Following my travels in the Far East of Russia, I did not return straight to Volgograd. I would have had to go through Moscow anyway, so I decided to take the opportunity to spend a few extra days there, partly to wind down after the holiday and partly to spend some time with my friend Janna. On the day I arrived we found our hotel and went to a mall to do some shopping before returning to our favourite Moscow steakhouse, Toro Grill.
On our second day we went to a beautiful forest area, in fact it is called Serebryany Bor (Silver Forest). This is in the north west of Moscow on the banks of the Moskva river. It was not simple to get to, we had to get the metro and then another bus, and then walk for a while, but it is a beautiful pine forest with lots of wildlife (we saw a squirrel and later a mouse scatter when we caught them sitting on the path). There are pebbled and boardwalk pathways, and bridges across little streams that form islands. Despite several signs saying “no swimming” there were people in the ponds and the rivers. There are also several beaches, some free, some that you have to pay to enter.
Despite Moscow having had temperatures of 40C plus while I was in the East (I had been complaining about the heat in Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, but it was only 35-37C there!) when we visited Serebryany Bor it rained. It was not good weather for sunbathing or swimming in the river, even though we had hopefully brought a mat and plenty of sunscreen! There were some people on the official and unofficial beaches who were trying to sunbathe but when the rain got heavier it became clear this wouldn’t be possible. Still, it was warm, they were in bathing suits (or in some places, their birthday suits!) so they weren’t concerned about getting wet. However Janna and I just walked around the trail once, taking a few photographs, then headed back for the city.
On the third day we headed into Red Square early to visit the Memorial Garden at the Kremlin wall, including the Mausoleum of Lenin, the revolutionary leader who died in 1923, and has a statue in every city and large town. He was never buried, his body was embalmed and put on display to allow people to pay their respects. Almost 100 years later there are still plenty of people wanting to pay their respects. We expected a large queue so we set off early, arriving at 9am, an hour before the garden was due to open.
We were not the only ones with this idea and there were about a dozen people already there when we arrived. They were just standing around but as more people came, they formed into a line so that the newcomers would not just come and stand next to them.
It was not until about 9.30 that some officials appeared and started trying to organise the queue, mainly by asking it to move backwards. The problem was they were asking the front of the queue to move backwards, the people most fearful of losing their places, and the people further back had no idea what was going on. There was little to no backwards movement, to the frustration of the officials. By now the queue stretched all the way down the roadway leading into Red Square, eventually it would reach the Alexander Gardens entrance and curl round.
We kept our position near the front as the officials started putting down barriers to keep the queue seperate from the rest of the people going into and out of Red Square. Eventually at 10.00 the first people were let in, and we were in the 2nd group allowed up to the security gates.
The garden itself is quite modest, some lawns, some small trees and flower beds, interspersed with stone memorials. There was a row of Soviet premiers – Brezhnev, Chernyenko, Andropov, and yes, Stalin was there too. Fresh flowers had been laid on each grave; red roses. Other revolutionaries sat alongside them – including Voroshilov, after whom Voroshilovskiy Rayon in Volgograd is named.
In the wall itself there were some plaques to famous figures who were interred there. The most famous of these was Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to leave the Earth’s atmosphere ad travel in space.
Of course the main event was the Mausoleum, and it is the last thing you see before you exit the garden. The doorway is surrounded by black stone with the name “Lenin” written on top. There is an honour guard – a uniformed soldier at the door, and in the stairwell and in the room with Lenin. They will warn people who dare to speak to be quiet. The sombre atmosphere puts you off speaking anyway. You go down the stairs, through a door into the main chamber, and then walk around a square area cordoned off, in the centre of this, under a glass case, lies Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, a man who changed the world. It is like looking at a waxwork, and it is tempting to wonder if so much of his remains have been replaced and repaired over the years that it might be stretching logic to say this is still him. I’ve visited the graves of many great figures – Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, numerous Kings and Queens of England but this is the first time I’ve seen any physical remains.
We were finished by about 10:30 and had some time to fill before dinner, so we decided to go to the zoo. Moscow Zoo is quite a crowded, poky place, it is basically two separate sites connected by a bridge. I was hoping to see a giant panda, but there are presently no giant pandas in Moscow, I had to make do with a red panda.
The meerkat enclosure was closed off to the public for renovations, but by standing very close to the zebra enclosure you could look around the covering hoardings and spot the sentry meerkat sitting on top of his burrow, on guard. We saw elephants and tigers but for me the best thing was the night primates! There was a dark room with infra-green lighting and your eyes had to adjust, but behind the glass windows you could see lorises, tarsiers and colugos crawling along the branches with their big curious eyes. The colugos (they look like flying squirrels) loved to jump, several metres, tens of times their own length, they sometimes moved so quickly you couldn’t see where they had jumped to! There was no chance of taking a picture of them (you can imagine how a camera flash could startle and blind them!) but it was great to see these creatures I have read about.
We walked back towards the Arbat where we intended to have lunch, and on the way (it rained again) we went past the Patriarch’s Pond – this is the location where a famous novel, The Master and Margarita begins. It is just a rectangular pond in the middle of the city, with young people sitting around the banks eating sandwiches.
We arrived at the Arbat and found the Indian restaurant where we had eaten before, and after dinner the weather was better, much sunnier. We walked down the length of the Arbat which is much more interesting when the sun is out! There were many musicians, there was a man stood in front of a statue of a poet reading out some of that poet’s poetry. There had been a Hare Krishna parade while we were in the restaurant eating.
We had a little difficulty finding our metro station at the far end of the Arbat, but eventually we made our way back to the hotel. My flight was very early on the Sunday morning (I would have Sunday afternoon and evening to rest before going back to work on Monday) so we rested the rest of the day, and the next day I was back in Volgograd by lunchtime. For now, my travels were over.