That night we caught our first night train, to Moscow. We travelled 3rd class sleeper, which was really quite comfortable. The beds are pretty similar to those in other classes, but there are no divisions within the carriages – it’s basically like a big dormitory with two level bunk beds. Everyone had clean sheets in cellophane packets, woollen blankets, a bed roll, pillow and towel. We must have looked a bit perplexed about things, as the nice man sitting opposite us took us under his wing and helped to set up our beds. Lots of people were staring at us, which seems to be a norm in Russia, but makes you feel uncomfortable nonetheless. I would try to smile at people, but usually got a stony glance in return. The lady who had the bunk opposite us arrived a little late and spent some time clambering about and organising her affairs. She was a right misery guts and looked at us like we were something she had just coughed up after a hefty bout of grolliching (ask my mum what that means; it is what one might refer to as an onomatopoeia…). Luke got up into his bunk and I was about to arrange the blankets on my bed, when the nice man opposite came and tucked me in! I realised very quickly that in the roasting temperature of the carriage I was unlikely to even need the cotton sheets, let alone the woollen blanket, but felt I had to keep them on until he was asleep, in case he thought I was being disapproving of his tucking in skills! Sadly, I didn’t get a bedtime story.
As we lugged our things off the train at 5.30am the next morning, we were warmly greeted by our friend’s sister’s mother-in-law. She was a lovely, smiley lady; I would say in her late 60s, but she spoke only a few words of English. We made our way back to her apartment by bus and felt quite humbled that he had travelled all this distance to meet complete strangers at such an early hour. Her flat was in the northern outskirts of Moscow in an area with lots of Soviet style concrete apartment blocks. There were plenty of trees between the buildings, so that in spite of the concrete, when you were inside the flat, you actually had a feeling of being close to nature, as you looked straight into the leafy branches. Our hostess kept up the tradition we have had so far of being exceptionally well fed – lots of traditional Russian fare; including stuffed peppers and salads liberally sprinkled with a herb that I think might have been dill. We briefly met her lodger who couldn’t speak English either, but could speak a few words of French, and we had a brief conversation. He seemed very polite and friendly.
Later that morning, we headed into Moscow city centre. We were pretty tired from the night train, so contented ourselves with a visit to Red Square and the surrounding area. From Red Square you have a brilliant view of St Basil’s cathedral. It is quite similar to the church on spilled blood in St Petersburg, with its colourful onion domes topped with golden crosses, but is a few hundred years older. We sat for a while and drew and painted until rain stopped play. I painted a terrible picture of St Basil’s – architecture has never been my strong point – but one Chinese tourist told me it was beautiful, so that’s nice! I think my comment would have been, ‘don’t give up the day job,’ – to which I would have to meekly reply, ‘I have!’
We then wandered along an adjacent pedestrianized street, where there was a landscape photo exhibition. There was a busker playing guitar and we stopped for a while and listened; he was really good. When I gave him money, we got talking. I tried to sing along while he played ‘fields of gold’ and then we failed to find other songs we both knew. I told him I played the flute and we made a plan for me to return another day if it wasn’t raining. Meanwhile, Luke was making friends with a young fellow artist, trying to dissuade him from joining the army and to draw instead!
We navigated back to our apartment using directions written in Cyrillic script. This was quite an achievement we felt, as it was quite complicated! We had another wonderful meal and then decided to go to bed. Just as we were about to brush our teeth, the lodger knocked on our door and told us we had to leave now. I got dressed hurriedly, wondering what the matter was, and on leaving the room discovered two policemen in the hallway. They asked to see our passports, and we duly obliged, which seemed to satisfy them. They didn’t speak much English, so it was really hard to tell what was going on, and so a bit scary for us. Our hostess was clearly very cross with the lodger, and also quite embarrassed. We figured out that the lodger had phoned the police to come and evict us, but we didn’t know why. He was pretty drunk and the police seemed to realise this. After some persuasive talking in Russian, the lodger seemed appeased and turned to us and told us we could go back to bed if we liked, and the police left. We thought it had all been a drunken misunderstanding and decided that as our hostess seemed happier, that we wouldn’t book into a hostel for the following night.
The next day, we went to the Museum of Russian History, which was just off Red Square. It was brilliant, and completely different to all the museums and galleries so far. There were lots of archaeological remains – stone age tools, bronze age jewellery – I was particularly impressed with the early safety pins! I had no idea they had been around for so long. I can’t tell you the year, as it was in Russian, but they are something BC I think.
We progressed through the ages, and as museum fatigue kicked in, we messed around with silly photos.
After leaving the museum thoroughly educated, I found the busker, Misha, and managed to play one song before it rained. It was just twiddly making things up, and I didn’t earn him any money, but it was fun all the same!
