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Wednesday 18th December 2002

I must have eventually drifted in and out of sleep because before too long we were approaching Moscow. We rummaged through our complimentary breakfast box which was jam-packed full of supplies. I tucked into a roll with Anchor butter, and a President soft cheese triangle, but the rest of the food didn't tantalise my taste buds at all. We had Caviar, Pistachios, Hazelnut praline, and a nasty looking vacuum sealed pack of sliced salami, but they were just not tempting enough at 7:15am. I did attempt the grapefruit yogurt but it was far too warm, which was very off putting. It had a strange curdled texture.

At 7:45am we finally reached our destination, a full 45 minutes earlier than we had anticipated. This surprised us. We were still undressed, and not at all ready to leave our compartment. It took us a frantic 10 minutes to sort ourselves out, and get off the train. Of course we were the last to leave!

A young lad met us halfway down the platform. I bet he was wandering where the hell we were! Worrying if he had missed us in the flurry of passengers that were up and out of that door as soon as the train stopped! We shook hands and he welcomed us to Moscow. Today it was -11C.

We followed him to the car where the driver was waiting for us. We went through one checkpoint, where the driver had to pay for his parking time, then we went through another checkpoint where they seemed to ask a few questions about us, and then we were let through. They may have only been security guards, but their uniform was certainly military in style, and they were quite intimidating.

The lad gave us some information about Moscow, most of which was to highlight the rivalry between the current Russian capital and the former capital, St. Petersburg. For example the population of Moscow is in the region of 10 million, double that of St. Petersburg.

He also commented on the excessive construction work taking place in St. Petersburg for the tercentennial next year, and joked that the city enjoys favouritism from President Putin as it is his hometown. He added philosophically that Moscow didn't need repairing anyway!

He pointed out several of the gothic skyscrapers known as the Seven Sisters which encircle Moscow. Apparently there should have been eight, but Stalin decreed that Warsaw should be given one of them.

Our first impressions of the city were that is was a chaotic sprawling metropolis, especially when we turned onto a 9 lane stretch of road.

We turned down towards the Moskva River, and saw St. Basil's cathedral and the Kremlin for the first time. It was so exciting!

In the distance we saw the massive golden domed Church of the Resurrection. It was such an incredible sight. I couldn't wait to get out there and see them up close.

We circled around the Kremlin, and our hotel turned up on our left. Once again I failed to tip as I had insufficient small notes to hand. I was a little annoyed with myself for not being prepared because he had been a very cheerful and informative guide. 

The Hotel National was in a stunning location, literally a stones throw away from the Kremlin.

We checked in, and totally confused the girl at the reception desk.

Our entry visa was stamped with us entering Russia on the 14th December, it was now the 18th.

"Where have we been for the past four days?" she asked, in all seriousness. We had to explain that we had been to St. Petersburg first before visiting Moscow. It took quite sometime for the rouble to drop, but she eventually took our passports off us, and handed over our room keys.

Bell Boy of the Year showed us to our room. He was certainly working very hard for his tip, being very friendly, informative, and jovial. His accent was a curious blend of American! He was full of top tips, such as "Don't buy anything from the mini bar, ask reception to empty it, and buy your own supplies from a local market. Use the refrigerator; you've paid for the room!" Apparently the hotel is also celebrating its centenary in 2003. For all his efforts I simply had to give a tip, and he was in luck as I found a 100 rouble note in my pocket.

We were quite disappointed with our room. It was very basic, and described in their literature as "ideal for the business man". It was no better than a Travelodge back in the UK, but compared to the Astoria in St. Petersburg, this room was terrible. Another negative point was that we were on the 7th floor, which had no staircase access to the lower floors. The only exit was by using the elevators. Julie felt uneasy about this, and had asked the bell boy what would happen in the unlikely event of an emergency. Apparently there are staircases but they are usually reserved for members of staff. Naturally in an emergency they would be used as a fire exit.

