Monday, July 15, 2013

Back In the U.S.S.R.

The cheapest ticket that you can buy from Beijing to any city in Europe is to Moscow. This is fortunate, since Alya’s family and friends are all there (or in the surrounding area). We found an amazing deal on Siberian Airlines for just ¥1,800 per person. So… lucky us. The catch? We had to leave Beijing at 3:00am.

No problem. We just figured that we’d take a nap in the evening before heading out to the airport. But, as is often the case, neither of us could sleep the night before our journey was to begin. So, after a sleepless night, followed by an afternoon of last-minute packing and a goodbye dinner with my oldest Beijing buddy and his wife, we were off to the airport.

We took the final express train from the city center at 10:30pm, which gave us 4+ hours to cool our heels at the check-in counter.

Waiting for the check-in
counter to open.
Once we were aboard and on our way the flight was actually quite pleasant. To an American like myself the words “cheapest flight possible” and “Siberian Airlines” in the same sentence brings up images of propeller-powered planes with duct tape holding one of the pop blades together and rancid, moldy food being served. The experience could not have been farther from that idea. The staff was uncharacteristically (for Russians) friendly and the food was a significant step up from merely palatable. Even the change of planes in Ekaterinburg was better than a typical entry in Moscow. Though my first views out the window after landing certainly gave me pause:

Yes, those are derelict 
airplanes alongside 
the runway in 
The rusted-out railway car alongside the runway in
Ekaterinburg. I'm sure that makes perfect sense to
whomever decided to leave it there.

I’d previously been to Moscow almost 2 years earlier, in October of 2010, on a mission to court Alya (and her parents) and I’d had an amazing time. During that trip I fulfilled a life-long dream to visit the capitol of what had been the evil, ominous Soviet Union during my youth. It was an epoch-defining experience in many ways- not the least of which was that I had landed an impossibly gorgeous woman as a girlfriend. I hit all of the big tourist spots (maybe I’ll re-visit that trip in a post someday) but I missed out on 2 things that I had been dying to do: Stroll through Gorky Park and hit a crazy nightclub. This stop, in addition to allowing Alya & I to touch base with friends and family in the city, was pretty much planned specifically so that I could check those two items off of my Moscow To-Do list.

Once we landed in the Red Capitol it was off to our friend Vitaly’s place. He lived in the House on the Embankment on Bolotny Island, an amazing strip of land in the middle of the Moskva River, smack in between the Kremlin and The Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It’s a prime location, and his apartment was in a quite a famous building. Commissioned by Stalin back in 1929, it was designed by famed architect Boris Iofan. It had been built to house high and mid-level government ministers within sight of the Kremlin. It became infamous after one of Stalin’s paranoid purges, when NKVD and party security agents would visit the complex each night in the wee hours and “disappear” whichever bureaucrat had displeased the feared leader that week.

Vitaly’s apartment had once been the vice minister of Transportation’s quarters. It just so happened that he survived the purges and after Stalin died he kept the place and his family continued to occupy it for the next 60-odd years until ownership of it reverted to his family after the Soviet Union fell. For a child of the Cold War, my accommodations could not have been cooler.

One our first day, after a few hours’ nap at Vitaly’s, Alya and I set off to meet her dear friend Anna for an evening stroll in Gorky Park. The weather was absolutely gorgeous (a condition that would repeat itself across the continent) and I walked around with them in nostalgic ecstasy with The Scorpions’ anthem “Winds of Change” repeating over and over in my head.

It certainly wouldn't be the last time while in Eastern Europe that I'd hear that generation-defining ballad's distinctive whistling echoing in my ears. And the music went along so well with the gorgeous surroundings of the park. It is a jewel in the center of the city.


After meeting up with Vitaly for an absurdly expensive sushi dinner (by Beijing standards, anyway) it was back to his place for some sleep. The next night we would tackle my second goal for our Moscow stop.

After a day of walking around the city visiting art museums and doing some gift shopping, it was time to hit the clubs. Luckily, Bolotny Island is a nightlife hub, with a number of the hottest clubs in the city located at the other end of the island.

Before setting out, however, we did some down and dirty pre-gaming. Our merry band of debauchers gathered under the Christ The Savior footbridge, busted out the vodka and paper cups and got our buzz on white trash style.

True to our form, we got denied entry to the first club that we tried to get into, the appropriately racistly-named “Gipsy.” We went to the club next door, though, got in with no problem, went up to their rooftop and danced until the wee hours.

Towards sunrise I ended up taking a long walk down the Moskva river with Alya’s brother, Marat, and my friend Tanya. I finally stumbled back home at about 7am, scarfed down some food and took what amounted to a 2 hour nap, as Alya and I had to get up early to meet Marat and her parents before we caught our train to Poland.

We ended up having brunch at the first place that I’d eaten at during my first trip to Moscow 2 years prior, a fun little spot called “Soup.” We talked for hours and it was such a lovely, comfortable experience that I hated to leave them. I can never thank Alya’s family enough for always making me, an uncouth, barely-cultured American, feel welcome… And I’ll never be able to thank Alya’s mother enough for the delicious, homemade Russian deep-dish pizza that she made for our overnight ride to Warsaw. YUM!

*NOTE: To see the full album of photos from our time in Moscow, with lots more details and stories, click here.