Ulaan Bataar. 2:04pm 7, August 2006
It turns out not EVERY night was a party at the hostel. But there were two or three nights with the neighbors complaining of the noise, the night clerk begging us to keep it down, and the odd tourist being carried to their dormatory bed. I managed to hold on to the fold-out sofa for my sleeping place, my turf, as it were. But since I was in the so-called T.V. room with three or five others, I was usually the last to bed, and the first to arise, which suts my idiom just fine.
I ended up spending nearly a week in Moscow waiting for a cheap ticket to Irkutsk. The fares start at 2,600 rubles for third class, and then jump I believe to 4600 for second class. The difference being one is in an open carriage, the other in a closed couchette. Is that how you spell it? Coupe` is apparently another way to say this. We don`t have them in the states, but most trains overseas have closed compartments with some arrangement of seats and bedding. These have double bunks, four to a coupe, and doors with locks. Third class, is of course more interesting, but is a marked step up from Second Class Sleeper in India. For one thing, there are still only double bunks, but across the aisle there`s a second rank of bunks running lengthwise across the train (as in india). Next, there are matress, blanket, and pillow available at no extra charge, and sheets for a nominal sum of 65 rubles, or 3 bucks. Anyway, I digress. As a rule, I take the cheapest seat available, though I`m no longer sure why. Originally, it was an ascetic practice of mine, a function of my middle-class guilt, and it has also been attributable to budgetary constraints. But in the course of time, it has evolved into a simple preference. I prefer to see what things are like at the bottom, rather than embibe in some sort of false middling luxury. Its adds to the adventure, I suppose. And as I can sleep pretty much anywhere, or failing that, easily go for a couple days without a full night`s sleep, to be in the cattle car always affords one bragging rights, where second class most certainly does not. (Final note, there is a class above worth noting, a double coupe (as opposed to the quad) with food service included. This would be the way to go for you and your special someone... Seven days Moscow to Vladivostok locked in a coupe together would be the ultimate test of togetherness!).
So, a week in the most expensive city in the world. Well, unlike the OTHER most expensive cities in the world, Moscow is by and large charmless, dirty, and uniteresting. But for those same reasons, it is interesting. How did it happen that it became so expensive? Its a fair question with out a good answer. The property boom combined with high taxes on restaurants and luxury items, and the necessary bribes for any business to operate, explains much of it, but by no means all. The nouveaux-riche could explain the driving up of prices on restaurants, but in a city where the median income is around $500 a month, something is not right.
But leaving that aside, the first thing one notices in Moscow is the extensive construction, followed by the extensive need for reconstruction. The old Bolshoi Ballet building is completely being re-skinned. Several prominent sites are under construction, and the streets and sidewalks are being repaved if not (re?)constructed. The Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil`s is about the only space in tact, it seems. But let`s just paint it in overview, shall we? Founded well before its first mention in the early 12th century, it became the focal point of Russia only after the Kingdom of Russia established suzerainty over neighboring Principalities in the 16th century. The city is built in radii out from the center of the Kremlin. Due apparently to a poverty of stone in the region, most everything is built unimpressively of brick, often plastered over to appear as masonry. Today, the city sprawls along both sides of the volga, and still radiates outward for dozens of kilometers, the urban fabric gradually giving way to the (in)famous soviet highrise block apartments. Corbusier`s idealized cityscape in the outskirts takes on monstrous proportions, with apartment block after identical apartment block cast in bare or painted concrete sprawls for hectare upon hectare, with open space and nature surrounding all. A very effective tram and subway network brings everyone into Moscow for work, and in the suburbs there is little to see or do; I believe in time new sub-urban centers will evolve out of the occasional shopping hubs an breath some life into these regions. I had the good fortune of staying with a friend I met on Couchsurfing.com so I had an excuse to get out into the wilds of suburban Moscow. Her apartment was on the 22 floor of one of these buildings. She lives with her mother, near a lake, and with her dog; she is quite happy living there. I realized for the first time, though, that I could never live on the 22nd floor of anything. It would drive me mad. I have a deep and abiding need for a back door. Still, we had a good time staying up late talking, swapping (nothing more than) notes of our respective experience of our respective countries. The next night, however, I began my stay at the Godzillas Hostel back in the center of town.
