Monday, 26 December 2011

Gorky Park in winter

The sky has settled daily into featureless grey with occasional offerings of snow.

On Saturday we took the metro to Gorky Park. We had visited Gorky Park previously, a few days after we arrived in late November. Not much happening then. A dull place. 
The entrance to Gorky Park
 Gorky Park is about 1.5 kilometres from Red Square, on the opposite side of the Moscow River. It is the first part of a narrow green belt that runs west along the southern shore of a long bend in the river, ending at Sparrow Hills.  

The tame and pleasantly wooded Sparrow Hills is a wilderness compared to the ornamental gardens of Gorky Park.

But from the bleak urban landscape of November, Gorky Park has now transformed into a cheerful little winter world.      
"But Dad, I thought there was only one Ded Moroz!"

OK, so Santa can't skate.
And when I've pushed this one over, you're next, Pinky
Boy meets Mammoth
Wendy meets Moose
That's enough for this post.
Follow this link for the location of Gorky Park on Google Maps

Thursday, 22 December 2011


Sneg is Russian for snow.

Two days ago it began seriously snegging. Until then we had occasional light sneg, often followed by rain and above zero temperatures, which would melt most of it. Now it looks like the sneg is here to stay.
St Basil's this morning
 And just in time for Christmas. The Orthodox Church in Russia uses the Julian calendar, which means they celebrate Christmas on 7 January.  Those of us on the Gregorian calendar celebrate Christmas on 25 December. This is great for expats in Moscow, as we get to celebrate Christmas, New Year and then Christmas again (even better for me as my birthday is also 7 January).

Father Christmas in Russia is a fellow called Ded Moroz (pronounced De-yed - Grandfather Frost). A giant Ded Moroz has recently appeared next to my favourite Christmas tree at Tverskaya Square. Ded Moroz is usually accompanied by his granddaughter, the lovely Snegarochka (Snow Maiden), who has also made an appearance by the tree. She’s a considerable improvement on the unpleasant elf Krampus, who accompanies Santa in some Central European countries.
The charming Snegarochka at Tverskaya Square
 Ded originally wore red and gold, until Stalin decreed he should wear blue, so as not to confuse him with Santa. With the end of the USSR red Deds have been making a comeback and now it seems its Ded who is confused, as I see both red and blue ones.

On another topic I’ve been quite impressed with the rapid response to snow clearing by the Muscovites.  It’s obvious they have done this before. Suddenly there are tractors, front end loaders, bobcats, guys with shovels and nifty little mechanised-broom carts everywhere.
Kamergersky Pereulok (Lane), a fashionable mall not far from Red Square, where I had coffee this morning.

Thursday, 15 December 2011


I see them regularly. Sometimes in the street, often in the pedestrian underpasses (perehods), where it is warmer. Old women, sometimes kneeling on a couple of sheets of cardboard, crossing themselves, swaying. 

A paper cup in hand and perhaps a little picture of the Virgin Mary nearby. In the cup a few roubles, or kopecks. Kopecks are worth so little that I have seen them on the supermarket floor - ignored. But every kopeck matters to these women. 

This time my blog will have to do without a photograph. There are some places one does not intrude.

This is a tough city if you have no money.  

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Metro 1: Mayakovskaya Station

The Metro

The Moscow metro is the foundation of the city’s mass transit system. Without it, I am sure, Moscow could not function. According to Wikipedia it is the second largest underground system in the world (after Tokyo), moving 6.6 million people each day, with 185 stations and 305 kilometres of track.

It is delightfully efficient and simple to use. The network consists of 11 lines, identified both by colour and number. All of these lines cross the city except one, the brown line (number 5), which is circular and intersects all the others, thus saving people the need to go in and out of the city centre unnecessarily.

A variety of types of ticket are available from cashier offices found at the entrance to all stations. At the time of writing a single journey costs 28 rubles (about $1 Aus). Twenty trips cost 520 rubles. A three month ticket (which I have) costs 3485 rubles (around $120 Aus). A full year is 11430 rubles (about $380 Aus). I had considered buying a full year ticket, but if you lose it, that’s tough luck.