It was about 9:30am by the time we had settled in our room and unpacked our suitcases. Julie suggested that we should have a little shut eye, to which I more than willingly agreed. Two hours flew by before we woke up from our morning siesta. We must have needed the rest.

We ventured out onto the streets of Moscow for the first time at noon. Crossing the road, we walked towards the Kremlin, and the first thing we noticed was a MacDonald's! We hadn't had a proper breakfast so our hunger got the better of us, despite us not wanting to go all "western" on our trip. We stepped inside, and the two of us almost slipped on our arses. They had just mopped the floor, and our shoes were still compacted with ice. We both skated ungracefully to the counter (Torville and Dean we were not!) and ordered a Chicken McNuggets for Julie and 2 large fries to share. (No bean burgers in Russia!) It was reasonably cheap, especially compared to the hotel's room service. The whole MacDonald's bill was half the price of one hotel cheese sandwich.

After recharging our stomachs we headed for Red Square, but were stopped at some barriers by two police men who checked our pockets and bags.

One officer shook his head and said, "camera … little problem" and then continued, "bag … bigger problem".

Then he pulled me to one side and said, "But for price, uh, it's OK".

Well the corrupt little shit! Julie and I just turned and walked away. We didn't want anything to do with it. How very disappointing to witness this sort of behaviour. I'd read about how some police officers supplement their income. Their pitiful salaries almost explained why it happens, but never justified it. It just left bad taste.

We hadn't realised at the time but when we went under the Resurrection Gate, and walked towards GUM shopping centre, we noticed that the whole of the Red Square had been fenced off. We had earlier unknowingly joined the queue to go and see Lenin's Mausoleum, and it was a security check to make sure you weren't going to disturb poor Lenin's body. Even so, it still didn't justify the bent copper!

We decided to walk to St. Basil's cathedral, but had to walk through GUM to get there. We couldn't walk across Red Square at all, it was completely cordoned off.

With no time to stop and shop, we hurried through the GUM department store, but it looked interesting, and full of designer shops, so a return visit was planned.

At last we finally came up close and personal with St. Basil's cathedral and it was quite simply awesome. It was incredible to think that it was almost 500 years old. The colourful onion domes were both comical and magical.

It was one of those moments when you realise that you are looking at something very special, something that you had seen on countless pictures, or caught a glimpse of on television or films, and now it is displayed in front of you in all its glory.

From Red Square we walked along Ulitsa Vavrvarka where several smaller churches lined the street, none as impressive as Basil's but all were beautiful in their own way.

One of Moscow's largest hotels was on this road, but it looked awful, and the lad who picked us up from the station said that the standard of the rooms are terrible. Then again it's probably very cheap and in a great location!

In the distance we saw one of the huge seven sisters of Moscow. They really do look like something out of a 1950's comic book. Gotham City's finest.

At the end of this street we came to the bottom of a park that led up to Lubyanka Square. We walked up along the park, walking uphill, on ice, which was quite treacherous and a skill!

Along the way we passed a 'down and out' who was well and truly down and out of it.

He was sprawled on the pavement, lying face down, and motionless. With the temperature currently -12C, God only knows how he would survive the evening. To be honest with you, he could have been dead when we passed. How very tragic.

We eventually reached the square where stands the infamous Lubyanka Prison, the headquarters of the KGB, where the dungeons would have been full of interrogated spies and Siberia bound dissidents.

It's a shame that it's not open to the public. I'm sure many people would be fascinated to see the torture chambers!

"Roll up, roll up, try out your strength at withstanding the pain of these thumbscrews!"

Bizarrely, in the 50's, when the KGB activities were at their most horrifying, they opened a children's toy store on the opposite side of the square. Such innocence and evil within an earshot of each other. The current Russian Intelligence Services still occupies the building, which is why I felt very apprehensive about taking a photograph of it. We joked that back in the bad old days of communism I would have been shot for this!