Moscow has several very old cathedrals, but on the whole, the city lacks a feeling of being ancient. The crumbling architecture speaks more of recent neglect, and plastered-over brick does not age well, unless, like me, you find it particularly aesthetic for eccentric reasons. To the East of the Kremlin is a major boulevard, and as well, there are several overly wide streets throughout the city that really put the human in its place. These are met, luckily, with proper boulevards, at least one big ring-road in several segments, in which the two directions of traffic are bisected by a kilometers long, very narrow park. This provides a very nice promenade and local gathering point wherein everyone finds a place to ignore the ban on public drinking, to nevertheless draw the attention of the police, and to offer them bribes to supplement their undoubtedly poor salaries in this most expensive of cities.
Another feature of these parks, and the public drinking therein, are the widespread, statistically significant instances of strangers striking up aquaintanceships, and slipping Mickies into one`s drink. The prime motive being larcenous rather than sexual. One can say this happens everywhere, but in addition to an article being in the paper on the subject while I was there (in one instance a young woman draws the attention and affection of the mark, her accomplices play pharmacist; russians acting under the tutalege of a Gypsy, in fact) but also, it nearly happened to a guy staying in the T.V. lounge with me. He`s been coming to Moscow frequently, has been studying Russian, and welcomed the opportunity to practice his language with this man in a park. After some sleight-of-hand and misdirection on the part of his new-found friend, my roomate discovered his drink acting peculiar, foaming uncontrollably and the like. Upon examination, yes, there were four curious white tablets in the bottom of the bottle. He`d had several sips, so he quickly headed over to the nearest police officer, and did his best to explain the situation, and waited for ten minutes or so to see if he`d be okay (he was). But if this isn`t enough to convince you, the VERY SAME THING happens in the famous Bond movie, From Russia, with Love where the unwitting double-agent of the Turkish Russian Embassy and the nefarious Spector is incapacitated by Spector`s evil blond hitman utilizing the chemical additive this time to champagne, again, with the hauntingly realisitc excessive foaming action, which did not go unnoticed by Bond, though Bond does get himself into a bit of a pickle as a result. So, this long and glorious tradition does continue to this day, and one should beware.
Another extrodinarily common instance of fleecing the tourist occurs after dark in Red Square. The police will approach you, or a group of you, and ask to see your papers. Your papers ought to include a registration stamp. You are told at your hotel you have three days to register. They will present a paper showing in fact you only have a single day in which to get registered. Now, you are presented with two options. You can go down to the POLICE STATION wherein untold horrors culminating in a 6,000 ruble fine will occur, or you could simply pay 1000 rubles on the spot, to avoid further complications for all parties involved. Now I heard of, but did not see, two variations on this theme. In the first, a solo mark was walking the square, and wandered right into the hornets nest, a pack of bored policemen. They presented He`d been in the country two days, and they gave him the fallacious document aforementioned. He was even in the process of being registered, our hostel having neglected to accomplish the registration in a single day. But, our Canadian hero in this instance remained calm, bravely turned to the police and said, "If I`m in violation as you say, then I ought to go to the police station." A BRILLIANT hand! Well played, indeed. They argued and fussed for a bit more, hyping up the inconvinience he would face, but he held his counter-bluff. An officer walked him to the edge of the square, pointed outward, and told him to go, and to get registered.
The other group was not so lucky. They fell victim to the "do as is said, not as is done" clause of international travel. One or two members of the group were walking with open beers through Red Square. Its a fair assumption. There are kiosks on the street selling beer, and no shortage of people drinking in city parks. But you have to look deeper at where exactly people are drinking, and how precisely they are prepared to conceal their beverage. In fact, it is a law intended to be inforced only in situations where there is a problem, but it is with tourists that they play the short game. The officers approaching this group of six, again asked for their passports. They then mentioned the no-drinking-in-public ordinance, much to the surprise and chagrin of our victims. They then found, one of the six was in egregious violation of his registration, having been registered at his hotel in St. Petersburg, but not again in Moscow. You see, there are TWO ways one can be registered. One pays 20 dollars or so (600-1000 rubles) for registration for the duration of one`s stay; this money goes either to the police or the travel agent, no one is sure. Or, one is registered at each hotel one stays at over the course of one`s stay; the latter is fine if you`re staying in proper hotels. But having and maintaining the official "Registration Stamp" is no small task, and hence smaller hotels, homestays, and hostels tend not to offer this service... To say nothing of camping. Our hapless mark was in actual violation of now two laws, and things were not looking good for him. The police made the generous offer in his case of allowing the group to ransom him, One Thousand from each of them, and they could all walk free. They payed the bribe.
