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Moscow

Ever since I knew I’d be going to Moscow, the thing at the top of my list was the Cosmonaut museum and the monument to the conquerors of space. SPAAAAAACE!

It’s probably been at least 20 years since I went to the Kennedy Center in Florida, and I know it was great but I don’t remember a whole lot about it in detail. Then of course there’s the Air and Space museum in DC which is fantastic, but I was looking forward to seeing the story from a Russian point of view.

The Cosmonaut museum was super awesome. I must have spent 2-3 hours there, and it’s not big, but it packs a lot in. I’d been worried I wouldn’t be able to read anything or get any details, but I paid for an English audio guide as well as a pass to take pictures, both for photography and to use Google translate’s instant photo translation on my phone. (Proof we live in the future – does this mean we’ll have a babelfish or a universal translator soon?!) To be honest, I’d have skipped the audio guide and just used the photo pass. The guide was annoying and slow and only an overview, and while it’s great that they have it, I preferred working out the actual labels I was interested in.

Anyway, in addition to the proud display of Soviet and Russian space achievements, they also showed what other countries had done, particularly the US, in a great cooperative spirit, which is so nice to see. One of the things I love about space exploration is that it brings countries together that are often at odds in other areas. There was, I thought, a particular emphasis in more than one place in the museum on the fact that the plaque placed by Apollo 11 says ‘We came in peace for all mankind’. And even just seeing Russian and English directions for assistance on the back of the Soyuz landing pod (a real, used one!) shows the expectation that everyone will help when necessary because it’s about humans rather than Russians or Americans or whatever. SEE, WE CAN ALL GET ALONG. In space at least.

Before I went in, I walked around the monument (which the museum is underneath) and there are lots of monuments of famous Russian cosmonauts. Including, right next to Yuri Gagarin, one of Valentina Tereshkova, which I was specifically looking for and really excited to see. It’s rubbish that it took so long AFTER Valentina to get another woman into space, but I’m happy that the USSR did put her up there, and what an awesome lady to go first. She is all about going to Mars and she’s nearly 80 now!

Aside from the cosmonauts, the Moscow Metro may have been my favourite thing about the city. the stations are amazing, and all so different. It’s pretty hard to get a proper look at them when it’s busy because no matter where you stop, you’re in the way. But pro tip: It’s all pretty empty on a Saturday morning. You can spend a long time bouncing around between stations and metro tickets aren’t timed, so you could technically be underground all day for less than 50p. I only did 2 hours at a stretch though because that’s long enough to be away from daylight.

I did go to the Kremlin because I felt like you sort of HAVE to go to the Kremlin, but I wish I’d only done the Armoury Chamber and not paid another 500 roubles to get into the Cathedral territory. I just wasn’t up for another 6 or 7 cathedral interiors. Plus it was a gorgeous sunny day! I tried for like, the 3rd time to go see Lenin’s mausoleum but it was closed again (it appeared to not have any kind of normal opening schedule) so instead I got some mulled wine and a pancake at the christmas market in Red Square and planned the rest of the day’s wandering while getting warm-booze-toasted in the middle of the day.

I had some lovely outside wanders in Moscow too. Red Square (and GUM) at night (where they kept playing the tetris song, which I found hilarious), the Boulevard ring at sunset on that beautiful Friday when I escaped the Kremlin early, Gorky Park and Muzeon Arts sculpture park on the river, where they have all the old Soviet monuments that have been removed from various places around the city. There’s a whole lot of Lenin and Stalin going on in there, but there’s lots of other non-soviet-themed sculpture in the park as well.

It finally snowed on Saturday, which made it feel like proper winter at last and gave me my first taste of the treachery of walking on snow and ice on the way to the Moscow Swing Dance Society. The blast of cold was, as always, appreciated when I exited the dance, for at least the first 3 minutes anyway.

On my last day I decided to go ice skating at VDNH because YAY and Russian winter etc etc. I’d seen the rink in Gorky Park which was impressive, but apparently the VDNH one is the biggest in the country (which begs the question, is there a bigger one somewhere ELSE?) so I HAD to go there. Turns out ice skating is like riding a bike. I’ve not been in years and years (no idea why because I love it) but I got on the ice wobbled for like, 5 seconds, and was off just fine. I’m not the best at stopping, but I didn’t fall or careen into any stray small children. I even got some good pace going. It was a good day for it too. Between that, the dancing the night before, and very little sleep in between, I was sufficiently tired out for my overnight train to Kazan.

Moscow sort of felt to me like the Russian equivalent of London. It was an interesting place to see, and there’s a lot happening, but I think St Petersburg is nicer. This seems to be the consensus among all the Russians who asked me which I preferred as well. In fact, I think some of them might have been shocked if I had said I preferred Moscow. I had just as much fun there though, and once again had absolutely fantastic hosts.

