee with cookies. So that was strike one notch down for Starbucks and all my American friends in the group decided to launch a worldwide protest to Starbucks loo management system. The rain was still flooding the world outside so our guide came up with a solution. We headed for the nearest metro station. Then changed two stops, twice, one of us doing pull ups on the bar handles inside the train, we got out at Kremlin stop and then literally ran to the gate. Our pretty guide bid goodbye here as she had to rush to her ‘dacha’ for the weekend.
Kremlin hadn’t changed at all since last I was here except now the crowds were of biblical proportion. Predictably, clutching our tickets like King Arthur’s Flag upon his riding steed, we all ran for the nearest restroom and much to our chagrin it was shut, saying that the loo rooms are closed from 10.30 am to 11.30 am for maintenance. We all glanced at our watch, it was 10.35 am. Perhaps this loo was the only object (manmade or natural) that ran on time in entire Russia. But we all agreed that it wasn’t really our day.
Fearing a deluge later everyone decided to line up outside the rest room in a single file, while I and another brave-heart went to explore what our tickets allowed us to. Much later much relieved and relaxed others joined us and we went through the usual stuff of relics that had little interest for me. So I shot the dark skies and the golden orbs of the cathedrals that Kremlin is famous for. After Kremlin we went for lunch, but en route, I lost my group or they lost me since I was hanging back to take pictures of ‘you know what’. Very soon I couldn’t see anyone of my group and I had no idea where lunch was being served neither did I have a single ruble in my pocket; neither did I speak a word in Russian that meant anything. But what I knew were the road back to our hotel.
The evening meal was partaken at an exorbitantly pricey place (though I wasn’t paying a shilling, it hurt just to look at the prices). Food was good, which is the least you can expect for such pocket crunching prices, though the portions could or should have been bigger. It was the last supper together for the group so everyone hogged, hailed, hammered and just had a jolly good time. My only deviation during this period was a 12 min wait outside the restroom in company of a very lovely little lady wearing a smile and little else. When the rest room occupant finally evacuated, and even if I had been there before, I allowed the little lady in little things to precede me. She flashed me a smile to rival Mona L, muttered spasiba and disappeared faster than frost from Sahara. Three of us heading back to India had a flight to catch the same night and we were running late so we all ran back to our hotel to pick up luggage.
Domodedovo had expanded but was chaotic and unruly as any airport in Albania. There were trolleys in sight but no loo. We lined up at the counter behind a pair of very portly ladies of Indian origin. They had even portlier baggage that kept falling on and off their trolleys. You could have struck me down with a feather, when I went forward to help the ladies, one smiled and said they were Malaysian students returning home after completing medical degrees in Moscow. We changed our flights and a Pakistani guy helped us with it, so we thanked him in Urdu. We had a long wait at the departure gate and to kill the time I did what I always do under such circumstances; which in random order are – sleep, look, read, chat, wonder, dab myself with free perfume testers. Finally when I was boarding, reeking of Clive Christian (retailing at over 300 $ for 50 ml, it is one of the most expensive men’s perfume in the world) as if I had dived in a vat; the Emirates air hostess tossed me a smile, a knowing look and a lilting ‘welcome aboard’.
As the aircraft reared forward into the paling azure outside and Russia soon spiraled below into a distant haze, I pulled out my video screen and plugged in the fast action packed ‘Olympus has fallen.’ I would like to conclude by saying that this movie is highly entertaining and a must watch if you have nothing else to do flying inside a metal tube at the mercy of two unknown people of indeterminate sex and origin at an altitude of 40,000 ft.
Everything said and done and undone, the high point of the entire trip in my mind remains the strategically designed short dress of our pretty guide in St Petersburg that had zips on both top and lower end running the entire length of her back. And lest you think I am being a lecher (dirty-old-man) let me confirm that even the women in our group found the dress alluring and a marvel of Russian technology. Of course needless to say the physical high point of the trip was our hard earned summit of Mt Elbrus. Now I have already wasted enough of your and my time so it is time to say ‘dusvidania’.