But your narrator her, managed to keep his head down, mind his own business and beverages, and made his normal efforts not to be the proverbial out-stuck thumb, and no harm came to him. Not even the glimmerings of trouble. Neither detained, searched, fleeced, drugged, raped, nor robbed, I survived Russia, and apart from the stories I`ve heard I left with the impression that its just a normal country, with normal people, living normal lives. Moscow is a normal big city with normal issues, and normal prices. I think my fanciful concept of "The Norm" may, perhaps, be skewed.
Perhaps the best thing I saw in Moscow was the Tretyakov Gallery of Art. It is Russia`s answer to the Musee` Dorsay; but a collection exclusively of Russian Painting. The original gallery is Built in a classical, tried-and-true style, well lit, nothing fancy about it, high ceilings, and roped off corridors to direct the unintended flow of the masses throughout. The newer gallery I missed, though I regret doing so. Aparently its a renouned modern design, revered by critics, though reviled by the masses (as it should be?). But the first Tretyakov Gallery begins in 1810, when the Russian apparently discovered painting. Prior to this the visual "art" was exclusively of the religious Greek Orthodox tradition, with the false perspective, the simplistic massing, the almost mandalaic design layouts, and uninspired rehash of centuries old motifs, cheribim here, halos there, stations of the cross and such. The more interesting works being the martyerdom of various saints, wherein one is not sure whom one ought to be rooting for... The only thing to be noted in all this, is that in 800 years nobody ever figured out that a plank of would will bow unless cross-braced across the grain via some manner of joinery. Hence, they all have a very interesting, if unintended, unually tripartate curvature across the plane. Which does add interest, it must be said. But, from my tone you can tell Christian Sacred Art is not my cup of chai.
So, beginning in the late1700s and early 1800s, the Russian nobility discovered this place called "France." They would come to wish they hadn`t, for almost as if supersticions regarding uttering the name of the damned one applied equally in this case, Nepoleon felt called to conquer Russia. For some distinctly Russian reason, this failed invasion only inspired greater rever for, if not idealization of all things French. One must be blind not to see this satarized thoughout Gogol`s Dead Souls, the Length of Dostoevky and the bredth of Tolstoy. The nobility began pouring all their wealth extracted from serfs` sweat into art, almost exclusively in Imitation of the French, with the occasional dirgression into Italy or greater Europe. But with the visual art, its Italian and French all the way, by the mid 1800`s painters with patronage were sent to Paris to study, and there returned to Russia the first seeds of revolution; the awareness of Marx, the plight of the peasants, and the unrelenting uncompromising Realism with which Russia alone is able to look upon herself. In the early decades, art was exclusively aristocratic portraiture. But one by one, first somebody discovered the eyes, then another the background, then another diverged in his spare time into landscape, a few recalcitrant souls returned to Religious motifs and "historical" or mythological subject matter with mixed success, but then something happened. In the 1870s, someone turned on the lights. I`ve seen this period of art before, but nothing like this. Canvasess to rival Reubens but with a photorealism not even a large format camera could emulate. Painting more real than real. Faces with such life they are jumping out of the canvas, each at their most expressive. I feel like an idiot for not taking notes, but there`s libraries, and someone`s bound to have the Tretyakov`s Catalogue. There`s an entire room depicting the victory of a tribe of Uzbek against the Tsar`s soldiers. It ends with piles of skulls, heads on pikes, has a triumphal moment of a lone soldier amidst a pile of his compatriot`s corpses refusing to capitulate. It was the advent of photojournalism, on a scale that has yet to be reached by the filmic or digital arts.