From Lubyanka Square we returned towards the hotel, passing on our way the Bolshoi Theatre. I wanted to call at the Box Office today to pick up tickets for an Opera on Friday that I had already pre-booked over the internet. We went to the box office at the front of the building and explained why I was there. The lady spoke no English but tried to direct us to another "KACCA" to the left of the building.

We went left but all the doors were locked, and we tried them all! We went back to her, and she again gestured the same, pointing to the left. The booking confirmation said "go to Box Office No.1 in the Bolshoi Theatre Administration Building."

Half an hour later we were still wandering around the Bolshoi!

We noticed someone coming out of a side door, so we hurried up to it. We were about to go in when I noticed a sign on it. Obviously it was in Russian, and in Cyrillic, but I did make out the word exit, and an exclamation mark, and it was in bright red ink. We decided that we wouldn't be so adventurous this time, and left this door unopened. We later read that it was the door to the artist's dressing rooms and back stage area. Perfect if I wanted to storm the theatre but no use for collecting my tickets.

We finally gave up, and headed back towards our hotel. This is when we noticed a yellow building (part of the Russian Academic Youth Theatre), with the word "Bolshoi" above the door. We had found the Administration Building. Halle-bloody-lujah!

Inside there were several numbered booths, so we queued up for booth number one and I handed over my confirmation slip, showed my credit card, and then two tickets were handed over. Very straightforward! Also the tickets cost £10 each, which was far cheaper than through a hotel or an organised excursion, or a ticket tout. Success!

We turned the corner out of Theatre Square and we could see our hotel. We certainly didn't need to worry about a taxi on Friday night. It was literally 3 minutes of a walk. Back at the hotel we sat down in the conservatory bar, which is open 24 hours a day, and had a cup of tea, a pepsi, and a strawberry cheesecake to share and it came to 527 roubles. I almost fell off my chair! That's just extortionate pricing!

It was a pleasant atmosphere however, and it gave us an opportunity to sit down, relax, and take a good look at our guide book and decide where we were going to eat tonight. It certainly wasn't going to be the hotel's restaurant at those prices! We found a Mexican called 'Hola' which was recommended, and it wasn't far from the Bolshoi, so it was decided.

Instead of walking straight there though, we wanted to walk up Tverskaya Ulitsa to find a bottle of Coca Cola. One of the main shopping streets, this place was incredibly busy and chaotic. The neon signs and tramlines, the presence of law enforcers, and steam rising from the streets made it feel like a scene out of Bladerunner. A futuristic nightmare!

We walked up the street past a horseback statue of Yuriy Dolgorukiy, the founder of Moscow, and onwards, uphill, to Pushkin Square. We didn't notice any shops selling Cola, so we turned right, down towards a large cinema at the end of the park.

It was starting to get dark now, and Julie was tiring. It was certainly getting colder, and the pavement seemed far icier.

We shuffled along some back streets passing some incredible aquamarine domes, then some golden domes of a monastery on Ulitsa Petrovka.

This street would take us to the back of the Bolshoi theatre. By the time we reached there we were both very tired. Our spirits were low, and we wished that we had walked straight to the Bolshoi instead of taking the very long scenic route!

Turning up another side street which I believed to be the one where the Mexican was located, we trundled up hill, getting even lower on morale. There was no sign of a restaurant of any description, let alone a Mexican. We stood at a crossroads, and agreed to give up our search, when out of nowhere, as if ordained by a higher power, we were standing next to an information board with one of those big arrow 'You are here' pointing on a local map. I instantly knew where we were and where we should be, which was on the next street that ran parallel with ours. Within a minute we had found a restaurant, but we couldn't see the word 'Hola' anywhere. Although the big Neon cactus gave it away!

We had worked up one hell of an appetite walking around today, and were looking forward so much for this meal. We walked down some steps, and went inside.