Check out the full Moscow flickr album

Dancing in Russia

One of the goals of this trip was to dance as many places as I can, especially considering I’m doing a weekend-long Lindy camp at the end of it, and I can’t do that kind of hardcore event after spending 3 months getting rusty. But it also gives me something specific to aim for in a few places, and an environment where, while still potentially intimidating, I feel pretty comfortable as far as social situations go. Particularly as it’s perfectly acceptable to not really talk much if you don’t feel like it. All you really have to do is dance! That I can do.

St Petersburg was my first time ever dancing away from Edinburgh, and the first time with no one I knew or recognised around for support. It was definitely a little scary to walk in there. But by the end of the night, I realised I just have to keep telling myself I’m never going to see these people again so just go all in. It’s quite freeing to your dancing to know that whatever you screw up (or nail!), no one knows who you are anyway, so you can learn a lot and have fun with it. I just tried to dance with as many different leads at as many different levels as I could. And everyone in both places was super friendly.

The space in St Petersburg was amazing. It was in the Freedom Palace, and it was an old high-ceilinged room with velvet curtains and a friggin’ canopy around the bar. The floor itself was a bit meh but it didn’t matter. The atmosphere was good and so was the music.

In the Freedom Palace with Summertime Swing.

In the Freedom Palace with Summertime Swing.

One of the great things about this already is hearing the different music selections. I’m trying to remember some of my new favourites, but I wish I could shazaam everything so I could just have one big list of the music the rest of the world is dancing to on the regular. Some of it is the same of course – the band in Moscow played ‘Splanky’ and I immediately thought of my friend Graeme running by yelling ‘NAKED GUN THEME’, because, um, that’s what happens in Edinburgh – but even hearing different versions of the songs you’re used to (and deciding which you like better) is quite fun for a music dweeb.

The first thing I’m doing everywhere is just watching for a few songs. A, because it’s way too nerve-wracking to jump right in, and B, because I learn a lot – who I want to try to dance with, what the floorcraft is like (one place was definitely scarier than another in this respect), what everyone’s style is, who’s showing off, who’s shitting it because they’re a beginner (in contrast to me shitting it because I don’t know anyone).

Also there are some things that are comfortingly and amusingly the same everywhere. Everyone appreciates cake. The water is always a hot commodity. And you can never have quite enough windows to throw open, even in Russia when it’s -2 and snowing out.

If the room in St Petersburg was grand, the room in Moscow was totally cool in the opposite direction. It was like a secret Lindy clubhouse. Pictures of Dawn Hampton and Frankie Manning on the wall, old dance posters, dressing rooms and a wee bar. A bit speakeasy-ish, and very home-y and comfortable. You can tell it’s well-loved, and the floor was great – they don’t let any outdoor shoes in the place without plastic covers. And you’d never know the place was there from the outside.

Trying to find these places is always slightly intimidating when you’re somewhere strange. The MSDS website literally called the entrance to their space ‘very soviet looking’ and it was in a bit if an industrial park-ish area next to a shopping mall. I didn’t feel unsafe at all, but it was slightly like, erm, where am I? But then you hear some jazz clarinet or Ella Fitzgerald’s voice wafting around a corner or out a window somewhere nearby and you know you’re in the right place, just follow the music.

There were some amazing dancers in Moscow, and the place was heaving. They had a live band and a super impressive cabaret the night I was there (see video playlist below) so I’m sure this meant it was probably even more crowded than usual, but it really highlighted the difference between being in a place with all your friends and being in a place where you don’t know anyone. Especially as a follow, this is super difficult. Even when you muster up the chutzpah to ask every lead in your sight line to dance, they still get snapped up crazy fast. And when you don’t have friends around, you have no guaranteed dances so it can feel like a lot of work just to get on the floor regardless of how much enthusiasm you have because NO ONE KNOWS YOU. It’s a little frustrating, but it’s teaching me to adjust my expectations accordingly (and miss my friends a whole lot).

HOWEVER. Despite the difficulty if going into a social alone, it’s absolutely worth it. I had some lovely dances with some awesome leads. I got some crazy new moves thrown at me and I was able to follow at LEAST half of them. I think the lead/follow bootcamp of Winter Swing Weekend before I left Edinburgh was incredibly helpful. And it’s a pretty big boost to realise you know how to do something well enough that you CAN hold your own in a completely different scene.

(I totally need to up my fast Lindy game though. Oh my.)

Earlier in the day I went dancing in Moscow, I’d met up with Lana, who I’d been put in touch with by Ian, a fellow Edinburgh Swing Dance Society member. She walked me around, showed me some sights (in the snow!) and took me for lunch at this Russian cafeteria-style place called My-My (pronounced ‘moo moo’). We got some sweets with the bill, and I threw mine into my bag, not really knowing exactly what it was but too full to eat any candy.