Besides these fantastic historical utterly Realist paintings, there are landscapes, landscapes with colors that finally, after 800 years of painting depict perfectly "three hours before sunset, middle of may, in a birch forest somewhere this side of the Urals." Or, the heavy blue tone of an approaching storm, or dusk, or... light of such intensity that it brought tears to my eyes. As many hours as I`ve spent in front of photoshop, I could see for the first time another way to look at my prints. Camera Raw unleashed the potential of digital media, giving utter control over temperature and contrast, but as with any tool, it does not instruct on how to use it. This gallery raised the bar on my art, and forced me to rethink the why`s of everything.
I`m told there were some technological innovations in Paint around this time, and that it began to come in tubes, and that people could suddenly paint in situ, instead of in studio... But lets not belabor it. Time for me to go eat... brb.
St. Basils. Very cool. Looks a bit smaller than in the pictures, and inside its quite small. Eastern Orthodox churches (as well as San Marco`s in Venice which borrows heavily from the Eastern tradition) all treat the sacriment as a private and mystical affair of the clergy, and the Alter as a esoteric secret. Consequently.... Jesus... doing my homework, I came across one paragraph in The Encyclopedia Britanica that summarizes the lessons of my entire trip since the Czech Republic! Check this out!
The invasion of Russia by the Mongols had disastrous effects on the future of Russian civilization, but the church survived, both as the only unified social organization and as the main bearer of the Byzantine heritage. The “metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia,” who was appointed from Nicaea or from Constantinople, was a major political power, respected by the Mongol Khans. Exempt from taxes paid by the local princes to the Mongols... [,he] acquired an unprecedented moral prestige. He retained ecclesiastical control over immense territories from the Carpathian [Tatras] Mountains to the Volga River, over the newly created episcopal see of Sarai (near the Caspian Sea), which was the capital of the Mongols, as well as over the Western principalities of the former Kievan Empire—even after they succeeded in winning independence (e.g., Galicia) or fell under the political control of Lithuania and Poland.
Points to Ponder
The historical relationship between The Ukraine and Russia
The historical relationship between Russia and Mongolia
The political power of a united Poland and Lithuania
There was a Kievian empire?
Therefore, the strong historical precident for the Soviet Union
Right, so where were we. I`m invading Mongolia after setting up base in Irkutsk, not the other way around. St. Basil`s? What I was looking for was the word for the wooden partition that hides the alter. We`ll call it a "screen" and hope for the best. In St. Basil`s the central church--as each of the onions on top indicates a seperate, narrow, often sacred space undernieth (though some of the outlying ones cover souvenier stands)--is no more than 25 feet across and octagonal in plan. This space is then partitioned off from the Qodesh Ha-qadashim or for ye gentile, the Holy of Holies, if I may not be smited for speaking losely. The resulting space is the most claustrophobic of the world`s Great Cathedrals, and more reminiscent of Siva`s Shrines across India. Connection? Perhaps. There`s a picture around here somewhere.... ah yah... I`ll be sure to include that when I get up the courage to work my way through the some 650 odd photographs that await me from Russia (with love).
Besides that, there was the Kremlin, a pain in the ass to get in to and not much to see once there. No touring the Duma allowed, only the Cathedral Square where you can see five cathedrals outfitted for different grades and ranks of Aristocracy; two filled with caskets of famous dead guys and kings, Terrible and Great; a big cracked bell: their version of our Liberty Bell, and a HUGE canon, and judging from the unceasing flow of pretty young girls walking up to have their picture taken therewith as opposed to any of the other smaller canon scattered about, size does matter. The only story surrounding the Kremlin is first finding the ticket office, then waiting thirty minutes for my ticket, then waiting thirty minutes to get into the Kremlin itself, only to be told my bag was too big (though some women`s purses were larger) and then having to go check my bag for an extortionary 60 rubles ($2.50!), and then wait another 30 minutes to finally get in to see the Center of Power of the ex-Soviet Union and present Russian Federation. Its not what`s there that`s impressive (as most people failed to grasp) but what it is; and for me, an American old enough to remember the Soviet Union, just to be there at all.