On purchase, one is given a ticket that is swiped over a glowing red light at the entry gate. The light will turn green and one can walk through (the display will also helpfully show how many trips remain or the expiry date on the ticket). If you don’t swipe a valid ticket and try to walk through, a metal barrier will fly out at crotch height. Ouch.

There is no train timetable. At peak hours there are trains every 30 seconds. At other times the frequency drops to around every 2 minutes. I have never had to wait 3 minutes for a train. Any less service and I doubt the system would cope. At peak hour the trains are absolutely packed, and it is usually busy at other times.

Construction of the metro began in 1935 and it was designed to showcase Soviet achievement. Many of the stations are just gorgeous. Over coming months I’ll progressively feature stations in this blog, starting with my ‘local’, Mayakovskaya.
Mayakovskaya new entry hall (added in 2005)
Mayakovskaya entry hall mosaic

Mayakovskaya Station
Mayakovskaya Station is named in honour of the Russian poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). Designed by Alexey Duskin, it was opened on 11 September 1938. In the same year it won the Grand Prix at the New York World Fair.

Mayakovskaya escalator

 The station is 33 metres deep. It is decorated with pink rhodonite, stainless steel and grey marble. Recessed in the circular light arrays in the ceiling are lovely mosaics depicting a variety of scenes.

 During the war Mayakovskaya (in common with other metro stations) served as a bomb shelter. Stalin gave a motivating speech from the station in 1941 with the Germans at the gates of Moscow.

Add caption

There are 33 of these mosaics recessed in the light wells in the station ceiling

Monday, 12 December 2011

Political rallies

I have noticed an increase in hits on this blog from within Russia over the past week. As this coincides with the street rallies that have occurred since the Duma elections held the weekend before last, I assume it is due to Russians searching the internet for related information.

I have no interest in Russian politics other than as a dispassionate observer. I wouldn’t expect an expatriate Russian in my own country, Australia, to fully understand and be making comment about our political goings-on. Likewise, I won’t be making any during my stay in Russia.

For us the rallies have had little impact. I have noticed an increase in police presence, sometimes substantial, near where I live (which is close to Mayakovskaya Metro Station). They have ignored me. Cars, at least, are more likely to stop at pedestrian crossings with so many police around.

We have also been reluctant to visit some of the city squares known to attract rallies. But we had no immediate plans to go to those places anyway. For the most part, Moscow has carried on as usual as far as I can see. People working, shopping, having coffee.

Apart from the occasional appearance of vehicles like this on some streets and an increase in police numbers, from this expats point-of-view, it seems to be life as usual in Moscow.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Car parking

I am surprised at how little snow there has been. A light dusting yesterday is all that has fallen for days. The weather can be quite changeable, like Melbourne. After yesterdays' brief snow shower, the afternoon was fairly sunny, though cold. Ideal for a stroll in the forest at Ismaylovski. 

I have come to the conclusion that the average Russian driver does not believe there are any footpaths in Moscow. There are, however, plenty of slightly elevated parking spaces along the roads. 

In places along Tverskaya there is often barely enough room for a couple of walkers to pass between buildings and filthy cars. After it rains, I have seen pedestrians walking through puddles because of vehicles parked on the dry sections of paving. 

Along some of the smaller back streets I have sometimes had to walk on the road because the footpath is choked with parked vehicles. I’ve also had to dodge cars driving along the footpath looking for somewhere to park.

There's a footpath here - somewhere. Pedestrians are sometimes forced to walk on the road into on-coming traffic because of parked cars.
 Even in Buenos Aires, a city of comparable size where I recently stayed for a couple of months, this sort of behaviour by motorists is not tolerated. One would think that the lively Latin temperament would revel in disorderly parking, but I regularly saw cars towed away for disobeying parking signs near my apartment. And they weren’t even parked on the footpath.