The restaurant area was in this large cellar, with a large curved red brick ceiling. A very large table had been laid in the centre of the room, and along the sides, where the ceiling was at its lowest, were a row of tables for four.

There appeared to be another smaller room further along, but it was full of smoke, so we decided to stay well away.

It was quite early so it was very quiet, in fact apart for those responsible for smoking out the smaller cellar, we were the only diners. Apparently the guide book says it's one of the liveliest restaurants in Moscow as they quite often have live music and rowdy customers. We were kind of glad that it wasn't party time as we were a tad too tired for some dirty dancing!

Unfortunately the food didn't make up for the absence of atmosphere. I had a Caprese salad, (mozzarella and tomatoes) but the cheese wasn't at all fresh. It had a real sharpness to it. Then I went for Bean Enchiladas and they were rather tasteless and small. Julie's chicken choices were equally disappointing. At over a 1000 roubles it wasn't cheap either! On the positive side however the Stella Artois was very refreshing, and I'm sure it would be a good venue later in the evening when the place was buzzing. The food would still be pants though!

It was now 6pm, and we headed back to the hotel, with a slight detour up Tverskaya Ulitsa to try once again to find some cola! This time, on the opposite side of the street, we came across a tiny pavement booth selling all sorts, including coca cola! The price was incredibly cheap at 15 roubles, compared to the 200 roubles from the mini bar!

Back at the National we collected our passports from reception, and checked that our room tariff had been correctly put onto bed & breakfast. We then hurried up to our room to batten down the hatches. Of course, much to Julie's anxiety, we had to use the elevator. She was seriously considering walking upstairs to the 6th floor then quickly using the servant's staircase up to the 7th floor, and I'm sure that she would if it weren't for the fact that her legs would not have carried her up seven flights of stairs! We were both dead on our feet and when we reached our bed we both collapsed in a heap, like gassed hostages!

I managed to phone home before passing out though, and spoke briefly to Hannah who had only got up 2 hours ago! It was almost 7pm here, which made it 4pm in the UK, which meant she confessed to staying in bed until 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the lazy mare! She was certainly making the most of her stay at her Grandparents!

We regained consciousness shortly after 8pm. Julie was still hungry, so she ordered a Chicken Kiev on room service. I had taken the 'Do Not Disturb' sign off the door so that room service would knock, and when they unexpectedly did knock incredibly soon after ordering, I got up and headed towards the bathroom to put on a robe. (We only had one to share between us!) The moment I stepped into the hallway I heard the door handle click and turn. I was at this time stark naked, and the door was about to open! I made a quick dash into the bathroom, but to my relief I heard the chain stopping the door from opening any further. That could have been embarrassing!

It wasn't room service after all but the maid who had come to turn down our bedding, and put chocolates on our pillows. She apologetically handed over the chocolates and shut the door. Minutes later room service did arrive, but this time I was prepared for them!

Julie wasn't having a good day for food, as the Kiev was not impressive to say the least. It had busted its garlic butter insides, which left it dry, and the taste was just mediocre. It surprised us as we imagined Russia to serve up the most delicious and authentic Chicken Kiev in the world, apart from an Ukrainian restaurant in Kiev perhaps?

This evening I noticed that I was suffering from Baboon Buttocks! They were very sore and red raw, just like our monkey friends. It could be down to the cold weather, or possibly a rash reaction against the starch in the sheets and the dressing gown. Whatever was causing it, it was damn uncomfortable. I did get Julie to rub some Loreal Plenitude onto my sore cheeks; … why? …because I'm worth it!

At 9pm Julie was watching Strictly Ballroom, but having difficulties in staying awake. I was writing in this journal, lying on my front to give my backside time to cool down, but having difficulties in staying awake. Then at 10:30pm I woke up with my head in the pages of the book, with Julie snoring next to me! I got up to switch the TV off, and the lights off, and went back to sleep. Hopefully tomorrow we'll be refreshed!

Thursday 19th>>

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