We had dinner in a café; there were a few curious ants on the table and we struck up a conversation with Arkady, the waiter, about them. We made little ant voices and sang, ‘We want jam! We want jam!’, which he thought was very funny! I quite like how with limited language, a bit of silliness coupled with mime can form the basis of a conversation. This earned us a free cappuccino with an ant drawn on the froth. At the end of the dinner, Arkady asked us to write in his book. I drew pictures of ants, and then he said I was supposed to write how great he was at being a waiter! Oops! So I did a little speech bubble and rectified the situation. He said we were cool, which, daft as it may seem, gave us a little warm glow, as it temporarily elevated us from our role of dim-witted tourists!
That night, we stayed up until 1am having a lovely time exchanging photos with our hostess. We were just about to head for bed, when two new policemen turned up in the hallway, having been called once more by the lodger. They were not so sympathetic and told us, ‘he is against’ and to leave our things in the flat, wrap up warm and walk around Moscow until 7am. We decided that was a silly idea. We were far from hostels and hotels, had very little cash and public transport had finished for the night. We started off on the stairwell outside the flat, as our hostess insisted we stay nearby. She brought us blankets and a little table and tea! Then the lodger came out to tell us to go back in, but we didn’t want to, as it was against the advice of the police and we didn’t really know what was going on and if it would be safe. After this we moved down to the bottom of the stairwell, and tried to sleep on the steps, with our hostess coming down at intervals to plead with us to go back in! It probably would have been fine, but we didn’t want to take any chances; from what we’d seen of him so far, he was pretty unpredictable. Eventually, we came up with a plan and crept into the flat at 5am. Our hostess walked us to the bus stop in time for the first bus of the day and we made our way to the train station to put our bags in storage in readiness for our night train to Yekaterinburg. We were utterly exhausted and passed out in a zombified state on a bench until we had enough energy to move and get on with the day.
We had heard about Russian banya, and thought this would be a relaxing way to spend the day, and would also allow us to have a wash. There is a very famous banya in Moscow, called Sanduny. The route seemed easy enough, but finding somewhere to buy a metro ticket was tricky, and rage inducing when you have had no sleep. So we followed our noses and walked through the huge buildings of the banking area, until we finally made it onto the map. When we reached the banya, we were greeted by a very friendly man, who explained that we would need to go separately as the women and men do not mix. He also gave us some strange hats as a freebie, which looked a little like large felt thimbles. The banya, unfortunately, was not the relaxing experience I had hoped for! After a very short introduction, which I understood none of, I was let loose. It was basically like a massive bathroom. White tiled walls. A row of showers on one side, a row of sinks on the other. Stacks of buckets – white, green, blue. A sauna room. A very small cold water swimming pool. Two cold water wooden baths with steps up. One normal bath with a shower attachment. There were about 3 or 4 other women in there, most of whom were walking around naked, some of whom had birch leaves stuck to their bodies from the traditional and cleansing birch branch bodily thrashing that is an integral part of the Russian banya experience.
I had been designated an area and a set of three colour coded buckets. I filled two of them up. Splashed water on my feet in one and splashed water over my body from the other. I felt like I was missing a trick. Other women were soaping themselves. I had no soap. Hmm. I thought – I’ll go in a shower (because I know how that works) and then I’ll sit in the sauna and may be able to snatch a bit of sleep. I walked confidently into the sauna with my towel wrapped round me, and as it was quite cool, I sat on the highest bench. An elderly lady was reclining on her towel, with her naked body on display, so I thought, ‘ah, that must be what I am supposed to do!’ I duly unwrapped myself and lay down on my towel. Then another lady came in and shouted at me to sit. I sat up. She shouted again to sit down, pointing at the bench below mine. I moved. She shouted at me to wrap the towel around me. I meekly did this. She then shouted at me for not wearing the hat, which I had thought was a silly souvenir, so I left to find it. I was too humiliated to go back into the sauna just then, so I went for a lonely swim in the cold pool instead, feeling miserable, dreaming of sleep and peace and quiet and not looking like a complete idiot for once. I found some face scrub and shower gel in my area and asked an assistant if they were for me to use. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘yes, you use them to wash yourself’. I started to use them, and a lady came up and told me they were hers. Oops. I then decided to brave the sauna again. I sat on the lower bench, with the towel wrapped around me and my silly hat on my head. The shouty lady came in and started shovelling water on. It got hotter and hotter. It was getting unbearable and I didn’t know how to say stop, so I just stood up to leave. She shouted, ‘SIT DOWN!’, but I just ran out, getting my face lightly scalded by steam in the process. At this point, I decided I couldn’t stick three hours of this and went to get changed. I decided to peruse the dinner menu I had been given, and lo and behold, there were all the instructions for what to do in the banya, in English! I discovered I could buy soap and a loofah, so did this and managed to at least have a proper wash! I emerged clean, tired and harassed, but it was good to hear Luke had had a more serene experience.
Back at the railway station that night, we fell asleep in the waiting room again. We were woken by our hostess, who had travelled by bus to bring us a plateful of homemade blini (Russian pancakes) and homemade jam! She was profusely apologetic (again!), even though none of it was her fault. It was great to see her before we left, as we felt we had left that morning on a somewhat down note, so we were able to make our way to our train in better spirits. I don’t think we have ever been so excited about sleeping.