Car being towed away for illegal parking outside my apartment in Buenos Aires. Not something I ever expect to see in Moscow. The motor cycles on the footpath were also removed.
The only deterrent to this activity, apart from lamp posts and bus shelters, are bollards. These have been installed, I assume, by business owners trying to prevent vehicles from using the footpath outside their premises as a parking lot. 
Double row of bollards outside the Intercontinental Hotel on Tverskaya to prevent cars parking on the footpath. The red building in the background is the Museum of Modern History.

I can’t see any evidence that the city authorities do anything about this practice. In fact, there are parking spaces painted on the sidewalk in places, which only offers encouragement.

Parking spaces painted on the footpath in Tverskaya.
In fairness, there are some great places for walking in Moscow – for example, the wonderful pedestrian mall at Old Arbat. But getting around much of the city on foot can be a real challenge.

I have heard comparisons of Tverskaya with the world’s other great boulevards, such as the Champs-Elysees and Oxford Street. A more fitting comparison might be with a used car lot.
Its hard to take comparisons of Tverskaya with the world's other great boulevards seriously all the time cars are parked on the footpath.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Christmas trees

After a bleak, wet morning it fined up this afternoon, so I took the metro to Teatralnaya station, which is close to the Bolshoi Theatre. I intended to take some late afternoon pictures of Christmas trees.

I was surprised to find police everywhere, several hundred I expect. Truckloads of them. Red Square was closed. It looked like some sort of rally was in preparation in nearby Revolution Square. I might be wrong, but I got the impression it was to be a United Russia gathering (Vladimir Putin's party). There appear to be rallies by groups with differing viewpoints going on around the city, especially in Tverskaya. My bag was searched. The police officers I spoke to, or who spoke to me, were polite enough.
Some of the police at Revolution Square (nice hats)
There are elections in Russia at the moment, the Duma last weekend and the Presidential soon. So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. But most people are just going about their business as usual.

Rally at Pushkin Square
 A little inconvenient for Christmas tree photography as I had to take several detours. Giant Christmas trees have appeared all around the city recently. There's really not much one can say about giant Christmas trees.

Pushkin Square (other side of the road to the rally)
Bolshoi Theatre
Manezhnaya Square
Sparrow Hills
Lubyanka Square. The traffic was completely gridlocked when I wanted to take this and I had to wait ages for a cement truck to get out of the way.
My favourite at Tverskaya Square

Friday, 2 December 2011

Red Square

There’s snow falling today in what would be called a light drizzle if it were rain. The temperature must be a little below zero. The sky is featureless grey. I had coffee a while ago and then wandered down to Red Square to take a couple of photographs, but the light is a little subdued.

I suppose I ought to mention Red Square early in my posts. I’ve been a bit reluctant as this place is covered exhaustively in every guide book ever written about Russia, so inevitably I feel I’m just offering more of the same.

OK, so what was there about Red Square that surprised me or that I didn’t know?

Well, for one thing, Red Square and the Kremlin are not the same thing. I have always had them sort of jumbled together in my mind, but they are actually quite distinct entities. The Kremlin is the old fortress and is surrounded by big, red, crenulated walls. Red Square is right beside the Kremlin, but outside the fortress walls. It was the market square created in the 15th century. Both the Kremlin and Red Square are beside the Moscow River.

I knew Red Square was big – I’d seen all those Cold War documentaries of tanks and mobile missile launchers rumbling along beside parading soldiers. But I had no idea how large it really is until I stepped into it. It’s the biggest public square I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot of them). One would think such an enormous space would create a disharmony of proportion with the many beautiful buildings surrounding it, but it all just seems to work. It’s a stunning place.
Red Square looking north from beside St Basil's (out of view to the right). The large building on the right is GUM, now an upmarket shopping mall. The red and white structure in front of GUM is the temporary skating rink.

At the moment, Red Square is gearing up for winter. A large skating rink has just been completed with a Christmas tree nearby. Moscow’s many public squares each seem to have their own large Christmas tree. I’ll prepare a post on them in the next week or two. Orthodox Christmas in Russia is 7 January – which also happens to be my birthday (in case anyone wants to send presents). 