Russian tablet.

Russian tablet.

At the end of the night when I made it back to the metro sweaty, exhausted, and slightly overwhelmed, I was rummaging in my bag for SUGAR PLEASE SUGAR NOW as usual after a big dancing night, I pulled out that wee sweet from lunch. I unwrapped it to find it was more or less exactly like Scottish tablet, which was such a perfect thing, because there’s always tablet at Lindy events in Edinburgh. SUGAR FUEL. It was like Edinburgh was taking care of me from far away, and the universe was saying ‘well fucking done you for sticking with it even when you were terrified’. HOORAY FOR DANCING.

Not sure if the Chinese have their own version of tablet, but I’m definitely looking forward to dancing in Beijing, which should be my next chance in a few weeks’ time.

Booking the Red Arrow

I just booked a Russian train on the Russian railways website without any help from an agency! It was actually… pretty easy.

I went all out (not really, just second class, but it feels like all out because you’ll see) and booked the Red ArrowКра́сная стрела́ or Krasnya Strelapossibly the most historic train in Russia. It’s the overnight train between St Petersburg and Moscow, and it’s been running nearly uninterrupted since 1931.

Nerd time: It’s train number is 001A. For the first train I take within Russia, I may as well start at the beginning, right?

AND. AND. AND. It just gets cooler because apparently they play ‘The Hymn to the Great City’ as the train leaves the station at 23.55. How fucking GRAND is that? It gets a sendoff EVERY NIGHT.

Plus, look at where I’ll be sleeping:

And to top it ALL OFF, you even get breakfast. You know how I love breakfast. I got to choose based on dietary requirements. There were pictures!

I fail to see how any of this won’t be incredibly exciting even though I’m supposed to be asleep most of the time. (Let’s be honest, I probably won’t sleep much.)

I had originally planned on booking everything through Real Russia, who are SUPERHEROES by the way. They have the most amazing customer service ever, including near-instant chat support for whenever I had another slightly panicked question about Russian or Chinese visa applications. I’d have been lost without them. Plus their booking engine has the option to view all the Russian timetables in local time rather than just Moscow time, which makes things much easier on the brain.

I did book a few things through them, as well as getting my Russian visa support document. (I’d have done both my visas fully through them if I’d been in London, but more on that in a future ALL ABOUT THE VISAS post.) But after reading a few blogs about booking yourself and Seat 61’s guide to the English version of rzd.ru (the Russian Railways website), I decided I could spend a bit of extra time in exchange for saving some money.

AND ALSO feeling like a boss for working out the whole timetables and some-things-still-in-Cyrillic thing.

I mean, I’m going to have to do it when I’m there so why not start now! Plus I really like Cyrillic – it’s nice to look at. The only word I can yet recognise – because I’ve seen it a BILLION times now – is ‘вокзал’ (which is ‘railway station’) but, you know, it’s a process.

The English on rzd.ru isn’t perfect, and all the image-based ads and stuff are still in Russian, but as long as you do the whole check and double-sense-check your timings and have Google Translate open for the odd thing or two, it’s absolutely doable. (Thank you, Google Translate, you are and will remain throughout the next few months, my hero.)

They don’t seem to email you your e-tickets like most rail systems, but they’re all stored in your account and it says that you can download them to your phone to show if you don’t want to print them. I’m going to print anyway to be safe, but it’s nice to know I guess. And I think some of the trains I’m looking at don’t have electronic tickets, so it will be nice to get a real live Russian train ticket to save.

As for credit cards, I did have a slight hitch there, which wasn’t a surprise after what I’d read online. It declined my built-for-international-use Llloyds Avios MasterCard (twice), but it accepted my RBS Visa Debit. Slightly annoying as I’ll probably get an international charge for that whereas I wouldn’t have on the credit card, but whatever. I just keep waiting for the fraud team to call, because surely it’s not every day someone buys a Russian rail ticket online. I’ve gotten calls for way more normal things. Lloyds does fraud control by text (which is actually pretty great) but I didn’t even get one of those after being declined twice. Who knows how they decide this stuff?

It definitely would have been much more straightforward getting Real Russia to do this work for me, and I’d HIGHLY recommend them if you can’t be arsed. They’re not THAT much more expensive, and they are utterly fantastic. Plus I’m still double checking my timings with their local-time-d version of the railway timetables.

Anyway, I’ve got a few more trains to book and I’m currently trying to see if I can cut out Yekaterinburg as an overnight stop. It’s hard to pick a stop to lose, but if I don’t, I’ll just be running around like crazy not really seeing much. Also, I REALLY want to spend a good chunk of time on the train. Enforced chillaxing. So I don’t want to only be doing overnight stints without any full days on the train reading and staring out windows and sharing vodka and snacks with Russians.