Entrance to the skating rink from just inside GUM

The only part of Red Square that bothers my sense of harmony is St Basil's Cathedral, perhaps the most famous icon in Russia. Not the cathedral itself, which is wonderful. However, whereas three perimeters of Red Square are clearly defined by various buildings, walls or gates, the southern end, where St Basil’s is located, seems somehow incomplete. While I believe St Basil’s officially marks the southern perimeter of Red Square, to me it sort of sits as an island in the middle of a cobblestone sea, with the ‘square’ south of St Basil’s finding its uninspired way down to a multi-lane highway that runs beside the river. I believe Stalin wanted to knock St Basil’s down because he felt it got in the way of his Red Square parades. He did knock down one of the lovely gates at the northern end, which has since been rebuilt.
From the same location as the top picture, but looking south. Beyond St Basil's in this direction Red Square sort of fizzles out quietly as it descends towards a main road and the Moscow River.
Well, that’s my mandatory Red Square post. I’ve had my photo taken beside St Basil’s, but have so far resisted buying a furry hat from the furry hat stalls. If it gets much colder, I might just reconsider.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Sparrow Hills

I had been warned that Moscow weather in November is bleak and depressing, but I haven’t found it so. Still, I suppose if I had spent my whole life passing through cold, damp Novembers, instead of sunny Australian ones, I might have a different view of things.

Over my first two weeks it has generally been overcast, sometimes raining or light snow, with an occasional more or less sunny day. Not that the daylight lasts long – it doesn’t get light until about 9.30am and is dark again by six. The sun is low in the sky.

I have been told that Moscow has been placed in a permanent state of daylight saving. Tough in the morning, when everyone arrives at work while it is still night. It doesn't become light until about 9.30am. But I think having a little extra daylight at the end of the working day compensates. At least most people aren’t also coming home in the dark.

The temperature has been hovering around zero degrees, so the occasional snowfall has been quickly melting. The streets are damp and can be little hazardous with ice. But it is still possible to go for long walks – rugged up with a scarf and gloves it can be quite enjoyable.

I have also been pleasantly surprised – delighted - at finding so much open space for walking in Moscow.

This morning I took the Metro to Sparrow Hills (Vorobyovy Gory). I decided to get off at University station, only 7 stops from Red Square. One of the seven Stalin Skyscrapers is located at the university, which I wanted to see (I’ll write about those buildings in a later post). From there, it is only a couple of kilometres to the reserve at Sparrow Hills.

View from the top of Sparrow Hills
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I could find little information in the Moscow guide books, nor on the internet. Located some 6 kilometres south west of Red Square, the hills are located on a steep embankment along a bend in the Moscow River, rising quite steeply to an elevation of  perhaps 50 metres. The park is a crescent shape, following the bend of the river, maybe 3 kilometres long and 500 metres deep. Behind the Sparrow Hills the elevated terrain continues towards the university and the suburbs beyond. 

Near frozen pond, picnic facilities and track
For the most part it is forested, with pleasant, well-maintained walking tracks. There are cycle paths (though I have no idea how anyone is supposed to get a bicycle to the reserve through the dreadful Moscow traffic) and gazebo-like picnic shelters. Surprisingly there is also a ski lift, together with an enormous ski jump which would provide an excellent launch ramp into the river.

Sparrow Hills chair lifts

The ski jump of death

I spent a delightful couple of hours wandering the reserve. Very few people about, not unexpected on a chilly Wednesday in November. I expect the place is packed on a summer weekend. A metro station (called 'Sparrow Hills', but in Russian, of course) occupies the lower tier of an interesting 2 tiered bridge (the upper tier being for cars) at the eastern end of the reserve.

Sparrow Hills extends along the left shore into the distance
Looking in the other direction. The two tiered bridge in the distance holds the Metro on the lower lever and cars on the upper.
And yes, there are sparrows, quite tubby ones larded up for the winter. But that's not how the reserve got its name. According to Wikipedia, the hills are named after a village (Vorobyovo) acquired by a Grand Duchess in 1451 from a priest named (you guessed it!) - Vorobey (Sparrow).

Follow this link for the location of Sparrow Hills on Google Maps